"Home" for the Holidays
By Lee Zimmerman and Laura Gilbreath, ALL EARS® Guest Columnists
This article appeared in the December 12, 2006, Issue #377 of ALL EARS® (ISSN: 1533-0753)
Going to Florida to celebrate the holidays may seem like a strange idea, but when you live in San Diego like we do, a traditional white Christmas is not going to happen at home either. We've been coming to Walt Disney World at least once a year for 10 years now and the holiday season is our favorite time -- so much so that it's become a key element of our Christmas tradition.
The most obvious changes at Walt Disney World during the holidays are all of the holiday decorations that go up both in the parks and at the resorts. One of our favorite things to do each year is visit all four parks and many of the resorts to see the decorations and what might be new this time. The average life of holiday decorations at WDW is about three years and while the theme for each resort is fairly consistent (the Yacht Club uses boats, the Wilderness Lodge uses tepees and antlers...) there are changes in both the exact implementation and in what gets decorated. For example, there were almost no holiday decorations on the main floor of the Contemporary this year, which we found disappointing, but the Boardwalk Villas and Beach Club both had decorations that were new to us. (For those interested in holiday decorations at Walt Disney World we highly recommend the Yuletide Fantasy tour, which takes you all around the Walt Disney World resort to learn about the decorations.)
In the parks, the level of holiday decoration varies based on what we're sure are rules in the Big Disney Rule Book. For example, Main Street in the Magic Kingdom is fully decked out but in Tomorrowland nothing except the stores has any holiday decorations. And of course everything is appropriately themed -- decorations in Animal Kingdom tend to look like they are made of more natural materials, with lots of animal figures, while Disney-MGM Studios decorates the lamp posts on Hollywood Boulevard with lights and tinsel like those on big city streets. And then there's World Showcase in Epcot, where the country pavilions have decorations themed to their holiday traditions.
As frequent visitors to WDW, we've already "done it all," so we don't actually do that many rides and attractions in a given day -- instead we wander around a lot and watch the live entertainment. That's one of the best things about the holidays at WDW -- there is even more live entertainment than usual, and many of the "regular" musical entertainers throw in some holiday music. On this last trip we heard the Village Beatniks in Animal Kindgom playing Carol of the Bells and Jingle Bells (or maybe it was "Jungle Bells"), and the a capella group The Voices of Liberty, in the American Adventure pavilion at Epcot, was performing holiday music exclusively. We saw them three times, and would've enjoyed hearing them even more. And speaking of music, even the background music in the parks takes on a holiday theme, with "Big Band" sounds in the Studios, an African sound at Animal Kingdom, and good old-fashioned Christmas music on Main Street, U.S.A.
Each of the parks has at least something special for the holidays. Probably the most noticeable thing in each park is the large Christmas tree, festively decorated with lights and oversized ornaments. The trees for Animal Kingdom and Disney-MGM Studios are located outside the entrance to those parks, while the Epcot and Magic Kingdom trees are inside -- and there's a special tree-lighting ceremony in the evenings for both of those.
In Animal Kingdom, the "character trails" in Camp Minnie-Mickey are transformed into Christmas tree trails. There are many Christmas trees set up in the area, each themed to a different character with decorations and ornaments. For example, the Stitch tree has surfboards (some with a bite out of them!) and good-and-bad Stitch ornaments, and the word "'ohana", while Pluto's tree has bones, doghouse ornaments, and dog-decorated ribbons. At the end of the trails, the characters are dressed in their holiday best, like Mickey in his holiday sweater and hat, or Santa Goofy. During the holidays, the afternoon parade is "Mickey's Jingle Jungle Parade", and all of the floats and animals are decked out for the holidays with tinsel and lights. Two of our favorites are the crocodile with the reindeer harness and antlers, and the tiger wearing earmuffs and mittens. It's a fun and festive parade set to a lively holiday soundtrack, and is a "must-see" each year for us.
The Disney-MGM Studios has also brushed a holiday theme over its normal "Stars and Motorcars" parade to turn it into the "Hollywood Holly-Day Parade." The cars are decorated with garlands and wreaths, and many of the characters and dancers are wearing holiday attire. Santa Claus himself is the Grand Marshal and talks to the parade audience as he passes by.
The Studios also hosts one of Disney's signature holiday events -- the Osborne Family Spectacle of Dancing Lights. This year the several million lights that decorate the Streets of America have been enhanced to "dance" (otherwise known as animation) in coordination with music from the Trans-Siberian Orchestra. This is a great change that turns the somewhat overwhelming light display from "wow" to "WOW!" And it snows, too!
