Our “Self-Guided Yuletide Tour of Walt Disney World Resorts” offers a Christmas itinerary for experiencing holiday highlights without using a park ticket. That’s right, this is a free way to enjoy Christmas at Walt Disney World! (Updated December 5, 2023.)
This post is a step-by-step tour you can do on your own that will take you through the hotels that are best-decorated for Christmas over the course of around a half-day or longer. Entertainment at Walt Disney World for free? It might sound too good to be true, but it’s for real!
There are still minor modifications to this Walt Disney World Self-Guided Yuletide Tour for 2023. Thankfully, they’re few and far between. Almost everything is back to normal, and only minor transportation changes and a couple of cutbacks still linger. We’ll cover all of the details and what you need to know here. The good news is that this tour is entirely doable for Christmas 2023!
With one exception, every hotel is doing its edible gingerbread display this year. On top of that, two that previously didn’t do a display have been added to the lineup, so there’s actually one more display for Christmas 2023 than there was in 2019 (the last normal year). We’d call that a win!
The previously optional stop that you won’t want to miss this year is Animal Kingdom Lodge. This Christmas, the lobby gingerbread display will feature a Life-sized Baby Gingerbread Giraffe and Baby Zebra.
Another thing to know is that most Walt Disney World resorts do NOT allow visitors to arrive by car without Advance Dining Reservations (Mobile Order at a counter service restaurant is insufficient). This actually is not really a new rule. We were turned away from the Grand Floridian, Contemporary, and even Animal Kingdom Lodge (that was a weird one) when arriving by car way back in 2018.
Since then, we’ve avoided driving to resorts whenever possible when we don’t have Advance Dining Reservations. This is especially true of any hotels that offer non-bus (Skyliner, monorail, boats) transportation to the parks. Your chances of successfully parking at these resorts–especially during the holiday season–is low. Walt Disney World has tightened up its parking policies over the last several years and this is pretty much the unofficial-official policy.
However, this only applies to guests arriving by car. If you’re traveling by bus, monorail, boat, Skyliner, or walking, there are no limitations on resort hopping. Our Self-Guided Yuletide Tour of Walt Disney World Resorts assumes the use of Disney transportation, so this is a total non-issue for this itinerary. We’re just offering these words of warning in case you’re trying to do this by car–you will probably fail and get turned away somewhere!
For those who have multiple days outside the parks and want a longer experience, we also have a 2-Day Self-Guided Yuletide Tour of Walt Disney World. In addition to the aforementioned locations, that will take you to Disney Springs and a few other spots outside the theme parks. As with this tour, all stops can be visited free of charge.
We’d actually recommend that tour over this one. It’s more manageable, has easier-to-follow navigation steps, and includes time at Disney Springs (which you’ll absolutely want to do, anyway).
In addition to that, we also have individual posts for every single resort in the tour. This way, you can preview how each Walt Disney World hotel decorates for Christmas, and potentially put together your own itinerary of which ones you like best. Here are the top options (links open in new tabs/windows):
Grand Floridian – The most popular and crowded resort at Christmas…but for good reason.
Wilderness Lodge– The absolute best place at Walt Disney World during the holidays. Worth a separate visit apart from this itinerary late at night to see the resort at its festive best!
BoardWalk Inn – Not one of the ‘elite’ Christmas resorts…but it’s improving.
Animal Kingdom Lodge– A non-traditional Christmas for many visitors, but a beautiful one, nonetheless.
Gran Destino Tower– Walt Disney World’s newest resort got into the holiday spirit this year!
For those interested in following our strategy and taking your own free self-guided Christmas tour of the resorts at Walt Disney World, here’s our plan, which assumes you’re starting out at the Magic Kingdom (take a bus from your home resort to get there).
Walk to Disney’s Contemporary Resort – There’s a pathway leading from the Magic Kingdom to Disney’s Contemporary Resort that takes about 5-10 minutes to walk. Alternatively, you can take the monorail, but it will take longer.
