Walt Disney World During the Holidays: Inside the ParksJanuary 25, 2012 No Comments
Walt Disney World, near Orlando, Florida, is mind-boggling in every way. From roller coasters to motion simulators, Broadway-quality production shows to personalized meet-and-greets, Walt Disney World is arguably one of the most beloved family vacation destinations in the world. But the Disney magic takes on a particularly special significance at Christmas time, when the entire complex is blanketed in holiday sparkle.
About the Theme Parks During the Holidays
Disney starts the holiday season earlier and earlier each year, with some events beginning right after Halloween. The week between Christmas and New Year’s is a lot of fun, but visitors should be prepared for absolutely staggering crowds. In fact, if you visit on New Year’s Eve or New Year’s Day, it is essential to arrive at your park of choice early in the morning and stay all day. The parks regularly hit capacity by 10 am.
Instead, consider visiting during the two weeks immediately following Thanksgiving, when the holiday season is in full swing but the crowds have not yet arrived. Many annual visitors feel that this is the absolute best time of the year to make the trek. The season starts winding down just after Christmas, although some events continue into the first week of January.
Each of the four theme parks at Walt Disney World offers something special for the holidays. Due to its nature as a wildlife park, Disney’s Animal Kingdom keeps its celebration relatively low-key. Decorations abound and the afternoon parade takes on a special holiday theme, but overall the party is less in-your-face than those at the other three parks.
Disney’s Hollywood Studios
In 1986, Arkansas businessman Jennings Osborne fulfilled a simple Christmas wish for his young daughter by decorating the outside of their home with 1000 sparkling lights. Each year the display grew bigger, until he eventually bought the houses on either side and decorated them as well. By 1993, the collection had grown to over three million lights, including a lighted rotating globe, two lighted carousels, and a 70-foot Christmas tree made entirely of lights. The family lit the display for 35 nights each Christmas season, drawing visitors from across the country and even around the world.
The tourists may have enjoyed the lights but the neighbors did not. Citing traffic snarls and safety issues, six neighbors filed suit. Osborne fought back, but in 1995 the state Supreme Court forced him to end the spectacle. Numerous cities offered to take the display, but as a fan of Walt Disney World, Osborne accepted the company’s offer to move the lights to Disney’s Hollywood Studios (then known as Disney-MGM Studios). Every year the lights are displayed on Residential Street, a backlot area that recreates a typical small town.
Disney retained Osborne’s original collection and has gradually added on each year. Today the collection stands at approximately six million lights. In the past few years, the lights have been timed to a musical soundtrack that includes holiday songs by the Trans-Siberian Orchestra and Mannheim Steamroller as well as classic seasonal tunes.
In 2011-2012, the lights were displayed from November 10 through January 7. The lights are illuminated just after sunset (around 6 pm, but varies slightly throughout the season) with a narration that tells the story of Jennings Osborne, and remain lit through park closing. The display is included with park admission. The magic of Disney Imagineering guarantees snow every night, despite the balmy Florida weather.
On a hilarious side note, when the display was first shipped to Disney from the Osborne home, one of the family’s Halloween decorations was accidentally included–an illuminated black cat. Disney cast members decided to hide the cat among the Christmas lights and see if anyone noticed. Not only did visitors notice, but they were delighted! Now the cat is hidden in a different spot each year and thousands of families can be seen on any given night carefully craning their necks and peeking into almost-hidden locations in search of the black cat.
Many families plan their annual vacation around one specific event–the Candlelight Processional at Disney’s Epcot. Replacing two previous shows, the smaller Candlelight Processional at the Magic Kingdom and the Living Nativity at Downtown Disney, the current incarnation has been an annual Epcot event since 1994. A celebrity narrator recounts the Biblical story of Christmas backed by a 50-piece orchestra and a 500-voice mass choir.