Holidays at the Magic Kingdom are, well... Magic. I don't think it's possible to walk down Main Street, U.S.A. -- with garlands strung across the street, and wreaths and decorations everywhere -- and not feel the holiday spirit. There are many holiday events at the Magic Kingdom, including the nightly tree-lighting ceremony we mentioned earlier, as well as "Mickey's 'Twas the Night Before Christmas" show, and the Christmas Parade. The parade doesn't start its daily run until mid-December, so if you're like us and visit earlier than that, the only way to see it is to attend one of Mickey's Very Merry Christmas parties. The party requires a special ticket, and includes additional holiday shows, snow on Main Street, hot chocolate and cookies, the Christmas parade, and a special holiday version of the Wishes fireworks show.
While the Magic Kingdom is magical, we think that Epcot serves as the centerpiece for holiday activities at Walt Disney World. In World Showcase there are special holiday storytellers at each country's pavilion. These characters tell stories about the holiday traditions in their countries -- and they're not all about Christmas. China and Japan's celebrations revolve around the new year, while in Morocco the storyteller describes the Islamic observance of Ashura. At the American Adventure there are Hanukkah and Kwanzaa storytellers as well. Other holiday activities includes special performances of "A Christmas Carol" by The World Showcase Players in the U.K., and the Voices of Liberty Dickens' Carolers, as mentioned earlier.
But it's after night falls at Epcot that our favorite holiday spectaculars occur. First is the Candlelight Processional -- the other "signature" event of Disney's holiday season. Three times each evening the members of multiple guest choirs, headlined by the WDW Cast Choir and the Voices of Liberty, file into the America Gardens Theater to perform a 50-minute show that combines a guest narrator reading the traditional Christmas story with a large selection of beautifully arranged Christmas carols accompanied by a full orchestra. The sound is amazing and this has to qualify as one of the best free entertainment events anywhere. But seating is limited and many people take advantage of a Candelight Processional Dinner Package that includes dinner at one of Epcot's table service restaurants with reserved seating for a Candelight Processional performance.
During the holidays a special holiday finale has been added to Epcot's nightly fireworks and laser show, IllumiNations: Reflections of Earth. The song, "Let There be Peace on Earth" also features narration by Walter Cronkite. We find it ironic that the fireworks that accompany a song about peace are the loudest and most explosive that we've ever seen -- the finale goes on for a solid minute with so many shells it's almost unimaginable. We've seen it many times, but we still look at each other at the end and say, "WOW!"
And it's still not over... After IllumiNations we love to wind down a bit while we take in another of Epcot's holiday specials -- the Lights of Winter. This is a series of huge lighted arches that cover the bridge connecting Future World to World Showcase. These arches are covered with thousands of lights that are beautifully choreographed to holiday music. They are lit each night as part of the tree-lighting ceremony, and continue to dance until long after the park closes. If the wind is cooperating, the Fountain of Nations in Future World also dances to the same music at the same time as the lights. We sit on the edge of one of the concrete planters and watch the lights dance as people stream out of the park under the arches -- it's about 20 minutes before the music repeats. It's a great way to end our day.
With all these special events you can see why we find the holiday season a great time to visit Walt Disney World. As an added advantage, if you come in early December like we do then park attendance is down -- though it definitely increases the closer it gets to Christmas. We find an early December trip provides a nice break in the hectic "getting ready for Christmas" process and really puts us in a Christmas mood.
About the authors: Lee Zimmerman and Laura Gilbreath are long-time Disney fans who live in San Diego and hold annual passes to both Disneyland AND Walt Disney World. They enjoy traveling with their faithful companions Tigger and Stitch and maintain a website of their adventures, Disney and otherwise, at http://www.travelswithtigger.com.
Holiday Happenings at Walt Disney World: http://allears.net/tp/holiday.htm
Laura Gilbreath's photos of holiday decorations around the Disney Resorts this year: http://allears.net/tp/wander/wander54.htm
Photos of 2006 Osborne Family Spectacle of Dancing Lights: http://allears.net/tp/wander/wander52.htm
Yuletide Fantasy Tour reports: http://land.allears.net/reviewpost/showproduct.php?product=245&cat=66
Reader Reviews of other Holiday Happenings around WDW: http://land.allears.net/reviewpost/showcat.php?cat=72
Editor's Note: This story/information was accurate when it was published. Please be sure to confirm all current rates, information and other details before planning your trip.