Holiday (Christmas) Activities at Disney World
Typical Dates: Late November to Early January
Spending the holidays at Disney World is a truly enchanting experience. There are seasonal lights, trees, special events, and much, much more that make the end of each year very special.
Just the act of decorating the resort is a Christmas miracle in itself. While most tourists are asleep in their beds a team of decorators works to turn the Florida resort into a winter wonderland. Using around 40 trucks that are turned over up to 150 times, this efficient night crew can make a park sparkle overnight...literally. They work from approximately 10 pm until the wee hours of the morning so that guests do not see anything unfinished.
As you know, the Walt Disney World Resort consists of four theme parks, the Downtown Disney shopping area, and 24 hotels operated by Disney. To blanket all of this space in holiday cheer requires 1,300 trees (all artificial), another 1,300 wreaths, 15 miles of garland, 300,000 yards of ribbon, and a whopping 8.5 million lights. And you thought your attic was full of seasonal decorations!
As always, the Magic Kingdom is the figurative heart of Walt Disney World (as everyone knows, the literal heart is buried under Seven Seas Lagoon). This centerpiece park does not fail to impress during the holidays. The giant 65 foot Christmas tree placed in the center of Town Square, alight with thousands of twinkling bulbs, can send even the most hardened adult into a fit of holiday giggles. The tree is one of many that are referred to as “icon” trees that Disney places throughout the resort. They range from about 30 feet tall up to the gigantic 65 footers like the one in Town Square.
Main Street, U.S.A., itself, is fully decorated with garland and wreaths, including wreaths attached to the lightposts in a familiar mouse-shaped silhouette.
Cinderella Castle Dream Lights – A Frozen Holiday Wish Show
It is hard for most visitors to see all of the wonderful Main Street lights, however, because eyes are drawn and held by the sparkling Cinderella Castle. Each night, Elsa from Frozen lights up the castle in grand fashion. You can witness this as part of a short show: A Frozen Holiday Wish.
A team of Disney technicians outdid themselves creating the Dream Lights: curtains of sparkling white, ice-like, LED bulbs that are draped from the turrets to the ramparts. To add to the majesty, the Dream Lights periodically twinkle, creating an air of pure magic.
Mickey's Very Merry Christmas Party
The signature holiday event at the Magic Kingdom is most certainly Mickey’s Very Merry Christmas Party>. The separately ticketed party is fun, popular, and worthy of an entirely separate entry. For a full description see our Mickey's Very Merry Christmas Party page.
Note that if you are in Magic Kingdom a few days prior to Christmas through New Year's Eve, the parade and fireworks from the Very Merry Christmas Party begin running during normal park hours at no extra charge.
Christmas Day Parade on ABC
The Christmas Day Parade on ABC (whose specific name may be customized to promote something different each year) airs every year on Christmas Day. What not everyone realizes is that the Magic Kingdom segments are recorded at well in advance, usually during two consecutive days in early December.
Over the past few years the first day of taping, either Thursday or Friday, has included stage acts and opening performances that have had very little impact on touring the park. The rest of the taping however, involves repeatedly shooting floats on Main Street, U.S.A., as well as repeatedly asking the throngs of people to act excited. As you can imagine, this constant use of Main Street makes the entrance area of the Magic Kingdom very congested.
If you are interested in seeing part of the parade, maneuvering through the shops until you get to the spot you want is the best way to go. Be warned, however, that seeing the same float scene reshot several times, sometimes with long stoppages in between takes, is not riveting. We have found that the parade taping is one of those things that sounds really fun to experience; however, once you’re actually there and experiencing it, it’s not all that it was cracked up to be.
If you are planning to avoid the taping, the shops are a good bypass, although Disney often opens the backstage bypass along the east end of Main Street, so be on the lookout for that, as well. Luckily, if seeing the parade taping is not on your list, wait times in the Magic Kingdom are traditionally low. Much of the crowd in the park centers around Main Street, and many other guests opt for other parks to avoid the congestion.
If you are planning to visit the Magic Kingdom prior to the parade taping weekend, be aware that the 65 foot icon tree is not placed in Town Square until after the recording.
