The holiday season at Disneyland Resort kicked off last week (running until Jan. 6, 2016) and we’ve visited the parks on a few occasions to check things out since. Christmas is our absolute favorite time of the year at Disneyland and Disney California Adventure, so we thought we’d drop in with some thoughts and photos from our experiences thus far.
Consider this post a companion to our Ultimate Guide to Christmas at Disneyland (which has also been updated today following our experiences thus far this Christmas season). That post is a crash course in planning a Christmas visit, whereas this is more anecdotal ramblings. I guess that post has anecdotal ramblings, too. Whatever.
For starters, as we predicted in our updated When to Visit Disneyland post, the holiday season has already proven quite busy, and this is the “slow” time of the year. However, with the Disneyland 60th Anniversary Diamond Celebration drawing big crowds since May, plus the Season of the Force Star Wars event kicking off earlier this week, plus Annual Passholders wanting to see Fantasmic and the Rivers of America attractions one last time before they go dark in 2016, plus Christmas on top of that, there will be no slow time for the remainder of the year.
If you’re looking for a strategy, you want to visit on weekdays, always. You either want to hit the parks first thing in the morning and get the Season of the Force and Christmas attractions out of the way, or visit at the end of the day, and hope for unseasonably cold weather (like we’ve been having). Southern Californians believe you can suffer hypothermia if the temperature drops below 60 degrees, so the parks aren’t as busy if it’s cold, and really clear out after the fireworks.
Weekdays prior to about 5 p.m. are not too bad outside of Tomorrowland and New Orleans Square, but once people start getting off work, things become busier. And again, this is during what is typically a lull. Once people start taking vacations for the Thanksgiving and Christmas holidays? Expect STAMPEDES AND MASS PANDEMONIUM. Or just really dense crowds and long waits. On the plus side, at least there will be plenty of entertainment, including an unprecedented twice-nightly fireworks shows.
In other words, bring your patience if you’re visiting Disneyland this November or December, but also bring your festiveness, as there is a lot to celebrate right now…
With concurrent festivities for Disneyland’s anniversary, Star Wars, and Christmas, even the surliest curmudgeons should find cause to celebrate. Seriously, there is quite the celebratory mood in the parks. In the last few days, we’d estimate that over half of the guests are decked out in attire for one of these celebrations. This is a nice change of pace for the typical off-season vibe of Disneyland, which at times can make the place feel like a mall where ambivalent locals hang out. (Really, though, the parks haven’t felt like that since the 60th kicked off–the atmosphere in the parks has been great for months, in spite of the crowds.)
Balancing these three competing celebrations is tricky in a park with as small of a footprint as Disneyland, but park operations has done an excellent job. Season of the Force has totally taken over Tomorrowland, and breathed a lot of life into otherwise what has been a neglected corner of Disneyland. Sure, it makes the area even more of a hodgepodge, but it’s a hodgepodge that now has kinetic energy. But that’s a different topic for a different post.
The Christmas decorations are carefully integrated with the 60th decor in a way that works pretty well. There are two big losses this year in terms of decor, and that’s the garland over Main Street (due to the height of certain Paint the Night parade floats) and the icicles on Sleeping Beauty Castle.
However, garland has been added to buildings on Main Street, and the 60th lighting on the Castle makes it pop. Plus, the wreath on Sleeping Beauty Castle this year is far more tasteful than the one in years past. The Christmas tree at the end of Main Street is beautiful as ever, and sure puts to shame that garish thing in the Magic Kingdom that looks like it was thrown up on by the Christmas Popcorn Monster, circa 1987. (Editor’s note: Christmas Popcorn Monster is copyright Tom Bricker, all rights reserved. No adaptations of this character in motion pictures, literature, or theme park without express written consent.)
All things considered, I think the decor in Disneyland this year for Christmas is a net “win.”
In terms of what’s new this year, it’s mostly about what isn’t happening. The ‘Believe…in Holiday Magic’ fireworks–that it seems like every local besides me dislikes–are not being shown this year, in favor of the superior (even I can admit that) ‘Disneyland Forever’ show.
The big loss, however, is Big Thunder Ranch. As was the case with Halloween this year, it’s not open for Christmas, which means the loss of cute little shows, areas to explore, activities for kids, meet & greets, and–perhaps most importantly–a respite from the holiday crowds.
