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Spending Christmas at Walt Disney World? Things to Think About

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I spent Christmas Day with my family at Walt Disney World in 2010 and will be doing so again in 2012.

The holiday season can be a magical time at Disney (the lights! the trees!) or a challenging time (the crowds! the cost!). There are numerous tips, tricks, and touring plans that can help you navigate the fun and frustration of a Disney December, but there are a few special things you may want to consider when planing a Disney stay which includes Christmas Day itself.

We wore Santa hats all day on Christmas. New tradition!

How will your extended family feel about your decision to be away from them on Christmas?

If spending the holidays with extended family is not part of your usual Christmas practice, then you’re good to go.

But if you come from a clan where several generations gather every Christmas day, and have done so for eons, then you’re going to have your work cut out for you breaking with tradition.

If Great Aunt Sally is sad that you won’t be eating her famous tourtière* and/or lutefisk next to her tree in your Lanz nightgown and bunny slippers, you have a few alternatives:

  • Invite Aunt Sally, and the rest of the gang, to join you at Walt Disney World. Of course, this brings up a host of new problems. Who’s paying for the trip? Can everyone get reservations? Does everyone now think this is the new family tradition? If you’re considering asking the gang to come with you, work out your strategy in advance. Perhaps consider our tips for visiting Walt Disney World with non-nuclear family.
  • Plan an alternative celebration. Due to work or travel schedules, MANY folks celebrate the secular aspects of Christmas on a day other than December 25. You may want to have this alterna-plan worked out in advance of telling any potential nay-sayers about your Disney trip.
  • Use technology to include everyone in the festivities. Now that there’s free WiFi in the Disney resorts, you have no excuse not to use FaceTime or Skype to connect everyone on Christmas morning. You can “be there” while everyone opens their presents and sings “Deck the Halls.” Then you can head out to enjoy your Tonga Toast in peace.
  • Just make a clean break. Sometimes extended family can be a bit much of a muchness. If you’ve just plain had enough of Aunt Sally and her stinky old fish, be firm when you tell the family about your Disney World plans. You’re going; they’re not.
Decorating our tiny tree forest in our room at the Polynesian.

How important is food in your holiday plans?

Nearly everyone eats turkey on Thanksgiving (non-vegetarian Americans anyway), so Disney goes all out to make sure that traditional turkey and the fixin’s are available throughout the parks and resorts on Thanksgiving Day. Christmas food traditions are more varied. Those of Italian descent might want panettone, Brazilians might want bacalhau, and Brits might want goose or brandy butter (but hopefully not together). This means that depending on your cultural background, you may or may not be able to find what you consider to be traditional Christmas food. And if you do find the item you desire, it may or may not be prepared the “right” way.

This leaves you with a few options:

  • Plan to cook your holiday meal yourself. If you really must have a certain dish, this may be the trip where you decide to stay in a villa, cabin, or offsite accommodations with a full kitchen.
  • Seek out a reasonable facsimile of your traditional meal. Disney restaurant menus are readily available online. Do some research to find something almost like mom makes.
  • Try something completely different. This works particularly well if you’ll be having a traditional family celebration at an alternative time. You won’t really be missing out on your favorite food, so use this opportunity to think out of the box. Have sushi at the Japan pavilion at Epcot, egg rolls from a cart in Adventureland, or cous-cous at the Morocco pavilion. These won’t be anything like your usual holiday meal, so they won’t seem like a poor substitute.
  • Make up a totally wacky, fun, indulgent, holiday-of-your-dreams food plan. Maybe you’ve always wanted to eat at three character meals in one day. Maybe you want to only eat cupcakes, or only peppermint-flavored foods (fudge, candy canes, cocoa), or only foods shaped like Mickey. I give you permission. Merry Christmas from me.
We enjoyed the decorations in parks - and pretended they were our own 🙂

Will you be sharing/opening gifts on Christmas morning?

Only once as a child did I spend Christmas away from home. My family shlepped to St. Thomas for the holidays. Sounds good, right? Well someone forgot to tell little kid me that the trip was the Christmas present. I woke up on Christmas morning expecting to see the same Santa-sent pile of gifts that we usually had at home. In retrospect, I completely understand my parents’ plan and am sure that I seemed bratty and ungrateful at the time, but I truly was confused.

