In mid-November 2023, ABC filmed the “Wonderful World of Disney: Magical Holiday Celebration” and “Disney Parks Magical Christmas Day Parade” at Walt Disney World. I spent the entire day of these television specials being filmed in Magic Kingdom, from park opening until almost 2 a.m., and thought I’d share photos plus my experience of what it was like. (Updated December 25, 2023.)
Before we dig into the photo report, let’s start with details about these specials. First, I apologize for ruining your childhood with the very first sentence of this post. I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but ABC’s Disney Christmas Day Parade is not filmed live and hasn’t been for a while. The silver lining is that, depending upon your age, your whole childhood might not be a lie. If you remember the version hosted by Regis Philbin and Joan Lunden, that would’ve been live (at least, partially).
Nowadays, showing up to Walt Disney World or Disneyland on Christmas expecting to see celebrity performances live is about the biggest possible Disney-related mistake you can make. Not only will you not see the parade in person, but you will be subject to one of the busiest days of the year in the parks. With that said, showing upon the correct day(s) when the specials are recorded won’t be much better. It’s not a tight two-hour production–it’s an all-day affair with take after take to get things just right.
Suffice to say, these ABC holiday television specials are pre-recorded starting in November at Walt Disney World Resort in Florida, Disneyland Resort in California, Aulani Resort in Hawaii, and aboard Disney Cruise Line. The cadence in the last several years has been to record most musical performances in Florida and the parade in California. However, that changed for Christmas 2023.
The specials feature holiday classics, plus original music, and heartwarming stories about how the Disney Parks bring families together. They also showcase new attractions that are coming soon or recently opened at Walt Disney World and Disneyland, as well as sneak peeks of movies and shows coming to theaters and streaming services. Basically, these specials are one part entertainment and one part infomercial for all things Disney.
This year, Derek and Julianne Hough once again return to host “The Wonderful World of Disney: Magical Holiday Celebration” airing on ABC on Sunday, November 26 from 8 p.m. until 10 p.m. Eastern. This is the one that’s not a parade–it’s almost entirely musical acts on the stages in front of Cinderella Castle in Magic Kingdom.
The Hough siblings are joined by country music star Mickey Guyton and “The Golden Bachelor” host Jesse Palmer as co-hosts for the 40th anniversary of “Disney Parks Magical Christmas Day Parade” airing on ABC on Monday, December 25, 2023 from 10:00 a.m. until 12:00 p.m. Eastern and 9:00 a.m. until 11:00 a.m. Pacific. Both specials will also stream on Hulu and Disney+ the day after their premieres.
The big change for 2023 is that the Christmas Day parade was filmed at Walt Disney World Resort as opposed to Disneyland. (More on this below.) “Disney Parks Magical Christmas Day Parade” will also feature musical performances for the special including the following:
Derek Hough and Julianne Hough – “Good Morning” and “Deck the Halls” Medley
Chrissy Metz – “Silver Bells”
The Smashing Pumpkins – “Evergreen” (A new, original holiday song!)
Iam Tongi – “Mele Kalikimaka”
The Broadway and North American Tour Cast of Disney’s “Aladdin” – “Friend Like Me”
Meg Donnelly – “Christmas (Baby, Please Come Home)”
The vast majority of this year’s ABC’s Disney Parks Magical Christmas Day Parade was filmed at Walt Disney World and in a single day–back on Sunday, November 12. For those planning ahead for 2024 Walt Disney World vacations, it’ll probably be filmed around the same day next year.
Over the years, we’ve caught a lot of bits and pieces of parade filming. Part of this is purely accidental, as we’ve been in the right (or wrong) place at the right/wrong time. The other part is…well, also coincidental. Before Disney started doing the Thanksgiving weekend special in 2016, the Christmas Day parade filming usually happened the first week of December.
As we’ve mentioned countless times, that’s been our favorite week to visit Walt Disney World for the last ~15 years. So we knew that there’d be overlap with the parade filming and didn’t avoid the parks. Those were simpler times, and the way the parade was filmed–especially back when it was an actual parade–was far less intrusive.
We’ve never intended to watch the parade filming, it’s always been a matter of good/bad luck. Well, until 2023! This year was the first time ever that I’ve specifically sought out the filming of the ABC holiday television specials. And I’m glad that I did.
Normally, we actively recommend avoiding the parks where the Disney Christmas Day Parade is being recorded. It’s boring to watch in person and it creates congestion. What you’re seeing on television now might look really fun to see in person, but we promise you that’s the result of meticulous work in shooting, re-shooting, and careful editing.
This isn’t to say it’s not enjoyable to watch, but there is a lot of stopping, pausing, and restarting. The songs you see performed on stage are not like a traditional concert with the performer singing a variety of different holiday hits. It’s the same song several times, and then the next performer moving on to their song…also performed several times. What you see in the span of 2 hours on television can take multiple full days to record.