The highlight of the holidays at the Contemporary is gingerbread display in the Grand Canyon Concourse (fourth floor). This year’s Mary Blair-inspired Disney 100th Anniversary Celebration-themed Cinderella Castle Display was designed by Walt Disney Imagineers and is on display until January 6, 2024.
The gingerbread castle stands over 17 feet tall with 612 pounds of sugar, 1012 pounds of flour, 112 pounds of gingerbread spice, over 4000 castle gingerbread bricks, and 12 sprinklings of magical pixie dust! Be sure to keep your eyes peeled for the 12 hidden five-legged goats.
There’s a kiosk next to the Gingerbread Mary Blair Cinderella Castle, which sells a variety of snacks and souvenirs. The one must-buy is the Chocolate Peppermint Cookie. This is a Contemporary Resort tradition, and has been served up for decades!
Disney’s Contemporary Resort also features a large “icon” tree outside (one of nine ‘giant’ trees on property–4 of which are located at the resorts), and smaller trees in the lobby. The icon tree is perhaps one of the oldest trees at Walt Disney World, and has an interesting retro-futuristic style that still manages to work.
Take the Resort Monorail from Disney’s Contemporary Resort to Disney’s Grand Floridian Resort & Spa – Expect to spend some time at the Grand Floridian. Depending upon your favorite “version” of Christmas (do you prefer the cozy charm of a rustic Northern Christmas or the elegance of a fancy Victorian Christmas?) the decorations at the Grand Floridian just might be your favorite on property.
The highlight at Grand Floridian is the life-sized gingerbread house. The gingerbread house is composed of staggering amounts of real ingredients, and takes months to prepare. Explore the first couple of floors and the lobby, as beautiful flowers and other smaller decorations grace the resort. One thing you certainly won’t overlook is the massive Christmas tree on display in the lobby, the second of nine giant Christmas trees on property.
Walk from the Grand Floridian to the Magic Kingdom, take the Boat to Wilderness Lodge – With the new Grand Floridian walkway now open, this becomes much easier. Still, it’s a bit of work getting to Wilderness Lodge, but it’s sooo worth it. Grand Floridian at Christmas is cool, but it doesn’t hold a candle to Wilderness Lodge.
Probably because, as a Michigander, I prefer Christmas to have a cozy rustic charm rather than Victorian elegance and splendor. From the beautiful giant Christmas tree in the lobby (3 of 9) to the use of pine-cones and antlers in all of its decorating, Wilderness Lodge’s Christmas offerings feel like they were designed by woodland critters.
The background music played at Wilderness Lodge is incredibly relaxing, and you might find yourself inadvertently taking a nap if you stumble upon one of the hidden nooks upstairs with fireplaces and relaxing rocking chairs.
While you’re at Wilderness Lodge, make sure you walk over to the Boulder Ridge Villas at Disney’s Wilderness Lodge, too. The tree isn’t as grand, but there are a number of cool decorations there, too, and who can pass up the chance to spend some time in the Carolwood Pacific Room?!
Boat from Wilderness Lodge to Fort Wilderness – From there, you can also take a boat over to Disney’s Fort Wilderness Campground. Walt Disney World has some thematically-fitting decorations here that are worth seeing, but that’s not the main draw.
Rather, the real star of the show is the displays put up by long-terms guests on the campground loop. Before you dismiss this, thinking that you don’t want to see amateur decorations, give it some more thought. Some of these decorations are seriously good.
Fort Wilderness is one of the highlights of the resort tour, and something you definitely should not skip just because it requires an extra boat trip!
Take the Bus to Hollywood Studios, Catch the Skyliner to Riviera Resort – This one is actually a bit convoluted and for minimal payoff. This is essentially a repositioning move. Instead, you could go to Epcot, walk through the park and exit out International Gateway. Of course, that would require a park ticket.
