Our Christmas guide for Disneyland & Disney California Adventure offers tips & tricks for visiting during the holiday season, which runs early November 2020 to early January 2021. This provides info about food, entertainment, decorations, and attraction overlays.
We’re pretty excited that Christmas has now returned to Disneyland, and can’t wait to experience all of our holiday favorites. This includes Haunted Mansion Holiday, Viva Navidad, it’s a small world holiday, Santa’s Holiday Visit, A Christmas Fantasy Parade, Believe…In Holiday Magic Fireworks, Christmas in Cars Land, and more.
For the most part, Disneyland’s Christmas offerings remain consistent from one year to the next. The biggest differences are new snacks, new booths and menus for Festival of the Holidays at Disney California Adventure, a couple new pieces of entertainment, and one returning fan favorite that was absent last year, leaving a huge hole in the holiday lineup at DCA…
Last year, the only new offering for Christmas at Disneyland was the Disney Holiday Dance Party at Tomorrowland Terrace, which features a DJ, Christmas tunes, and beloved Disney characters. Over at Disney California Adventure, there were several new offerings. First up is Mickey’s Happy Holidays, a seasonal character cavalcade with Mickey Mouse and many other characters in their holiday finery with two show stops.
Also at DCA, the Holiday Sunset Concert series in Paradise Gardens Park features a new act–The Suffragettes. There are also new Frozen adventures and encounters with Anna and Elsa inside the Disney Animation building at DCA to celebrate the release of Frozen 2. Of course, there’s also the spectacular stage musical, “Frozen – Live at the Hyperion” but that’s not new for the holiday season.
Disney California Adventure’s holiday entertainment absent last year was World of Color – Season of Light, which wasn’t shown due to technical difficulties. World of Color – Season of Light makes its triumphant return to Disney California Adventure! Season of Light is our favorite version of World of Color, and we are so happy to see its return, which is basically a Festivus Miracle!
Speaking of Festivus (well, not really, but it’s the best segue we can do), Disney California Adventure’s popular Festival of the Holidays returns in expanded form. This event celebrates a variety of cultural holiday experiences and traditions, including Christmas/Navidad, Hanukkah, Diwali, Kwanzaa, and even Three Kings Day from January 3-6, 2020!
Our Ultimate Guide to Christmas-time at Disneyland Resort provides comprehensive info and tips & tricks we’ve learned over the course of the last several years for best experiencing the holiday season at Disney California Adventure, Disneyland, Downtown Disney, and beyond. It may not normally feel like Christmas in sunny Southern California, but Disney gets the parks into the true yuletide spirit!
This covers tips for everything: Haunted Mansion Holiday, ‘it’s a small world’ holiday, A Christmas Fantasy Parade, Candlelight Processional, The Holiday Time at Disneyland Tour, Festival of Holidays, Disney California Adventure’s decorations and offerings, and everything else Disneyland has to offer at Christmas! We hope this thorough guide will prove helpful for everyone from first-time guests to yearly visitors.
The best part about all of this is that, unlike Walt Disney World, all of the Christmas entertainment at Disneyland and Disney California Adventure is included in regular theme park admission. There are no special events or additional tickets to buy, which is great news! (Click here for our Disneyland park ticket recommendations.)
Alright, now let’s get down to some of the things you need to know about Christmas at Disneyland…
When To Visit
Before we dig into this Ultimate Guide to Christmas at Disneyland, we should admit that we’re biased: November and December are our favorite months of year at Disneyland, Disney California Adventure, Downtown Disney, and the hotels. As Annual Passholders, we make an effort to visit Disneyland numerous times at Christmas every year. As much we love the holiday season, we have to concede that it comes with a big downside: crowds.
There are times when the parks are so slammed that you’ll think it’s spring break all over again. Luckily, Christmas lasts for nearly two full months at Disneyland, so you have plenty of options and days to choose. Not every single day is insanely crowded, though. To avoid crowds, consult our Disneyland Crowd Calendars.
Regardless, you should definitely try to visit Disneyland at Christmas-time strategically to avoid crowds to the greatest extent possible. Earlier in the season is better than closer to Christmas. Weekdays have lighter attendance than weekends. If you are visiting Christmas week or the week between Christmas and New Year’s Eve, expect crazy crowds, as these are two of the busiest weeks of the year.
Christmas at Disneyland
Disneyland (park) is perhaps the most heavily decorated of all the US Disney theme parks. Main Street is unquestionably the most decorated of the lands, with New Orleans Square being a distant second, and Frontierland and Critter Country having the next greatest number of decorations. Fantasyland and Toontown also get in the spirit.
Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge and Tomorrowland don’t get into the spirit of the season, as there will be no Christmas in the future or in outer space. Every other land does participate (to varying degrees) in the holiday season. Adventureland also doesn’t do much, but the rest of Disneyland features a variety of lights, garland, flowers, and other festive decorations.
In addition to Christmas decorations, there are several Christmas attraction overlays at Disneyland that are huge seasonal draws.
Haunted Mansion Holiday – Haunted Mansion Holiday is what happens when two holidays collide. Since October 2001, Disneyland has transformed its Haunted Mansion into an attraction inspired by Tim Burton’s The Nightmare Before Christmas for the fall and winter, with this overlay that works as both a Halloween and Christmas attraction.
Jack Skellington plays Sandy Claws as he makes a good-faith, but wholly misguided, attempt at presenting his version of a Christmas celebration. His efforts are a fully-fledged “takeover” of the Haunted Mansion, complete with a giant cake in the Haunted Mansion’s ballroom that is custom-made each year (we consider this the highlight of the attraction).
Haunted Mansion Holiday is incredibly popular with guests (Haunted Mansion purists typically are about the only people who aren’t fans of it) and we think it’s a lot of fun and incredibly well done. Besides using the infrastructure of the existing Haunted Mansion attraction, it bears very little resemblance to the classic attraction. For all intents and purposes, it’s a brand new attraction. It gets popular later in the day, so we highly recommend doing it early in the morning.
‘it’s a small world’ holiday – The classic children of the world attraction is transformed for the holidays, with the substance of the attraction itself receiving a shift to a peace on earth/happy holidays one. Everything from the attraction’s title song to large set-piece props in the attraction are changed.
Guests will experience three immersive scents during ‘it’s a small world’ holiday. In Asia, the beautiful fragrance of the cherry blossom will wash over guests. South America adds a classic holiday cinnamon scent, while the South Seas bring tropical flair with the smell of coconut to go along with the hundreds of iridescent bubbles floating through the air. These new scents are in addition to the fresh pine and peppermint candy that have been in the European scenes for years.
Overall, the most substantial addition to the attraction is the lighting added to the facade on the exterior of the attraction. Words don’t do it justice nor does the photo above. It’s truly something you have to see in person to fully appreciate. Because of these lights, ‘it’s a small world’ holiday can attraction much longer lines at night.
Normally, we would advise that you experience it earlier in the day to avoid these crowds. And we do advise you to do that. However, you’ll want to experience ‘it’s a small world’ holiday more than once, and you should make at least one of those rides at night. Floating into the lit facade is a great experience, and waiting in line isn’t all that bad because you have such a beautiful sight in front of you!
A Christmas Fantasy Parade – This parade includes six units, around a dozen floats, and over 100 performers. As far as entertainment goes, this is probably one of the biggest productions of the year at either Walt Disney World or Disneyland. From Fab Five characters to princesses to reindeer, toy soldiers, and even Santa Claus–it’s all there.
However, A Christmas Fantasy Parade has been around for over two decades, and it shows. The parade is okay, but it does not even begin to compete with Mickey’s Once Upon a Christmastime Parade at Walt Disney World. We still recommend seeing it as it is worthwhile, just in need of an update. Crowds for this parade can be an issue, especially on weekends. Try to see it during the week if you can.
There are usually two showings of A Christmas Fantasy Parade per day, and which you should see is a tough call. Viewing the earlier parade on a weekday means you’ll avoid the post-work rush of locals for the second parade, and will have lower crowds.
However, the first parade runs with the afternoon sun high overhead, whereas the second parade usually runs at dusk. It’s a long parade, so avoiding that sun can be a big advantage to seeing the second showing. Moreover, A Christmas Fantasy Parade is far more enjoyable at night (between lack of sun and the illuminated floats), so if you can handle slightly elevated crowds, the second parade would be our recommendation.
Believe… in Holiday Magic! Fireworks – Believe… In Holiday Magic! contains instrumental versions of many traditional Christmas songs after “Can You Remember,” with some pyro and effects on Sleeping Beauty Castle to match the tempo of the music.
As with all Disneyland fireworks shows, ‘Believe’ is routinely cancelled due to strong winds at higher elevations. Due to the show being cancelled so frequently, Disneyland has introduced an alternate version of the show with projections and other effects in place of pyro. If the full version cannot run, that will.
Due to the frequency of cancellations, we do not recommend camping out for hours in advance to watch the fireworks. Additionally, Main Street gets very crowded, so we recommend viewing the fireworks from the area around ‘it’s a small world’ holiday. You can see almost all of the pyro from back here (the launch zone is behind and to the left of ‘it’s a small world’), and it’s a good location for jumping into line for the ride as soon as it reopens after the fireworks.
