Christmas at Walt Disney World is a very special time of year. This guide will give you holiday tips for Magic Kingdom, Epcot, and beyond, including Mickey’s Very Merry Christmas Party, Candlelight Processional, and everything else Walt Disney World has to offer at Christmas. (Last updated January 1, 2018.)
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.
Now that the calendar has turned the page into 2018, mostof the Christmas entertainment has ended. Everything major ended on December 31; essentially the only thing that remains is the Christmas decorations and the holiday ambiance. One of the most common Christmas-related questions we’re asked is “when are the decorations taken down?”
There is no easy answer to that. Typically, decorations stay up and–most notably–the Cinderella Castle Dream Lights continue to be lit until the Walt Disney World Marathon concludes (January 7, 2018). After that, decorations start coming down, but it’s usually a pretty slow process and does not occur all at once. It’s not entirely predictable, either. Some years, the majority of the decorations are down by around January 10. Other years, it takes until the end of January.
Another common question this time of year, as it’s fresh in minds from a Christmas-day viewing, is what it’s like to watch the filming of the ‘Disney Parks Magical Christmas Celebration’ that airs on ABC. If you are intrigued by the parade and thinking of booking a Christmas-time trip next year to watch the parade live, there are some things you should know.
First–no, the Disney Christmas Day Parade is not filmed live. (Nowadays, ‘parade’ is probably a misnomer for what’s broadcast on ABC Christmas Day, but that’s another story for another day.) Each year, the Disney Christmas Day Parade is filmed in November or very early December. Recording is spread out over many takes, consuming several days. It is most certainly not one-time pass-through of a parade.
For 2017, the recording occurred in early November at Animal Kingdom, Hollywood Studios, and Magic Kingdom. (Sorry, Epcot!) Only musical numbers were recorded at Walt Disney World. Traditional parade segments were recorded at Disneyland. (Note the smaller, stouter castle.)
We’ve been at Walt Disney World in the past when the parade segments were filmed there (now, it’s mostly just the stage show segments), and it was a miserable experience. Banish whatever notions you have of it being fun, and getting up close to celebrities. It’s long, drawn out, and what you’ll witness does not resemble the finished product.
We actually recommend avoiding the parks where the Disney Christmas Day Parade is being recorded, as it’s boring to watch in person and it creates congestion in the parks. What you’re seeing on television now might look really fun to see in person, but we promise you that’s the result of meticulous work in shooting, re-shooting, and careful editing.
With that said, we highly recommend a visit to Walt Disney World at Christmas, so please continue reading if you want to read more about what that entails (which is likely to be substantially similar to what’s described here for 2018)…
We were at Walt Disney World for the Christmas offerings last year, and we updated this post after our trip based on our experiences during that visit. We’ve also updated it a couple of times through the start of the holiday season based upon changes to this year’s Christmas offerings…
For those readers wanting a handy guide to Christmas at Walt Disney World, this is a great start, but our free Walt Disney World ChristmaseBook is even better.
Our Vacation Kingdom at Christmas eBook 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!)
Alright, let’s move on to the best time to visit Walt Disney World during the Christmas season…
When to Visit
November 26 through December 17 will be the least-crowded times to visit Walt Disney World during the full Christmas season.If you want even lighter crowds, November 12-17 are great dates, but not all of the Christmas decorations will be up in the hotels and Epcot by then.
Even after December 17, crowds may not get really bad until December 22 due to Christmas falling on a Monday. As a result, the week between Christmas and New Year’s Eve will likely be really crowded this year–even more crowded than normal, if that’s even possible.
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.
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 – Despite rumors to the contrary, Walt Disney World confirmed in late October that Jingle Cruise will be returning to Magic Kingdom this year (Disneyland is a potentially different story). The Jingle Cruise 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, 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.
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). Normally, the show without perimeter bursts is shown for regular park guests during the weeks that bookend Christmas.
That is not the case, as the new Happily Ever After remains incredibly popular. It’s unclear whether Magic Kingdom will revert to showing Holiday Wishes during Christmas and New Year’s Eve Week during regular nights in 2018, or if Happily Ever After will remain such a draw that they will continue showing that, leaving Holiday Wishes exclusively for party nights.
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.
‘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.
Epcot International Festival of the Holidays– Epcot has rebranded its Holidays Around the World as the Epcot International Festival of the Holidays. It’s still basically the same thing, just with a different name. There are Marketplace booths open around World Showcase offering different seasonal snacks from around the world. Think of this as the “Epcot Food & Wine Festival Lite.” Epcot International Festival of the Holidays will run from November 19 until December 30.
The full lineup for booths for this year have not yet been announced, but last year they included Alpine Haus Marketplace, Three Kings Feast Marketplace, Germany Marketplace, Seasonal Southern Delights Marketplace, and American Holiday Table Marketplace. We would expect all of those to return for 2018, plus some new options as this expands even further. In addition to dedicated booths, many of the restaurants and bakeries around Epcot will have special snacks, as they have in the past.
Another new offering is Chip and Dale’s Christmas Tree Spree, which is a paid scavenger hunt (akin to the Figment and Ratatouille ones during other festivals at Epcot). Chip and Dale are collecting ornaments for their Christmas tree, and you go around looking for them as they gather ornaments from holiday decorations in each World Showcase pavilion.
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 after Thanksgiving through December 30. 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.
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.
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.
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).
Above is a look at the new Sunset Season’s Greetings, which along with Echo Lake Christmas is the new Christmas entertainment at Disney’s Hollywood Studios that WDW has dubbed its “Flurry of Fun.” This has now started, and runs From what we’ve seen of Sunset Season’s Greetings, it’s a cute offering, albeit an odd juxtaposition on the normally spooky Tower of Terror.
Sunset Season’s Greetings is a projection show consisting of vignettes from Olaf’s Frozen Adventure, Mickey’s Christmas Carol, the Muppets, and Toy Story, plus appearances by the Prep & Landing characters. There are also giant projections on “billboard” screens around Sunset Boulevard, and synchronized lights on palm trees. Read our Sunset Season’s Greetings Info & Tipspost for more viewing strategy, and what else you should do at Disney’s Hollywood Studios during the Christmas season.
Over at Echo Lake, the Flurry of Fun consists of decorations throughout the area, including the introduction of SANTA GERTIE! There are also oversized Christmas ornaments in Echo Lake, as well as a giant Christmas tree, and other decor.
There’s also decor on Hollywood and Sunset Boulevards, and the park once again feels appropriately festive for Christmas. It’s all very well done, and a nice addition to Disney’s Hollywood Studios this Christmas. Still, no Osborne Lights, but it’s doubtful we’ll ever see something of that caliber again with Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge and Toy Story Land coming in the next couple of years.
In terms of characters decked out for Christmas, the highlight is Minnie’s Holiday Dine, a holiday-themed character meal at Hollywood & Vine. We dined here last November, 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.
Disney’s Animal Kingdom will be open nightlyduring the Christmas season. Rivers of Light will be running multiple times per night (possibly with a holiday tag?), and Pandora – World of Avatar will be open late every night.
You should also notice intriguing Christmas decor 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.
Last year, 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 Christmas offering last year was 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.
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.
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.
That’s a tour we made up a few years ago for ourselves to do during the morning on days we were attending Mickey’s Very Merry Christmas Party (back before we had Annual Passes), and we love it so much that we still do it every year. We’ve had a lot of readers tell us they’ve really enjoyed following the steps of that tour, so we’d highly recommend checking it out, and potentially trying it for yourself!
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.
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.
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!