Christmas and the holiday season at Walt Disney World is a very special time of year. This 2016 Ultimate Guide will give you tips about Mickey’s Very Merry Christmas Party, Candlelight Processional, and everything else Walt Disney World has to offer at Christmas.
Throughout this post, we’ll provide our tips and tricks for best-experiencing the Walt Disney World at Christmas-time, and we hope this thorough guide will prove helpful for everyone from first-time guests to yearly visitors. This isn’t merely the Disney-marketing copy you’ll find on every other site offering the same generic information about Christmas at Walt Disney World.
We were at Walt Disney World for the Christmas 2016 offerings in mid-November, and we updated this post after our trip (updated on November 27, 2016) based on our experiences during that visit. Additionally, we posted our 2016 Mickey’s Very Merry Christmas Party Recap & Photos post that includes our report on attending that party. As always, we had a lot of fun on our Christmas trip, and hope our tips help you with your own visit! 🙂
For starters, if you’re visiting Walt Disney World at “Christmas,” the first thing you’ll need to figure out is when–specifically–you want to visit. There are air quotes around Christmas back there because the holiday season at Walt Disney World, much like the holiday season at your local mall, actually begins in early November and doesn’t conclude until January.
For those readers wanting a handy guide to Christmas at Walt Disney World, this is a great start, but our free Walt Disney World Christmas eBook is even better.
We’ve updated this eBook for Christmas 2016, and it is 75+ pages, with 100+ photos, and tons of great tips & info! For more details on how to get this totally-free ebook, click here.
As we discuss in the eBook, one of the great things about the holiday season at Walt Disney World is that most of the Christmas entertainment (with one very notable exception) is included in regular theme park admission. That’s great news, especially for those who opt to use an authorized Walt Disney World ticket seller to save even more money on park tickets. (Click here for our park ticket recommendations, and our exclusive discount code!)
Alright, let’s move on to the best time to visit Walt Disney World during the Christmas season…
When to Visit
November 27 through December 16 will be the least-crowded times to visit Walt Disney World during the full Christmas season. If you want even lighter crowds, November 13-18, 2016 are great dates, but not all of the Christmas decorations will be up in the hotels and Epcot by then.
Note that the Pop Warner Football Championship and cheerleading competitions can contribute to “pockets” of crazy crowds. If you are visiting during these events, we highly recommend avoiding the Value Resorts (particularly All Star Sports). Ever been at a hotel or in a theme park with thousands of teenage football players and cheerleaders? I have, and it’s scarier than Saw movies.
Within our broad range of dates listed above, some are better and worse than others. See our November 2016 at Walt Disney World and December 2016 at Walt Disney World posts for precise dates of special events and other information so you know what to do and what to avoid.
Keep in mind that these are not the “secret” best times of the year to visit. The entire Christmas season is popular, and word about early December has gotten out (especially among Disney Vacation Club members), so don’t expect Walt Disney World to be a ghost town, or anything close to it.
Disney veterans know that the week leading up to Christmas and the week between Christmas and New Year’s Eve are terrible times to travel if you dislike crowds. This is also a bit of a misconception, depending upon how you approach the visit. If you don’t like being in dense crowds, these times of year are probably out.
If you don’t mind navigating heavy crowds Christmas and New Year’s weeks can be good to go for a couple of reasons. The main draws for the hard ticket Christmas event, Mickey’s Very Merry Christmas Party (see below for details), are presented during regular park hours for free. Since these tickets cost up to $99 per person, if you have a large family that would otherwise attend Mickey’s Very Merry Christmas, visiting during one of these weeks can amount to considerable savings.
Likewise, on New Year’s Eve, there are elaborate fireworks displays at the Magic Kingdom, Epcot, and Disney’s Hollywood Studios. If you are thinking of visiting for the week between Christmas and New Year’s Eve, we highly recommend reading our Tips for Visiting Walt Disney World at New Year’s to avoid crowds and have a better experience.
Besides the crowds, there are a few other downsides to visiting during these two weeks. First is the room rates for on property hotels. These can easy eat away at any savings on Mickey’s Very Merry Christmas Party tickets. The second is holiday surcharges at buffets and some other restaurants around property. Definitely keep these costs in mind if you’re approaching this from the perspective of savings.
