Disneyland Christmas 2018 Trip Recap – Part 1
Christmas at Disneyland and Disney California Adventure kicked off on November 9, 2018, and we were on hand for the holiday weekend festivities. In this trip report installment, we’ll share photos and thoughts about the seasonal attractions, entertainment, food, etc. this year at Disneyland. In part 2, we’ll head over to DCA to look at everything new and returning there.
We arrived a day before Holiday Time at Disneyland officially kicked off, taking a red-eye flight from Tokyo and technically landing in Los Angeles before we left Japan (the magic of “time traveling” across the International Date Line will never cease to amuse me). We had also done the official kick-off of Tokyo Disney Resort’s Christmas season that day (report on that coming later this week), and planned to do both resorts on the same day, but jet lag had other plans for us.
Before we get started, we should note that this trip report will focus on impressions gleaned from our experience this weekend during the start of the holiday season at Disneyland. If you want comprehensive info and tips, make sure to read our Ultimate Guide to Christmas at Disneyland. That post was just updated and offers a crash course in planning a Christmas visit, whereas this is more anecdotes and observations.
Additionally, if you have any amount of flexibility in choosing your travel dates, we would implore you to read our When to Visit Disneyland post. This weekend was absolutely bonkers; at a couple of points, the Harbor Boulevard security checkpoint was backed up to the street (easily a 30-45 minute wait) and all parking at Disneyland Resort was full.
If you can go without carrying a backpack to the parks, we’d recommend it. While the ‘no bags’ line often closes by mid-afternoon, this usually does not occur until the peak lines have died down. Disneyland security has been frustrating for over a year, and something really needs to be done to fix these issues before next summer. If all this security theater is “necessary,” at least install x-ray machines for bags so the process is efficient and consistent.
Wait times for ‘it’s a small world’ holiday were regularly over an hour, the pinch-points in Adventureland and New Orleans Square were almost impassable, and viewing Christmas entertainment was tough due to congestion. On Saturday afternoon, it was so busy that we decided to leave during the height of the midday rush and head to Laguna Beach for a few hours. Suffice to say, crowds at Disneyland were really bad.
Although it was a holiday weekend at the start of the season without full Annual Pass blockouts, we are expecting many more ‘oppressively busy’ days. To avoid crowds to the greatest extent possible, visit on weekdays and go as early in the day as possible.
Nights, weekends, and holiday breaks are going to be the busiest times; you don’t want to avoid evenings as that’s when the atmosphere is best, but try to do weekday evenings and don’t expect to get many attractions done–just be there to soak up the ambiance and enjoy the entertainment.
Basically, you want to avoid any days when school is not in session for Southern Californians. Approximately 6 million people live within a manageable “after work” drive from Disneyland, and you want to visit when they are not. The aforementioned post offers a lot more strategy.
Even though heavy crowds at Disneyland are never fun, this did offer a “good” preview of what Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge will be like on a daily basis when it debuts next summer. I wonder if Disneyland Resort management is fully prepared for what that land is going to do to the resort’s infrastructure. While there are some ways crowd management can be improved, plenty of limitations exist that cannot.
In terms of what’s new at Disneyland this Christmas, it’s mostly just food. Disney Parks Blog released a full guide to what’s available, and we did our darnedest to try it all in the name of research. You can read about what we enjoyed the most in our updated Best Disneyland Christmas Snacks & Food post.
While there were some duds, I’d say around 75% of what we tried was at least good. Then again, I’m a sucker for all things mint and peppermint, and that’s the dominant flavor this season. (The one-two punch of pumpkin and peppermint for Halloween and Christmas is tough to beat.)
We spent a lot of money on food over the course of the trip. I don’t even want to total up what we spent, as it’s one of those ‘better off not knowing’ type of things. One thing we did not buy, however, was the seasonal churros. At $5.25 each (or $6.25 with dipping sauce), the price of these things is just ludicrous.
This is especially true after just coming from Tokyo Disney Resort, where their seasonal churros are just under $3 each. I will spare you further comparison to Tokyo prices, as I know many U.S. Disney Parks fans would rather not hear about the many ways the Japan parks do things better, while charging less money. (I’ll save that more thorough comparison for our Tokyo Disneyland Christmas Trip Report!)
As for ride overlays and entertainment, all of the favorites are returning, including the attraction overlays, Sleeping Beauty’s Winter Castle, ‘Believe…in Holiday Magic’ fireworks (although they were cancelled 3 nights of our visit), and A Christmas Fantasy Parade.
