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5 Must-Do Activities During the Holidays at Walt Disney World

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The holiday season is upon us here in Orlando! Walt Disney World is always the first of the major theme parks to kick off their festivities. The green light to start getting into the holiday spirit is shining bright, so let’s talk about the holiday festivities at Walt Disney World that need to be on your must-do list this year.

5. Monorail Resorts Tour

Photo by Brian McNichols
Photo by Brian McNichols

Three of Disney’s deluxe resorts await along the monorail loop, as part of the Magic Kingdom’s dominion. These resorts are highly sought after, commanding some of the highest room rates in the area. There are many desirable features here and during the holidays each resort offers their own unique way to celebrate the season.

Each year Disney’s Contemporary Resort offers a large gingerbread display in the Grand Canyon Concourse. This resort has the most kinetic energy and I find it to lack a bit of peace and instead at certain points feel as hectic as the shopping malls are this time of year. Still, the hustle and bustle is a traditional feeling of the season for many.

Hopping on the monorail (assuming it is actually operational) you’ll make a quick pit stop at the TTC before proceeding to Disney’s Polynesian Village Resort. Get ready to say Male Kalikimaka, which is Hawaii’s holiday greeting. The holiday festivities and décor are not as extravagant as you will find in our next stop, the Grand Floridian, but the tropical charm and exotic feel is something you’ll rarely find anywhere else.

The grand finale is the Grand Floridian. This resort sparkles and shines during the holidays. The elegance and grace of the season are reflected in the Victorian Christmas decorations, evoking holiday traditions of a more refined era. Accents of gold, scarlet, and pale peach shine against the deep emerald green garlands. Nearly every Deluxe resort has a multi-story Christmas tree for all to admire. Here the tree is 40 feet high with golden lights and ornaments of doves, harps, bird cages, and other graceful elements.  ­­

The main attraction here is the life-size gingerbread house. The detail on this childhood dream come true never fails to impress each year. I’m getting giddy just typing about it. You can view the house from all angles, peer in the windows, and even shell out some dough (pun intended) at the sweet shop inside the house. The treats are pretty pricey, I would recommend picking out one treat to share.

Bonus round: secure a spot at any of the three resorts to catch a performance of Holiday Wishes, my absolute favorite fireworks ever to grace the Magic Kingdom.

4. Epcot Area Resorts Tour

Typically the monorail resorts get all kinds of love and recognition during this time of year, but I think there is a collection of resorts that offer a better experience during the holidays. The Epcot Area / Crescent Lake Area Resorts are much easier to access and tour through. You can walk to each resort or for a seafaring twist hop aboard the Friendships (though not the most effective use of your time).

Each resort has a unique holiday display in addition to glorious garland and towering Christmas trees. Disney’s Boardwalk’s decorations are festive and fun, themed perfectly to seaside amusement attractions. In the lobby thick garland, drapes along the beams, loaded with so many ornaments that they seem to sag under the weight of all the glittering treasures. The Christmas tree at this resort is unique because it is displayed outside, on the beautiful lawn of the courtyard (I am always so envious of the guests whose balcony overlooks this scene during the holidays).

Moving over to Disney’s Yacht and Beach Club Resorts you can experience the joy of the holidays with a unique nautical flair. Both resorts place more emphasis on garland, gingerbread, and other displays rather than on Christmas trees. At the Beach Club a wondrous carousel made of gingerbread, chocolate, and other sweets lights up the eyes of everyone who gazes upon it. Each year there are four – five new horses, each with a name and unique theme.

Photo by Brian McNichols
Photo by Brian McNichols

The Yacht Club has a slightly more sophisticated feel. The highlight here is the Christmas village. Many people have a Christmas village in their home (myself included); this tradition has been passed down and evolved since the Renaissance. The Yacht Club’s display includes a ski lift, a train, a lighthouse, and lots of Disney details. I find myself soothed and relaxed when gazing at this impressive display.