Our other reason for avoiding the filming at Walt Disney World is because it’s typically almost impossible to see anything worthwhile when it’s just the musical performances. That’s because the crowd is ‘carefully curated’ for these performances–did you really think the audience happened to be so photogenic, with everyone wearing Disney Christmas clothes and accessories currently being sold?
The answer is no–the audience is hand picked! There are reserved viewing areas at Walt Disney World for all of these performances, and everyone you see at home in the audience is typically a Cast Member and their families/invited guests. The general public is allowed to watch from farther back, but crowd control often necessitates people not being able to stand in certain areas.
When it comes to filming on the Cinderella Castle Forecourt Stage, there are Cast Members and their friends & family dead-center, then the filming infrastructure, then a bunch of shrubs to conceal all of that. If you’re not invited into those viewing areas, you’re not going to see much!
I spent that entire day in Magic Kingdom, arriving just after opening and staying until almost 2 am on that night (or morning, I guess?). When I first approached Magic Kingdom, I immediately thought, “what have I gotten myself into?!” There were huge lines just to enter the park, and the parade route was already packed.
Some moron had given everyone a heads up that parade filming would be occurring, and approximately half of the Sunshine State descended upon Main Street. Even though the first parade wasn’t for a few hours, the front row of the sidewalks was already filled with guests.
And who could blame them? It was a rare opportunity to see Mickey’s Once Upon a Christmastime Parade without dropping $150+ per person for Mickey’s Very Merry Christmas Party or visiting the weeks of Christmas and New Year’s Eve (when most Annual Passholders are blocked out, anyway). That certainly sounded good to me, so I joined the masses!
I was less concerned with having a front row view of Mickey’s Once Upon a Christmastime Parade, so I went and did other things for a couple of hours before securing my spot under the Christmas tree a little over an hour in advance. This was far earlier than I would’ve liked to arrive, but the area was already filling up.
Thankfully, time passed pretty quickly. I chatted with other fans who came out for the parade filming, several of whom had also done Disney Jollywood Nights the prior night. We bonded over horror stories about that event, as there were no shortage of those. (I’m not one to strike up conversation with random strangers, but I talked to easily a dozen people in the span of a few days about Jollywood Nights. I’ve never heard “in real life” be so outspokenly negative about anything at Walt Disney World. Usually, there’s a difference between online and in-person discourse. Not so much with this!)
It had been a couple of years since I’d seen the daytime version of Mickey’s Once Upon a Christmastime Parade, so that was enjoyable. There were a few modifications for the ABC Christmas Day Parade, but nothing major–an opening banner, a few characters, plus both Santa and Mrs. Claus.
It was also neat to see the cameras swooping up and down in the middle of Main Street (they’re visible in some photos) to capture footage of the parade. Aside from a couple of times when it seemed like the parade slowed down and lingered just a bit in that area, Mickey’s Once Upon a Christmastime Parade was presented as a normal parade.
This means there was no starting and stopping or multiple takes. It was maybe 1-2 minutes longer than normal, which isn’t bad. Heck, during the Mickey’s Very Merry Christmas Party I attended, one of the floats got stuck and it ended up being delayed by more than that!
Beyond this, there were pros and cons to the ABC Holiday Specials being filmed in Magic Kingdom. The good was that wait times were lower than they would’ve been otherwise. Crowd levels, as measured by wait times, were only 3/10 with the average wait over the course of the day being only 29 minutes.
This would be pretty good on a normal day, but it was fantastic on a holiday weekend when Magic Kingdom was open until midnight. The added entertainment definitely pulled crowds away from attractions, and the longer hours diluted the attendance throughout the day as people opted to arrive late, take midday breaks, and return for the evening. It also helped that it got surprisingly cold and windy when the sun went down, which cleared out the crowd a bit.
The bad of the filming was that, for pretty much the entire day, Main Street and the parade route were packed. Navigating the park was a challenge at times. Various thoroughfares were closed and traffic became one-way in other parts of the park. There was one time when I had to backtrack around almost half the park because a main route was blocked in Fantasyland/Liberty Square.
Main Street viewing for Happily Ever After filled up about 45 minutes in advance, and announcements were played encouraging guests to watch from elsewhere. I ended up watching from the Rivers of America because Fantasyland was closed, and even the waterfront promenade was fairly full.
I posted some videos of the parade and stage show filming on social media, and received responses from others in the park. Some claimed it was the busiest they’d ever seen Magic Kingdom. Others were surprised that it wasn’t as bad as they expected.
The thing is, both were right. The front of Magic Kingdom was crazy and chaotic. Same goes for areas of Fantasyland and other parts of the park impacted by the filming. Then there were large swaths of Tomorrowland, Adventureland, and more remote areas of the park–totally away from all filming–that felt downright dead.