I think there might’ve been a couple of new costumes for the parade, but otherwise, I didn’t notice much in the way of changes. With Christmas being the most popular season of the year, it’s likely entertainment doesn’t feel the ‘need’ to do anything new or different. (We’re probably lucky they didn’t cut anything major.)
A Christmas Fantasy Parade is the parade this time of year at Disneyland. This isn’t exactly my favorite thing to watch during the day–it’s sunny, and waiting for this long parade is uncomfortable. We watched part of it this trip during the day from a poor viewpoint, basically as a safety net just in case we couldn’t get a spot for the nighttime version.
Fortunately, we got a prime location for the second running of A Christmas Fantasy Parade, which was a far more pleasant experience thanks to it occurring after the sun went down. It’s still not on par with Mickey’s Once Upon a Christmastime Parade, but it was very enjoyable.
I hate to suggest Disney cut entertainment–as that seems to be happening without good reason–but A Christmas Fantasy Parade is too long. The number of performers is great, and their costuming is lovely, but the gaps between the segments of performers are too long.
Disneyland could start by nixing the storybook intro floats for each unit; guests can surmise the theme of each section from the substance of the floats. After that, reducing the number of crowd-flow gaps would be a good start. Maybe also remove one of the standalone Christmas tree floats, and condense the Toy Story stuff a bit.
Again, I almost feel bad suggesting cuts to this parade, as I know nothing this long and robust would be developed today. On the other hand, the parade is interminably long and suffers a bit from that. Within that long parade, there are some good floats and great costumes. The overall product could just be tightened up a bit (and refreshed in places) to make this a truly excellent Christmas parade.
The other thing I’d love is snowfall on Main Street during the nighttime version of parade rather than during Wintertime Enchantment mini lighting show that occurs twice nightly. Even though this is now listed in the app, it’s not ‘destination’ entertainment, and in our experience, most people don’t know what it is or when it’s happening.
Believe… In Holiday Magic Fireworks have also returned for the Christmas season, although they were cancelled multiple times during our trip due to strong winds. We didn’t put a ton of effort into seeing these since the viewing areas were packed each night (even when cancellation seemed probable), but generally enjoy this show.
We know many Disneyland fans who feel this show is dated (and it is the longest-running fireworks show at Disneyland), but it has a certain sentimentality and warmth…sort of like a Hallmark Christmas movie…that carries it despite the substance or production value not being quite on par with newer nighttime spectaculars.
I wouldn’t mind Believe… In Holiday Magic being replaced, but I also wouldn’t mind its run continuing. With Christmas already incredibly popular, I’m guessing we won’t see any changes in the post-Galaxy’s Edge Disneyland (any entertainment upgrades in the next few years will likely be over at DCA to draw crowds away from Disneyland), so presumably ‘Believe’ is safe for another few years.
On the attraction front, the main overlay is ‘it’s a small world’ holiday, which is now exclusive to Disneyland Resort. It’s offering FastPass this year, which can be picked up at the Matterhorn distribution area.
You can also book via MaxPass, which we would strongly recommend purchasing during the holiday season, especially if you’re visiting on weekends. We are not big fans of Disney upcharge offerings, but as we cover in our FastPass & MaxPass Guide for Disneyland, MaxPass is absolutely worth it this time of year.
We love ‘it’s a small world’ holiday. It’s the attraction we did the most this trip, forgoing FastPasses for much more “high profile” attractions for repeat rides on small world. I still remember seeing this overlay for the first time, and being blown away by just how significant of a change it is from the normal version.
Everything about the holiday overlay is exceptional: costumes, props, smells, lights, and even the soundtrack remix. Perhaps this is a controversial opinion, but I prefer the holiday version to the normal ‘it’s a small world.’
Haunted Mansion Holiday has a new centerpiece gingerbread house, as always (see our Haunted Mansion Holiday Photos & Video post for more about the overlay). If you haven’t ever been on Haunted Mansion Holiday–but are planning on it–you probably don’t want to read that. It’s full of spoilers.
I took a bunch of photos of Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge, but I don’t think enough has changed since our Disneyland Fall 2018 Update to merit posting another update.
I will hedge my previous comments about the Batuu rock-work being a perfect natural extension of the Rivers of America. As you can see in the photo above, there are some points where the architecture of Galaxy’s Edge peeks through the trees. I didn’t notice this before, and hopefully it’s remedied with more trees being planted before Galaxy’s Edge debuts.
