It’s time for the holidays and you may be thinking about ways to celebrate away from home. Maybe at a theme park?
If you’re planning a trip to Orlando this holiday season, you’re probably wondering whether it’s worth it to take a trip to either Walt Disney World or Universal Orlando, and it’s true that both theme parks celebrate the holidays quite differently. But to help you out, we’re going to break down both theme parks!
Walt Disney World
Christmas Trees & Decorations
Disney World is often one of the most magical places to be during the holidays with the addition of all the beautiful decorations and activities, but it can also be one of the busiest times of the year.
That said, the Christmas trees and holiday decorations really amp up the magic, and you can find them in all four Disney Parks as well as the hotels and in Disney Springs.
All the Christmas trees are ginormous, and they each have special decor that references their location. You just have to look closely!
If you don’t want to visit the parks, you can stop by Disney Springs to do the Christmas Tree Stroll, which consists of 20 different trees with all kinds of decor and themes. You can pick up a map (including stickers) to show you the location of the trees, and if you complete the map, you can turn it in for a special surprise.
But while the entrances to most Disney Parks feature all kinds of holiday decor, there are not many decorations past that point.
That means there’s basically no festive decor in places like Fantasyland in Magic Kingdom or Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge in Disney’s Hollywood Studios, which is fine — but it’s not the same as experiencing decor all over the place.
So if you’re hoping for holiday decorations that feel like you’ve been transported to the North Pole, you might be slightly disappointed in Disney World.
Another fun element of the holidays in Disney World are all the gingerbread houses! Several different hotels feature giant gingerbread displays, with Disney’s Contemporary Resort’s colorful gingerbread castle…
…and Disney’s Beach Club’s gingerbread carousel. Each display is made with real gingerbread and they can take days (if not weeks!) to complete.
Best of all, you can also buy special holiday treats near these displays! These treats can be enjoyed right then and there or you can also get gift boxes that would make perfect presents for the holidays.
Because these displays are located in hotels instead of parks, you don’t need any tickets to see them, but they may require a bit of planning and transportation on your part if you aren’t staying in one of those hotels.
Festival of the Holidays
EPCOT’s Festival of the Holidays kicks off this year from November 25th through December 30th, and it features a variety of Holiday Kitchen booths that serve holiday food from different cultures and countries.
You can also take part in the Cookie Stroll, which tasks you with trying five different designated cookies in order to earn a special cookie prize. We’ll eat cookies for free, but hey, we’ll take a prize too!
The Candlelight Processional is another classic tradition in EPCOT, held in the American Adventure Pavilion’s America Gardens Theatre. On performance evenings, celebrity narrators tell the story of Christmas alongside a choir singing Christmas songs. You can purchase dining packages for guaranteed seating.
Also, don’t forget to listen to the storytellers in select countries, where they share their own holiday traditions and stories with guests.
And while you’re strolling around the festival, be sure to check out the holiday decorations in each country!
You don’t need to make a special reservation or get another ticket to visit EPCOT’s Festival of the Holidays, but you do still need valid Disney World admission and a Park Pass Reservation, so keep that in mind.
Mickey’s Very Merry Christmas Party
Mickey’s Very Merry Christmas Party is BACK this year, and this event is a special ticketed event that will cost you between $139 to $179 (depending on the date) for three hours of holiday partying in Magic Kingdom.
…as well as Minnie’s Wonderful Christmastime Fireworks!
If you value these exclusive experiences, you’ll probably want to invest in an event ticket. Note that ticketholders can enter the park as early as 4PM, but you’d need a separate ticket to spend the entire day in Magic Kingdom.
One of the fun elements of the holidays at Disney World is the ride overlays! Some are available all day, like the Jungle Cruise’s transformation into the Jingle Cruise or Living with the Land‘s festive makeover, but some ride overlays are only available for experiencing during Mickey’s Very Merry Christmas Party.
During Mickey’s Very Merry Christmas Party, Space Mountain gets red and green lighting projections, plus snowflake projections during the ride itself.
If you really want to experience all the ride overlays in Magic Kingdom you probably want to get a ticket for Mickey’s Very Merry Christmas Party, but if you want to skip the event you can still ride the Jingle Cruise during the day!
