Are you afraid to visit Disney during the holiday season? I say, the more the merrier when it comes to the Christmas season at Disney World. From mid-November to early January, there is extra magic in the air. Yes, this is a peak time to visit, but you will always find crowds at Disney and the parks are decked out in all their glory. If you are used to visiting from February to October, I highly recommend experiencing the limited-time splendor of the holidays done right.
Celebrate the Holidays at the Magic Kingdom
Start your holiday journey in the Magic Kingdom, at night. When the sun goes down, the lights go on! Out of the three parks, the MK just may be the most enchanting. Holiday music welcomes you at the gate and you will be greeted by an army of toy soldiers. The massive tree in the center of Main Street provides a great place for picture-taking with the castle in the distance. If you have the Memory Maker photo package, get your picture snapped by the Photopass photographer. You just might find an animated surprise when you login online.
Proceeding down Main Street, enjoy the lit up garland and decorated balconies. Mickey-shaped wreaths adorn the lamp posts and the Main Street stores have beautiful window displays. We like to view them all as a competition for the best window and see which one stands out the most for Christmas creativity.
Although many of the rides are business as usual (and you would want them to be!) try the Jungle Cruise. Renamed the “Jingle Cruise” during the holidays, this scripted boat tour down the river takes a delightful turn at Christmastime. The animatronics and jungle sets are decorated in a humorous way. Your guide on the riverboat will be full of holiday cheer. It’s a rare opportunity to see an old classic in literally, a new light!
For a holiday treat, swing by Gaston’s Tavern for delicious hot chocolate or get a custom ice cream sandwich at Sleepy Hollow. Seasonal options include peppermint or pumpkin ice cream, as well as gingerbread snowflake cookies, in addition to their infamous chocolate chip cookies.
Open all year, Ye Olde Christmas Shoppe in Liberty Square seems extra joyful around the holidays. The store sells ornaments featuring all your favorite characters, as well as stockings, tree skirts, toppers, and door banners. We especially loved the huge glass Mickey ears to “hide” in our own tree!
In addition to its regularly scheduled evening Electrical Parade, Disney puts on holiday shows in the Magic Kingdom. Frozen fans will be in their glory as they watch Anna and Elsa perform with Olaf in front of the castle in A Frozen Holiday Wish nightly at 6:15 PM. Under their power, the castle is transformed into the glorious icy fortress created with thousands of twinkle lights.
Throughout the evening, light shows and projections periodically turn the castle into a celebratory centerpiece. End your night with a special holiday version of Wishes. Watch the sky fill with fireworks of red, green, and gold set to a score of holiday music. It’s enough to warm the heart of any grinch. Look to Tomorrowland to see Tinkerbell fly towards the castle. For an unimpeded view, you may want to book the Tomorrowland Terrace Fireworks Dessert Party in advance. This ADR has space set aside for viewing Wishes and a full spread of sweet treats to enjoy while you watch the show. A Photopass photographer is often present to take your picture with fireworks in the background (hard to get with a selfie)! If you have already seen Holiday Wishes, try riding the TTA People Mover while it’s going on. Nothing beats sitting and gliding in the breeze high in the sky away from the crowds while you watch the fireworks go off around the castle for a few perfect moments…before the view changes.
You may wish to have a holiday dinner to celebrate the season. Everyone’s tastes are different, so consider what the holidays mean to you and then go for it! Particularly seasonal offerings include the Liberty Tree Tavern (very popular for Thanksgiving), Be Our Guest Restaurant, and a special Christmas Dinner at The Diamond Horseshoe in Frontierland (which truly had the most beautiful Christmas decorations of any Disney restaurant inside).
If you really want to splurge, make sure to call on the first day available to make your ADR for Cinderella’s Royal Table. If you time it right (ask for an ADR at 8:30 or 9:00 PM) you just might see holiday Wishes shooting off outside next to your table while you dine.
If you are visiting after Christmas, but before (or during) New Year’s, be sure to order the clock strikes twelve dessert. You know…just for practice!
If you are looking for a bit more exclusive holiday celebration, you might want to pre-book tickets to Mickey’s Very Merry Christmas Party! Starting at $74 USD for a ticket (children under 3 are free with your ticket), you will have the park open just for party ticket holders from 7:00 PM to Midnight on that select date. You can enter the parks as early as 4:00 PM with your Christmas Party ticket.
