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.
The full lineup for the 2016 Christmas season at Walt Disney World has not yet been released. This is a bit of a surprise given that it’s already late August and we’re still awaiting details on how Disney’s Hollywood Studios will replace the Osborne Lights…we’re hoping for a similar display in Muppets Courtyard. Regardless, this post will continued to be updated in the coming weeks and months as new info is released, with tips for everything that will be happening this Christmas season. We will keep the post updated with all news and changes, big or small.
For now, this post covers 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.
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.
Conventional wisdom suggests that the two weeks after Thanksgiving are the slowest of the Christmas season, but that isn’t necessarily the best time to go. Here’s why…
When to Visit
For a long time, Sunday after Thanksgiving until the Friday before Christmas week were dead. This is not entirely true anymore. Due to the Christmas Parade tapping the first weekend of December (it’s not nearly as fun as it might sound and should be avoided) and the Pop Warner Football Championship and cheerleading competitions make things crazy and unpleasant the week leading up to the event. Ever been in a theme park with thousands of teenage football players and cheerleaders? I have, and it’s scarier than Saw movies.
If you’re a first time or casual visitor with a family, the sweet spot for low crowds should be December 5 through 16, 2016. Just 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.
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 (crowds are not the same as waiting in lines) Christmas and New Year’s weeks can be great 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 around $60 each, 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. We recommend watching the Magic Kingdom’s fireworks from the Ticket & Transportation Center, where crowds won’t be nearly as bad as they will be in the parks. Read our Best Magic Kingdom Fireworks Viewing Spots post for additional locations.
Heavily extended operating hours is another compelling reason to visit during this time. The Magic Kingdom regularly opens at 7 am with Extra Magic Hours and one park is almost always open until at least 1 am. Personally, I love this because I enjoy taking photos of the decorations lit up (to take photos like the ones here, read my Tips for Christmas Photography post). More importantly, from 7 am and 9 am, crowds are incredibly light and you can get a lot done.
When we do Christmas season, we hit the parks early, rest during the middle of the day, then return to the parks in the early evening and stay until the close. This means keeping odd hours and might not work for families, but if you’re able to adjust your sleep schedule or like lounging by the pool, it’s a pretty great strategy that will allow you to get a ton done, and enjoy the seasonal ambiance more.
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.
If you are 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. 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!
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. *Sigh* I wish I were there right now…
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! Jingle Cruise debuted 3 years ago, and expanded last year with a bunch of new props. Jingle Cruise is a holiday overlay of the Jungle Cruise attraction at Walt Disney World. This overlay isn’t one in the traditional sense of the attraction receiving a bunch of decorations on its show scenes, but will instead feature 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.
Castle Dream Lights – Even if you’re not attending Mickey’s Very Merry Christmas Party, you can enjoy the gorgeous Castle Dream Lights from early November until early January in a show beginning at dusk.
New last year was “A Frozen Holiday Wish” show featuring the characters from Frozen conducting the Cinderella(?) Castle lighting. 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 show was so popular last year that it was extended past the rest of the Christmas offerings. With Frozen Fever now out and rekindling interest in all things Frozen, we fully expect this show to be just as popular as last year, and perhaps slightly expanded in scope.
In past years, this short, cute little show was a fun diversion that not many people knew about. You could get a good view of the lighting if you happened to be passing by as it started. Last year, people camped out well in advance, and this might have been the most popular bit of holiday entertainment. 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 (or at least wasn’t last year).
Mickey’s Very Merry Christmas Party – 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. As mentioned above, 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, and it costs around $60 per person in your party, but it’s definitely worth experiencing at least once. Dates for 2016 are not yet official, but should start around November 6, 2016 and run until around December 16, 2016, with approximately 3-4 parties per week. Make sure to buy early (2016 Mickey’s Very Merry Christmas Party tickets are not yet available for purchase), as some dates will sell out!
Offerings during the party include:
- Mickey’s Once Upon a Christmastime Parade
- Holiday Wishes: Celebrate the Spirit of the Season fireworks.