Finally, you must make a visit to both the Swan and Dolphin hotels. The Walt Disney World Swan and Dolphin is a rare and unique resort in the middle of Disney property. This resort is operated by Starwood (the Swan is a Westin and the Dolphin is a Sheraton). While they do have to answer to Disney in a lot of ways, this resort gets to express itself in ways that Disney owned and operated resorts cannot.

Courtesy of
Courtesy of

During the holidays they like to be known as “Santa’s Favorite Resort” I recommend starting at the Swan, which is smaller and quieter. Here you will find the World’s Largest Chocolate Santa display. Over at the Dolphin the lobby is festive with a massive poinsettia Christmas tree and a train set.

Try to plan your visit on one of the nights that Santa and Mrs. Claus are scheduled to visit. I promise you’ve never seen Santa and Mrs. Claus in a more fun, tropical mood. It’s precious! When they are in town, at 6pm Mrs. Claus leads a tree lighting ceremony in the Dolphin’s lobby then leads everyone outside to see Santa. The photo opportunity with Santa is along the causeway between the two hotels, and it is very Florida. A list of all the activities is available here.

3. Epcot’s Holidays Area the World

Of the four Walt Disney World theme parks, I feel Epcot celebrates the holiday season the best (once you’re inside World Showcase). Each pavilion is decorated (though Morocco is more subdued and celebrates Ramadan) and the Cast Members seem to be in an even more cheerful mood.

If you don’t take the time to stroll through each pavilion, lingering long enough to take in all the decorations and details, you really are missing out. More importantly, be sure to catch at least two or three of the holiday storytellers at each pavilion. It brings my heart such joy to hear about some of the traditions celebrated around the world. Maybe it’s the idealist in me, but I feel like the world is not such a difficult place, that we aren’t so different from each other, when these traditions are told and shared.

Like many Americans, my lineage is a mixture of many cultures, however, the largest part of my heritage is German. Because of that most of my own family’s traditions during this time of year follow many German traditions. This leads me to absolutely love the Germany Pavilion during the holiday season. Plus a special Christmas market and beverage stand are set up in the lawn area next to the pavilion, adding some extra holiday magic.

Be sure to catch a performance of the Voices of Liberty in their beautiful costumes as they sing Christmas carols. These performers are also featured in the Candlelight Processional. This moving performance originally started in Disneyland. When it came over to Epcot it soon became a favorite tradition among Disney fans. Rehearsals for the Cast Members (who volunteer their time) that make up the orchestra and part of the chorus begin in August. They are joined on stage by various organizations including schools and community organizations (Cast Members in green robes, members of the community in white). The highlight for many guests is the celebratory narrator, but I am always more moved by the music.

Cap off your evening with the incredible, astonishing “Peace on Earth” ending that is tagged onto IllumiNations: Reflections of Earth, you are sure to have a new special holiday season memory.

2. Fort Wilderness / Wilderness Lodge

Maybe it’s because I am a Florida girl and thus the great Pacific Northwest feels so novel to me, but the Wilderness Lodge might as well be named “Disney’s Perfect Christmas Resort” during the holidays. The warmth of the roaring, awe inspiring fireplace sets an incredible backdrop for the astonishing floor to ceiling Christmas tree. The warmly lit teepee decorations that adorn the tree are some of my favorite Christmas decorations on Disney property.

Photo by Tom Bricker
Photo by Tom Bricker

My favorite decor here is actually the simple garland that drapes the covered walkway from the main building over to the Disney Vacation Club Villas building. This walkway is flanked by dense, woodsy landscape, and on rare chilly evenings I feel transported.

After taking in the sights of the Lodge, I recommend renting a bicycle and taking the bike path over to Fort Wilderness. Currently bike rental has been relocated to Cub’s Den Children’s Activity Center due to the construction of the additional DVC units. Once inside the grounds of Fort Wilderness, go explore! Bike through as many settlement sites as you can. Fort Wilderness really has its own subculture with in the Disneyphile dogma and it is fascinating how wonderfully decorated the entire place is during the holidays.

Once you’ve had a thorough biking trip throughout all of Fort Wilderness head back to the Wilderness Lodge. Make a stop at the Territory Lounge and enjoy an appetizer and a beverage (you’re welcome).