Dates for 2016 Mickey’s Very Merry Christmas Party:
- November 7, 8, 10, 11, 13, 15, 18, 27, 29
- December 1, 2, 4, 6, 8, 9, 11, 13, 15, 16, 18, 22
The Party includes Mickey’s Once Upon a Christmastime Parade twice during the night, complete with spectacular floats, Minnie, Mickey, Santa, and dancing reindeer. Snow will fall intermittently on Main Street and you are welcome to hot chocolate and cookies included with your ticket. Ride your favorite rides, greet all of your favorite characters throughout the Magic Kingdom for photos and signatures, and then hop over to Tomorrowland for A Totally Tomorrowland Christmas Show, featuring Buzz Lightyear and your friends from Monsters Inc. You can also watch Minnie and Mickey and friends on stage in front of the castle in their rendition of the Nutcracker during the Celebrate the Seasons Show. At 9:30, there is a performance of Holiday Wishes fireworks to enjoy.
Celebrate the Holidays at Epcot
Epcot also gets in the spirit during the season with its Holidays Around the World. Although a bit more understated than the Magic Kingdom’s revelry, you will find beautiful decorations around each of the World Showcase pavilions. Be sure to stop by Germany. The Germans invented the Christmas tree, and it features several excellent options for buying handcrafted and blown glass ornaments, including Die Weihnachts Ecke (Christmas Corner).
An outdoor stall to the left of the town square often showcases the fine art of glass-blowing. Directly next to that is a stand selling traditional holiday beverages, including delicious gluhwein, a warm mulled wine available only at Christmas in Epcot. Also stop into Der Teddybar toy store in Germany, where you might want to finally pick up that Steiff teddy bear that is sure to become an heirloom.
The America showcase offers a massive centerpiece tree, as well as a small outdoor market area selling Christmas ornaments and dolls. This area is strategically situated across from the outdoor theater for the Candlelight Processional.
Epcot is a wonderful place to buy stocking stuffers and small gifts. My favorites include the Mitsukoshi store in Japan, which has terrific small stationary items (read packable), good luck figurines, packaged snacks and candy, pick-a-pearl, fans, incense, and elegant sushi paraphernalia. They also sell one of my favorite gifts to give: small purses in fun printed fabrics with a special pocket for your camera. Everybody loves them!
For elegant offerings, Italy sells Murano glass pendants and earrings, perfume, and scarfs. France sells some very beautiful resin barrettes, makeup compacts, and linen tea towels. The United Kingdom pavilion has a delightful tea shop where you can find the perfect gift for any Anglophile. It also sells soap from Buckingham Palace, tartan scarves, and beautiful fashion jewelry made in Ireland. Hop into the toy store and you’ll find something to win over any child’s heart, including a large selection of Paddington and Pooh related items.
If you are lucky enough to be visiting on a night the Candlelight Processional is being offered, try to secure your seat with the Dinner Package. While the processional itself does not require a separate ticket fee, seats are first come first-served and we observed very long lines for this performance of music and recitation of the Nativity by various celebrities. The dinner package offers you an ADR at the Epcot restaurant of your choice and priority seating at the performance.
We recommend you check out Joyful! A Gospel Celebration of the Season. This performance of holiday gospel, jazz, and R&B music will renew your crowd-weary spirit. Held at hourly intervals throughout the afternoon (1-4 PM), walk over to Future World in Epcot early and snag some refreshments (or a free international soda from Club Cool) before you settle in to watch what is Epcot’s best holiday music performance.
Throughout the day, you will also find storytellers from each country explaining the cultural holiday traditions of each showcase. Pick up a holiday time guide when entering the park so you don’t miss any of these special encounters! We happened upon Pere Noel in France.
At 9:30 PM, get ready for Epcot’s answer to fireworks. Illuminations is held out on the showcase lagoon, complete with pyrotechnics, lasers, and lights. Watch for the torches located around the showcase to light just before the show begins. The message of Illuminations is clear: that humanity is one family. A special holiday ending, “Let there Be Peace on Earth”, seems to sum up what the holidays should be.