Riviera Resort is Walt Disney World’s newest hotel and it gets decked out for Christmas, but has neither an icon tree nor a gingerbread display. However, it does have some cute decorations and excellent holiday desserts and drinks. Le Petit Cafe, Bar Riva, and Primo Piatto are all good stops for food.
From there, it’s back on the Skyliner to Disney’s BoardWalk Inn…
BoardWalk has a nice tree outside that is taller than a normal tree you’d find inside, but is still significantly shorter than one of the 9 icon trees. It’s a cute tree, but nothing spectacular.
I’m also not a huge fan of the cool blues of these (and other) LED lights around Walt Disney World. If Walt Disney World is going to use LED lights, they should go for lights with warmer colors. LED blues are just too overpowering, I think.
Disney’s BoardWalk Inn typically does a gingerbread display that recreates a condensed version of the promenade along the water at the resort.
You’ll see an edible version of BoardWalk Deli, Flying Fish, and a ton of cute details in this edible creation. It’s really neat, and although it’s not as cool as the full-size gazebo that used to grace the BoardWalk Inn lobby at Christmas ‘back in the day’, it’s better than what the resort had been doing for the previous few years.
The details on the trees are worth pausing for a closer look, as the ornaments are on-theme and charming. This is one thing about the smaller trees as opposed to the tall, icon trees that I’ve noticed. While the icon trees will stop you in your tracks as you approach, the oversized ornaments usually are as cool upon closer inspection. By contrast, smaller trees typically have a lot of detail in their ornaments.
The already beautiful lobby really comes alive at Christmas, and the decorations perfectly fit the turn-of-the-century boardwalk theme. Still, this is one of the weaker Deluxe Resorts at which we’ll stop on this tour. We stop here because it’s an easy diversion, and worth seeing given the minimal effort.
Walk from Disney’s BoardWalk Inn to Disney’s Beach Club Resort – Disney’s Beach Club is Sarah’s favorite resort at Christmas, but not because they have any extravagant display–it’s due to the aquatic decorations and ornaments.
With that said, the edible display at Beach Club Resort is going to be a holiday highlight for the vast majority of guests. It’s a working carousel with horses themed to something different every year. This hand-crafted carousel confection, features chocolate and fondant ponies, as well as hand-crafted snowflakes, a gingerbread castle, and a bunch of other details.
For Christmas 2023, this gingerbread offering is inspired by Ducktales, with the horses themed after Donald Duck and his nephews–Huey, Duey, and Louie–exploring World Showcase. To celebrate all the years of tradition, there are 22 hidden Mickeys to find throughout the display, as well as 434 pounds of honey, 25 pounds of spices, 200 pounds of icing, and a whole lot of creativity and talent from the culinary team.
Just as cool as the carousel is the aquatic decor found throughout the resort. The ornaments are gorgeous and the color palettes look really good against that of the resort. In addition to the main lobby of Beach Club, we also highly recommend taking the path behind the resort to the Beach Club Villas. The decorations in there are different and smaller scale, but there’s still plenty of aquatic awesomeness.
The next one is a nice change of pace, and you don’t even have to go outside to get there!
Walk Next Door to Disney’s Yacht Club Resort – The Beach Club’s “sibling” resort, the Yacht Club always has a more refined atmosphere as opposed to the Beach Club’s playful and lighthearted feel.
This is no different at Christmas, when the star of the Yacht Club’s Christmas display is a meticulously crafted Christmas village featuring a working train. Meticulous is almost an understatement for this Christmas village. I think it’s somewhat comparable to the train set in Germany at Epcot with regard to the sheer intricacy and ornateness of all the little details. The tree and wreaths at Yacht Club are also very neat, as they are themed with boats and other nautical items.