If you’re going to spend Christmas Day at Walt Disney World, or anywhere away from home, be sure to communicate to everyone what the gift giving plan is. Options include:

  • No wrapped gifts, because the trip is the gift.
  • Santa leaves a few gifts for the kids at the hotel, other gifts from family members get opened at home.
  • In lieu of gifts, you ask extended family to give you Disney gift cards for the holidays.
  • You give the gift of your time and/or money to a charitable organization for Christmas. Give Kids the World (givekidstheworld.org) is a wonderful choice.
  • You ship yourself boxes of gifts to your Disney resort so they can all be opened on Christmas morning, and then ship them home again upon your return.

Any of these could work, depending on your traditions and priorities, but again, communication is important to make sure everyone is on the same page. If Santa is part of your tradition, the smallest children might need to be reassured that Saint Nick will indeed find them.

We all got new PJs for Christmas!

Will religious services be part of your day?

Many guests spending Christmas at Walt Disney World want to remain mindful of the religious aspect of the holiday and attend formal religious services. While Disney does not hold regular religious services on property during most of the year, typically special services are available on Easter and Christmas Day. The exact 2012 schedule is not out yet, but usual venue for onsite religious observations is the Fantasia ballroom at the Contemporary resort. Historically, Catholic services have been held at 8:00 and 10:15 a.m. and Protestant Services have been held at 9:00 a.m.

There will be a number of traffic and parking regulations in effect on Christmas. Guests wishing to attend services at the Contemporary should plan to use Disney transportation.

Additionally, there are several Catholic and Protestant congregations in the Orlando area that welcome theme park guests to their services. The concierge desk at your hotel can help you find the congregation that best meets your denominational needs and provide with contact information for their schedule. Anecdotal evidence suggests that if you want to attend any worship services on Christmas Eve or Christmas Day, you should plan to arrive well in advance of the service start time in order to find available parking and seating.

Are holiday decorations important to you?

Of course Walt Disney World is lavishly decorated for the holidays, one trip to the Osborne Family Spectacle of Dancing Lights may be enough twinkle to last you for an entire year. But if you want to have your own personal space decorated, you can:

  • Have a fully decorated tree delivered to your room by DisneyFlorist.com. This is convenient, but pricey.
  • Ship an artificial tree and decorations to yourself at your resort.
  • Purchase decor at a local Orlando-area shop.

The guests at the Fort Wilderness Campgrounds often take their personal Christmas decor very seriously. A wonderful holiday activity can be a walking tour of the Campgrounds to see the “residents'” holiday displays.

We only allowed very small gifts for our Disney Christmas celebration.

Decide which holiday traditions from home you want to preserve, reject, or tweak to your own style.

Part of the reason why my family decided to spend Christmas at Walt Disney World was that we’ve been trying for while to give each other experiences rather than things: more doing and less acquiring.

During my 2010 Christmas at Walt Disney World, my children were 11 and 14, old enough to understand that the trip, the experience, was in fact their main present. But we did acknowledge that unwrapping things can be fun too.

We brainstormed together and came up with a non-traditional family gift giving plan. Each member of the family had to buy each other member of the family a gift, but it had to be purchased there at Walt Disney World within a brief time frame, and each gift could cost no more than $10. Honestly, I think we had more fun searching for and opening our small stash “quick fire” gifts than we ever did facing the mountain of Toys ‘R Us plastic.

Similarly, I decided to bring a one-foot-tall artificial tree for each family member. Our other quest was to decorate our trees, using only found items from the parks, plus some tape and scissors. We made stars out of straws and fashioned ornaments from figures cut from discarded Vinylmation boxes. Easy, but such fun.

Neither of these things were exactly how we celebrated Christmas at home, but they weren’t exactly not like how we celebrated at home either. They were their own new experience, which we will be turning into a tradition by repeating them this year.

