Christmas at Walt Disney World is a special time of year. Our 2018 guide offers holiday tips for Magic Kingdom, Epcot, and beyond, including Mickey’s Very Merry Christmas Party, Candlelight Processional, Flurry of Fun, free tours & things to do, and everything else Walt Disney World has to offer at Christmas. (Last updated December 25, 2018.)
Throughout this post, we’ll provide 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.
Our most recent update to this guide was on December 25, 2018 (Merry Christmas!) with some quick info on what you can expect the rest of the season. First, for those finding this while watching ABC’s ‘Disney Parks Magical Christmas Day Parade’ no, that isn’t filmed live. Read our Info About Disney’s Christmas Day Parade Filming for more on how to watch that live…and whether you should.
Next, the busiest week of the holiday season starts today. Well, the last several days have been pretty busy, but the week from Christmas until New Year’s Eve will be especially busy, so pack your patience. The good news is that all Christmas entertainment continues through (at least) January 1, and the decorations will stay up for about another week or two after that.
On the topic of decorations, one of the biggest recommendations we can make during this chaotic stretch at Walt Disney World is to arrive as early as possible (Extra Magic Hours begin at 7 a.m. some mornings!), take a midday break while crowds are at their worst, and then return for evenings.
During your midday break, a nap is a great idea, but if you’re just looking to get out of the crowds, our Free Self-Guided Yuletide Resort Touris an awesome option. This is an itinerary for a single day, but during this time of year, we’d recommend stretching it out to multiple days and spending more time relaxing and unwinding. We’ve heard from many readers who found our Yuletide Tour to be a highlight of their WDW Christmas vacation!
Although Christmas week is far from an ideal time to visit, we highly recommend a trip to Walt Disney World at Christmas-time. Whether you’re looking for last-minute advice on Christmas 2018 or general tips and planning info (including the best time to visit) for Christmas 2019, continue reading!
We’ll start with Walt Disney World’s latest announcements for what’s new for the holiday season this year and continue with when to visit during the Christmas season, and much more…
Christmas 2018 began early, at the start of November, and will run late, with some entertainment continuing through January 6, 2019. Decorations in most parks and resorts will stay up until roughly the same time, so even if you’re visiting for New Year’s Eve or in the first week of 2019, you should get a dose of holiday cheer. (Whether you want it or not!)
At Disney’s Hollywood Studios, Sunset Seasons Greetings returns (more on that below), as does the nighttime spectacular Jingle Bell, Jingle BAM! Toy Story Land receives its first holiday overlay, which will include a special version of Alien Swirling Saucers, and more.
Over at Disney’s Animal Kingdom, Diwali, the holiday Festival of Lights in India, will be featured in the new live show UP! A Great Bird Adventure.
That’s really about it in terms of what’s new for Christmas 2018 at Walt Disney World. Now, let’s take a look at the returning holiday favorites at Magic Kingdom, Disney’s Hollywood Studios, Epcot, Disney Springs, Animal Kingdom, and elsewhere around Walt Disney World!
For those readers wanting a handy guide to Christmas at Walt Disney World, this is a great start, but our free Walt Disney World ChristmaseBook is even better. The 2018 edition of our Vacation Kingdom at Christmas eBook is 90 pages, with 200+ photos, and tons of great tips & info! For more details on how to get this totally-free ebook, click here.
As we discuss in the eBook, one of the great things about the holiday season at Walt Disney World is that most of the Christmas entertainment (with one very notable exception) is included in regular theme park admission. That’s great news, especially for those who opt to use an authorized Walt Disney World ticket seller to save even more money on park tickets. (Click here for our park ticket recommendations!)
Alright, let’s move on to the best time to visit Walt Disney World during the Christmas season…
When to Visit
November 26 through December 14 will be the least-crowded times to visit Walt Disney World during the full Christmas season. If you want even lighter crowds, November 8-17 are great dates, but not all of the Christmas decorations will be up in the hotels and Epcot by then.
Even after December 14, crowds may not get really bad until December 21 due to Christmas falling on a Tuesday. As a result, the week between Christmas and New Year’s Eve will likely be really crowded this year–even more crowded than normal, if that’s even possible.
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.
Another thing to keep in mind is that the Pop Warner Football Championship and cheerleading competitions can contribute to “pockets” of crazy crowds the first week of December.
If you are visiting during these events, we highly recommend avoiding the Value Resorts (particularly All Star Sports). Ever been at a hotel or in a theme park with thousands of teenage football players and cheerleaders? I have, and it’s scarier than Saw movies.
Yet another thing to be mindful of is the placement of Mickey’s Very Merry Christmas Party nights in the Magic Kingdom schedule. When these nights occur, Magic Kingdom closes to day guests at 6 p.m., which causes many guests without Park Hopper tickets to avoid Magic Kingdom on these evenings, postponing their visits until the following non-party night.
Unsurprisingly, this leads to huge crowds in Magic Kingdom, which is often compounded by evening Extra Magic Hours. To avoid crowds at Magic Kingdom during the holiday season, we’d strongly encourage you to visit during the day on Mickey’s Very Merry Christmas Party evenings, and then Park Hop elsewhere…assuming you have Park Hopper tickets. (Read our Park Ticket Tips & Info for Walt Disney World for more recommendations about which tickets to purchase.)
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.
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. 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 Christmas and New Year’s weeks can be good 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 can cost over $100 per person, 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. 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. 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.
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.
Christmas is my favorite time in Magic Kingdom because I enjoy taking photos of the decorations lit up; to take photos like my photos in this post, read my Tips for Christmas Photography.
