The Ultimate Walt Disney World Holidays Tour

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A few weeks ago, I was asked what the must-not-miss holiday decorations were at Walt Disney World for the holidays. Off the cuff, I rattled off the ones that I had seen in years past and that make the headlines: the gingerbread house at the Grand Floridian or the Osborne Lights at Disney’s Hollywood Studios. But truthfully, I had never seen all of the decorations. Would it be possible to see them all in one day? A few planning sessions later, my husband, daughter, and I set out to find out.

Our goal was simple: see the holiday decorations offerings at all Walt Disney World resorts*, all four theme parks, and Downtown Disney – and do it in one day. And, thus, the Ultimate WDW Holiday Tour challenge was born. We live-tweeted our day with #wdwholidaytour and posted updates for TouringPlans subscribers through the Lines app. Here’s our results, and our impressions.

We left home at 6:30 AM, with a goal of starting at the first resort at 7:00 AM. The plan was to do resorts from Value to Moderate to Deluxe/DVC, just to see if the quality of decorations changed between each level. We used our own car (unless other transportation is mentioned) just to make sure we could do it all in one day.

Christmas tree at the All-Star Sports resort (photo by Julia Mascardo).
Christmas tree at the All-Star Sports resort (photo by Julia Mascardo).

All-Star Sports (6:57 AM), All-Star Music (7:05 AM), All-Star Movies (7:15 AM).

Basically if you’ve seen one of these resorts, you’ve seen them all in terms of decorations. In the lobby, you’ll find essentially the same tree and wreath décor, with subtle clues as to which resort you are at. Unless you are trying to see everything, these resorts can be skipped.

Pop Century (7:36 AM). Although Pop Century is a value resort like the All-Stars, the tree here was bigger and better decorated and the wreaths and garland appeared to be newer. The “pop” theme to it was Santa Claus from the past 50 years or so.

From there, we walked to Art of Animation (7:52 AM), and also grabbed breakfast at Landscape of Flavors. The first thing to notice about Art of Animation’s tree is that it is white and it shimmers. It also carries over some of the concept art found in the lobby chandelier into the tree, which is a nice touch. In all, if you are only going to see one Value resort’s decorations, this is the one I’d suggest seeing.

 

 

 

After walking back to get the car, we were now moving on to Moderates.

The Caribbean Beach tree has a very tropical slant. (Photo by Julia Mascardo)
The Caribbean Beach tree has a very tropical slant. (Photo by Julia Mascardo)

Caribbean Beach (8:57 AM), Port Orleans French Quarter (9:23 AM), Port Orleans Riverside (9:35 AM), Coronado Springs (9:57 AM).

For the most part, upgrading from a Value to a Moderate means a little more theming to the tree, and either a larger tree (like at Port Orleans Riverside) or more of them (like four trees in the entry at Port Orleans French Quarter). My personal favorite tree of the Moderate resorts was the one at Caribbean Beach, with its colorful and tropical theme. But for the sheer wow value, the award goes to Coronado Springs, which has a gigantic tree topped with an old-fashioned angel in the check-in area. This is the first tree that I could see the average person stopping by to take a picture. I had never heard about how amazing this tree was, so it really took me by surprise. The white poinsettia garland around the resort was also quite lovely.

 

Now it was time to start taking time in theme parks and Deluxe resorts.

Animal Kingdom (10:35 AM). Out front, like in most of the theme parks, there is a magnificent Christmas tree. While I had an idea of what decorations were found in other parks, I couldn’t remember much being done in Animal Kingdom. We did a lap of the park, and aside from a bit of garland on the stores, the only other decorations were in Dino Land – and to the same level of decorating that you’d expect from the roadside attraction theme.

How do you make a place like DinoLand more tacky? Well… (Photo by Julia Mascardo)
How do you make a place like DinoLand more tacky? Well… (Photo by Julia Mascardo)

Jambo House (11:28 AM). Walking into Animal Kingdom Lodge Jambo House is a chiropractor’s dream – everyone immediately looks up because the inside is massive. Needless to say, a massive lobby takes a massive tree, and the tree here does not disappoint. What was disappointing to me was the lack of gingerbread village downstairs next to Boma that I remembered from year’s past. Still, the tree alone makes it worth a visit. (And the Mara was a good place to take a drink break.)

From there, we took the shuttle van to Kidani Village (12:01 PM). While smaller in size, the tree at Kidani is still equally as lovely. With beaded ornaments and an African theme, it is a welcome addition to the lobby.