No matter when you go, you will also want to remember to pack for the season. Check out our Winter Packing Tips for Disney
post for more insight on what to take on your trip. Just because it’s Florida doesn’t mean it won’t be cold! You don’t want to waste money buying a bunch of $60 sweatshirts from the gift shops because you only packed shorts and t-shirts. (Believe me, I’ve been there.)
Another way you can save money is by not purchasing Christmas gifts while at Walt Disney World. This is so tempting, and something we have done too many times (it’s Disney’s favorite time of year because guest spending on merchandise is through the roof!). Instead, check out our Essential Disney Fan Gift Guide for great, money saving gift ideas for Christmas. You can save a ton of money by buying many of the same (and similar) souvenirs and gifts online instead of in the gift shops!
Okay, now that you know when to visit (or now that I’ve further confused you and made the decision even more complicated), let’s figure out what you should experience…
We’ll start in the Magic Kingdom, which does the most for Christmas out of all of the Walt Disney World parks. No matter what the other parks do, there’s just something to be said for walking onto Main Street and seeing the “town” decked out for Christmas, and that grandiose icicle castle beckoning at the end.
Christmas is my favorite time in Magic Kingdom because I enjoy taking photos of the decorations lit up; to take photos like my photos in this post, read my Tips for Christmas Photography.
Alright, now let’s take a tour of Magic Kingdom at Christmas…
Jingle Cruise – Thanks to Jingle Cruise, Magic Kingdom finally has an attraction overlay for the first time since Walt Disney World stopped doing Country Bear Christmas! This overlay consists of decorations in the show scenes and a new Christmas-themed spiel from the skippers, who are “homesick” and wanting to celebrate Christmas.
The queue will be decorated and the boats will receive Christmas-inspired names. While holiday overlays are divisive, we are big fans of the idea here and thought the Disneyland version last year was very well done, although definitely could have used more detail to flesh it out. The concept is minimally invasive, with its main component executed by the skippers, and it should be a ton of fun for repeat guests.
This gets popular during the Christmas season, so using a FastPass+ can be a good idea (see our Guide to FastPass+ at Walt Disney World for more recommendations). We prefer doing Jingle Cruise at night to get the full experience of the Christmas lights turned on.
Castle Dream Lights – Every night at dusk beginning in mid-November, “A Frozen Holiday Wish” show lights Cinderella Castle with beautiful white lights. During this show, Queen Elsa will use her powers to transform the Castle into a glistening ice palace for the holidays, illuminating the castle with 200,000 shimmering white lights.
This is a short, cute little show, and people will camp out well in advance for it. Seeing the Dream Lights turned on is a “wow” moment for sure, but it’s important to point out that this is meant to be a cute little show. Don’t wait for an hour expecting something long and drawn out, because it’s not.
Mickey’s Very Merry Christmas Party
This is a hard ticket event that occurs in Magic Kingdom on select nights throughout the Christmas season. If you’re visiting in November or early to mid-December and haven’t experienced it before, you should strongly consider Mickey’s Very Merry Christmas Party. Tickets are expensive, but it’s a lot of fun and worth experiencing at least once. Mickey’s Very Merry Christmas Party is an after-hours party featuring all things Christmas.
It’s definitely worth experiencing at least once. The last Christmas party is December 22, 2016, with approximately 3-4 parties per week before that. In this post we want to focus on what you can do during Christmas at Walt Disney World that is included with your regular theme park admission, so if you want to read more about this special event, including whether it’s worth the money and our step-by-step plan for making the most of the event (it’s impossible to see & do everything, read our Complete Guide to Mickey’s Very Merry Christmas Party.
The party is a bit pricey and there’s a lot to know about it, so we highly recommend reading that before your trip. Party tickets are a pretty common impulse purchase among Walt Disney World guests–and you can avoid that by just reading up on the party a bit in advance. Click here for more details on party dates, pricing, tips, etc.
If possible, do the party on a school night–these parties are usually less crowded. See our Least Crowded Mickey’s Very Merry Christmas Party Dates post for more tips on when–and when not–to do it.
