Real Christmas Magic at Disney World

Walt Disney World is at its best when it tugs at the heartstrings, prompting a purely emotional response the evokes or creates a sense of nostalgia and sentimentality. The experiences that overfill you with joy and leave you speechless, not because of their technical wow-factor, but because of something simpler. For lack of a better term, they are moments of magic.

Explaining what this is is far more difficult than explaining what it isn’t, and there have been plenty of examples of the latter of late. Disney Enchantment, Harmonious, and the whole 50th Anniversary feel less like passion projects, creative celebrations, or sentimental storytelling and more like corporate mandates and Disney+ synergy strategy. Remy’s Ratatouille Adventure is screen-heavy to the point that it takes guests out of what could otherwise be a charming and endearing attraction.

Examples like this abound. Situations where the tail wags the dog and guests are left to marvel at the bleeding edge technology itself rather than it being a means to an end–fading into the background to enable greater suspension of disbelief. Or, where the finished result is so carefully crafted by committee that it feels less like an artistic creation and more like…a product. Thankfully, Animal Kingdom has received a couple of additions bursting with heart, personality, and charm in the last few months.

The first is KiteTails. We already sang the praises of this absurd and weird and totally chaotic kite show, but it bears repeating. A lot of Walt Disney World fans are still sleeping on this or have deemed it beneath being worthy of their limited vacation time. If that’s you, all I can say is that you’re wrong about KiteTails.

Disney KiteTails is unlike anything you’ve experienced at Walt Disney World, I assure you. It’s a complete repudiation of the aforementioned “carefully crafted by committee” approach, instead embracing a “let’s wing it and see what happens!” mentality. For those bemoaning that it lacks the polish of modern Disney, that’s exactly the point. Up until fairly recently, there was an entire subset of Weird Disney World productions that didn’t take themselves too seriously and were all the better for it. Unadulterated fun, because that’s what really matters at the end of the day.

KiteTails is exactly that. It’s not lavish, big budget, or wow-inducing. In fact, about the only time it produces an audible reaction from audiences is when the gigantic kites do something unexpected, have a near-miss with the water, or “conclude” their performance. But the performers have a ton of heart and put their all into it, and the end result is something special. Ridiculous, but special. So grab the closest seat you can find to the crash zone, buckle up (not literally, although maybe not a bad idea if it’s windy), and let yourself have some fun.

The second addition to Animal Kingdom is Merry Menagerie–Walt Disney World’s very own woodland critter Christmas!

Technically, this is not a “new” addition as it debuted two years ago. However, Merry Menagerie was a relatively low-profile addition that didn’t make huge waves in Walt Disney World fan circles. When it didn’t return last year and wasn’t included in this year’s original announcement of Christmas entertainment, my fear was that Merry Menagerie had gone extinct.

For those who didn’t catch Merry Menagerie in its debut year, these are life-sized artisan-sculpted puppets that interact with guests in Discovery Island throughout the day. The Merry Menagerie includes reindeer, foxes, polar bears, penguins, birds, seals.

These winter animals are accompanied by serenading live musicians who mingle amongst guests and the Merry Menagerie of critters to create festive atmosphere. In fitting form, the environment is key to these animals.

Walking out of the Oasis and crossing the bridge to Discovery Island is actually a tad like stepping out from under the tunnel and stepping foot onto Main Street USA at Christmas. This area is in the midst of a celebration of winter, with holiday decorations that are handcrafted by the eclectic community of artists who make Discovery Island their home.

Discovery Island is brimming with sparkling white holiday decorations, animal luminaries on rooftops, wireframe bird-shaped lanterns, and themed garland adorning the buildings throughout the land. This “land” goes from being wholly forgettable during most of the year to one of Walt Disney World’s most memorable at Christmas.

Discovery Island is the unequivocal highlight of the holidays at Animal Kingdom, and live entertainment is the big reason why.

The musicians and puppeteers make the land feel lived in, engaging and interacting with guests in unique and unfamiliar ways. Again, it reminds me of Main Street or World Showcase at their best.

The Merry Menagerie is quirky and funny, while simultaneously being majestic and awe-inspiring. Those are some strong words for what you could easily dismiss as puppets. That would be a mistake.

These are animals imbued with emotion by their excellent human puppeteers.

Just like animals, they can be goofy, magnificent, playful, glorious, and silly. They have the same idiosyncrasies as their real world critter counterparts–minus the danger that the polar bears will eat you.

You’ll see elk bucking, birds swooping, foxes darting at bubbles, and so much more. They interact with one another and guests, with a range of behavior that’s so entertaining you could watch for hours. I know, because we have. The talent of the Merry Menagerie performers, and their ability to breathe life into their Christmas critters cannot be overstated.

In the sense that their human puppeteers are plainly visible, the Merry Menagerie is a lot like Finding Nemo: the Musical. (Remember that?) The puppeteers emote as they control the critters, and the line between performer and animal blurs, as each takes on the personality and emotions of the other.

