June 23, 2024

EPCOT Early Entry & Park Opening Strategy

Early Entry at EPCOT is a perk for on-site resort hotel guests at Walt Disney World, which offers at least a 30-minute head start on the official park opening or rope drop crowds. This offers step-by-step strategy for accomplishing as many rides as possible with minimal waits during the morning hours when arriving via the front entrance of the park.

We’ve done Early Theme Park Entry at EPCOT many times…but usually from the International Gateway entrance. That’s because we prefer staying at the Crescent Lake Resorts within walking distance of World Showcase or the Skyliner Resorts that provide gondola access.

In fact, we routinely do (and recommend!) split stays at Walt Disney World resorts, choosing one of those hotels for your EPCOT and Disney’s Hollywood Studios days, and elsewhere for your park days in Magic Kingdom or Animal Kingdom. Bus transportation is just as efficient for the two ‘kingdoms,’ so it doesn’t really matter where for the other half of your vacation. (We like the Magic Kingdom area if your budget allows.)

To that point, if you’re planning on staying at one of the aforementioned Crescent Lake or Skyliner resorts for your park days in EPCOT, this post is not for you. Instead, consult our Skyliner Strategy for Early Entry at EPCOT & Hollywood Studios and EPCOT Early Entry via International Gateway Itinerary. None of the recommendations for 2023 are materially different from what’s covered there, so we won’t be sharing new reports on those approaches until after Guardians of the Galaxy: Cosmic Rewind drops its virtual queue.

One thing many readers have asked is whether they should go out of their way to arrive via International Gateway even if not staying at one of those resorts. It’s true that being closer to Remy’s Ratatouille Adventure is advantageous, and the walking distance disparity is insurmountable for those arriving from the front entrance of EPCOT.

Despite this, our answer is no. It’s not worth the extra effort to arrive via International Gateway. From the front entrance, you have an advantage for both Test Track and Frozen Ever After, and the trio of headliners has wait times that are usually within 5-15 minutes of one another.

We’ve been able to save about as much total time when arriving via the front entrance as via International Gateway. The latter usually does offer a slight advantage, but not an insurmountable one. So long as you adjust your strategy accordingly, either entrance works just fine.

The next thing you need to know is that Park Hours at EPCOT are no longer as favorable for Early Entry as they were last year around this same time. Currently, EPCOT opens to the general public at 9 am, as compared to 8 am or 8:30 am for much of last year.

This means that Early Entry currently starts at 8:30 am at EPCOT. That’s been true even for weekends, peak season dates, and holidays. Even on days when the crowd level has been 10/10, EPCOT has opened at 9 am to the general public and at 8:30 am for the Early Entry arrivals.

As we’ve discussed elsewhere, Early Entry is less advantageous when it starts later. In a nutshell, there are a ton of people partaking in the 8:30 am Early Entry because it’s relatively easy to be out of the hotel room and to EPCOT by that time. It’s a different story entirely when moving that forward by an hour–especially for the families with small children.

Anyway, thought all of that was worth addressing up front since it was a hot topic in the comments. All of this is going to change again when Walt Disney World retires the virtual queue for Guardians of the Galaxy: Cosmic Rewind. Then, it’ll be Crescent Lake guests questioning whether they should Uber to the front entrance. (Same answer applies: No.)

This particular morning, I left my room at All Star Sports at 7:25 am and made it to the bus stop by around 7:30 am, with the first bus arriving a few minutes later.

From there, it was off to EPCOT.

Bag check and the tapstiles were both already open when I arrived at them. After getting dropped off and making it through security (including a secondary screening due to my camera bag), I made it to EPCOT’s front entrance at 7:58 am.

Still about 30 minutes to go before Early Entry officially started.

On the far right side of the front entrance plaza at EPCOT, there’s a row of Cast Members scanning MagicBands, resort room keys, or whatever appropriate identification you might have if staying at one of the participating third party hotels.

The rest of this courtyard is open to all guests, right up to the central fountain with the prismatic pylon fountain. This is where off-site guests are held until official park opening, and it’s roped off up here (hence the term “rope drop”) until the clock strikes 9 am.

Here’s a look at the rope drop crowd already forming as of ~8 am.

I understand that not everyone wants to be up at the crack of dawn on vacation, but those who do should really stay on site. I’m a strong believer that time is money at Walt Disney World. These people have essentially arrived at least an hour ahead of when they’ll be able to do anything, and will be ‘forced’ to watch Early Entry guests (including many who arrived after they did) bypass them. By the time rope drop rolls around, most of the headliners at EPCOT will already have long waits.

I also understand that staying on-site is not inexpensive or for everyone. However, as noted above, I stayed at All Star Sports for this trip. The nightly rate was only slightly more expensive than Flamingo Crossing or other nearby hotels, and that’s before factoring in the cost of transportation or parking (which was “free” for me) or on-site perks.

