Update: This Plugin is no longer in the the repository. It has been replaced with WP Theme Test. I have not reviewed the new plugin yet.
It’s a common dilemma. You’re tired of your old WordPress theme and you want to try out a new one. But your website is live. You can’t just go making a mess out of your website, playing around with a new theme when visitors are coming. That’s like hosting a dinner party in the middle of a kitchen remodel. It just isn’t done.Tweet this!
Enter a handy little plugin called Theme Test Drive.
I had this exact dilemma when I needed to do a refresh on one of my websites that had been sadly neglected in favor of more lucrative sites. It had a sudden rise in popularity and when it reached seven thousand visitors a month, the website shame just got to be too much. I HAD to update the site. But with that much traffic, I didn’t want to take it offline or try to do a live update where it would look like a mess when people landed on it.
I had been using the My Product theme from Elegant themes and I wanted to switch over to Headway Themes, which would take me a day or so to customize. The Theme Test Drive plugin activates the secondary theme (In my case Headway) so that the admin user (meaning me) can customize and view the theme. But all of the other visitors will continue to see the old theme. Brilliant!
Activating the Theme Test Drive Plugin
Once you install the plugin and the new theme you want to customize. Head over to Appearance>Theme Test Drive.
Choose the new theme from the drop down list and click Enable Theme Drive. Now you can see the new theme but anyone who is not an admin is still seeing the old one.
You can leave your website this way for days, even weeks if you want. I did run some site speed tests to make sure it wasn’t causing any significant load on my site. At the most, it may have added half a second to my load time – it went from about 2 seconds to about 2.5 or so. I feel like that is a very acceptable temporary price to pay for the value the plugin provides.
Switching Themes Permanently
Once you have the new theme looking good, it’s time to push it live! For this, the plugin takes advantage of a native WordPress theme feature. Once you set up a theme, the settings will stick even when the theme is deactivated. That means you can turn the theme off and when you turn it back on all of your customizations will be in place. (OK – it doesn’t always work perfectly, but with most well-coded themes you’re golden.)
Head back to Appearance>Theme Test Drive and click the Disable Theme Drive button. Then go to Appearance Themes and activate the new theme. That’s it! Your website will start showing your new theme.
The next time you want to do a theme change on your live site, give the Theme Test Drive plugin, well… a test drive!