Candlelight Processional – Disneyland’s Candlelight Processional has been a tradition since 1958, with celebrities like Cary Grant, John Wayne, Dick Van Dyke, Gary Sinise, Kurt Russell and James Earl Jones narrating the Christmas story at the Main Street Train Station while the Candlelight mass choir is sings beautiful holiday songs. The Disneyland Candlelight Processional is expected to be performed only 2 nights at Disneyland, the first weekend in December, with two performances each night.
We did Candlelight Processional at Disneyland with Kurt Russell as the narrator, and we enjoyed it very much. It’s a much more intimate experience performed at the Main Street USA Train Station, and we far preferred the Disneyland version to the way it’s down at Epcot.
One final thing worth mentioning in Disneyland (park) before we move on to Disney California Adventure is the Holiday Time at Disneyland Tour. We weren’t huge fans of this tour, but depending upon your interest in learning about Christmas history, access to attractions (and reserved parade seating), and budget, you may enjoy it. You can read our full review of the Holiday Time at Disneyland Tour here.
With that, let’s head across the Esplanade to Disney California Adventure to see its Christmas offerings!
Disney California Adventure
Disney California Adventure has some great Christmas decorations, which have seemed to expand with each year since the park’s big overhaul wrapped up. At this point, the decorations at DCA are every bit as good as Disneyland’s decorations–some of them are even better!
Upon entering the park, Buena Vista Street dazzles with vintage-style ornaments, garland, and other displays, all of which are inspired by Los Angeles as it appeared when Walt Disney arrived in the 1920s. The 50-foot Christmas tree adorning Carthay Circle is absolutely gorgeous, as are the interiors of the shops, which evoke a bygone era of department stores.
Hollywood Land continues this same style, with decorations that are accurate to Hollywood Boulevard in Los Angeles from that same era. Other lands, including Pacific Wharf, Paradise Pier & Pixar Pier, Cars Land, and Grizzly Peak also look resplendent with their holiday decor.
My personal favorites are the last two on that list–Cars Land and Grizzly Peak. For the latter, there’s snowfall, mason jars filled with lights, and other rustic decorations. Grizzly Peak and its adjacent airfield always look great, but the land is at its true peak during the holiday season.
Oh, and who could forget Big Marc (the gigantic bear outside Grizzly River Run) and his other bear homies around Grizzly Peak all sporting ugly Christmas sweaters?! Bears are so stylish that they can make even the ugliest Christmas sweater look like haute couture that belongs on the runway at Paris Fashion Week.
Grizzly Peak also has Santa’s Holiday Visit in the Redwood Creek Challenge Trail, which offers a variety of special holiday-themed activities, plus a meet & greet with Santa and his sleigh full of mischievous elves.
Cars Land Christmas – Radiator Springs twinkles with the spirit of the holiday season as its locals have decorated their businesses along Route 66, in keeping with the personality of each car.
This is a disservice to the quality of these decorations–they’re really clever and totally “on-brand” for each character from Cars. Cars Land Christmas is fantastic. There’s even a whimsical Snowcar and “Season’s Speedings” Christmas billboard greeting guests as they head down Route 66 towards Radiator Springs Racers.
In addition to the (normal) Radiator Springs Racers, Cars Land receives two Christmas attraction overlays: Luigi’s Joy to the Whirl and Mater’s Jingle Jamboree. Both of these are basically the normal attractions, but with Christmas music and some light decorating. Fun, but nothing like Haunted Mansion Holiday or ‘it’s a small world’ holiday over in Disneyland.
World of Color – Season of Light – Returning for Christmas, World of Color − Season of Light features classic holiday music and animation from movies such as Fantasia, Bambi, Beauty and the Beast, Frozen, and many more. World of Color – Season of Light features Christmas music and special effects, including new water effects.
We saw World of Color – Season of Light on opening night, and holy cow is it good. We were not huge fans of Winter Dreams, which was basically “World of Frozen,” but Season of Light is a complete 180. It’s already scoring high marks with fans, and we would strongly encourage you to prioritize getting a World of Color FastPass early in the day. This is a can’t-miss show.
The Holiday Sunset Concert series features the Suffragettes and Phat Cat Swinger, groups performing on different nights in Paradise Gardens Park. Additional Festival of Holidays entertainment includes musical and dance performances by Mostly Kosher, Blue13 Dance Company, The Sound, and the GRAMMY Award-winning Mariachi Divas.