Unlike the other three parks, you will not see an icon tree near the entrance. The Epcot tree is located near the World Showcase lagoon, in between World Showcase and Future World. The tree here is adorned with giant globes and bells, but the most fun ornaments here depict flags from countries around the world.
Most of the Future World trimmings are subtle, but the most noticeable of the Future World trimmings are the topiaries. Gardens brimming with poinsettias are filled with pine trees, oversized presents, and shrubberies in the shapes of Mickey Mouse and friends. The vivacity and natural red and green contrast make those small sections of Future World feel alive.
Joyful! A Gospel Celebration of the Season
Tucked behind the Fountain of Nations you will find Joyful! A Gospel Celebration of the Season. The title is pretty descriptive since this is a gospel celebration that is shown a few times daily from the day after Thanksgiving until a few days before the new year.
It is not a stretch to say that World Showcase at Epcot is one of the most interesting areas of any theme park. There may be no other place where a guest can find architectural, cultural, edible, and drinkable examples from so many different places at once. The fine detail and immersive qualities of the World Showcase pavilions are second to none.
Not surprisingly, this translates very well into holiday celebrations as each pavilion is decorated in a manner traditional to that country. What really puts Epcot's Holidays Around the World celebration over the top are the storytellers, who, starting just after Thanksgiving, periodically regale passersby with tales of tradition from their areas of the planet. Each pavilion has its own storyteller and they are all unique, excellent, and interesting.
Undoubtedly one of the most popular holiday events, the Candlelight Processional has a long tradition with Disney parks. The America Gardens Theatre in Epcot serves as a wonderful venue for the processional’s performances on 32 nights in 2013, which saw three shows nightly (at 5:00 pm, 6:45 pm, and 8:15 pm) from the Friday after Thanksgiving through December 30.
Even with the greatly expanded number of performances, the Candlelight Processional plays routinely to a packed theater. Capitalizing on this, Disney offers dinner packages that include seats for the show. In 2013, lunch packages ranged from $35.14 to $63.89, and dinner packages ranged from $53.24 to $74.54 per adult; many World Showcase restaurants participate, and the price depends on which restaurant you choose.
Alternatively, you can wait in a sometimes long “standby” line to occupy whatever seats are left after those who purchased meal packages have been seated. As you might expect, the more popular the narrator, the longer the line. If you are unable to get a seat, the show is visible from the walkway at the back of the theater. However, there is not a lot of room there, and you will most likely be trying to look over or around someone’s head. Plus, standing for 40 minutes is tiring, and security may put limits on the number of folks allowed to linger here. If you are interested only in hearing the show, note that it is loud and can be heard clearly from anywhere in the plaza outside the American Adventure building.
The celebrity narrators for 2014 have not all been announced, but here is the list so far:
- November 23-25, 2014 -- Isabella Rossellini
- November 26-29, 2014 -- Neil Patrick Harris
- November 30 - December 1, 2014 -- Whoopi Goldberg
- December 11-13, 2014 -- Jodi Benson
- December 14-16, 2014 -- Olivia Newton John
- December 20-22, 2014 -- Trace Adkins
- December 23-25, 2014 -- Gary Sinese
- December 29-30, 2014 -- Marlee Matlin
IllumiNations Holiday Tag
Between Thanksgiving and New Year's Eve, IllumiNations: Reflections of Earth takes place at 9:30 PM (rather than its usual time of 9:00 PM) and is followed by a short-but-explosion-filled "Holiday Tag" that lights up the sky with a mind-boggling number of shells while "Let There Be Peace on Earth" plays in the background.
Disney's Hollywood Studios
When the name Hollywood is brought up, many tend to think of the movies and all of their glamour and extravagance. Visiting Disney’s Hollywood Studios at Christmas time, one might expect the same level of extravagance. Unfortunately, through much of the park, there is not much to be seen as far as holiday trimmings. There is one amazing exception...but we will get to that later.
The absolute first thing you will see upon your approach to the park is its icon tree: another towering homage to the season, only this one sits outside of the park gates. Wrapped at its base by a giant film strip, this tree can be seen from quite a distance, especially if you arrive by boat or the walking path from the Epcot resort area.