It’s truly remarkable how effective this is, and how easy it is for guests to suspend disbelief. The Merry Menagerie of animals is mesmerizing as you watch the creatures interact with guests and one another. This is not hyperbole.

For me, interacting with the Merry Menagerie is an emotional roller coaster. Quite often, the critters start with a sneak approach from behind, nuzzling against my arm or leg.

My heart sinks a little, because I don’t particularly like being touched by strangers and startle easily (because I’m introverted). Then I turn around and realize it’s an adorable animal rather than a wayward tourist, and my heart instantly fills (because I’m not a monster).

I can’t offer a better explanation for how this, but this is absolutely how it plays out. Time and time again, with pretty much every guest who comes into contact with the animals. Not everyone is startled by them–not everyone has the personality of a feral cat, like me–but everyone is disarmed and brought joy by them.

We’ve observed more guests than we could count pet the animals, and genuinely react when a fox pounced or a seal snuggled them. Several kids were taken aback by the polar bears, and a few asked their parents if it was okay to approach and touch the gentle giants.

Merry Menagerie is more poignant this year than its debut year.

There’s a certain tension in the air at Walt Disney World, and animals have a way of cutting through that. (That’s why we need more dogs at the airport.) There’s also the notion that physical contact has become imprudent or irregular over the last year-plus, which is itself an abnormal idea. Petting, hugging, and playing with these animals provides a type of connection that people are desperately craving right now.

In short, the Merry Menagerie is something wholesome and pure for the holidays that makes a huge impact on Walt Disney World guests.

It’s entertainment like this that showcases how Walt Disney World can do something special without that being a blockbuster new attraction that cost hundreds of millions of dollars and almost a decade to build. Kites and puppets, who would’ve thought?!

Merry Menagerie is hilarious and engaging; these animals add personality and substance to Discovery Island. Hopefully Disney expands this in the future and finds new and fun ways for interactions, as this is an incredible offering.

These Merry Menagerie puppets are the kind of thing that will be an indelible memory for some guests. This, once again, underscores why entertainment is integral to the Walt Disney World experience, and why it’s so great to have it starting to return.

Even these photos undersell Merry Menagerie, as it’s almost impossible to photograph.

Either you’re getting posed shots that miss the essence of the experience or blurry shots of a seal’s nose attacking your lens. Candid images that convey the emotion of Merry Menagerie are a real challenge.

Since photos don’t really do Merry Menagerie justice, Sarah put together this montage of video clips.

This doesn’t do it justice either. The talent of these entertainers is the way they emote and engage with guests, not pose for social media. This isn’t some mindless Instagram photo op–it really doesn’t translate to anything other than being there.

Walt Disney World has also released polar bear and penguin puppets for Christmas 2021.

Even amidst all of the 50th Anniversary items, these are a top 5 piece of merchandise at Walt Disney World right now. Not that anyone needs it, but these are a great “conversation piece” with the critters. We’ve seen many kids with these puppets getting great reactions out of their larger counterparts. They’re fantastic.

The fun on Discovery Island doesn’t end when the Merry Menagerie heads off to hibernate for the night. The rooftop luminaries create a warm and festive glow throughout the entire village. Beautiful holiday background music continues to play, giving the area a ‘winter wonderland’ elegance. Tree of Life is projected with a shade of deep blue, while snow collects on its trunk. I wish the Merry Menagerie were still out mingling with guests in the evening, as the lights plus the puppets, music, and everything else would be even more perfect than it already is. But it is perfect, both day and night.

With fewer decorations everywhere and without Mickey’s Very Merry Christmas Party, that makes Discovery Island and Merry Menagerie the stars of the Christmas season at Walt Disney World’s theme parks. Do yourself a favor and be sure to devote plenty of time to seeing this area, soaking up the seasonal atmosphere, and playing with these charming critters. Merry Menagerie is something special–real Christmas magic at Walt Disney World.

Planning a Walt Disney World trip? Learn about hotels on our Walt Disney World Hotels Reviews page. For where to eat, read our Walt Disney World Restaurant Reviews. To save money on tickets or determine which type to buy, read our Tips for Saving Money on Walt Disney World Tickets post. Our What to Pack for Disney Trips post takes a unique look at clever items to take. For what to do and when to do it, our Walt Disney World Ride Guides will help. For comprehensive advice, the best place to start is our Walt Disney World Trip Planning Guide for everything you need to know!

YOUR THOUGHTS

What do you think of Merry Menagerie at Animal Kingdom? Pleased that more entertainment is returning to Walt Disney World? Think that the charming and endearing experiences are the essence of the Walt Disney World experience, or do you only care about the blockbuster attractions? Think Merry Menagerie is as awesome as our praise for it, or is it overrated? 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!

21 Responses to “Real Christmas Magic at Disney World”
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