Our Christmas 2021 Guide to Walt Disney World offers tips for Magic Kingdom, Epcot, Animal Kingdom, Hollywood Studios, and includes entertainment, food, free tours & things to do, and everything else WDW does for the holidays.
As with pretty much everything right now, last Christmas was different at Walt Disney World. The phased reopening of Walt Disney World remains ongoing, and a lot was cancelled or changed for the holiday season last year. This is due to capacity limitations, physical distancing requirements, and also what’s economically viable in light of said limitations. Throughout this guide, we’ll note what has been cancelled, what’s happening, and what’ll likely be back in 2021.
The good news is that it’s now December, meaning that Christmas is fully underway in all four parks, the operational hotels, and at Disney Springs. It may not be a normal year, but it still feels festive at Walt Disney World! In this guide, we’ll cover what you need to know if you’re planning a trip for Christmas 2021…
Throughout this post, we’ll provide our tips and tricks for best-experiencing the Walt Disney World at Christmas-time. This thorough guide will offer helpful advice for everyone from first-time guests to yearly visitors. This isn’t merely regurgitated press releases and generic info about Christmas at WDW. Instead, we provide a frank assessment of things and insight so you be best prepared to have a great time during the holidays.
This guide is comprehensive and includes links to many of our other resources for Christmas at Walt Disney World, our best holiday guide is our free Walt Disney World Christmas eBook. This is 100 pages, with 200+ photos, and tons of great tips & info! To download this totally FREE eBook, click here. (Note: this will not be updated and thus has many temporary inaccuracies–it’s a better resource if you’re planning for Christmas 2021 than for this year.)
One of the most common questions people ask is When Do Christmas Decorations Go Up at Disney World? That post contains the long answer, but the short answer is that all are up now! As of Thanksgiving weekend, everything is up that’s going up this year.
On the topic of decorations, if you’re looking to get out of the crowds, our Free Self-Guided Yuletide Resort Tour is an awesome option. This is an itinerary for a single day, so if you’re looking for something longer, check out our 2-Day Yuletide Tour of Walt Disney World. We’ve heard from many readers who found our this to be a highlight of their WDW Christmas vacation!
Another common question we receive about Christmas at Walt Disney World concerns filming of the ABC Disney Parks Christmas Day Parade. No, that isn’t filmed live. Read our Info About Disney’s Christmas Day Parade Filming for more info.
Note that this year, entertainment acts will not be filmed during daytime operations at Walt Disney World. Instead, Disney has already announced plans for a “reimagined” Disney Parks Magical Christmas Day Celebration and a new Disney Holiday Singalong.
Finally, many readers ask when Christmas at Walt Disney World ends. Officially, the vast majority of this year’s entertainment runs through December 31. A few offerings will extend further, concluding on January 5. Christmas decorations usually start to come down around the second week of January, and removal is done faster than installation.
We highly recommend a trip to Walt Disney World at Christmas-time. Whether you’re looking for advice on Christmas or general tips and planning info (including the best time to visit) for Christmas, we’ve got you covered! We’ll start with Walt Disney World’s with when to visit during the Christmas season, then move on to park-by-park entertainment, decorations, and more!
When to Visit
December crowds will be different than normal due to event cancellations and other changes. The big thing is no Pop Warner, which is a colossal youth football and cheer & dance competition that’s normally held annually at Walt Disney World.
Consequently, the first two weeks of December should be less busy than in an average year. Note that all of December is significantly busier than it was even a few years ago, so “least-crowded” above is relative to Christmas week. All of December is still going to be significantly more crowded than June or September. (Read more crowd trends in our December 2021 Walt Disney World Crowd Calendar.)
Again, these are not the “secret” best times of the year to visit. The entire Christmas season is popular, and word about early December has gotten out (especially among Disney Vacation Club members), so don’t expect Walt Disney World to be a ghost town, or anything close to it.
Disney veterans know that the week leading up to Christmas and the week between Christmas and New Year’s Eve are terrible times to travel if you dislike crowds. Expect that to be true whether you visit this year, in 2021, or 2034. That’s the busiest 2-week stretch of the year, and has been that way for decades.