Alright, now let’s take a tour of Magic Kingdom at Christmas…
Jingle Cruise – Despite rumors to the contrary, Walt Disney World confirmed in late October that Jingle Cruise will be returning to Magic Kingdom this year (Disneyland is a potentially different story). The Jingle Cruise overlay consists of decorations in the show scenes and 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.
This gets popular during the Christmas season, so using a FastPass+ can be a good idea (see our Guide to FastPass+ at Walt Disney World for more recommendations). We prefer doing Jingle Cruise at night to get the full experience of the Christmas lights turned on.
Castle Dream Lights – 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.
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. Tickets are expensive, but it’s a lot of fun and worth the money if your budget allows. The last Christmas party is December 21, with approximately 3-4 parties per week before that.
In this post we want to focus on what you can do during Christmas at Walt Disney World that is included with your regular theme park admission, so if you want to read more about this special event, including whether it’s worth the money and our step-by-step plan for making the most of the event (it’s impossible to see & do everything, read our Complete Guide to Mickey’s Very Merry Christmas Party.
The party is a bit pricey and there’s a lot to know about it, so we highly recommend reading that before your trip. Party tickets are a pretty common impulse purchase among Walt Disney World guests–and you can avoid that by just reading up on the party a bit in advance. Click here for more details on party dates, pricing, tips, etc.
There are a couple of elements of Mickey’s Very Merry Christmas Party that need to be mentioned on their own…
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 21. During the Party, it’s shown at night and features excellent lighting, ambiance, and SNOW on Main Street, USA, but after December 21, 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). Normally, the show without perimeter bursts is shown for regular park guests during the weeks that bookend Christmas.
That is not the case, as the new Happily Ever After remains incredibly popular. It’s unclear whether Magic Kingdom will revert to showing Holiday Wishes during Christmas and New Year’s Eve Week during regular nights in 2018, or if Happily Ever After will remain such a draw that they will continue showing that, leaving Holiday Wishes exclusively for party nights.
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.
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.
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.
Be sure to stop in to MouseGear to pay your respects to Santa Figment. 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.
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. Candlelight Processional runs nightly from November 22 (Thanksgiving) through December 30, 2018, with performances at at 5, 6:45 and 8:00 p.m. . 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 (so much so that so much that we own the 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.
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.
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.
With IllumiNations: Reflections of Earth being replaced at the end of Summer 2019, this year is likely the last chance we’ll have to experience the ‘Peace on Earth’ holiday tag, so be sure to catch the earth-shaking finale if you haven’t before!
‘Joyful! A Gospel Celebration of the Season’ – Joyful performs on the Fountain of Nations Stage from the end of November until the end of December. 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.
In terms of viewing tips, the key to Jingle Bell, Jingle BAM! is being close to Grauman’s Chinese Theater. 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 The Great Movie Ride than Trolley Car Cafe (Starbucks).
Above is a look at the Sunset Season’s Greetings, which along with Echo Lake Christmas is the Christmas entertainment at Disney’s Hollywood Studios that WDW has dubbed its “Flurry of Fun.” This debuted last year and has expanded a bit in 2018, with some new effects and visuals.
Sunset Season’s Greetings 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. There are also giant projections on “billboard” screens around Sunset Boulevard, and synchronized lights on palm trees. Sunset Season’s Greetings is a cute offering, albeit an odd juxtaposition on the normally spooky Tower of Terror.
Over at Echo Lake, the Flurry of Fun 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. Still, no Osborne Lights, but it’s doubtful we’ll ever see something of that caliber again with Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge and Toy Story Land coming in the next couple of years.
In terms of characters decked out for Christmas, the highlight is Minnie’s Holiday Dine, a holiday-themed character meal at Hollywood & Vine. We dined here last November, and shared our thoughts and photos in our Minnie’s Holiday Dine Review. There’s also a new Santa meet & greet, and also new holiday outfits for some of the characters. That’s about it, though.
Disney’s Animal Kingdom will be open nightlyduring the Christmas season. Rivers of Light will be running nightly, and Pandora – World of Avatar will be open late every night.
You should also notice intriguing Christmas decor placed around the park (see above) that seemed like a precursor for what was to come. There were no announcements about the increase in decorations and it wasn’t highly publicized online, but the decorations looked nice.
Last year, Disney has announced that there will be more decorations in Animal Kingdom to illuminate the park during its standard Animal Kingdom After Dark offerings. No specific Christmas entertainment is offered, aside from a holiday meet & greet with Mickey & Minnie Mouse at Adventurers Outpost. Expect the park to look festive, at least!
Another new Christmas offering two years ago was the Christmas Tree Trail at Disney Springs, which now features numerous trees each themed to a different Disney characters (including one dedicated to Mickey & Minnie, The Muppets, Tangled, and more!).
This started out being very underwhelming, and has improved each year. The highlights for 2018 are actually unique attraction posters commissioned to spruce up the Christmas Tree Trail walkways, and it’s worth seeing for those alone. The trees themselves have also improved, but this is still not a flagship Walt Disney World holiday offering.
Aside from the beautiful decorations, you can expect live entertainment, holiday carolers, a street party, photo ops, and Santa Claus. Over at the Once Upon a Toy fountain, toys will “come alive” for an interactive nightly holiday dance party. There will be pin trading, a nightly tree lighting ceremony, and more.
Last year, we went to Disney Springs several times during the Christmas season and noticed a few things. First, there were way more decorations than in the past few years. It was festive in a way that it has not been in at least 5 years–maybe longer. Expect that to increase even more this year, as construction has nearly winded down.
Second, and most importantly, it was insanity on weekends. 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.
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.
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.
That’s a tour we made up a few years ago for ourselves to do during the morning on days we were attending Mickey’s Very Merry Christmas Party (back before we had Annual Passes), and we love it so much that we still do it every year. 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 (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.
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!