New for Christmas 2023 is the Gingerbread Lighthouse at Disney’s Yacht Club Resort. This brand-new edible display was created by Pastry Chef de Cuisine Michael Craig who used the actual blueprints from the real lighthouse located outside the resort along Crescent Lake. There are also some sweet treats sold at the Holiday Pop-Up Shop, including the new Lighthouse Fudge.
This covers it for the easy-to-reach Epcot and Magic Kingdom Area Resorts, and honestly, if you hit these resorts, you’re really seeing the very best of the hotel decorations at Walt Disney World. Next, we cover some of the hidden gems–plus one notable highlight–and what you might find if you continue on the tour…
As mentioned, with one notable exception, what’s on display at the Magic Kingdom and Epcot Area resorts for Christmas is the best of the best. The Deluxe Villa, Moderates, and Values aren’t doing a ton.
The decorations at those resorts do the job in terms of getting their guests in the Christmas spirit, but they are not Christmas “destinations” for Walt Disney World guests who aren’t staying at them. That is, unless you have a lot of extra time.
Also, there is one notable exception to this, and that’s way out at Animal Kingdom Lodge, where you can find some of the most interesting decorations at Walt Disney World. Let’s take a look at why it’s such a big draw…
At Animal Kingdom Lodge, you’ll find the Life-Size Baby Gingerbread Giraffe and Baby Zebra through December 31, 2023.
The resort’s bakery, led by Pastry Chef Lexy Ross, made this dynamic duo with a combination of gingerbread, sugar dough, and modeling chocolate. You can also pick up some tasty treats to take with you, like the Gingeraffe Cookie, Hot Cocoa Flight, and beer, wine, and cocktails.
Given the difficulty of reaching Disney’s Animal Kingdom Lodge, we typically tour its resort offerings on the day we go to Disney’s Animal Kingdom, rather than with the rest of our resort tour. If you do it as part of this tour, you’ll have to take a bus to one of the parks–ideally, Animal Kingdom–and take a bus to Animal Kingdom Lodge, before taking another bus all the way back to the other side of Walt Disney World for Mickey’s Very Merry Christmas Party.
That said, if you’re not visiting Animal Kingdom on your trip, you might want to give serious thought to heading over to Animal Kingdom during the resort tour if time allows. Animal Kingdom Lodge’s giant lobby Christmas tree and decorations are not to be missed. There are African-inspired decorations adorning strands of garland throughout the lobby and cool decorations at the resort’s restaurants. Consider heading over to Kidani Village to see some of its decorations, too.
Other Resorts – We really only recommend visiting other resorts if you’re going to be at or near them anyway for a dinner, or if you want to take a boat from Disney Springs to one of those resorts. Or if you are really into a particular theme.
Every resort from the Deluxe Villas on down does a decent job decorating in an on-theme manner, and the details you’ll find within the garland and trees at these resorts are typically interesting reflections of the greater themes of those resorts.
A prime example is Port Orleans French Quarter; you can see the details of one of its smaller Christmas trees above, and they most certainly fit the Mardi Gras theme. However, there aren’t a ton of decorations around the resort, there’s no icon tree, and it lacks a centerpiece that is worth investing a chunk of time to go see.
This is pretty much the norm at all other Walt Disney World resort hotels not specifically discussed in this post. We wouldn’t go as far as to say decorations are sparse at the other resorts, but they don’t rise to a level that justifies taking an hour or so to go see (and you’re looking at spending at least that much time on each of them due to transit).
It’s important to note that Walt Disney World Christmas decorations change yearly, and what you see described and photographed here is not necessarily what will be offered next year or beyond. Some of these displays have already evolved a bit since the photos were taken! That said, regardless of any cosmetic changes to the displays, all of these resorts have been worth touring at Christmas since we’ve been visiting them.
Which other Walt Disney World resort hotels do you think are worth visiting at Christmas? Which resorts have your favorite Christmas decorations? Any questions we can help you answer? Hearing your feedback is both interesting to us and helpful to other readers, so please share your thoughts below in the comments!