If you’re looking forward to Christmas 2021, the best time to visit is the first week of the holiday season. Christmas will likely kick off on November 5, 2021–so November 8-12, 2021 will be the lowest crowd stretch. The only downside is that EPCOT will not be celebrating the holiday season that early, and many resort hotels won’t yet be decorated.
The following week will contain Veterans Day (November 11, 2021), meaning it’ll be slightly elevated. The week after that has no holiday and thus November 15 to 21, 2021 will mark a return of moderate crowds. If wait times and congestion are your primary concern, this is the sweet spot during the entire Christmas season.
Crowd calendars will peak the next week thanks to Thanksgiving on November 25, 2021. The following week, beginning November 28, marks a return to below average crowds, and this is also our very favorite week of the year to visit. (Read more crowd trends in our November Walt Disney World Crowd Calendar.)
On New Year’s Eve, there’s typically special entertainment at the Magic Kingdom, Epcot, and Disney’s Hollywood Studios. If you are thinking of visiting for the week between Christmas and New Year’s Eve, we highly recommend reading our Tips for Visiting Walt Disney World at New Year’s to avoid crowds and have a better experience.
Besides the crowds, there are a few other downsides to visiting during these two weeks. First is the room rates for on property hotels. The second is holiday surcharges at buffets and some other restaurants around property. Definitely keep these costs in mind if you’re approaching this from the perspective of savings.
No matter when you go, you will also want to remember to pack for the season. Check out our Winter Packing Tips for Disney
post for more insight on what to take on your trip. Just because it’s Florida doesn’t mean it won’t be cold! You don’t want to waste money buying a bunch of $60 sweatshirts from the gift shops because you only packed shorts and t-shirts. (Believe me, I’ve been there.)
Another way you can save money is by not purchasing Christmas gifts while at Walt Disney World. This is so tempting, and something we have done too many times (it’s Disney’s favorite time of year because guest spending on merchandise is through the roof!).
Instead, check out our Essential Disney Fan Gift Guide for great, money saving gift ideas for Christmas. You can save a ton of money by buying many of the same (and similar) souvenirs and gifts online instead of in the gift shops!
Okay, now that you know when to visit (or now that I’ve further confused you and made the decision even more complicated), let’s figure out what you should experience…
We’ll start in the Magic Kingdom, which does the most for Christmas out of all of the Walt Disney World parks. No matter what the other parks do, there’s just something to be said for walking onto Main Street and seeing the “town” decked out for Christmas, and that grandiose icicle castle beckoning at the end.
Alright, now let’s take a tour of Magic Kingdom at Christmas…
Jingle Cruise – The Jingle Cruise overlay consists of decorations in the show scenes and a special spiel from the skippers, who are “homesick” and wanting to celebrate Christmas. The queue is decorated and the boats receive Christmas-inspired names. While holiday overlays are divisive, we are big fans of the idea here and think Jingle Cruise is generally well done.
This gets popular during the Christmas season, so prioritizing it in your touring plan can be a good idea (see our 1-Day Magic Kingdom Itinerary for more recommendations). However, we prefer doing Jingle Cruise at night to get the full experience of the Christmas lights turned on.
Christmas Character Cavalcades – There are three new mini-parades joining the mix at Magic Kingdom: Goofy’s Scrumptious Cavalcade, Santa’s Christmas Cavalcade, and Mickey’s Holiday Cavalcade. This is in addition to the standard Royal Princess Processional Cavalcade, which has garland on the floats and some princesses in their holiday finery.
There are also two other processionals: the Holiday Trolley Show and the Main Street Philharmonic featuring the Toy Soldiers. Cumulatively, these cavalcades constitute about half of Mickey’s Once Upon a Christmastime Parade. Not too shabby for entertainment that’s included in regular park admission instead of being an upcharge. Read our Guide to Christmas Character Cavalcades for photos, best viewing spots & info.