- A Totally Tomorrowland Christmas stage show featuring Stitch and friends.
- Celebrate the Season stage show featuring the Fab Five and friends in their holiday finery.
- character dance parties in Tomorrowland and Frontierland
- Meet and greet opportunities with favorite Disney characters in Holiday attire, plus other special characters like Phineas & Ferb in Tomorrowland, Captain Jack Sparrow in Adventureland, and Duffy the Disney Bear; if you’re lucky, you might also see our favorite characters in Meet & Greet form, the Country Bears!
- Complimentary cookies, apple slices, and hot cocoa.
- Snow on Main Street, U.S.A.
- Many popular Magic Kingdom attractions with short waits.
Nights frequently sell out, so we recommend advance purchase, which can also save you money! To purchase tickets, visit DisneyWorld.com/holidays.
Mickey’s Very Merry Christmas Party Tips:
- If possible, do the party on a school night–these parties are usually less crowded.
- Although Mickey’s Very Merry Christmas Party officially starts at 7 pm, the party ticket is valid for park admission starting at 4 pm. Arrive early, eat, and do a few attractions BEFORE 6:30 pm. At 6:30 pm, get in line for a character Meet & Greet if those interest you (our recommendation: Seven Dwarfs).
- Most people will recommend that you watch the second parade instead of the first, which is generally good advice, but if you really enjoy parades, you should watch it twice, as you might be disappointed that you can’t watch it again if you just skip the first showing. It’s a really fun parade.
- Watch the parade from the far end of Main Street near the Christmas tree (it won’t be up yet if you’re visiting in November), which gives you a great view of Cinderella Castle and the snow on Main Street during the party. These spots fill quicker than Frontierland and Liberty Square, but they are WORTH IT, especially for photos and ambiance.
- Watch the Holiday Wishes fireworks from Main Street USA, between the two tip boards (these are a little less than halfway between the last buildings on Main Street and the Partners statue of Walt Disney and Mickey Mouse in the hub).
- Get your party merchandise from a shop other than the Emporium; don’t get it right when the party starts, but don’t wait until the end of the night (when some items might be sold out).
- A Totally Tomorrowland Christmas gets a lot of poor reviews, but experience it yourself to see if you enjoy it. We do.
- If you’re planning on experiencing everything the party has to offer, including character Meet and Greets, don’t expect to ride many/any attractions. Save those for another day when there is not unique entertainment.
- The Magic Kingdom has special lighting package and projections in multiple areas during Mickey’s Very Merry Christmas Party that aren’t out on non-party nights; these can make for fun and unique photos.
- Tomorrowland Terrace is a great location to get cookies and hot chocolate without the long waits some other locations can have.
- Everything Frozen-related will be incredibly popular at the Christmas parties, but the Anna & Elsa meet and greet should see lighter crowds than normal at the end of the night, and during the first parade.
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 18. During the Party, it’s shown at night and features excellent lighting, ambiance, and SNOW on Main Street, USA, but after December 18, 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. 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.
Celebrate the Magic! – The nightly light show on Cinderella Castle typically receives a special scene for Christmas. This segment (we think) is the highlight of the show. Past Christmas scenes have wrapped the Magic Kingdom icon in colorful bows and boughs, gift paper and ribbons, ornaments, candy stripes, strands of lights, gingerbread, and the infamous 25th Anniversary Castle Cake.
We recommend picking a spot a little closer to Cinderella Castle than where you’d watch the fireworks. Stand near the Partners statue for the best view of “Celebrate the Magic,” although any spot towards the Castle-end of Main Street should offer a fine view.
‘Joyful! A Gospel Celebration of the Season’ – We believe that Joyful will perform on the Fountain of Nations Stage for the fourth straight year from the end of November until the end of December, even though no announcement has been made. 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. (Boo, hiss!)
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. Exact dates are not yet known, but we will update this when they–as well as performers–are announced.