Disney World releases a TON of holiday treats this time of year, with some available on regular days in different Disney Parks and some exclusively only on Mickey’s Very Merry Christmas Party nights. Basically, you don’t have to attend the party to get your fill of holiday goodies.
Stick with Disney Springs or Disney World hotels for treats without any theme park admission involved, or check out each Disney Park for different limited-time treats!
Christmas Trees & Decorations
Universal also hosts the Holiday Tree Hunt for which you can purchase a map and go on a scavenger hunt for holiday trees in Universal parks as well as Universal CityWalk. Completing the scavenger hunt gets you a special ornament!
Many areas of the theme parks are also extensively decorated, including the Wizarding World of Harry Potter and even Seuss Landing is transformed into Grinchmas! We’ll explain this more shortly.
Universal Orlando Holiday Parade Featuring Macy’s
The Universal Orlando Holiday Parade Featuring Macy’s features HUGE balloons with classic Universal characters. It’s a pretty unique parade to experience!
Among the classic parade floats, you can also see characters like King Julian from Madagascar, Shrek, Minions, and more.
Unlike Disney World, you don’t need a special event ticket to experience the holiday parade (although you do need valid theme park admission), so you won’t be out additional cash if you’ve got your heart on seeing it.
You can visit with the citizens of Who-ville as well as the green meany himself — the Grinch! One of the best experiences is The Grinchmas Who-liday Spectacular, which is a live show that tells the story of the Grinch — with a real dog playing his pet dog Max.
If you’re a fan of an icon like the Grinch, Universal should probably be on your holiday visit list.
Wizarding World of Harry Potter
The Wizarding World of Harry Potter is already a magical place but add Christmas decorations into the mix and you’ve got some serious holiday magic! Both Diagon Alley and Hogsmeade are outfitted with decor, and Hogsmeade’s natural setting (with permanent snow) is basically perfect for Christmas.
And you can catch the Magic of Christmas at Hogwarts Castle every night from dusk until park closing time, which comes with projections and even fireworks.
If you’re a fan of Harry Potter, it might be worth it to choose Universal over Disney World during the holidays.
If Disney World’s Candlelight Processional doesn’t sound interesting to you, you may enjoy the Mannheim Steamroller performances coming to Universal again this year!
The artist will perform live on the Music Plaza Stage in Univeral Studios Florida on December 3rd, 4th, 10th, and 11th at 7PM.
If you want to get some souvenirs as well as have some fun, the Tribute Store gets an annual holiday makeover, complete with multiple themed rooms with different kinds of holiday merchandise.
This year we spotted rooms themed to New York at Christmas, the Wizarding World of Harry Potter, the Grinch, and Earl the Squirrel. Even if you don’t want to shop, you might want to check out all the details of each space!
And just like Disney World, Universal also features special holiday treats, like Grinch Cookies! You can typically find them in different spots around the parks.
This year, a number of vegan holiday sweets are also available, as well as some savory items if sweets aren’t your thing!
Now if you do want to pay extra for some special perks, there are two different options. You can book Universal’s Holiday Tour for $79.99 per person, which includes an exclusive meet-and-greet with the Grinch, reserved seating for the Grinch live show, small plates, non-alcoholic drinks, a hot cocoa bar, a private Santa meeting, priority access to an attraction, and an after-hours showing of the Magic of Christmas at Hogwarts.
You can also book the Grinch & Friends Character Breakfast for $41.99 per adult and $26.99 per child at the Circus McGurkus Cafe Stoo-pendous in Islands of Adventure. This breakfast is available on select dates between November 12th and December 29th, and you need valid theme park admission to the park.
So ultimately, Universal is a great place for Harry Potter or Grinch fans or anyone who wants a more unique experience — without having to pay extra for a special event.
But Disney World also has that special Disney magic that can’t be discounted, so if you don’t care about Harry Potter or you prefer the holiday decor on Main Street, U.S.A., you’ll probably be happy with Disney World. Plus EPCOT definitely has the food advantage with Festival of the Holidays!
Hopefully, this helps you narrow down your options for which theme park to spend the holidays in! Hey, you could always just visit both parks, so maybe you don’t even need to choose between the two. Keep reading AllEars for more theme park news and updates!
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Are you visiting Orlando this holiday season? Tell us in the comments!