Otherwise, not a ton has changed. Haunted Mansion Holiday and ‘it’s a small world’ holiday are virtually identical to last year, save for the addition of Hatbox Ghost and a new gingerbread creation.
This isn’t a bad thing, as the mantra here is probably ‘don’t mess with a good thing.’ I think Haunted Mansion Holiday has the right idea here with the new gingerbread house each year to give locals something new to see.
With that said, I absolutely adore ‘it’s a small world’ holiday. It’s one of my favorite attractions, seasonal or not, and it’s a wonderful experience from the moment you see the exterior.
The costumes, additional props, and soundtrack remix are all excellent. This might be heresy, but I actually prefer it to the normal version of ‘it’s a small world.’
Caveat: although the original version isn’t my favorite, I acknowledge and respect the cultural significance and artistry of ‘it’s a small world’ and realize the Christmas overall doesn’t have the same impact as the original.
The other attraction overlay, Jingle Cruise, seems to have different props and a revised script, and I think is an improvement upon last year. I could be imagining this, but it seems like there’s less fruitcake (the script that I experienced last year was very heavy on fruitcake jokes) and other added props that really round out the experience.
Now in its third year, I think Jingle Cruise has really hit its stride. In the first year, it was underwhelming but still enjoyable. Cognizant of that criticism last year, it seems like the Imagineering team overcompensated and really went off the deep end. Now, it still skews aggressive in terms of decor strewn around the attraction, but I think that works.
Yes, some of the decorations and script are totally cheesy and even kitschy, but so too is the Jungle Cruise. In their blind love for the original Jungle Cruise, I think a lot of people forget that this doesn’t have a high kitsch level. The regular attraction requires buying into the self-aware premise and corny fun, and so too does Jingle Cruise. Since the latter doesn’t have history on its side, that’s often forgotten. Keeping that in mind, they are tonally very comparable. For me, the holiday works to the exact same degree as the normal attraction works. (Although there isn’t a ton of lighting here, it’s also better at night.)
Food-wise, there’s a ton of new stuff on the seasonal menu, which is great to see given the lackluster showings for Halloween. Although “controversial” (you know life isn’t too bad when this is your version of controversy…) the Candy Cane Mickey Mouse Beignets sold in New Orleans Square are excellent. In my opinion, they are better than the old gingerbread ones. Then there’s the Eighth Wonder of the World, the World Famous Plaza Inn Yule Log!
I’ve only had 2 Yule Logs thus far this Christmas season, so I’m going to need to conduct extensive research into this dessert before I can give you my comprehensive “Yule Log Strategy Guide” post. I need to try them at different times of the day, eating them in different locations, etc., etc., for scientifically determining the optimal way to consume a Yule Log. You’re welcome, America. Other desserts and seasonal food will likewise require grueling research in the coming weeks. So much for getting into shape for the Walt Disney World Marathon! 😉
Across the Esplanade in Disney California Adventure, the main holiday offering is the exceptional Viva Navidad. Like the now defunct Big Thunder Ranch, this is the hidden gem of the Christmas season at Disneyland Resort. It’s reasonably popular, but it should be so much more popular given its quality.
It has shades of EPCOT Center, and is as great as it has ever been. We have a whole post covering the greatness of this event here. If you enjoy Viva Navidad, spread the word about it. It would be wonderful to see Disney California Adventure have celebrations throughout the year akin to this, celebrating the diverse culture of California, and the only way that will happen is if Viva Navidad swells in popularity.
There are also some new decorations in DCA (I noticed a few in Pacific Wharf and Grizzly Peak Airfield), but best I could tell, everything was about the same, just as is the case in Disneyland. This is totally forgivable, as the big changes this year have been for Disneyland’s 60th Anniversary, and Disney has dumped a ton of money into the entertainment budgets of the California parks this year. Of course, they have reaped huge dividends in attendance, so here’s hoping that once the Diamond Celebration ends early next fall, we see some new investment in Halloween and Christmas entertainment to continue drawing those crowds!
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!
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Have you experienced Christmas at Disneyland yet this year? What do you like most about it? Planning on going for the holidays? 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!