Food Marketplaces at Festival of Holidays – In addition to live entertainment, Festival of Holidays also features numerous marketplace booths, each with seasonal snacks. When it comes to food, Festival of Holidays is a lot like the Disney California Adventure Food & Wine Festival, but with a yuletide twist. This is an excellent event that gives DCA a palpable energy during the Christmas season.
If you’re interested in snack recommendations, menus, entertainment info, and more, check out our Tips for Festival of Holidays at Disney California Adventure post. As covered there, we strongly recommend purchasing the “Sip & Savor Pass” (pictured above in Sarah’s hands) and snacking strategically!
Disney ¡Viva Navidad! – Disney ¡Viva Navidad! is a celebration of Latino holiday culture taking place in the Paradise Garden area of Disney California Adventure, which will be specially decorated for the holidays. The daily festivities include dancing and live music, crafts and face-painting for children, holiday foods at Paradise Garden Grill and BoardWalk Pizza & Pasta (and nearby carts), the “Disney ¡Viva Navidad! Street Party” and, meet & greets with Disney characters in special costumes.
The street party is awesome, featuring the Three Caballeros on a holiday float, Mickey Mouse and Minnie Mouse on street tricycles, flag-bearers carrying papel picado banners, Mexican folklorico dancers, samba dancers and drummers, plus giant “Mojiganga” puppets, including Santa Claus and Mrs. Claus.
This is the sleeper hit of Christmas at Disneyland Resort, and is something every guest should see. Find time to fit it into your schedule, because it’s full of fun cultural offerings. For those Walt Disney World fans out there, it’s the kind of thing you’d expect EPCOT Center (the old Epcot) to deliver. Plan to spend a couple hours enjoying Viva Navidad…you won’t be sorry!
Each of the Disneyland Resort hotels (Disney’s Grand Californian Hotel, Disneyland Hotel, and Paradise Pier Hotel), get in the Christmas spirit with decorations and entertainment. If you have some extra time during your Disneyland Christmas vacation, we highly recommend following the Disneyland Tinsel Trail Tourfor our half-day plan to see the best of this decor via a free self-guided tour.
The Grand Californian typically receives the most decor, with a giant Christmas tree in its lobby many ‘woodsy’ decorations. In addition to the decor, there’s Christmas entertainment at each of the hotels. We can’t provide a specific schedule for this as it seems sort of random, but this ranges from Dickens Christmas Carolers to a holiday band to the traditional piano player in the lobby of the Grand Californian Hotel.
The Disney Winter Village, which is a mix of decorations, live entertainment, dance parties, and ice skating is the main draw for Christmas at Downtown Disney. The skating occurs on “Olaf’s Frozen Ice Rink,” and has an added cost (plus skate rental, etc.).
Aside from this, Downtown Disney has its own holiday decorations, live entertainment on weekends and assorted nights, and many restaurants with their own holiday treats. With refurbishments ongoing at Downtown Disney throughout the next year, it’s unclear whether this Christmas season will be scaled back at Downtown Disney.
Disneyland Resort Christmas Food
If you’re visiting Disneyland Resort during the Christmas season and like holiday treats, expect to gain no less than 7.9 pounds for each day of your trip. Seriously. (Okay, maybe not…unless you’re like us!)
From the Peppermint Stick Ice Cream with Crushed Candy Cane Waffle Cone to the ridiculously awesome Plaza Inn Yule Log, Disneyland Resort has amazing Christmas snacks and desserts. The Yule Log is, frankly, a national treasure, and there are actually two variations of it available: one for November and one for December. Do not miss this gem of a snack.
As was the case with Halloween foods at Disneyland, you should also expect special seasonal menus consisting of new entrees offered for a limited time. These new entrees won’t necessarily be tied to Christmas, they’ll just only be offered during the Christmas season.
I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the Disneyland handmade candy canes that are made on various days throughout the holiday season. I’m not a huge candy cane fan, so I have no desire to wait in a long line 45 minutes before the park opens to get a ticket for a candy cane that cost $13+, but your mileage may vary. Our take is that these candy canes are probably more about hype and tradition than they are about taste. Is any candy cane really that good?
That’s it for our highlights of Disneyland Resort during the holidays. As Disney says, the Happiest Place on Earth, “Just Got Merrier” for the holiday season, and we totally agree. Christmas is the best time to visit Disneyland. If you’re taking your first Christmas visit to Disneyland, we hope you agree!
Do you enjoy Christmas Time at Disneyland? What do you like most about it? Any favorite holiday treats, attraction overlays, or other aspects of the season you enjoy the most? Do you have any questions we can answer about experiencing Christmas at Disneyland Resort? 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!