After taking the bus back to Jambo House to get our car, we drove to the Transportation and Ticket Center to park the car. We walked over to the Polynesian (1:02 PM), with the recognition that this year it might be a little light on decorations. We finally located the tree upstairs near ‘Ohana, but the real gem for me was a festive statue in the gift shop on our way to grab lunch at Captain Cook’s.

Aloha, Christmas! (Photo by Julia Mascardo)
Aloha, Christmas! (Photo by Julia Mascardo)

We took a quick peek under the curtain to see the new lobby, but we knew we needed to keep moving. One very crowded monorail trip to the next stop, the Grand Floridian (1:55 PM). When people think of the holidays at a Disney resort, this is usually one that is high on people’s lists. From the stunning enormous tree in the lobby to the gingerbread house with the gingerbread store inside, this really is a show-stopper. After wandering downstairs to get a close look, we looked upstairs and saw the line for the monorail was all the way into the building. Thinking we were smart, we went to grab the boat to the Magic Kingdom. And we waited…

And we waited….

And we waited….

And eventually we arrived at the Magic Kingdom (2:55 PM) an hour after our arrival at the Grand Floridian.

Although my husband, daughter, and I have lived in Florida for nearly nine months now, we had not yet seen the Festival of Fantasy parade, and there was one specific photo that I wanted to get. Although crowds were thick, when 3:00 came and went, and 3:15 came and went, people started leaving. This meant we had an amazing view, and I got the picture I had wanted to take.

Giant dragon breathing giant fireball onto giant decorated tree? Check that off my photo bucket list. (Photo by Julia Mascardo)
Giant dragon breathing giant fireball onto giant decorated tree? Check that off my photo bucket list. (Photo by Julia Mascardo)

By now, it was starting to feel like a very long day, but we still had miles left to go (literally). We walked to Bay Lake Tower (3:55 PM) and saw the typical lobby tree + garland setup. Then a quick elevator ride up and across the sky bridge to the Contemporary main tower (3:59 PM). No big wreath on the Contemporary this year, but they do have a mall-quality flat-panel Frozen “gingerbread” display. While I love the artwork, and I am a fan of Frozen, I always feel that the Contemporary gets short-changed every year. So much more could be done to really make this display as dynamic as the other Deluxe resorts. (Even so, this was one of the few that were getting lots of photographs taken, so you can’t argue its popularity.)

Back on the monorail we went, with somewhat shorter lines, and back to the parking lot to grab our car for a quick drive to Wilderness Lodge (4:51 PM). This is another favorite lobby of mine because of its massive scope. It was my daughter’s first visit there, and she was blown away by not only the tree, but all the detail in the lobby. The only way to get her to willingly leave was to promise to visit another day.

At this point, we had Epcot, the Studios, the Crescent Lake resorts, Downtown Disney, Saratoga Springs, and Old Key West left. Truth told, we were dreading Downtown Disney, with all the construction. Originally we had planned to park there and just use boat transportation to Old Key West and Saratoga, but with the lateness of the hour, we knew we needed to head for the Studios sooner rather than later, but decided to knock out Old Key West and Saratoga by car first.

While both of these resorts are beautiful in their own rights, when it comes to holiday decor, they were more on par with what you’d find at a Moderate resort: themed trees, wreaths, and garland. We went in, took the pictures, and left, hitting Old Key West (5:17 PM) and then Saratoga Springs (5:31 PM). Now we knew we had to make a trip to the Studios. On a Saturday night. And apparently with everyone in the Orlando metro area.

As an aside, I want to give a shout out to the security cast members who were working traffic duty on the secondary entrance to the Studios. With many incidents of road rage playing out and clearly stressed out drivers during low-light conditions, these cast members really went above and beyond to keep traffic moving as best as possible.

We left Saratoga around 5:40 PM. We arrived at Disney’s Hollywood Studios at 7:03 PM. 

Thankfully, we had seen the Osborne Lights earlier in the season, because the insane crowd levels would have likely made us abort the rest of our evening. Even so, we walked as far as Studio Catering Company, watched a dancing cycle of the lights from the side, and headed on out.

 

Crowds for the Osborne Lights on a Saturday night can get spectacular in their own way. (Photo by Julia Mascardo)
Crowds for the Osborne Lights on a Saturday night can get spectacular in their own way. (Photo by Julia Mascardo)

Now we were faced again with the option for waiting on a boat to get to Epcot or walking. After our lengthy delay with the boat earlier in the day, we didn’t want to take a chance, so away we walked. This also meant we were able to hit the Boardwalk (8:21 PM) on the way. The Boardwalk has, in addition to the obligatory tree and garland setup, a small store decorated with gingerbread that sells items similar to that at the Grand Floridian. I can’t say that it would be worth a trip just to see it, but when taken with all the other Epcot resorts, this is a lovely addition.

