Christmas and the holiday season at Walt Disney World is a very special time of year. This “Ultimate Guide” will give you tips about Mickey’s Very Merry Christmas Party, Candlelight Processional, the Osborne Family Spectacle of Dancing Lights, and everything else Walt Disney World has to offer at Christmas! 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!
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 quotes (they would be air quotes, but science has yet to invent a way to type those) 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.
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. The idea that anyone should avoid these times at all costs, however, is actually a misconception that has been perpetuated for years and has just become repeated so often that it’s accepted. Both of these weeks can be great times to go, but only if they closely match your personality and touring style. If you don’t like being in dense crowds, these times of year are probably out. If you can’t get up really early and take a long midday break, these times of year are also probably out.
If you’re like us, and you don’t mind navigating heavy crowds (crowds are not the same as waiting in lines) these times can be great to go for a couple of reasons. The first reason is that 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, the day before and on New Year’s Eve (and in 2013 potentially even more days thanks to the “Limited Time Magic” promotion), there are elaborate fireworks displays at the Magic Kingdom, Epcot, and Disney’s Hollywood Studios. The parks are extremely crowded for these shows, so if you plan on watching them from inside the parks, make sure to stake out a spot early. We recommend watching the Magic Kingdom’s fireworks from the Ticket & Transportation Center or Bay Lake Tower’s Top of the World Lounge (open only to hotel guests), where crowds won’t be nearly as bad as they will be in the parks. The beach of Disney’s Polynesian Resort is another good option for viewing the Magic Kingdom’s Fantasy in the Sky fireworks from outside the park.
The second compelling reason for visiting during this time of year is the heavily extended operating hours. When we visited last year between Christmas and New Year’s, the Magic Kingdom regularly opened at 7 am with Extra Magic Hours and one park was always open until at least 1 am (usually much later). Between 7 am and 9 am, crowds were incredibly light. By the time 10 am rolled around, crowds were heavier, but nothing unbearable. We usually left by noon, at which time the place was a madhouse, but due to the low crowds touring efficiently, we had already accomplished everything we wanted to do.
We then walked back to our room at Bay Lake Tower and napped for a few hours waiting for the crowds to go down, returning in the late afternoon or early evening. Of course, this is easiest if you stay at a monorail or Epcot resort, so take transportation times into account if you won’t be staying at one of these resorts. Crowds were still bad when we returned, but we avoided them by doing attractions like the Tomorrowland Transit Authority Peoplemover and Carousel of Progress, which never really have too long of lines. By 11 pm, crowds were again manageable, and we stayed until park closing. By following this pattern, we never really encountered long lines for the attractions we wanted to experience. In fact, it was a downright enjoyable way to experience the parks! Of course, this odd sleep schedule will probably never work for anyone with kids, so we realize our advice here is probably not applicable to only but a handful of you who are as crazy as us. But if it helps anyone, it’s advice worth sharing!
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.
Another misconception about traveling to Walt Disney World during the Christmas season is that the first two weeks of December are “dead.” This might have been true in the past, but it’s not so true anymore. Sure, there are certain days in certain parks with really light crowds, but there is also the Christmas Parade tapping the first weekend of December (and unless you’re crazy about the performers, you want to avoid this…it’s not nearly as fun as it might sound) as well as the Pop Warner Football Championship and cheerleading competitions. If you can avoid these groups, you’ll often find lighter crowds in other parks, but if you happen to be in the same park as them, beware. Plus, this year, New Fantasyland’s official grand opening and media event occurs December 6-9. All of this combines for crowds that many days will feel just as bad as they will be in later December.
If you’re a first time or casual visitor with a family, I’d still recommend visiting during one of the first two weeks of December, but just keep in mind that these are not the “secret” best times of the year to visit that many other Disney sites contend they are. This is another myth that is propagated based on dated information and people simply believing and repeating what others have written without really thinking for themselves.
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. While it doesn’t do any attraction overlays like the awesome Haunted Mansion Holiday (photos) or ‘it’s a small world’ holiday (photos) at Disneyland, the park does get fully decked out, and it looks absolutely beautiful.
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 called Cinderella’s Holiday Wish. During this show, characters will turn on these beautiful icicle lights (they’re nothing like the tacky ones your neighbors have hanging from their gutters!) adorning Cinderella Castle.
This show is short, but it’s cute, and we highly recommend seeing it. A lot of people don’t know about it, so you can regularly show up only 10-20 minutes before the show and get a great spot in front of Cinderella Castle.
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 2012 are: November 9, 12, 15, 16, 25, 27, 29, 30 and December 2, 4, 6, 7, 9, 11, 13, 14, 16, 18, 20, 21.
Offerings during the party include:
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:
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 (I love the soundtrack to Holiday Wishes so much that I actually bought its CD!) While the fireworks play an important role, the lyrics truly deserve more than just a passing mention.
Celebrate the Magic! – Last year, the nightly light show on Cinderella Castle, “The Magic, The Memories, and You!” received a special scene for Christmas. This segment was the highlight of the show, as it 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. However, as its replacement “Celebrate the Magic!” doesn’t premiere until later this month, it’s presently unknown what, if anything, will be done to celebrate the season in “Celebrate the Magic!”