Cinderella Castle Holiday Projections – These are a rotating kaleidoscope of designs including festive stripes and dots, a whimsical Christmas sweater look, a jeweled winter castle, and a regal overlay of red, green & gold ornamentation. Once every 15 minutes, “pyrotechnic pixie-dust moments” add a single burst of fireworks to the projections.
Each of these is essentially an animated backdrop featuring scenes of Christmas. There are some moving elements and details, but it’s definitely not a projection show. There are also spotlights and trees around the Central Plaza are bathed in lights that match the projections. Read our Cinderella Castle Christmas Projections for photos, viewing tips & info.
Castle Dream Lights (LIKELY RETURNING FOR 2021) – Every night at dusk beginning in mid-November, “A Frozen Holiday Wish” show lights Cinderella Castle with beautiful white lights. During this show, Queen Elsa will use her powers to transform the Castle into a glistening ice palace for the holidays, illuminating the castle with 200,000 shimmering white lights.
This is a short, cute little show, and people will camp out well in advance for it. Seeing the Dream Lights turned on is a “wow” moment for sure, but it’s important to point out that this is meant to be a cute little show. Don’t wait for an hour expecting something long and drawn out, because it’s not.
Mickey’s Very Merry Christmas Party
Mickey’s Very Merry Christmas Party is an after-hours party in Magic Kingdom with separate admission from your normal park tickets. The special event features all things Christmas, and occurs on select nights throughout November and December. (Mickey’s Very Merry Christmas Party likely will be back in 2021.)
Normally, there are a couple of elements of Mickey’s Very Merry Christmas Party that also happen during daily operations closer to Christmas in Magic Kingdom: Mickey’s Once Upon A Christmastime Parade and Minnie’s Wonderful Christmastime Fireworks. Let’s turn our attention to those…
Mickey’s Once Upon A Christmastime Parade (LIKELY RETURNING FOR 2021) – 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 starting Christmas week. During the Party, it’s shown at night and features excellent lighting, ambiance, and SNOW on Main Street, USA, but after that, 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.
Minnie’s Wonderful Christmastime Fireworks (LIKELY RETURNING FOR 2021) – This show is not to be missed. Minnie’s Wonderful Christmastime Fireworks is a replacement for the Holiday Wishes fireworks show. As the name suggests, this nighttime spectacular is hosted by Minnie Mouse, celebrating the magic of Christmas with medleys of beloved holiday songs.
The fireworks feature “Wonderful Christmas Time” by Paul McCartney and other favorites. Projection mapping also features heavily, with the end result being that Minnie’s Wonderful Christmastime Fireworks evokes heartfelt moments of home and family, and the spirit of the season before an incredible finale. We’d highly recommend consulting our Best Magic Kingdom Fireworks Viewing Locations when it comes to picking a spot for watching Minnie’s Wonderful Christmastime.
Taste of Epcot International Festival of the Holidays – Epcot has rebranded its Holidays Around the World as the Epcot International Festival of the Holidays. It’s still basically the same thing, just with a different name. There are Marketplace booths open around World Showcase offering different seasonal snacks from around the world.
Think of this as the “Epcot Food & Wine Festival Lite.” The Taste of EPCOT International Festival of the Holidays will run from November 27 until December 31. If you’re really interested in the culinary component, we review every single dish in our Food Guide to Epcot International Festival of the Holidays.
Epcot International Festival of the Holidays is about a lot more than just food. You’ll also find other entertainment options, decorations, and more around both World Showcase and Future World.
There you can also pick up maps for Chip and Dale’s Christmas Tree Spree, which is a paid scavenger hunt (akin to the Figment and Ratatouille ones during other festivals at Epcot). Chip and Dale are collecting ornaments for their Christmas tree, and you go around looking for them as they gather ornaments from holiday decorations in each World Showcase pavilion.
Visit our Guide to Epcot International Festival of the Holidays for more information, food photos & recommendations.
Candelight Processional (LIKELY RETURNING FOR 2021) – 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. In a normal year, Candlelight Processional runs nightly with performances at at 5, 6:45 and 8:00 pm. You can find the celebrity narrators for each night by clicking here (opens in new tab).
