Christmas and the holiday season at Walt Disney World is a very special time of year. This 2015 Ultimate Guide will give you tips about Mickey’s Very Merry Christmas Party, Candlelight Processional, the Osborne Family Spectacle of Dancing Lights (which are being retired after this year–details below), and everything else Walt Disney World has to offer at Christmas.
The full lineup for the 2015 Christmas season at Walt Disney World has now been released (barring any last-minute surprises), so this post has been updated as of September 2015 with tips for everything that will be happening this Christmas season. Some minor entertainment information and other small things will probably be added or changed closer to Christmas, and we will keep the post updated with all news and changes, big or small.
We’ll include some of 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. Much like Captain EO, these tips are here to change the world. Or, at least, the way you experience the World at Christmas!
For starters, if you’re visiting Walt Disney World at “Christmas,” the first thing you’ll need to figure out is when 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 after Christmas, in January.
Conventional wisdom suggests that the two weeks after Thanksgiving are the slowest of the Christmas season, but that isn’t exactly so “wise.” 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 (occurring December 5, 2015) 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 7 through 18, 2015. 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 two years ago, and expanded last year with a bunch of new props. We wouldn’t be surprised if it expands again in 2015, but I’m thinking it might be in “finished” form now. 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 2015 start November 8, 2015 and run until December 18, 2015, with approximately 3-4 parties per week. Make sure to buy early (tickets are now 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 (the first night of the party is already sold 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 November 27 until December 30, 2015 at 5, 6:45 and 8:00 p.m.
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 Osborne Family Spectacle of Dancing Lights – These lights are 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. Entering the Hollywood Studios backlot on the Streets of America, guests discover a virtual 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 at Disney’s Hollywood Studios November 6, 2015 through January 3, 2016.
For the last few years, Disney has rolled out several enhancements to the lights including updates to the light canopy, color-changing buildings, and added use of 3-D technology and window snow-fall. These effects have all been incredibly well-received. Unquestionably our favorite enhancement in recent memory, and the best thing to happen at Walt Disney World since 1971 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).
Unfortunately, Baby Sinclair bites the dust at the end of January 2016, as this is the final Christmas for the Osborne Lights, with construction on Toy Story Land and Star Wars Land set to eliminate the Streets of America early next year. It’s unknown at this point whether Walt Disney World will have a replacement or substitute for the lights in a different part of the park or elsewhere at Walt Disney World, but we would be surprised if there is nothing done as a substitute next year. With Disney’s Hollywood Studios being a veritable construction site next year, Disney needs something to draw guests to this park in the short term–a fun seasonal overlay seems like just the trick.
For the 20th and final season of the Osborne Lights, the “Merry & Bright” Dessert Party will be offered for the first time, consisting of desserts and reserved viewing. There will also be a Meet & Greet with Santa Goofy at the Osborne Lights again. You’ll be able to meet him in Goofy’s Winter Wonderland, a special area set up right in Tri-City Square. In addition to this elaborate Meet & Greet spot, an eighth song will be added to the rotation, a rendition of “Winter Wonderland.” We expect a few minor tweaks and plusses in addition to Goofy and the new song, so stay tuned!
The Osborne Lights can be very busy, especially earlier in the night. The lighting “ceremony” occurs around 6 pm and is usually nothing substantial (unless there’s a special guest in town the particular night you’re visiting), but it is insane to see the Streets of America go from being dark to brightly illuminated with the lights when they’re first turned on. If you’re there on a busy day, though, you will be packed in like a sardine when the lighting takes place (make sure to arrive on the Streets of America around 5:30 pm and stand by the tall tree halfway down the street–don’t sit on the curb, this isn’t a parade).
If you arrive an hour before close, you actually will (likely) get to see the lights for over an hour, if you’d like. This is because the lights typically stay on for 30 minutes to an hour after the official park close. However, we do not recommend banking on this and arriving to see the Osborne Lights 15 minutes before Disney’s Hollywood Studios is scheduled to close, because some nights the lights are turned right off and the area is quickly cleared. There are multiple nights when this area is rented out for private events following park close, and on those nights, there’s often a quick clear. Here are some additional tips…
Osborne Family Spectacle of Dancing Lights Tips:
- Avoid the Osborne Lights until 8 pm unless you really want to see the lighting ceremony.
- For facts and “easter egg” information about the Osborne Lights, listen to WDW Today Episode 802, which features an interview with John Phalen, Show Director of The Osborne Family Spectacle of Dancing Lights.
- See if you can spot the Halloween decorations, which were accidentally shipped to Walt Disney World when the Osbornes transferred the display to Disney.
- See if you can spot the Angel that is unlike the others.
- Don’t leave the Osborne Lights just because Disney’s Hollywood Studios closes; you can stay until the lights are turned off!
Frozen Stuff –
It’s not necessarily Christmas-related (at least in its current form), but Disney is hyping Frozen at Disney’s Hollywood Studios as part of its Christmas offerings at Disney’s Hollywood Studios. 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
For me, the biggest highlight of the 2015 holiday season at Walt Disney World is without a doubt going to be visiting Disney’s Hollywood Studios. I am really looking forward to seeing Hollywood Boulevard decked out for the holidays with a clear view of Grauman’s Chinese Theater at the end of the street, before slowly meandering through the Streets of America to enjoy the Osborne Lights one last time.
I haven’t spent much time in Disney’s Hollywood Studios this year (or last), but that will change this Christmas as I savor both things soon to be extinct and the glimpses of what the future of the park holds. They say the night is darkest before the dawn, but in this case, the night is brightest just before the Osborne Lights are turned off. I’m not sure what that even means, but if you say it in Batman-voice, I’m sure it’ll sound profound. 😉
Disney’s Animal Kingdom
Since it’s rarely open after dark, Disney’s Animal Kingdom doesn’t do a whole lot for Christmas, which is disappointing, as it seems lights would work well (they do at Animal Kingdom Lodge!). There are some lights up, and the tree (pictured above). Few people see that tree lit, so enjoy that photo!
Due to extensive construction work on AVATAR Land and the new Rivers of Light nighttime spectacular viewing areas, aside from a Santa Mickey & Minnie Meet & Greet, absolutely nothing will happen at Animal Kingdom for Christmas 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.
We have experienced Downtown Disney during the Christmas season, but not for a few years. When we last went, it was nothing special. It has improved substantially in recent years, but with so much construction occurring for Disney Springs in 2015, don’t expect a whole lot this year.
If you have extra time, I suppose you could consider checking out “Festival of the Seasons,” but due to the commuting time it takes to get to Downtown Disney, we recommend just skipping it unless you’re a local who can visit the parks anytime. And if you’re a local who can visit anytime…why are you reading this?!
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!