1. Osborne Family Spectacle of Dancing Lights

Normally I would not place the Osborne Family Spectacle of Dancing Lights as the number one must do activities during the holidays at Walt Disney World. However, this year it’s personal. The lights are in their final year, after this holiday season that’s it, they are out of here!

This holiday extravaganza does have some drawbacks, such as bottlenecking, congestion, and crowds, but their impressive scale should not be diminished by these difficulties. Far too many people follow the flow of the crowd and just pass through. I recommend stepping off to the side a little and just stand still for a song or two. Then move along to a different spot, with a different view and stand still for another song. View it on a large scale, stand back, take it in. Then move in closer and view the details. Take your time and be patient (especially since this is its last year).

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

If you’re visiting Walt Disney World during the holiday season. I hope you will take some time to enjoy these festivities. There’s so much to take in and enjoy! The parks will be busy so remember to relax and relish in the spirit of the season.

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Born and raised in the land of sunshine and dreams come true, Dani is a proud Orlando Native who loves sharing her hometown with others. She's worked in nearly all of Orlando's theme parks, on board Disney Cruise Line, and in hotel management. Follow her on Twitter and Instagram @thisfloridalife

16 thoughts on “5 Must-Do Activities During the Holidays at Walt Disney World

  • Great post! I have a question about the Osborne lights, since you mentioned the flow of people walking…where is the exact entry point for the lights? I thought I had read there’s a little light switching on ceremony? If so, I’d love it if you could please let us know what part of SoA this happens. Thanks!

    • The entry point is the far left side of SoA, near the Muppets 3D exit. The lighting ceremony does not have as much flare as in years past, it is located at the midway point of the main street of SoA, same street as the San Francisco street. I recommend standing at the base of the main street, near where the dessert party is located while you wait for the lights to come on

      • GREAT!!! Thank you so much!!! I was having anxiety thinking I would be dragging my little ones through mobs of people searching for the correct spot! Really appreciate it!

  • When do they take decorations down? I have friends going just after the new year.

    • Typically the decor stays up through the first week of January. Usually January 4th is the earliest they start to come down.

  • Disney isn’t going to say right now for obvious reasons, but there is a good chance we will see the Osborne Lights again in another permutation and/or location in the future.

  • In your opinion, does the DHS Merry & Bright Dessert Party make seeing the lights any easier?

    • It is a special way to enjoy the lights that’s certainly true. But no, I think as long as you take your time and are patient you can thoroughly enjoy the lights without the Dessert Party.

  • We looked at all the resort’s Christmas decorations and we loved the Animal Kingdom Lodge. I was surprised that didn’t get a mention.

  • What monorail resort is the best to watch the fireworks at? I’ve heard Poly use to be a great spot before they put the bungalows up but wasn’t sure if I should risk trying there or head to one of the others instead. It would be on Christmas night so I imagine it’ll be packed at any of them…

    • The roof top of the contemporary is the best fireworks spot.
      There’s a catch. You need to have a reservation at the California Grill for access to the roof. But you don’t have to have the reservation for dining at the firework time, present your a receipt from an previous meal of that day to the elevator gate keeper for access.

      • Christmas will be the busiest day at the monorail resorts for sure. Chances are Security will not let you park at the resort unless you have a dining reservation. If you are able to make to one of the resorts the Contemporary has an observation deck on the same floor as the Grand Canyon concourse. But be prepared to arrive 3-4 hours before the fireworks start in order to get a spot.
        You can also go to the Grand Floridian and walk through the grounds to toward Narcossee’s and watch them along the water from this side of the resort.

    • I have decided that the Grand Floridian boat dock or Narcoossee’s – get a drink and food in the bar and then watch on their deck is my preferred location. You are closer than the others and the perspective is good.

  • Some decorations are up now (MK and DHS), the other parks should start appearing next week. But Thanksgiving week everything should be in full swing, including the hotels

  • How early will all these things be up? Before Thanksgiving?

  • last year we went to Fort Wilderness for the Chip and Dale campfire and saw the Christmas golf cart parade. So bizarrely cute.

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