One tip for Candlelight Processional is to book a dinner package if you’re visiting when one of the popular narrators is in town. They’re not too much of a premium if you were already planning on eating a table service meal, and will save you tons of time. We were there for the second night of Neil Patrick Harris’ run a couple of years ago, and we saw people waiting in line FOUR HOURS before the show.
Your enjoyment of Candlelight Processional will depend on whether you like the traditional Christmas story and choir Christmas music. We love the music, 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, schedule, and dining information.
Holiday Storytellers (STATUS UNCLEAR FOR 2021) – 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 Holiday Storytellers in World Showcase at Epcot Tips article.
‘Joyful! A Gospel Celebration of the Season’ – Joyful performs in World ShowPlace from the end of November until the end of December throughout the day, rotating with other performers on the stage.
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.
Disney’s Hollywood Studios
“Jingle Bell, Jingle BAM!” (LIKELY RETURNING FOR 2021) – This fireworks show is the centerpiece of the Christmas lineup at Disney’s Hollywood Studios. The downside is that this mixed-media fireworks show centered around Grauman’s Chinese Theater, featuring a montage of Disney Christmas favorites is a bit of a disappointmnent. You can read more of our thoughts on it in our “Jingle Bell, Jingle BAM!” Tips & Review post.
In terms of viewing tips, the key to Jingle Bell, Jingle BAM! is being close to Mickey & Minnie’s Runaway Railway. This is important to note if you’ve already consulted our Best Disney’s Hollywood Studios Fireworks Viewing Spots post & map, as that information is now out of date. We do recommend watching Jingle Bell, Jingle BAM! from closer to Grauman’s Chinese Theater (Runaway Railway) than Trolley Car Cafe (Starbucks).
Sunset Season’s Greetings (NOW BACK IN MODIFIED FORM) – This is a projection show consisting of vignettes from Olaf’s Frozen Adventure, Mickey’s Christmas Carol, the Muppets, and Toy Story, plus appearances by the Prep & Landing characters.
Normally, there are also giant projections on “billboard” screens around Sunset Boulevard, and synchronized lights on palm trees. None of these added effects or music are part of the modified show; the removals are to prevent guests from congregating on Sunset Boulevard, creating physical distancing issues.
Echo Lake “Flurry of Fun” – This consists of decorations throughout the area, including the introduction of SANTA GERTIE! There are also oversized Christmas ornaments in Echo Lake, as well as a giant Christmas tree, and other decor.
There’s also decor on Hollywood and Sunset Boulevards, and the park once again feels appropriately festive for Christmas. It’s all very well done, and a nice addition to Disney’s Hollywood Studios this Christmas.
Minnie’s Holiday Dine – This Christmas-themed character meal at Hollywood & Vine is a ton of fun. We’ve done this, and shared our thoughts and photos in our Minnie’s Holiday Dine Review.
Read our Christmas at Disney’s Hollywood Studios Info & Tips post for info on what else you should do at Disney’s Hollywood Studios during the holiday season.
Disney’s Animal Kingdom
Until last year, our Animal Kingdom section basically said that the park is now open after dark during the holiday season, which was actually viewed as an improvement because previously, it was somewhat rare to see Animal Kingdom’s icon Christmas tree with the lights on.
As covered in our Animal Kingdom’s Awesome Christmas: Tips & Info post, the park debuted serious holiday overlays and offerings last year, with new entertainment and decorations in every single land–including Pandora: World of Avatar.
Our new Animal Kingdom: Walt Disney World’s Holiday Hidden Gem covers all of this in detail with a report from our recent visit, best day of the week to visit Animal Kingdom, and strategy for experiencing evenings in the park for Christmas.
Tree of Life Holiday Awakenings – These are projection-mapping vignettes that begin shortly after sunset and continue until park close. The Holiday Awakenings tell a series of winter tales, complete with a familiar and heartwarming holiday-inspired musical score.
Note that there are many evenings in December when Animal Kingdom closes before sunset. Plan accordingly.
