Our Christmas guide offers tips & tricks for doing Disney California Adventure and Disneyland during the holiday season to make the most of the festivities. Holiday Time at Disneyland runs November 9, 2018 until January 6, 2019 with entertainment, decorations, and attractions. (Last updated November 13, 2018.)
There’s nothing better than experiencing Disneyland and Disney California Adventure during the holiday season. We’ve been to Disneyland dozens of times at Christmas (it’s our favorite time of year to visit), and revise this guide accordingly as things change. In terms of an update for this year, we attended the opening weekend of the holiday season and have posted about it in our Disneyland Christmas 2018 Trip Recap.
Most fan favorites that Disneyland Resort offers during the holiday season have returned for Christmas 2018. This includes the ride overlays, parade and fireworks at Disneyland. Over at Disney California Adventure, Festival of the Holidays is the highlight, with decorations in Cars Land and on Buena Vista Street also being highlights. And of course, both parks will sell delicious holiday foods and decadent desserts.
The one notable omission is World of Color – Season of Light, and that’s likely because it’s still unknown whether the significant damage to the structural tech elements of the show can be repaired in time for the show to run this year.
Since World of Color – Season of Light has not been mentioned in any of the promotional materials for Christmas 2018, and it has not debuted with the other holiday entertainment, it might seem like a foregone conclusion that it won’t run this year. While that might be the case, we aren’t ready to jump to that conclusion just yet. (To the contrary, we are bracing ourselves for a Festivus Miracle!)
Foam snowflake makers have been installed, as have floating lighting barges. Over the first weekend of the holiday season, we noticed a lot of work continued on the show platforms. In fact, for the first time in months, we saw two of the three platforms lowered into the bay, which suggests that work is pretty close to being finished.
This doesn’t mean that World of Color – Season of Light will actually run at any point this Christmas season, but we wouldn’t be surprised to see it debut in December at some point. With Christmas drawing record crowds, DCA could use the show to draw guests away from Disneyland and help ease the crowds. We’ll keep you posted as to the show’s status–for now, let’s continue with the guide…
This “Ultimate Guide” provides comprehensive info and tips & tricks we’ve learned over the course of the last several years for best experiencing Disneyland at Christmas. We cover 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 2018 at Disneyland…
When To Visit
Our Disneyland Crowd Calendars: When to Visit Disneylandoffers color-coded crowd calendars for November and December that should provide you with info on exactly when to visit during the holidays to avoid crowds. With that said, the holidays at Disneyland are a veritable “Tale of Two Seasons” when it comes to crowds. There are times when crowds are relatively low, and times when the parks are so slammed that you’ll think it’s spring break all over again!
Luckily, Christmas lasts for nearly 60 days at Disneyland, so if you want to visit during this time of year, you have plenty of options and days to choose. Intuitively, it might seem like a no-brainer to travel during the lighter crowds (if you’re able).
However, there is one benefit to traveling during busier times, namely, longer operating hours as Disneyland really trims weekday operating hours if there aren’t crowds–with 2-3 fewer operating hours on a lightly crowded weekday versus a moderately crowded or busy weekday. If you’re like us, and you don’t mind navigating heavy crowds these times can be great to go to experience these longer operating hours.
If you don’t handle crowds well, definitely try to visit Disneyland at Christmas during the week before Thanksgiving week or the first two weeks of December. 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. Make sure to read our Tips for Avoiding Holiday Crowds at Disneyland post for some sanity-saving strategy.
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.
Tomorrowland is doesn’t get into the spirit of the season, as there will be no Christmas in the future, apparently, but just about 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. The most substantial addition inside “it’s a small world” since it debuted in 1997 is a large snowman that was added to the finale room a few years ago. This 14-foot tall snowman is made of crystal snowflakes and lit with thousands of lights.
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.
Following this music, the conclusion to “Can You Remember” plays, before the narrator remind the audience to “cherish the holidays forever, and always believe.” The entire soundtrack of Believe… In Holiday Magic can be found on the “Disneyland Holiday Magic” CD.
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 at the start of the Christmas 2018 season, Disneyland has introduced an alternate version of the show with minimal pyro. If the full version cannot run, usually 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
Prior to the overhaul of Disney California Adventure, decorations were hit or miss, depending upon construction. The park always had a Christmas tree, and giant decorations in ‘a bug’s land’, but everything else was fairly fluid. After its grand reopening last year, Disney California Adventure stepped up its game in terms of decorations in a big way, with Buena Vista Street and Cars Land being the big winners.
Each received decorations carefully themed to those lands, with the Cars Land decorations being especially clever and comical. The holiday entertainment on Buena Vista Street also has a holiday twist, with carolers out to give added ambiance. Plus, there’s the nightly Christmas Tree Lighting Ceremony.
Disney California Adventure has two Christmas attractions: Luigi’s Joy to the Whirl and Mater’s Jingle Jamboree, both of which are basically the normal attractions, but with Christmas music. DCA continues to receive more Christmas decorations and entertainment, getting better with each holiday season. It’s still not on the same level as Disneyland for Christmas, but it’s getting there…
World of Color – Season of Light – As discussed above, for at least the start of the Christmas 2018 season, World of Color – Season of Light is not being shown, due to repair work continuing on the show platform. It remains to be seen whether it’ll return in December, but it should return in 2019 if you’re planning even further in advance.
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.
Festival of Holidays – At the top, we indicated that Festival of Holidays is a lot like Disney California Adventure’s Food & Wine Festival. Scratch that, it’s bigger than Food & Wine Festival. This features numerous marketplace booths (like the one pictured above), each with seasonal snacks. In terms of food, it’s a lot like the Disney California Adventure Food & Wine Festival, but with a holiday twist.
In addition to the snacks, the many new entertainment offerings for Festival of Holidays–including Blue13, Mostly Kosher, and RAISE–were very good. This is going to be an excellent event that gives DCA a palpable energy this Christmas season.
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!
Disney California Adventure also typically has a variety of performing groups, dance parties, and even toy soldiers that randomly perform in Pacific Wharf.
Nothing around which we’d recommend planning a visit. If you like the regular version of this, you’ll like the holiday version. If you don’t like their regular version, you won’t like the holiday version.
Let’s head to the Disneyland Resort hotels and Downtown Disney to see what they offer for the holidays…
Resort Hotels & Downtown Disney
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 2018 and construction slated to begin at some point on Disneyland Resort’s new luxury hotel, 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 Holiday Demitasse Dessert to 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 (above) and one for December (below). 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!