Our tip for Candlelight Processional would be to book a dinner package (they’re not too much of a premium if you were already planning on eating a table service meal) if you’re visiting when one of the popular narrators is in town. 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…and when it started pouring, those people stayed in line, and got soaked. Even Candlelight Processional cannot escape Frozen-mania, as at least one celebrity from the film will be a narrator this year!
We also note that your enjoyment of Candlelight Processional depends largely on whether you like the traditional Christmas story and choir Christmas music. We love the music (so much so that we also own this 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, and dining information for the Candlelight Processional at Walt Disney World.
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 Holidays Around the World 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. Sadly, this tag is no longer narrated by Walter Cronkite as it used to be. Still, the pyro is pretty impressive and the Peace on Earth tag is not to be missed.
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
The biggest question mark about Christmas 2016 at Walt Disney World is what, if anything, Disney’s Hollywood Studios will do now that 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 may be sparse at the Studios this year.
It’s unlikely that Walt Disney World will want to invest heavily in holiday decor or a lavish show that will only run the next 2 years during construction. However, it’s also unlikely that Disney management will want to see attendance numbers plummet, and the Osborne Lights were a huge draw during the holiday season. Christmas fireworks are unlikely because the new Star Wars show debuting this summer will likely still be popular, but we could see the park utilizing the projection technology that will be integrated into the Star Wars fireworks for a short show at other times in the evening. Other inexpensive additions, like a Christmas dance party or Frozen cavalcade, also seem plausible.
We think it’s highly unlikely that Disney’s Hollywood Studios will outright ignore Christmas (the can’t afford the attendance hit), but we do not expect anything even remotely on the scale of the Osborne Lights. Stay tuned as we update this as more info becomes available…
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, but their actual story goes back to Arkansas, with father Jennings Osborne putting on a display for his daughter, Breezy Osborne. Located on the Hollywood Studios backlot on the Streets of America, it was a veritable city of lights. On, over, and among the cityscape buildings are millions of dazzling bulbs, dancing lights and animated displays synchronized to high-energy holiday tunes. One of the highlights of the display was Baby Sinclair from Dinosaurs inside one of the windows on the Streets of America (if you are children of the 90s like us, or you simply like things that are awesome, this is a pretty big deal).
Frozen Stuff –
It’s not necessarily Christmas-related (at least in its current form), but for many families, Frozen fever remains strong, and the entertainment at Disney’s Hollywood Studios is important for Christmas. This is the same stuff that is normally shown at the Studios, so I’m not going to fixate on it. You can read about all things Frozen at Walt Disney World in this post
Disney’s Animal Kingdom
Another big change for 2016 will be that Disney’s Animal Kingdom will be open nightly during the Christmas season due to Rivers of Light. In the past, since it was rarely open after dark, Disney’s Animal Kingdom didn’t do a whole lot for Christmas, which was disappointing, as it seems lights would work well (they do at Animal Kingdom Lodge!). There are some lights up, and the tree (pictured above).
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.
Due to extensive construction work on AVATAR Land and the new Rivers of Light nighttime spectacular viewing areas, not much else was done aside from a Santa Mickey & Minnie Meet & Greet, but we think these decorations should hold a clue as to what’s to come this year for Christmas at Animal Kingdom. It’s doubtful that the park will receive any dedicated entertainment (Rivers of Light could theoretically have a holiday “tag” at its end, but that’s very unlikely to occur in its debut year–think more like 2018 or later for that) for Christmas, but it should at least look more festive this year.
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.
Beginning in early November, Downtown Disney is decorated for Christmas as it entices guests to get in the “festive” mood when doing their Christmas shopping. Downtown Disney calls this “Festival of the Seasons.” In addition to the decorations, there is live entertainment, holiday carolers, a street party, and photo ops with Santa and Santa Goofy.
Last year, despite all of the construction occurring for Disney Springs in 2015, there were quite a bit of Christmas decorations–we were actually shocked because we didn’t intend to spend any time there for Christmas, but wandered around after a dinner one evening, and noticed a lot of decor. With construction concluding at Disney Springs this year, you can expect a lot more this year.
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!
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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!