The celebrity narrators rotate every few days. We have seen stars as diverse as Neil Patrick Harris, Peter Graves and Marlee Matlin. The choir consists of vocalists from high schools around the country who perform for a few days each. An estimated 21,000 vocalists participate during each season.
Less well known but no less exciting is the Holidays Around the World presentation. The back half of Epcot is known as the World Showcase, featuring pavilions created and staffed by representatives of 11 nations including the United States. During the holiday season, most pavilions feature storytellers who share the classic traditions of their nation. In the American pavilion, where the Candlelight Processional takes place, storytellers share the traditions of Hanukkah and Kwanzaa. Each performance is short, typically lasting 15-20 minutes, allowing visitors to take in most or all in a single day.
Both Holidays Around the World and the Candlelight Processional are included with Epcot admission. They are generally presented from the day after Thanksgiving through December 30, although dates are subject to change each year. Dinner packages are available that include a table-service Epcot meal and reserved seating for the Candlelight Processional, but these often book up months in advance. General admission seating is provided, though you will need to line up an hour or more before show time. Dad and I have found that we can see perfectly when we stand behind the ropes at the back of the open-air theater, and we need arrive only 15 minutes or so before the performance begins.
Stay for park closing to see the holiday version of Illuminations. This fireworks and laser light show is spectacular all year, but the extended holiday show is truly not to be missed.
As the flagship park, the Magic Kingdom takes the holidays to a whole new level. Approximately a week after Halloween, the park becomes a winter wonderland, its plethora of decorations capped off by the transformation of Cinderella’s Castle into a glittering ice castle. The effect is achieved with over 200,000 LED lights, known as the Castle Dream Lights, which are illuminated nightly during the season following a special holiday show on the Castle Forecourt stage.
The Magic Kingdom also offers a separately-ticketed holiday event known as Mickey’s Very Merry Christmas Party. The party lasts from 7 pm until midnight and features a wide range of special holiday shows and character meet-and-greets. The holiday parade and the holiday version of Wishes, the Magic Kingdom’s fireworks extravaganza, are particular highlights. Free cookies and hot cocoa are available at stations throughout the park and most, though not all, attractions are open. Despite the warm Florida weather, through the magic of Disney Imagineering, expect snow on Main Street each night.
If you are unable to make it to Mickey’s Very Merry Christmas Party, you may still be able to enjoy some of the celebration. In recent years, Disney has offered the shows and parade during the day later in the season, after the Christmas parties end but before the park removes its decorations. Daytime events are included in regular park admission.
New Year’s Eve is always celebrated in high style with a late-evening performance of Wishes and an 11:45 performance of Fantasy in the Sky, the original Magic Kingdom fireworks show, with added 360-degree fireworks launches. Immediately after Fantasy in the Sky, the Disney characters perform the countdown to midnight over a park-wide loudspeaker. In 2010 and 2011, a preview New Year’s Eve celebration was offered on December 30. This proved exceptionally popular and is likely to continue in the future.
In 2011-2012, the Magic Kingdom holiday season ran from November 8 through the first week in January. Mickey’s Very Merry Christmas Party was offered on select nights from November 8 through December 18.
Weather in Florida
November and December weather is nothing if not unpredictable. In 2011, we had an 80-degree Christmas week, immediately followed by two nights of temperatures that dipped into the 20s! Only a little over 100 miles across and situated between the cold Atlantic and the warm Gulf of Mexico, Florida is renowned for its humidity. Consequently, the winter wind chill is often much lower than the recorded temperature.
Combat the weather by dressing in layers. It is not unusual to start your day at the park with a wind chill of 30 degrees, hit the low 80s by 2 pm, and then experience a wind chill below 20 that night. Always carry rain ponchos as well. Winter is typically the drier season, but there really is no such thing as a dry season in the subtropics! Winter rains are typically ice cold and miserable, even when the ambient temperature is mild. Although you may want to purchase souvenirs, forking over $65 for a Disney sweatshirt because you are freezing may not be a fun way to spend your time.