My day was pretty well balanced. I focused on parade filming early on, and then ignored all of the stage show stuff during the middle of the day. There were two reasons for this. First, there was a huge crowd gathered off to the sides of Cinderella Castle that was several rows deep and everyone was holding their phones high in the sky. Sure, I could’ve watched whatever was happening through their screens, but that didn’t seem very fun.
Second, I really don’t think much was happening! Maybe I’ll be proven wrong when the specials air and there’s a ton of daytime footage from Magic Kingdom, but every time I walked through the Hub, it seemed like a big crowd gathered for no particular purpose at all. There was no one performing. People were just…waiting…for something to happen?
I wouldn’t really call what I did a strategy, but whatever it was paid off. The guests who arrived early and tried to watch whatever was happening during the daytime hours largely were not riding attractions midday, and then got burnt out and left their Cinderella Castle spots by nightfall.
That’s when I was beckoned by the warm glow of lasers and lights at around dusk, and was honestly kind of surprised by how few guests were still around. Because Disney wanted a larger crowd for the opening dance sequence, so they also gave guests in the overflow area little finger lights. If you’re watching the special and see some dude wearing a Wilderness Lodge hat and huge camera bag in the Hub, that’s me! (There’s no way you’ll be able to make anyone out in the crowd, but nevertheless, I am there.)
It still wasn’t a great view of the celebrities and musicians, but it was good enough. It also helped that the searchlights and lasers themselves were entrancing, and that Walt Disney World kept shooting off fireworks during the various performances.
Watching the musical opening, in particular, was a really fun experience. This is a lengthy musical medley with quick transitions and, to this clumsy and uncoordinated man’s eye, a lot of fancy and tough dance moves. Well, the performers kept messing up about midway through and having to do it all over again. Obviously, that sucked for them and they grew visibly frustrated–while maintaining their cool and composure.
The audience was hardly broken up about this, as getting to a certain point in the routine triggered pyro. So we kept seeing fireworks, then they’d goof up, and it’d all have to be done again. If the pyro was triggered (and it often was), there would be a longer delay between takes, as they’d have to wait for the fireworks to be reset and the smoke to clear. In aggregate, this was the most pyro I’ve ever seen in a single day at Walt Disney World. That’s really saying something, since we’ve done New Year’s Eve and Fourth of July at both Magic Kingdom and EPCOT countless times!
While the fireworks were (obviously) fun, the really neat part about this was that the audience was clearly cheering for the performers. There would be an audible groan when they’d mess up (not in a mean way), and when they finally nailed it, the crowd erupted. That essentially summed up the energy of the late night audience, and it was similar for later songs (none of which took that many takes), too.
I also watched a bunch of musical performances throughout the night, most of them after Magic Kingdom’s official midnight closing time.
I’m not going to name all of the names since I don’t know most of the performers, but I’d say I say about half of the list for the Thanksgiving special. That definitely included the Smashing Pumpkins, Robin Thicke, and Chris Janson. I know who all of those dudes are. Seeing the Smashing Pumpkins was like a childhood dream come true, and in Magic Kingdom of all places. Never would’ve guessed that someday Billy Corgan would do Disney!
Here are more photos of the entrancing lasers and lights added to Cinderella Castle for recording of the Disney Holiday Specials on ABC:
I finally left Magic Kingdom just before 2 a.m., at which time musical numbers were still being recorded on the Cinderella Castle Forecourt Stage. I probably could’ve stayed even later, as it didn’t seem like they were sweeping the park since the performances were ongoing. (Walt Disney World issued a neighborhood advisory of fireworks until 2:30 a.m., so I’m guessing it continued until then.)
It was pretty surreal and cool to be on a mostly-empty Main Street as music, lasers and lights filled the air. It reminded me of the good ole days when Magic Kingdom was frequently open until midnight and had Extra Magic Hours until 3 a.m., except back then, there were no lasers or famous musicians performing on in the park.
Ultimately, spending all day in Magic Kingdom for the ABC holiday special filming was definitely a unique experience, and one I’m very happy to have had! It’s not one I’ll try to replicate next year at Walt Disney World or Disneyland, as all of the prior times we’ve been in the parks for stage show filming weren’t as positive or memorable (except for the crowds and congestion). However, if it happens to be happening while we’re in the parks, we’ll definitely stick around until the evening to see if it ends up being a repeat of this!
Were you in Magic Kingdom during the day or at night when the Holiday Specials were filmed? Did you watch the parade, musical performances on stage, or both? What was your experience? Have you been in Walt Disney World or Disneyland during past filmings? Would you like to attend? Thoughts on ABC’s Disney Parks Magical Christmas Day Parade or the Thanksgiving weekend special? Any questions we can help you answer? Hearing your feedback is both interesting to us and helpful to other readers, so please share your thoughts below in the comments!