Celebrate the Holidays at Disney’s Hollywood Studios
Not to be outdone, Hollywood Studios has the most spectacular light display of all. The Osborne Family Spectacle of Dancing Lights is an unrivaled holiday display that puts on quite a show. This is absolutely my favorite Disney holiday feature. Located at the back of the park on the Streets of America, you will be dazzled by millions of lights that periodically dance to music before your eyes. You can wander in at any time and stay a while so you can notice all of the terrific details and soak up the sights and colors. If you want to glow in tune to the music, you can purchase and wear one of Disney’s new “Made with Magic” items (formerly called Glow with the Show). These ears, headbands, Mickey hands, and magic wands enable you to have accessories that change color to the beat of the Osborne music. They also work at Fantasmic and Wishes, so if you are an avid fan, it is absolutely a must have!
Several online resources recommend that you view this display right before park closing, you’ll have the whole place to yourself. However, I find a deserted Osborne street somewhat sad and I think being part of the camaraderie in the mix of all of the visitors adds to the enjoyment of this spectacle. I have visited several times and this area is never a complete crush of people, even at peak times. You can walk around and see everything and get your picture taken at key spots. There is also a small, discrete beverage stand which offers spiked or plain hot chocolate and seasonal cocktails, include the gumdrop cocktail, which is a delightful concoction of Chambord, Stoli Razberri Vodka, Pineapple and Cranberry Juices, and Sprite topped off with a gumdrop stirrer. You can enjoy your beverage in this section of the park only, as you walk around looking at the lights. To add to the sense of wonder, snow frequently drifts down from the sky to add to the seasonal effect.
Before you leave the lights, you may wish to stop by the creche near the flying angels and find a moment of peace in the park.
Celebrate the Holidays at Disney’s Resorts
Not to be outdone, Disney’s resorts are all decked out for the holidays too. You’ll find themed trees and decorations in all the hotels at the Walt Disney World Resort. The Polynesian features peach and red tropical flowers in their trees, while the Beach Club showcases turquoise sea horses and gold seaweed ribbons. The roaring fireplace at the Wilderness Lodge adds a seasonal touch to its lobby. Hop over to the Yacht Club Resort to see all of the gorgeous boats on their nautical-themed trees.
Train enthusiasts will be happy to watch the engines fly around the elaborate holiday layout in the Yacht Club lobby.
The elegant lobby of the Grand Floridian is traditionally elegant during the holidays. Hop on the monorail and then line up to have your photo taken with Mickey and Minnie in the holiday attire in front of the tree decked out with Victorian ornaments and ribbons. At one end of the lobby is a very impressive gingerbread house. Walk around to the back of it to find cast members inside selling amazing confections and sugared slabs of what is arguably the best gingerbread you will ever eat. The Beach Club and the Contemporary also feature large-scale gingerbread masterpieces and sell gingerbread treats.
Tips for Celebrating the Holidays at Disney World
- Temperatures can range drastically, from the 80’s to the upper 30’s at night. During the course of our trip, we had temperatures early in the week at 78 degrees daytime to temperatures later in the trip reading 39 degrees in the evening. Pack accordingly in Nov, Dec, Jan. Bring jeans, warm socks, a warm sweater, and a jacket.
- Make your room feel like home away from home. To quickly decorate, hang up some stockings for Christmas morning. You can also bring a small artificial tabletop tree to decorate (if your packing situation permits, or if you are feeling flush, order a tree or bouquet to be delivered to your room from the Disney florist. You can also bring a plug-in scent for your room like cinnamon, pine, or vanilla to make it more home-like.
- With all of the business of Disney, small children get concerned that Santa won’t find them. Reassure them that Santa indeed knows they are at Disney World(so be good!)
- Make ADR’s for your holiday meal. If a big holiday meal is important, make sure to make these reservations way in advance. This is THE busiest time of the year for Disney restaurants.
- The Magic Kingdom might…CLOSE. On Christmas Eve and Christmas Day, sometimes the crowds swell to such a size that the park can close. This means that once it reaches capacity, you will not be permitted to enter, even if you are holding a ticket. This usually happens at the height of day. By the evening the park reopens for admission. If you have your heart set on a Disney MK Day on Christmas, try to stay at a resort hotel and take advantage of those Extra Magic Hours the minute they start. Or visit another favorite park at Disney during the day.