A holiday scene in “Celebrate the Magic” is a no-brainer given how easy it is to swap out scenes in shows of this nature and in light of how well-received last year’s holiday segment was. Regardless of whether there is a holiday segment, you should plan on watching this show. If it’s anything like its predecessor, it will be a surprise hit, and one that most guests really enjoy. 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 last year were 1:15pm, 2:15pm, 3:15pm and 4:15pm (daily), and we expect the same this year.
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 in 2009. (Boo, hiss!)
Candelight Processional – Candlelight Processional will once again be Legen–wait for it–DARY, as Neil Patrick Harris returns to be one of the narrators for Candlelight Processional.
This retelling of the Christmas story by a celebrity narrator, along with a mass choir performing seasonal melodies, and a 50-piece live orchestra performs nightly from November 23 until December 30, at 5, 6:45 and 8:15 p.m. For 2012, the line-up is once again very impressive!
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 in 2011, 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.
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 a full list Candlelight Processional of narrators for 2012.
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 two of the most engaging Storytellers (well, 5, since there are 3 in Mexico and 2 in Norway) are found in Mexico and Norway. 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, narrated by Walter Cronkite ends the show with a heart-warming bang.
In our opinion, Illuminations is best at Christmas, and that’s due to the wonderful Peace on Earth tag. I get goosebumpts everytime I hear Walter Cronkite recites his lines: “During this glorious time of year there is one message that rings out around the world in every language. Peace on earth. Good will to men is a wish to hold in our hearts throughout each passing year. A gift of immeasurable value. A treasure being handed down with care, from generation to generation. And so our holiday wish is that everyone, everywhere share in the spirit of the season. Peace on earth, good will to men.”
The pyro is pretty impressive, too. Illuminations performs with the Peace on Earth tag nightly during the Christmas season, and it is not to be missed. Great views of the show are available all around World Showcase Lagoon. We recommend arriving at least 30 minutes before the show, and standing near the water’s edge in front of the Italy pavilion or on the bridge between France and the United Kingdom.
The Osborne Family Spectacle of Dancing Lights – 2011 is the first year for the Osborne Lights post Jennings Osborne (the man who originally created the display in 1986 in Arkansas as a Christmas gift to his daughter). 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 10 through Jan. 7, 2012. In 2011, Disney 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 were incredibly well-received.
For 2012, a Meet & Greet with Santa Goofy will be added to the Osborne Lights! 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 don’t mind bearing crowds, go for this lighting. If you’d rather avoid crowds, visit the Osborne Lights the hour before the park closes. We recommend arriving at least this early because you can easily spend an hour exploring the Osborne Lights, looking for all the Hidden Mickeys and various references.
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.
Osborne Family Spectacle of Dancing Lights Tips:
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!
Mickey’s Jingle Jungle Parade – Mickey’s Jingle Jungle Parade is an overlay to the standard Jammin’ Jungle safari-style parade featuring all of the Disney animal-characters and high tempo beats. It has a catchy soundtrack, fun decorations, and the scent of chocolate (thanks to Minnie’s candy cane and hot cocoa float).
As far as tips go for this parade, we don’t have many. Mickey’s Jingle Jungle Parade is worth watching thanks in large part to the fun soundtrack (which can be found on the same CD as Holiday Wishes), but the parade itself is rather lackluster. It’s literally just the normal parade with some hints of Christmas tossed on the floats almost as afterthoughts. It’s not a dedicated Christmas parade like the Magic Kingdom offers. The viewing areas for this parade aren’t as crowded as for Magic Kingdom parades, but you’ll still want to show up to a spot 30 minutes before the parade starts. We’re not really partial to any specific location, but if you plan on exiting the park after you watch the parade (as many people do), choose a spot closest to the exit.
Santa Goofy’s Holiday Village at Camp Minnie-Mickey – Over in Camp Minnie-Mickey, carolers sing and Santa Goofy, Mickey Mouse, Minnie Mouse, and Donald Duck (and sometimes Chip & Dale) greet guests for photos.
If you’re going to meet these characters, plan on doing so just before you grab a viewing spot for the parade (allow at least 45 minutes to meet the characters). So long as you don’t arrive right after a showing of Festival of the Lion King lets out, you should have minimal waits for all of the characters, except Minnie and Mickey Mouse, which may take 15 minutes or so. Lines get shorter the closer you go to the park’s closing time, so wait as long as possible to meet these characters.
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.
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 sounds like it has improved for 2012, which makes sense, because getting people in the Christmas mood makes them more likely to shop like it’s Christmas season, and thus spend more money! 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?!
If for some reason you aren’t able to visit this Christmas, enjoy the entire season neatly compacted into a few minutes in our Christmas time lapse video. It’s just like being there…except not at all. You can also get in the festive spirit by decking out your Facebook profile with one of our Walt Disney World Christmas Facebook Timeline Covers.
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