Crossing through the gates onto Hollywood Boulevard brings you, however, to a view much like you would get at any time of year. There are a few extra lights, and Sunset Boulevard displays red and white stars from its light posts, but that is about it. The area around Muppet*Vision 3D has slightly more, with some lit garland and a few trees, but overall there are but a few holiday accents.
Osborne Family Spectacle of Dancing Lights
Did we say there were but a few holiday accents? That is blown apart on the Streets of America like Santa’s belt after a night of eating the world’s cookies. There is nothing like the Osborne Family Spectacle of Dancing Lights...nothing. There is also nothing quite like the way they came to be at Hollywood Studios.
Jennings Osborne was a successful businessman in Little Rock, Arkansas. In 1986 Mr. Osborne, at the request of his daughter, put up a modest 1,000 lights...which is only “modest” because of what came next.
Following several drastic additions to the display, national news coverage, ensuing traffic congestion, and a lawsuit by the Osborne’s neighbors, it was ordered that the display be shut down. Disney, never a company to miss an opportunity, spoke to Jennings Osborne about moving the impressive display to Hollywood Studios. Osborne accepted, and the lights were initially installed on the now extinct Residential Street in winter of 1995.
The first year simply displayed the same lights that the Osborne family used in Little Rock, but the collection has grown every year since and now includes more than 5 million lights. In 2004 Disney razed Residential Street while constructing a stage for its Lights, Motors, Action! Extreme Stunt Show. That year the lights were moved to the Streets of America, which they still call home.
It is nearly impossible to explain what 5 million lights look like, and even wonderful pictures do not do the Osborne Family Spectacle of Dancing Lights justice. To be awash in a sea of Christmas lights is something that must truly be experienced.
If you caught the name there, you may be wondering why they are called “dancing” lights. Well, since 2006 Disney added around 1,500 relays that allow sections to be turned on and off at will. Disney uses this technology to make the lights blink in time with a handful of holiday favorites in a sparkling symphony of stunning song splendor that cannot be outdone. Just in case you are not completely overwhelmed by the majesty of this display, the lights are now also accompanied by the same “snow” used in the Magic Kingdom.
Just as Jennings Osborne did, the Disney team constantly adds to this display. Regardless of the crowds or the story, this is a holiday display that defies description. If you only have one hour at Walt Disney World (which, frankly, is an odd vacation), spend at least part of it at the Osborne Family Spectacle of Dancing Lights.
As for touring, The Osborne Lights can be very busy, especially earlier in the night. The lighting ceremony occurs at dusk and features Mickey and an occasional special guest. If you’re visiting on a busy day, you will be packed in like a sardine when the lighting takes place. We recommend waiting until later in the night, around an hour before park closing if you can wait that long, to head to the Osborne Lights. If you can’t wait, make sure to arrive on the Streets of America around 5:30 pm and stand by the tall tree halfway down the street for a good view of the lighting ceremony. We recommend allowing at least thirty minutes to experience the Osborne Lights, but you can easily spend an hour exploring the area and all of its details.
Disney's Animal Kingdom
Disney’s Animal Kingdom has very few holiday decorations. As the park is rarely open at night, lights do not make much sense. Much like Hollywood Studios, however, Animal Kingdom has a massive icon tree sitting outside of its gates.
The Animal Kingdom tree is one of the more interestingly decorated icon trees. Along with the traditional snowflakes and lights are animal masks, large depictions of animals, and drums. There are few other trees that display zebras, hippos, lions, and giraffes so readily, and the result is fun and whimsical.
Disney's Resort Hotels
Each of the Disney resort hotels decorates for Christmas in their own special way. Value and Moderate resorts general have a fully decorated tree in the lobby area as well as smaller decorations, often themed to match the overall theme of the resort.
The really special bits of Christmas cheer however, are found in Walt Disney World’s Deluxe resorts. Each of the Deluxe and DVC resorts has a large tree and many decorations, but several of the top class hotels have one-of-a-kind adornments to celebrate the season.
As one of the most visible resorts from the Magic Kingdom, it is appropriate that the Contemporary is fitted with the most visible of holiday decorations. Affixed to the side of the Contemporary Resort facing the Magic Kingdom, just above the hole into which the monorail disappears, sits an enormous Mickey Mouse shaped wreath. With a 25 foot round face and 18 foot round ears, this 25 piece behemoth is unmissable. At night, the wreath glows with light and can be seen from quite a distance away.