On autopilot at this point, we we kept walking to Epcot (8:33 PM), with the goal of getting to the tree located on the World Showcase side of the land bridge between it and Future World. Surprisingly, the crowds at Epcot were incredibly light. Everyone was clearly at the Studios.

Tree photographed, and back out we went. It was the home stretch. A quick walk to the Beach Club (8:52 PM) with its amazing gingerbread and chocolate carousel. On to the Yacht Club (9:00 PM), the red-headed stepchild of resorts, getting a cute (but forgettable) train board setup along with its tree and, hidden down a hallway, a small gingerbread house decorated like Wandering Oaken’s Trading Post.

The Boardwalk gingerbread store doesn't get as much attention as the Grand Floridian, but still is impressive. (Photo by Julia Mascardo)
The Boardwalk gingerbread store doesn’t get as much attention as the Grand Floridian, but still is impressive. (Photo by Julia Mascardo)

Only two resorts left, so away we walked to the Dolphin (9:13 PM) and Swan (9:21 PM). At this point, with all the decorations we had seen, it was going to take a lot to impress us. And then we walked into these two hotels. In a word….Wow. The tree at the Dolphin blew me away with its beauty and size. There were candy cane planters in between the two resorts. The Swan had an amazing (albeit slightly creepy) chocolate sculpture of Santa. There were even trees inside the revolving doors! And this was after the meet and greet with Santa and Mrs. Claus had ended for the day. But the dancing lights on the palm trees were still going and were stunning. If I had to pick only one area to visit, this would be it. It simply blew us away.

The tree at the Dolphin simply blew me away. (Photo by Julia Mascardo)
The tree at the Dolphin simply blew me away. (Photo by Julia Mascardo)

Another shout out to the amazing Friendship crew who graciously took us on the last trip from the Swan and Dolphin to the Studios to get our car. Bless you, kind sirs!

Now the moment of truth: could we get to Downtown Disney and find a place to park on a Saturday night? (And, more importantly, could we get there before Wolfgang Puck Express closed to get a much-needed pizza dinner?) Surprisingly, traffic was light and parking was easily obtained next to the Casting building. We crossed the street, found a very typical but welcome sight of a decorated tree in front of Earl of Sandwich, and officially recorded our time. Downtown Disney at 10:17 PM. Our total time was 15 hours and 20 minutes. Total mileage walked that day was 17.74 miles according to my Fitbit, and we had walked 40,488 steps. Whew.

After reading all of the congratulations, the big question was whether or not we would do this again. In a word — no. Not all resorts are created equal, and to get the best of the holiday tour, all you need to do is the monorail loop resorts and Crescent Lake resorts (including the Swan and Dolphin), plus side trips to Wilderness Lodge and Animal Kingdom Lodge. In addition, even if we wanted to do all the resorts in one day, adding the theme parks in there as well certainly set the bar too high for our comfort level. However, we now HAVE set the bar. So if anyone would like to try and beat our 15:20 record, go for it. Feel free to use #wdwholidaytour so that everyone can follow along. Oh, and for added challenge, make sure you bring a four-year-old with you.

But even though we wouldn’t do it again, we had a lot of fun doing it once, and it has given us some memories we will not forget of Walt Disney World holidays. Thank you to everyone following along at home who gave words of encouragement. We couldn’t have done it without our own personal cheering squad!

Whatever you celebrate, and in whatever way you celebrate, may your holidays be joyful! See you in 2015!

*We deliberately skipped Fort Wilderness for this trip, as the best decorations there are not provided by Disney, but instead are the individual campsites that people decorate each year. Knowing that it can take a full evening and then some to truly appreciate it all, we suggest this as a miniature version of an ultimate holiday tour, worthy of its own dedicated evening.

 

And to all, a good night! (Photo by Julia Mascardo)
And to all, a good night! (Photo by Julia Mascardo)

Julia Mascardo

Freelance writer and editor, living the dream in Central Florida with my husband, cats, and spirited eight-year-old daughter.

One thought on “The Ultimate Walt Disney World Holidays Tour

  • December 26, 2014 at 10:41 am
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    Great work Julia!

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