Discovery Island Luminaries – The epicenter of the yuletide fun is on Discovery Island, where the area is in the midst of a celebration of winter. There are holiday decorations hand-crafted by the eclectic community of artists who make Discovery Island their home, including colorful, animal-inspired luminaries on the rooftops, wireframe bird-shaped lanterns, and themed garland adorning the buildings throughout the land.
The merriment on Discovery Island continues long into the night. The rooftop luminaries around Discovery Island create a warm and festive glow throughout the entire village, imbuing Discovery Island with a ‘winter wonderland’ elegance.
Merry Menagerie – During the day, Discovery Island is alive with a life-size “Merry Menagerie” of artisan-sculpted puppets that include reindeer, foxes, polar bears, penguins, birds, seals–and probably other critters we missed.
These winter animals are accompanied by serenading live musicians who mingle amongst guests and the Merry Menagerie of critters to create festive atmosphere. Seriously, these puppets are something special.
All in all, now is a great time to visit Animal Kingdom during the holiday season. Walt Disney World has really enhanced this park’s holiday offerings, and the Merry Menagerie is simple yet pure and awe-inspiring.
Christmas Tree Stroll – This features numerous trees each themed to a different Disney characters (including one dedicated to Mickey & Minnie, The Muppets, Tangled, and more!). Rather than being done as a distinct trail this year, it has returned as the “Christmas Tree Stroll” with spots scattered around Disney Springs.
Aside from the beautiful decorations, you can expect some live entertainment, holiday carolers, a street party, photo ops, and Santa Claus.
We’ve already visited Disney Springs several times during the Christmas season and noticed a few things. Most importantly, it’s insanity on weekends. Some nights, there have been multi-hour waits to enter Disney Springs as the complex closes to capacity. (Read our Disney Springs Christmas Crowd Report: Holiday Highs for more info.)
For a lot of locals who don’t have Walt Disney World Annual Passes, Disney Springs is a way to enjoy free Christmas entertainment during the holiday season. These locals are most likely to visit on weekends. Add to that the normal mix of tourists, and you have huge crowds.
As such, we strongly encourage you to visit Disney Springs on a Monday, Tuesday, or Wednesday. Arrive by 4 p.m. and stay until just after dusk, or arrive really late (after the parks close). Disney Springs will be busiest between 6 and 8 p.m. nightly. For everything else you need to know about making the trip, consult our Tips for Disney Springs at Christmas post.
Highlights include the Deluxe Resorts but other hotels are spruced up with wreaths and trees decorated with miles of garland, ribbon and glistening ornaments.
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. We love it so much that we do that tour every single year–sometimes more than once. We’ve had a lot of readers tell us they’ve really enjoyed following the steps of that tour, so we’d highly recommend checking it out, and potentially trying it for yourself!
Several Deluxe Hotels have either a large Christmas tree or a seasonal display that is well worth seeing. The great thing about most deluxe resorts is that they’re in close proximity to one another. You can easily reach the Grand Floridian, Polynesian, and Contemporary from the Magic Kingdom monorail station and Wilderness Lodge via boat.
Similarly, the Yacht & Beach Club and Boardwalk are easily accessible by foot or boat from Epcot or Disney’s Hollywood Studios. About the only Deluxe that is worth visiting that’s not easily accessible is Animal Kingdom Lodge.
Moderate & Value Hotels
There are some neat decorations at the Moderates and Values, and the decorations are all themed to the specific resort, which is pretty cool. If you have interest in a specific “style” of Christmas, you might want to check out a specific resort.
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.
We’re already at 5,000 words, so we’ll wrap up this Ultimate Guide to Christmas at Walt Disney World here. Hopefully, it’s everything you need to plan your dream Griswold-style Christmas Vacation to Florida. In case it wasn’t already made clear, we truly love Christmas at Walt Disney World.
The holiday season is our favorite time of year in Walt Disney World. November and December offer a mix of perfect weather, entertainment, festive decorations, great holiday snacks, and so much more. If you’re only going to visit WDW once, make it during Christmas-time!
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!
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! Do you agree or disagree with our advice? Any questions we can help you answer? Hearing your feedback—even when you disagree with us—is both interesting to us and helpful to other readers, so please share your thoughts below in the comments!