This series of blogs focuses on my favorite things about Disney … those experiences that I find uplifting, enjoyable, memorable and worth more than one visit. These are my personal “must do’s” whenever I walk through the main gate of a Disney park and into what Walt Disney himself called “this happy place.”
As the song goes: It’s the most wonderful time of the year.
“It” is the holiday season. And where does that “most wonderful time” take place? Why, Walt Disney World and Disneyland, of course.
Regular visitors to The Vacation Kingdom of the World and The Happiest Place on Earth know what I’m talking about. There’s just something magically different about the two Disney resorts that make visits there during the holidays downright special.
From spooky projections along Main Street, U.S.A. to oversized jack-o-lanterns; to holiday overlays on cherished attractions to a handmade gingerbread house adorning a hotel lobby; to colorfully decorated Christmas trees at each park to Mickey-shaped wreaths and poinsettias along Main Street, U.S.A.; to faux snowflakes to very special candlelight processionals … it’s almost impossible NOT to get into the spirit of the season in central Florida and southern California.
Hard to believe, but the holiday season kicks off in August in Disneyland and Walt Disney World. That’s when Halloween festivities begin.
Yeah, we know. It’s still summer and it’s usually hotter than chestnuts roasting on an open fire in Florida, but during mid-August, the transformation begins: Scattered around both Magic Kingdoms are jack-o-lanterns of all sizes; bales of hay; shucks of corn; brown, yellow and orange bunting, and other assorted Halloween accoutrements.
When the sun sets, themed projections find their way onto Main Street, U.S.A.’s store fronts and spooky Halloween songs replace the usual turn-of-the-20th-century music that’s usually emanating from the street’s hidden speakers.
Mickey’s Not-So-Scary Halloween Party in the Magic Kingdom is the star attraction of the Halloween season. It requires a separate admission ticket, but guests – decked out in their finest Halloween costumes – get to experience a themed parade, spooky castle projections and a fireworks display, as well as ample trick-or-treat stations located throughout the park.
Once Oct. 31 has passed, it’s out with Halloween and time to deck the halls as the parks transition into Christmas mode.
The jack-o-lanterns are replaced by poinsettias and wreaths, while fully decorated Christmas trees start appearing everywhere – from the theme parks to hotel lobbies to a variety of locations in Disney Springs [Florida] and Downtown Disney [California].
Much like Halloween, there’s a special ticketed event in both Magic Kingdoms: Mickey’s Very Merry Christmas Party, complete with a Christmas-themed parade and fireworks. For good measure, the good folks at Disney throw in hot chocolate and cookies – as well as snowflakes falling along Main Street USA – to spice up the night.
At Disneyland, I find the holiday overlays on several attractions of particular interest.
At the Haunted Mansion, Jack Skellington and his ghoulish companions from Nightmare Before Christmas drop in on the 99 happy haunts who usually occupy the ghostly old house, while over in Adventureland, the Jungle Cruise transitions into the holiday-themed Jingle Cruise.
Finally, “it’s a small world” gets into the holiday swing of things in its own unique style. In addition to many of the attraction’s dolls getting dressed up in native holiday costumes, the exterior of the iconic building is splashed with vibrant colors during the night.
At Disney’s California Adventure, the nightly World of Color show transforms into the bright and brilliant World of Color – Season of Light. In addition, Mater’s Jingle Jamboree, Luigi’s Joy to the Whirl and Guardians of the Galaxy Monsters After Dark also see holiday makeovers.
Perhaps the most stunning transformation takes place on both Sleeping Beauty Castle in Disneyland and Cinderella Castle in Walt Disney World: That’s when the magic of Disney is on full display as the castles are wrapped in brilliant holiday colors.
This year, Disney’s Hollywood Studios in Florida has gotten into the holiday spirit with the introduction of Disney’s Jollywood Nights. Like Mickey’s Very Merry Christmas Party, this is a special ticketed event. It runs for 10 selected nights during the 2023 holiday season.
Jollywood Nights is just four hours long. There are so many special holiday shows, presentations and new menu items that you’ll probably wish the event lasted a lot longer. Among the night’s highlights are Tim Burton’s The Nightmare Before Christmas Sing-Along and the Jingle Bell, Jingle BAM!, a stunning display of fireworks, lasers, lights, projections and holiday music.
And don’t forget to check out the projections on the Twilight Zone Tower of Terror.
Of course, for those Disney fans with long memories, Hollywood Studios was once the site of the Osborne Family Festival of Dancing Lights, a spectacular presentation set up along the former New York Street area. The Osborne show featured millions of lights, all dancing to the beat of a rockin’ holiday score. It was truly beloved … and is sorely missed.
Almost since its inception in 1982, EPCOT has had its own special way of celebrating Christmas. It’s called the International Festival of the Holidays, where guests can experience each country’s unique holiday traditions first-hand through authentic decorations and storytellers.
Perhaps the crown jewel of EPCOT’s holiday celebration takes place in the America Gardens Theater. During select nights in November and December, the spectacular Candlelight Processional delights and inspires guests of all ages.
The Candlelight Processional features a mass choir and a 50-piece orchestra. During each presentation, a celebrity narrator tells the story of Christmas through scripture readings.
Disneyland’s version of the Candlelight Processional is scaled down in comparison. It’s held in Town Square, with the orchestra, choir and guest narrator setting up on the train station. It’s held just four times and attendance is limited to invited guests, assorted VIPs and Club 33 members.
Try as it may, Christmas celebrations have never really caught on at Animal Kingdom. There was the Jingle Jungle Parade years ago, and this year, there’s the Merry Menagerie, a troupe of strolling puppets who entertain guests as they walk around the park.
That being said, the Africa-themed Christmas tree near the entrance of the park is a sight to behold, as is the tree and the decorations adorning the lobby in the nearby Jambo House in Animal Kingdom Lodge.
At Disney Springs, the Christmas Tree Stroll is a must-see during the holiday season. The unique display, featuring numerous Disney-themed Christmas trees, is set up throughout the vast property. It’s best to get a map to guide you on your quest.
My favorite thing to do while at Walt Disney World during the holiday season is to head over to the Magic Kingdom area, hop on the monorail and check out the holiday displays at each of the hotels on or near Seven Seas Lagoon.
The piece-de-resistance is in the lobby of the Grand Floridian, where a giant, hand-made gingerbread house has been thrilling guests for decades. The life-size structure features white chocolate candy canes, edible snowflakes, sugar poinsettias and over 10,000 pieces of gingerbread.
Not too far from the Magic Kingdom is Wilderness Lodge, which is awash in Christmas cheer … as well as a giant tree and a herd of lighted reindeer in the main lobby.
The EPCOT-area resorts [the Boardwalk, Yacht and Beach Club, Swan and Dolphin] are also worth a visit as they feature their own unique holiday displays.
At the Swan and Dolphin, you can check out an Elf Outpost, as well as a life-size chocolate holiday display. In addition, you can meet Mr. and Mrs. Claus and their trusty companion, Kandy Kane, and watch a dancing light show along the resort’s courtyard.
Not to be outdone, Disney Cruise Line sets up a gingerbread house on each of its ships, providing seafaring guests the perfect backdrop for holiday-themed photos. There’s also a beautiful Christmas tree located in the atrium on all five DCL ships, where you can pose for photos with none other than Santa Claus.
Chuck Schmidt is an award-winning journalist and retired Disney cast member who has covered all things Disney since 1984 in both print and on-line. He has authored or co-authored seven books on Disney, including his On the Disney Beat and The Beat Goes On for Theme Park Press. He also has written a regular blog for AllEars.Net, called Still Goofy About Disney, since 2015.