My apologies for the lack of strong photos in this trip report. Between the jet lag and the heavy crowds, it was tough going, photo-wise. It also bugged me that some of the lights (including in Cars Land and on the top spire of Sleeping Beauty Castle) were either not working or not yet installed, so many photos I did take I won’t end up using.
I nevertheless carried my tripod every day, mostly for no reason.
One thing I did spend an inordinate amount of time photographing was ducks swimming around in the water in the Sleeping Beauty Castle moat reflections. I thought I only spent ~10 minutes doing this, but the time stamp on the first and last photo–and the many dozens in between–suggest otherwise.
I think this is a really neat shot, and I hope you agree. Otherwise, it was all for naught, and I’m pretty sure Sarah wasn’t exactly thrilled as she stood around waiting for me to take photos of ducks late at night.
All in all, it was great to have Christmas back at Disneyland. It was also slightly bittersweet, knowing what was happening outside the parks in California, but the mood inside was mostly cheerful. Disneyland and DCA are still mostly locals’ parks, and they serve as cathartic escapes from daily life, something that is definitely necessary for a lot of people right now.
Irrespective of what’s happening outside the parks, Christmas at Disneyland is something special, and the atmosphere here is something that no other Disney park in the world successfully captures. No matter how busy, there’s a certain warmth and even a communal energy to Main Street during the holidays. It’s when the charm of Walt Disney’s original magic kingdom best shines through, and the glow of the lights can melt even the iciest of hearts. If you’ve never visited Disneyland, we’d highly recommend trying to swing a holiday time visit. Not only is it our favorite time in the parks, but it’s our favorite time of year in California.
As for figuring out the rest of your Disneyland trip, including how to save money on Disneyland tickets, our Disney packing tips, whether you should stay off-site or on-site in a Disney hotel, where to dine, and a number of other things, check out our comprehensive Disneyland Vacation Planning Guide!
Have you experienced Christmas at Disneyland yet this year? Are you visiting soon? What do you like most about Holiday Time at Disneyland? Any questions? Hearing from you is half the fun, so if you have additional Christmas tips for Disneyland or any questions, please share them in the comments!
Catch up on posts I missed over the last two week, but that duck photo might be my new favorite Tom Bricker original TM
Lol, please excuse all my 1:33am IPhone typos
I feel like the insanely crowded and corralled choke-point that is the security line creates more of a potential target for mayhem and hazard for guests in the event of an emergency. It’s a confusing and frustrating experience. Plus, the no-bags line seems mostly to be (not entirely) a dad-filter. A separate area for strollers that’s wider and longer to accommodate their size and accompanying littles might help. It would also be a nice courtesy to have more female security personnel. Nothing like having to open up your tampon case for a strange dude. *eye roll* By the time I’ve made it to Anaheim, I’ve already been x-rayed, patted-down, wand-ed, ID’d, and squished into lines leading to a ride in a tiny seat. #DisneylandPreFunction 😉
But, dangit. Christmastime at Disneyland, so far, has still been worth it.
I LOVE the duck photo and would enjoy knowing the technical specs on the shot if you are willing to share them. (Camera, lens, aperture, shutter speed and ISO)
Being APs and So Cal residents, we ALWAYS make time to go during the holidays. We’ll be there on Friday! We get there early, stay late and have a blast! My hubby likes taking pictures of the duck too! Cool image. Where do you camp out for the parade?
Security is horrendous! I had an absolutely awful experience after mistakenly bringing in some contraband items…I was treated like a criminal (even though everything I had was completely legal and I offered to take it back to the car) I’ve never been treated that way at a Disneyland resort. I did however receive a written apology from Disneyland for the way I was treated, and they explained to me that security is a completely different entity than the resort. From what I gather, they are very unhappy with the company that runs the checkpoints. Hopefully that means there will be changes down the pipeline!
Well I liked the duck photo. For what it’s worth.
I’ve never been to DL during the Christmas season but I love the Believe…in Holiday Magic fireworks and Christmas Fantasy Parade soundtracks on YouTube. I also enjoy watching the YouTube videos for those shows plus Its A Small World holiday overlay.
I love the soundtracks as well. Another good one if you want something more relaxed–and this is a real deep cut–is the LuminAria soundtrack from the long-defunct DCA Christmas show. The World of Color holiday soundtracks are also solid.