There are a couple of elements of Mickey’s Very Merry Christmas Party that need to be mentioned on their own…
Mickey’s Once Upon A Christmastime Parade – This is an integral part of Mickey’s Very Merry Christmas Party, but it’s mentioned by itself because it is shown during regular park hours after December 22. During the Party, it’s shown at night and features excellent lighting, ambiance, and SNOW on Main Street, USA, but after December 22, it runs during the daytime, so obviously there are no lights nor is the ambiance as impressive.
While we strongly recommend watching the Parade on Main Street during the Party for full effect, during the Christmas and New Year’s weeks, you can watch it from anywhere along its route without much of a difference in the experience. The floats are very cute, and you can expect Princess Anna, Queen Elsa, Kristoff, and Olaf from Frozen all to be featured in the parade again this year.
Holiday Wishes! – The Christmas fireworks, Holiday Wishes, are the highlight of the holiday season. These are shown “in full” during Mickey’s Very Merry Christmas Party (meaning with their perimeter bursts), but also for regular park guests during the weeks that bookend Christmas (again, after December 22, 2016).
Holiday Wishes is amazing in its ability to thematically incorporate fireworks so they fit not only the name of the show, but more importantly, with the accompanying song lyrics. While the fireworks play an important role, the lyrics truly deserve more than just a passing mention.
Read our Best Magic Kingdom Fireworks Viewing Spots post for our recommended–and not recommended–fireworks spots.
‘Joyful! A Gospel Celebration of the Season’ – Joyful performs on the Fountain of Nations Stage for the fourth straight year from the end of November until the end of December. Showtimes should be 1:15pm, 2:15pm, 3:15pm, and 4:15pm (daily).
It’s a fun show, actually, it’s surprisingly good, but it’s still not an adequate replacement for the gorgeous Lights of Winter that were deemed obsolete a few years ago.
Holidays Around the World at Epcot Marketplaces – New for 2016 are the 5 Marketplace booths open around World Showcase offering different seasonal snacks from around the world. Think of this as the Epcot Food & Wine Festival Lite.
These booths will include Alpine Haus Marketplace, Three Kings Feast Marketplace, Germany Marketplace, Seasonal Southern Delights Marketplace, and American Holiday Table Marketplace. In addition to dedicated booths, many of the restaurants and bakeries around Epcot will have special snacks, as they have in the past. Last year, we made a point to try all of the Christmas snacks at Epcot, and had a blast doing it. We’re really looking forward to the Holiday Marketplaces, particularly what appears to be a stuffing and turkey sandwich at American Holiday Table!
Visit our Seasonal Food at Holidays Around the World Marketplaces post for more information, food photos & recommendations.
Candelight Processional – Candlelight Processional is a retelling of the Christmas story by a celebrity narrator, along with a mass choir performing seasonal melodies, and a 50-piece live orchestra. It performs nightly from Thanksgiving until New Year’s at 5, 6:45 and 8:00 p.m. Candlelight Processional runs November 25 – December 30, 2016. You can find the celebrity narrators for each night by clicking here (opens in new tab).
One tip for Candlelight Processional is to book a dinner package if you’re visiting when one of the popular narrators is in town. They’re not too much of a premium if you were already planning on eating a table service meal, and will save you tons of time. We were there for the second night of Neil Patrick Harris’ run a couple of years ago, and we saw people waiting in line FOUR HOURS before the show.
Your enjoyment of Candlelight Processional will depend on whether you like the traditional Christmas story and choir Christmas music. We love the music (so much so that so much that we own the CD!), but if you don’t like either, this may not be for you. Although the narrators show some personality, don’t expect Candlelight Processional to be “Comedy Hour with Neil Patrick Harris.” It’s not.
Visit our dedicated Candlelight Processional page for more information, photos, schedule, and dining information.
Holiday Storytellers – Throughout World Showcase in Epcot, there are international storytellers (most of whom are that country’s version of Santa Claus) who share traditions and tales from their native country. These Santas and other characters appear dressed in location-appropriate outfits and describe what happens on Christmas Eve and Christmas in their homeland. In addition to the Santas, representatives at the American Adventure describe the celebrations of Kwanzaa and Hanukkah.