Inside, the resort used to be sparse with its decorating. Recently, a 17 foot high gingerbread tree was assembled on the concourse level along with a small display dedicated to the art of Mary Blair. You may not know Ms. Blair, but you do know her art. A large mural is on display in the Contemporary concourse, right behind the gingerbread tree. Of course, she also designed much of the "it's a small world" attraction.
Disney's Grand Floridian Resort and Spa
If you are taking the monorail loop, the Grand Floridian is by far the most, well...grand, as far as Christmas decorations are concerned. The center of the lobby is adorned with another giant, Victorian decorated Christmas tree, and the balconies and nooks are all decked out, as well. The unmitigated star of this show, however, is the gingerbread house.
This massive house is big enough for a person to live in (disclaimer: said person must be under three feet tall and really, really like the smell of gingerbread). Almost entirely built with natural ingredients, this house takes months to plan and build. The gingerbread is made from an old Austrian recipe of honey dough, which needs to rest for quite a while. If you are curious, this particular recipe requires 1,050 lbs of honey, 600 lbs of powdered sugar, 800 lbs of flour, 180 lbs of apricot glaze, 140 pints of egg whites, and 35 lbs of spices (and one really big stand mixer).
The house itself is 16 feet high and 17 feet wide with a central structure made of 60 pieces of plywood. Since this is Disney, it houses 80 square feet of retail space, and this space is used to sell...gingerbread shingles. This tiny venue sells around 18,000 shingles during the season and, trust us, taking bites directly out of the structure is discouraged.
Disney's Wilderness Lodge
If you are so inclined, a short boat ride from the Magic Kingdom or the Contemporary over to the Wilderness Lodge Resort is well worth it. The towering lobby of this beautiful hotel is a perfect place to decorate, and Disney does not disappoint. Once again, the eye is yanked upwards as an enormous Christmas tree towers above you.
Much like the Grand Floridian, the balconies and nooks reveal extra treats as holiday deer, pine cones, and antlers complete the woodland critter Christmas motif. Thanks to this large tree, a variety of the detailed decorations found throughout the resort, along with an excellent background loop, Wilderness Lodge is our pick for the best Christmastime resort at Walt Disney World.
Wilderness Lodge’s decorations evoke memories of a traditional American Christmas, and between the antlers in all of the decorating and the fireplaces throughout the resort, you might just forget you’re in the middle of 80 degree weather in Florida when you sit down in the Wilderness Lodge at Christmas.
Disney's Yacht and Beach Club Resorts
Disney’s Beach and Yacht Club Resorts each have their own unique touches within their shared theme. These touches extend to their respective Yuletide decorations as the Beach Club is full of light and fun accents while the Yacht Club is classy and refined.
The Christmas trees at the Beach Club are fun, whimsical, and beachy (too easy), with tropical, seaside themed ornaments and color schemes. The central display of the lobby is an edible carousel that really turns, although I have never tested its edibility. Like all of these displays, the detail is amazing from the horses’ manes to their teeth to their bridles. With a base of gingerbread and horses of fondant and chocolate, this layout is impressive.
The Yacht Club lobby contains a wonderful Christmas village and train that is so finely crafted it really has to be seen to be appreciated. As would be expected, the remainder of the Yacht Club’s many decorations are nautically themed.
Disney's BoardWalk Inn
Traveling across Crescent Lake brings you to the BoardWalk Inn, which also has an elaborate Christmas display. BoardWalk’s lobby contains an edible gazebo and a miniature chocolate amusement park. Both of these are fantastically detailed and require an impressive amount of time and skill to create.
Animal Kingdom Lodge
Since the colossal, soaring lobby of the Animal Kingdom Lodge is African-inspired, it only makes sense that the holiday decorations are as well. Yet another gigantic tree welcomes you to gaze at its tribal adornments. Wandering through the lobby rewards you with many smaller displays of subtle tribal decoration that are equally beautiful, if not as grand.
If you are interested in even more information you can find it in our TouringPlans.com Walt Disney World Holiday Season eGuide along with over 150 spectacular photos.
Last updated by Brian McNichols on March 1, 2015