LuminAira and World of Color holiday will be added to my Christmas playlist
I visited Disneyland Resort the first week of December during the 60th Anniversary and loved it except for the crowds. I personally prefer Disneyland’s parades over WDW. The WDW Christmas Parade is sooo outdated for me. I’ve seen it so many times. At least maybe they can update a bit.
I absolutely love the Haunted Mansion Holiday & It’s a Small World Holiday. And Cars Land in DCA is awesome too.
I first visited Disneyland for the 50th in early November 2005 and saw the beginning of the holiday season & vowed to return; which I did. However the crowds were much smaller early November. But honestly worth the trip. It is awesome. The only downside was I missed Epcot at the holiday season.
I think both Walt Disney World’s and Disneyland’s Christmas parades could stand an update, but if I had to choose one, I’d pick WDW’s. Both are lengthy and have some great/iconic performers (toy soldiers, reindeer, etc.), among other things.
I think you can’t miss Disneyland at night for the Holidays (referring to your recommendations to go early in the morning and avoid Nights and weekends). There is so much focus on lighting and decorations that to miss it (even on a day trip) would be a missed memory. So this is the time where rope drop to close might be in order – but take a break midday and head to DtD to eat, relax, and stroll – or hang out in the GCH lobby.
As far as snow on the parade route – yeah, it would be a great sight, but somehow unsafe for performers(?) it seems when the flakes hit the ground and don’t dissipate quickly there can be a slick situation.
I completely agree on the crowd levels (and lack of planning on security’s part). Sometimes it feels like when its more crowded the controls are more stringent – intentionally (which slows everything up). And it has been my experience that many blockout days are still very crowded to the point of mistaking it for a new passholder open day (coming back from a block). And most of these folks I would surmise are regular guests. They marketing they have done, and the sense of exclusivity to some of the offerings (limited time this, limited amount that) I believe creates the urgency for many to visit the parks repeatedly, even without passes, or for more guests to make trips. The whole notion of lower crowds from earlier this year (and during summer) due to nothing new seems to have gone away.
“I think you can’t miss Disneyland at night for the Holidays (referring to your recommendations to go early in the morning and avoid Nights and weekends). There is so much focus on lighting and decorations that to miss it (even on a day trip) would be a missed memory. So this is the time where rope drop to close might be in order — but take a break midday and head to DtD to eat, relax, and stroll — or hang out in the GCH lobby.”
Totally agreed. I worded that poorly, so I’ve gone back and fixed it.
“As far as snow on the parade route — yeah, it would be a great sight, but somehow unsafe for performers(?) it seems when the flakes hit the ground and don’t dissipate quickly there can be a slick situation.”
It snows during nighttime performances of Mickey’s Once Upon a Christmastime Parade at WDW.
The duck photo is cool! Love it!
I’m ready for a MVMCP report, especially on the crowds, from you and Sarah once you go!
To clarify: MVMCP from WDW
That will be up next Monday if all goes according to plan!
I’m with Tom on preferring the holiday version of it’s a small world. It takes an already impressive ride and really dials up the details. Plus I like the carols mixed in with the standard song. I always try for repeat rides on a Christmastime visit.
We were there Saturday, we’re Terry to go every weekend, and thought the crowds were just on par with summer. The line for pirates was a joke, but honestly it wasn’t bad and we stayed much longer than we had anticipated.
Thanks for all the great posts! My mom and I will also be at WDW this weekend for Mickey’s Christmas Party on Thurs and Mickey’s birthday celebration! Your columns have so helped me plan our trip!
Thanks for the report. We’re visiting for a couple days near the New Years holiday. Knowing what the crowds were like on a weekend in November helps set expectations. (I’m basically assuming we can only ride attractions early morning, late night, and with fastpass.)
For what it’s worth, I did’t even notice the ducks int he photo at first glance. I found the shadow that looks to me like maybe a scarecrow head with a very pointy nose to be the focal point. Sorry.
Well thanks for nothing! That in no way vindicates all the time I wasted taking pictures of ducks. 😉
Don’t worry, I have plenty of close-up shots of the ducks, in which the subject should be more obvious!
I think technically the centerpiece at Haunted Mansion Holiday is a gingerbread house, not a cake. Either way it’s very cool and I prefer the holiday versions of both HM and Small World. Welcome home.
Ha, you’re absolutely right. No clue why I typed cake. It even smells (very obviously!) like gingerbread.