The Storytellers can be hit or miss, and whether you want to spend the time seeing listening to their stories will depend upon your personal preferences. If you are on the fence, we’d recommend starting your tour around the World Showcase in Mexico (instead of Canada) as the most engaging Storytellers are near the beginning of the tour that way. If you don’t enjoy those countries’ Storytellers, chances are that you won’t enjoy any of the rest.
Tips on which Storytellers to see, the order to see them, and other information and suggestions can be found in our Holiday Storytellers in World Showcase at Epcot Tips article.
Illuminations: Reflections of Earth Holiday Tag – Everyone loves fireworks, especially when they’re accompanied by a score as great as that of Illuminations. Disney kicks the pyro into high gear during the Christmas season as the explosive “Peace on Earth” holiday finale ends the show with a heart-warming bang.
One other nice little touch at Epcot is the Gingerbread Village at The Land pavilion, which consists of sweet recreations of Walt Disney World Resort’s theme park icons.
Disney’s Hollywood Studios
Christmas 2016 is the first holiday season at Walt Disney World since the Osborne Family Spectacle of Dancing Lights has been retired. The display ended so that construction for Star Wars Land and Toy Story Land could begin, and with significant construction ongoing, the holiday season is somewhat sparse at the Studios this year.
The upside is that “Jingle Bell, Jingle BAM!” has been added to the lineup at DHS. The downside is that this mixed-media fireworks show centered around Grauman’s Chinese Theater, featuring a montage of Disney Christmas favorites is a bit of a disappointmnent. You can read more of our thoughts on it in our “Jingle Bell, Jingle BAM!” Tips & Review post.
In terms of viewing tips, the key to Jingle Bell, Jingle BAM! is being close to Grauman’s Chinese Theater. This is important to note if you’ve already consulted our Best Disney’s Hollywood Studios Fireworks Viewing Spots post & map, as that information is now out of date. We do recommend watching Jingle Bell, Jingle BAM! from closer to The Great Movie Ride than Trolley Car Cafe (Starbucks).
Beyond that, Disney’s Hollywood Studios isn’t doing much for Christmas 2016. There’s snow on Hollywood Boulevard at the end of Jingle Bell, Jingle BAM!, which is actually really nice.
In terms of characters, the highlight is probably Minnie’s Holiday Dine, a holiday-themed character meal at Hollywood & Vine. We dined here in November 2016, and shared our thoughts and photos in our Minnie’s Holiday Dine Review. There’s also a new Santa meet & greet, and also new holiday outfits for some of the characters. That’s about it, though.
For those of you nostalgic for the Osborne Lights (or curious as to what it was), here’s some info: The Osborne Family Spectacle of Dancing Lights were a tradition at Walt Disney World. Located on the Hollywood Studios backlot on the Streets of America, it was a veritable city of lights. One of the highlights of the display was Baby Sinclair from Dinosaurs inside one of the windows on the Streets of America.
Disney’s Animal Kingdom
Another big change for 2016 will be that Disney’s Animal Kingdom will be open nightly during the Christmas season. Also, maybe Rivers of Light will debut? (It’s in Cast Member previews on November 27 & 28!)
Last year, we started noticing intriguing new Christmas decor quietly placed around the park (see above) that seemed like a precursor for what was to come. There were no announcements about the increase in decorations and it wasn’t highly publicized online, but the decorations looked nice.
For 2016, Disney has announced that there will be more decorations in Animal Kingdom to illuminate the park during its standard Animal Kingdom After Dark offerings. No specific Christmas entertainment is offered, aside from a holiday meet & greet with Mickey & Minnie Mouse at Adventurers Outpost. Expect the park to look festive, at least!
Another new for Christmas 2016 offering is the Christmas Tree Trail at Disney Springs, which is their new holiday draw now that construction is nearly complete. This will consist of 15 trees, each themed to a different Disney characters (including one dedicated to Mickey & Minnie, The Muppets, Tangled, and more!). Honestly…it’s not very good. We shared our thoughts (and photos) of this, plus other photos & reviews in our new Tips for Disney Springs at Christmas post.