Another “new tradition” we started during our last Disney Christmas visit is that I brought brand new pajamas for everyone to wear on Christmas Eve. Yes, I know that zillions of people do this already, but it was new for us. I felt like it was a relatively easy and practical way to add some festivity to our holiday away from home. As an added bonus, I now find that whenever one of us wears those PJs, I think of our wonderful Christmas morning at the Polynesian. I’ll be bringing us all new PJs again this year. Shhhh, don’t tell my kiddos 🙂

Maybe eating only holiday-sprinkled doughnuts for 24 hours will be your new Disney Christmas tradition.

Remember, it’s Christmas for the cast members too.

It’s Christmas Day and you’re taking the monorail to a restaurant, having a nice meal, then heading to the theme parks to enjoy some rides and a parade. Fun for you! But work for the many thousands of cast members it takes to make all that happen. Try to be mindful that the cast members you’ll encounter on Christmas have all given up part of the holiday with their family so that you can have a better time with your family.

Cast members are not allowed to accept gifts or tips, but they do deserve and extra measure of patience, courtesy, and respect during the holidays.

How will you feel at Walt Disney World on Christmas if you don’t celebrate Christmas?

While this has all been about tips for spending Christmas at Disney World for people who celebrate Christmas, there are many folks who may be at Walt Disney World during Christmas even though they are of Jewish, Hindu, agnostic, or any number of other non-Christan backgrounds.

Those folks should know that Disney World at Christmas SCREAMS Christmas and barely whispers other traditions. For example, there are hundreds of light tableaux in the Osborne Light display, only two or three of which depict anything remotely Jewish. It’s almost a “Where’s Waldo” game to find the hidden menorah.

Depending on your proclivities, you may find this to be appealing, unsettling, or a non-event, which may or may not impact your decision to spend late December at Walt Disney World. To further inform your choice, you should know that many of the Disney Christmas events are somewhat secular in nature. For example, the giant gingerbread house at the Grand Floridian is really just a big house made out of gingerbread. However, some Disney Christmas events do have a overt religious message. I’m particularly thinking of the Candlelight Processional at Epcot which includes Bible readings about Jesus. While Christians may find this moving and inspirational, non-Christians may want to do some in-depth research before inadvertently selecting activities antithetical to their personal beliefs.

So holiday travelers, have you spent Christmas Day at Walt Disney World? Are you planning to do so? What was the reason for your decision? How did your extended family feel about this? How did you handle the secular and religious aspects of the holiday? Let us know in the comments below.

*Tourtière pie was the Christmas morning tradition when I was growing up. Made with love by Grammy Laine from a recipe handed down by her French Canadian forebears. It would make an awesome addition to the menu at Le Cellier. Just sayin’

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Erin Foster

Erin Foster is an original member of the Walt Disney World Moms Panel (now PlanDisney), a regular contributor to TouringPlans.com, and co-author of The Unofficial Guide to Disney Cruise Line. She's been to WDW, DL, DL Paris, Hong Kong Disneyland, Aulani, DVC Vero Beach, and DVC Hilton Head. She's a Platinum DCL cruiser and veteran of 10 Adventures by Disney trips. Erin lives near New York City, where she can often be found indulging in her other obsession - Broadway theater.

13 thoughts on “Spending Christmas at Walt Disney World? Things to Think About

  • OK I’m scared to death! We are doing this because we thought it would be cool but it never occurred to us that there would be many families as crazy as we are, in giving up our traditional Italian Christmas Celebration and traditions to wake up on Christmas morning with the Mouse. OK I know.. Living under a rock is never a good thing, after making resort reservations and buying all the tickets for the five of us an clearly communicating to the Kids that this WAS their present…. I decided to do some research… after doing so, I kinda freaked out a little … thinking I might have single handedly ruined everyone’s holiday because we were not going to be able to move in the parks, eat anywhere, or do anything else…We got our loggings very affordably, so what I decided to do to help, was I booked a Disney resort room, as well for two of the days the park will be busiest, so that I could have my best shot at dining reservations and so we could all take advantage of the extra magic hours on Christmas eve and Christmas day Plus be closer to the parks to avoid getting stuck in traffic .. I do not know if it will help us much.. I am a bit sad at the thought of not getting to go on any rides, so what I’m asking is this,.. I know the parks are beautiful that time of year but are they really that busy? I mean, is it really impossible to do anything at all, like I have been hearing?

    • Take a deep breath. It will be OK.