In other words, if you’re an early-riser who would otherwise be rope dropping the parks, you should really try to crunch the numbers and see if there’s a way to make staying on-site work for you.

From the front entrance, there are multiple places where guests are held prior to proceeding to the first attraction of the day.

Checkpoints are near Club Cool, Creations Shop, and Moana’s Journey of Water. Respectively, these are the ideal starting points for Test Track, Frozen Ever After, and Soarin’ Around the World. The latter two are roughly equivalent for those making the long haul to Remy’s Ratatouille Adventure, but again, you should not do that.

After making a quick lap to scope things out and grab some photos, I headed back over to Club Cool.

I’ve tried multiple techniques from the front entrance of EPCOT for Early Entry, and found that starting with Test Track is the optimal approach. That is, assuming you want to experience Test Track, won’t purchase Genie+ or Individual Lightning Lanes, will stay in EPCOT for the remainder of the day, and don’t have a low Guardians of the Galaxy: Cosmic Rewind boarding group.

To that last point, I’ve actually been burned by the Guardians of the Galaxy: Cosmic Rewind virtual queue in the past, so I opted against even trying for it at 7 am.

Instead, I did the 1 pm entry time and easily secured a spot. It was still an earlier callback time than I would’ve liked, but I wasn’t willing to wait longer to attempt joining since this was the peak of spring break season at Walt Disney World. (On normal days, I’ve found that joining the virtual queue shortly before 2 pm Park Hopping starts is about ideal for me. I would not recommend that gamble to a first-timer or infrequent visitor who has never done Cosmic Rewind.)

Anyway, I arrived at the Club Cool holding area at around 8:20 am. Had I gone here directly, I would have arrived at 8:10 am or so, which would’ve saved me time in line for Test Track.

Early Entry started about 5 minutes later, and I’d estimate that 60% of guests headed for Test Track. Roughly 20% headed for Mission Space and 20% headed for Guardians of the Galaxy: Cosmic Rewind. Frankly, I was surprised that the number heading to Test Track was so low, and I’d attribute this at least in part to it being a peak tourist season, which usually brings with it less experienced Walt Disney World visitors.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m glad 40% of guests had other plans, but they’re objectively bad ones. Mission Space wouldn’t have a long wait time later and even if you’re in the very first boarding group for Cosmic Rewind, you have at least an hour to return. Spend that time doing rides via standby while wait times are low!

Once the line formed for Test Track, about another dozen or so guests called audibles and headed elsewhere. This is also objectively bad strategy. For one thing, this line is not bad at all. It just looks that way because the attraction entrance had not yet opened and none of the interior queue was full. Unless there’s a ride breakdown (which does happen often with Test Track), you should stick with your initial decision no matter how “bad” the line looks. It will be worse later.

Once the line after started filling in the switchbacks and moved inside the building, it was smooth sailing and almost constantly moving.

My total experience time (forgot to time when I got into the SIM Car Design Center or onto the ride) was just over 20 minutes. For Test Track, that’s really good. I might’ve been able to shave 5 minutes off that time had I been at the front of the pack, but not much more than that.

Norway for Frozen Ever After was next on the agenda, and I arrived there at 8:57 am. I was pretty pleased with this, as it still put me ahead of the rope drop crowd coming from the front entrance of EPCOT by about 10 minutes.

However, given the “trajectory” of the crowd, I was behind a lot of people who arrived from International Gateway and had finished up Remy’s Ratatouille Adventure. There’s a definite advantage to starting from there, but not an insurmountable one. This line still moved quickly and not all of the switchbacks inside were in use.

It also helped tremendously that the Lightning Lane was only a slow trickle of guests at this hour, meaning standby was much more efficient. Had I arrived 10-15 minutes later, I suspect the story would’ve been very different.

Frozen Ever After took about 30 minutes from the time I entered the outdoor queue until I exited the attraction back into the same courtyard. That was actually significantly less time than the 45 minute posted wait time.

Even though it was only 9:30 am at this point, I was essentially at a crossroads.

One option would’ve been returning to the front of the park, doing Soarin’ Around the World, Living with the Land, Spaceship Earth, Journey into Imagination, Mission Space, etc.

There’s going to be a strong temptation to go this route, as there are so many attractions at the front of the park and many still have relatively low wait times at this hour. However, that’ll also be true later in the afternoon and wait times are quickly rising at this a.m. hour. (To that point, I did walk up and check out the Soarin’ line–it was too long for my liking!)

The other alternative would be to stick with World Showcase, either racing to Remy’s Ratatouille Adventure or enjoying the atmosphere, attractions, and character meet & greets with shorter lines.