In addition to the Christmas Tree Trail, there’s the new Christmas tree drone show. Aside from the beautiful decorations and roaming entertainment, that’s the highlight of Disney Springs at Christmas. There are also other decorations, and you can expect live entertainment, holiday carolers, a street party, and photo ops. Over at the Once Upon a Toy fountain, toys will “come alive” for an interactive nightly holiday dance party. There will be pin trading, a nightly tree lighting ceremony, and more.
Last year, we went to Disney Springs several times during the Christmas season and noticed a few things. First, there were way more decorations than in the past few years. It was festive in a way that it has not been in at least 5 years–maybe longer. Expect that to increase even more this year, as construction has nearly winded down.
Second, and most importantly, it was insanity on weekends. For a lot of locals who don’t have Walt Disney World Annual Passes, Disney Springs is a way to enjoy free Christmas entertainment during the holiday season. These locals are most likely to visit on weekends. Add to that the normal mix of tourists, and you have huge crowds.
As such, we strongly encourage you to visit Disney Springs on a Monday, Tuesday, or Wednesday. Arrive by 4 p.m. and stay until just after dusk, or arrive really late (after the parks close). Disney Springs will be busiest between 6 and 8 p.m. nightly. If you’re new to Disney Springs–or haven’t been since it was converted from Downtown Disney–you’ll want to read our Disney Springs Tips & Tricks post, as it is a massive entertainment district to explore!
Highlights include the Deluxe Resorts (Grand Floridian, Wilderness Lodge, Animal Kingdom Lodge, Beach Club, BoardWalk, etc.) but other hotels are spruced up with wreaths and trees decorated with miles of garland, ribbon and glistening ornaments. Custom-made “edible” decorations at the resorts change yearly. Make sure to take our free self-guided resort tour to see all of the best decorations!
Several Deluxe Hotels have either a large Christmas tree or a seasonal display that is well worth seeing. The great thing about most deluxe resorts is that they’re in close proximity to one another. You can easily reach the Grand Floridian, Polynesian, and Contemporary from the Magic Kingdom monorail station and Wilderness Lodge via boat. Similarly, the Yacht & Beach Club and Boardwalk are easily accessible by foot or boat from Epcot or Disney’s Hollywood Studios. About the only Deluxe that is worth visiting that’s not easily accessible is Animal Kingdom Lodge.
We cover the details of each hotel’s display as well as a best plan of attack for visiting the hotels efficiently on our “Free Self-Guided Yuletide Tour” page. Definitely check this out if you want to visit the resorts to see their decorations!
Moderate & Value Hotels
There are some neat decorations at the Moderates and Values, and the decorations are all themed to the specific resort, which is pretty cool. If you have interest in a specific “style” of Christmas, you might want to check out a specific resort (for example, if you like New Orleans’ take on Christmas, check out Port Orleans French Quarter). Same goes if you’re a really, really big fan of Christmas decorations. Everyone else probably should bother making trips to the Moderates and Values to see their decorations. While neat, it just isn’t worth the time.
The one exception to this might be Fort Wilderness. There are some awesome displays put up by long-terms guests on the campground loop. If you have time one afternoon, take a boat over from the Magic Kingdom, have dinner at Trail’s End, and enjoy some of these cool displays.
Planning a Griswold-style Christmas Vacation at Walt Disney World? Use our resources to help plan! If you’re interested in learning more about hotels, our Walt Disney World Hotels Reviews page is a good place to start. For where to eat, try out our Walt Disney World Restaurant Reviews page. If you want to save money on tickets or determine which type you should get, read our Tips for Saving Money on Walt Disney World Tickets post. Our What to Pack for Disney Trips post takes a unique look at unconventional things you should take on your trip. Once you arrive at the parks, our Walt Disney World “Ride Guides” are great for determining what to do and when to do it.
For overviews of all of these topics and so much more, the best place to start is our comprehensive Walt Disney World Trip Planning Guide to make the most of your experience!
What are your top tips for enjoying Walt Disney World during the holiday season? Have any questions about the holidays at Walt Disney World that aren’t answered here? Share your thoughts and questions in the comments below!