      Yes, the parks are busy. Yes, the parks are really extraordinarily busy. But that doesn’t mean you can’t have a great time.

      I’ve spent Christmas Day at WDW twice, Thanksgiving Day twice, Easter several times, and several days in early July, all of which top the busy scale charts. We’ve managed to have a great visit during all of these time. However, the holidays are NOT a time “just wing it.” In order to have a good visit (or at least a good visit with rides) during the holidays, you MUST have a plan.

      Getting a room on property is a great step. You MUST also make reservations for all table service meals. You MUST get to the parks EARLY. Really, you should plan to have most of your riding take place between 7:00 a.m. and 10:30 a.m. (the parks probably will be open this early on Christmas Day). You can sleep later, but if you want to ride, you have to get there first thing in the morning.

      USE A TOURING PLAN http://touringplans.com/walt-disney-world/touring-plans These have been meticulously researched to have you visit rides in the least time-consuming manner.

      Remember that there is lots to do that’s not riding. View stage shows and parades, visit characters, check out the decorations, etc.

      And consider it an adventure that you’re sharing as a family. I’m sure you’ll come back with great stories. Enjoy!

  • I am taking my daughter, but not until Christmas of 2013. We have just completed trips in 2011 and 2012 (end of Aug/begining of Sept each year). Just bought into DVC as well. I’ve been explaining that at Christmas she will need to remember that it is a trip more for the scenery and festivities more so than the rides, due to the crowds, so we made sure to hit the rides hard again this year.

    Of course, I still don’t know who has more fun… my daughter or myself!!

  • What a thoughtful post, Erin. We love your creative and rewarding activities that are sure to bring the family together over the holidays… and especially your support of Give Kids The World Village!

  • When our children were younger we left for Disney a couple of days after Christmas. They had enough timeto play with their new toys and then we extended the season disney style. We loved being at the parks while the decoratiosn were still up but then seeing it after they came down too. The Jack Skeleton overlay at disneylad was a favorite of my preteen boys and getting to hit both water parks as one opened and the other closed was a highlight of disney world when they hit the teen years.

  • As a Hindu, I still love going to WDW over the Christmas holidays. I do find that a lot of the decorations are secular in nature, but I still appreciate the emotion and tradition of the Candlelight Processional.
    Seeing Cinderella’s Fairy Godmother light up the castle is one of the most beautiful sights in WDW.

  • An excellent and thorough post! Thank you especially for remembering the Cast Members on holidays. I’d like to think we’re always grateful and thankful, but on holidays especially we like to make sure we make a point to thank every CM for sharing the magic with us.
    The two Christmases our family spent at WDW were magical. Planning and foresight helped to make it so for so many of the contingencies you’ve covered here. Thanks for a positive tone and excellent advice!

  • Great post. I totoally agree with the idea of “more doing and less aquiring” and have been actively pursuing the same concept here with my family. I also love the idea of combining the best place on earth with the best holiday of the year. Having long established and cherished Christmas traditions here at home, I would probably not do this ON Christmas Day. But, my thought is a “twist” on what you suggested- I would love to do my usual Christmas here at home, and then celebrate a SECOND Christmas a few days later at the parks! Thanks for some inspiration.

    An idea for Christmas tree decorations: before the trip, print some photos of memorable Christmas celebrations AND/OR Disney trips (or both) and snip into fun shapes, add ribbon, borders etc. Theses will lay flat and are light for traveling, with the bonus of being hand-made.

    ENJOY this spectacular new way to celebrate The most wonderful time of the year!

  • I like going over Thanksgiving, so you can see them put the trees up in the parks over the weekend

  • Definitely on my bucket list. I have been suggesting it to my wife for about a decade. In one more, I may be able to wear her down enough to try it 🙂

  • Well, I have to say — this is just a wonderful post! I love all the ideas you and your family had for celebrating the holiday. I love visiting WDW during the holiday season but never had any desire to visit during the actual week of Christmas. You *almost* have me convinced that it would be a terrific thing to do. 🙂

    One additional idea for decorating — last year we stayed at WL in early Dec. and noticed that several people had decorated their balcony railings with Christmas lights. I loved that idea and wished I had thought of it!


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