The vast majority of people will likely pick the first option, but we’d recommend choosing the second. As covered in our Ride Guide for Remy’s Ratatouille Adventure, there is usually a mid-morning lull for the Rat Ride as Early Entry and rope drop demand subsides. Late arrivers balk at the higher wait time, not wanting to be stuck in line at lunch. That is when to pounce–or later in the evening as the crowds start to subside. Not right after the biggest wave of the morning crowd.

There’s nothing wrong with slowing down and enjoying World Showcase. It may feel unproductive, but if you can knock out the Royal Sommerhus Anna & Elsa Meet & Greet and other lower-profile attractions while also experiencing World Showcase before the crowds arrive in full force, that’s a big win. The front of the park can wait until later in the day when lines start to subside. In fact, this is the very strategy we advocate in our standard 1-Day EPCOT Itinerary.

As discussed in our other posts about Early Entry at EPCOT, this approach compares very favorably to buying the Genie+ service. With paid FastPass, you can usually score Lightning Lanes for 2 of the 3 headliners–just like you can with Early Entry.

That has been our consistent experience in using Genie+ since Frozen Ever After and Remy’s Ratatouille Adventure were added. However, you’re almost certainly going to be subject to the 120 minute rule for at least the second selection, meaning your third ride reservation won’t come until around 1 pm or later unless you get incredibly lucky. By then, all three are usually gone.

Moreover, you can’t choose your Lightning Lane return times, so they might be inopportune or require a lot of backtracking. That is not the case with this Early Entry plan, as going from Test Track to Frozen Ever After to the rest of World Showcase before doubling back to the front of the park is a normal about of backtracking for EPCOT.

While Early Entry requires being out the door at the crack of dawn and means hustling around the park to start your day, you’d also need to wake up to have a shot at all of the headliners via Genie+ at EPCOT. After that, you’d need to be on your phone and potentially refreshing throughout the day. You would also have to pay extra for Genie+ at EPCOT, which could mean spending another $25 or so per person in your party (it was $29 plus tax on this particular day).

This is why Early Entry is superior to Genie+ at EPCOT for anyone who is staying on-site. It’s less stressful, more efficient, less expensive, and just generally more enjoyable.

To that last point, there’s also a certain sense of serenity being at EPCOT as the park is waking up to start the day. I’ve mentioned this previously, but it’s really worth reiterating. Seeing the sun reflecting off the panels of Spaceship Earth or glistening on the crisp and clean ground. Watching horticulturists water plants, experiencing people-less World Showcase pavilions glow in the morning light. (Just look at the photos here–a small fraction of the 300+ I took this morning at EPCOT!)

Hearing the background music and savoring the details. When it comes to atmosphere or “user experience,” Early Entry absolutely trounces Genie+ at EPCOT. One entails enjoying the crisp ambiance of a pristine park…the other involves burying your face in your phone, trying to navigate a counter-intuitive app. It’s no contest.

Ultimately, we highly recommend taking advantage of Early Theme Park Entry at EPCOT. Even if everything doesn’t go perfectly and you have to wait a bit longer than what’s reflected here or if Test Track or a different ride is broken down, Early Entry is still far and away the superior option to paying for Genie+ and Lightning Lane access.

Genie+ is significantly improved at EPCOT now that Frozen Ever After and Remy’s Ratatouille Adventure have been added to the lineup, which can make EPCOT an intriguing option for “stacking” Lightning Lanes for an afternoon arrival. Accordingly, we now recommend Genie+ at EPCOT to off-site guests or those who won’t arrive first thing in the morning. However, anyone who is staying on-site should instead take advantage of Early Entry. It’s the way to go.

Planning a Walt Disney World trip? Learn about hotels on our Walt Disney World Hotels Reviews page. For where to eat, read our Walt Disney World Restaurant Reviews. To save money on tickets or determine which type to buy, read our Tips for Saving Money on Walt Disney World Tickets post. Our What to Pack for Disney Trips post takes a unique look at clever items to take. For what to do and when to do it, our Walt Disney World Ride Guides will help. For comprehensive advice, the best place to start is our Walt Disney World Trip Planning Guide for everything you need to know!

YOUR THOUGHTS

Thoughts on Early Theme Park Entry at EPCOT? Have you experienced this 30 minute jumpstart to the day? Prefer starting from International Gateway or the front entrance of EPCOT? Do you agree that Early Entry at EPCOT is superior to Genie+ and Lightning Lanes? What’s your preferred approach to mornings at EPCOT? How would you have done things differently? Any other feedback on arriving early to the Walt Disney World theme parks? Agree or disagree with our advice or approach? Any questions we can help you answer? Hearing your feedback–even when you disagree with us–is both interesting to us and helpful to other readers, so please share your thoughts below in the comments!

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