Walt Disney World possesses its own brand of magic 365 days a year, but from early November to shortly after the New Year, the World becomes something much more magical as the whole resort takes on the air of Christmas.
The holidays really are a special time to visit Walt Disney World. Sure, prices go up during this “peak” season and at times the crowds go up just as much, but it’s worth the extra saving to be able to experience the parks and resorts in their full Christmas regalia.
At night, Cinderella Castle transforms into a wintry ice castle. Each park and resort boasts its own unique tree, and the decorations match the theme of each land and attraction. World of Disney in Downtown Disney is the perfect place for gift shopping, while at World Showcase in Epcot, each nation features storytellers who share that country’s holiday traditions.
Above everything else, five events and experiences stand out. These traditions make a November or December vacation to Walt Disney World one the whole family will remember forever.
5. Decorations & Displays at the Resorts
Those who have visited Walt Disney World, particularly those who have stayed on property, can appreciate the detailed theming and uniqueness of each resort. Disney takes advantage of this during the holiday season and decks out each of the resorts in exquisite decorations that fit perfectly with the themes. Much like the parks, the decorations and displays at each resort are uniquely beautiful.
The decor at the Polynesian Resort looks like Christmas in the South Seas. The Yacht Club and Beach Club’s decorations have the feel of classic American antiques. The Contemporary Resort boasts a stunning outdoor tree, while the tree at Pop Century glistens with sparkling LED lights. The tree at Animal Kingdom Lodge displays wildlife-themed ornaments, and the massive tree in the atrium at the Grand Floridian contains hundreds of turn-of-the-20th-century items on its branches. My personal favorite is the Wilderness Lodge, where the decor takes on the style of a National Parks lodge in the Northwest. Guests can take a carriage ride from there to Fort Wilderness Campground, which is festooned in more of an Old West style and campers bring their own decorations.
Many of the resorts also offer amazing displays of edible decorations. The Contemporary features a huge display made of sweet treats every year. I’ve seen gingerbread replicas of famous Hawaiian buildings at the Polynesian, and the Beach Club boasts a working carousel made of gingerbread.
4. Disney’s Grand Floridian Resort Gingerbread House
People love gingerbread houses during the holiday season. What could top a delicious gingerbread house? How about a life-sized gingerbread house where cast member sell baked treats from inside?
Inside the cavernous atrium of the opulent Grand Floridian Resort, Disney’s pastry chefs construct a 16-foot tall gingerbread house, complete with intricate details – all edible – just in time for the Christmas season. A 2009 article on the Disney Parks Blog details what goes into making this massive concoction:
Well, to build it you’d need 800 pounds of flour, 600 pounds of sugar and 1,050 pounds of honey. So we’re offering the next best thing — a taste of the experience. The Grand Floridian Bake Shop uses a classic gingerbread recipe from Austria to make their gingerbread houses, ornaments and cookies.
This gingerbread house isn’t merely a free standing structure (complete with puffs of smoke from the chimney and golden-stamped “hidden Mickeys” all around) – guests can purchase tasty holiday goodies there:
The Grand Floridian gingerbread house offers homemade items like shingles, stollen bread, chocolate chip cookies and chocolate-peppermint bark. You’ll also find gingerbread ornaments and miniature gingerbread houses.
Guests can get to Disney’s Grand Floridian Resort from the resort monorail loop between the Transportation & Ticket Center and the Magic Kingdom. It’s a yummy diversion from the hustle and bustle of the season.
3. Osborne Family Spectacle of Dancing Lights
We all know that one guy in the neighborhood who goes all out with his Christmas lights. The neighbors complain, but he gets the satisfaction of knowing that people drive from all over town to see his house, which is why he ups the ante year after year. Walt Disney World’s version of a Christmas light show is the Osborne Family Spectacle of Dancing Lights at Disney’s Hollywood Studios. And much like Walt Disney’s grand ideas, this light show started in the mind of one man: the late Jennings Osborne.
This stunning spectacle started modestly in Arkansas as a single home’s annual display. Every year, Jennings Osborne and his family set up an elaborate collection of holiday lights. Over time, the collection of lights grew and grew… and grew! In 1995, the Osborne family decided to share their magic with the world. Walt Disney World Resort happily offered to become the new permanent home for this exceptional exhibition of holiday cheer.
On the Streets of America set at Disney’s Hollywood Studios, millions of twinkling lights brighten up that whole side of the park, twinkling in time to classic Christmas songs. Guests can walk along the main drag and side streets to find surprise after breathtaking surprise. It’s a true treat for those who enjoy light displays (but avoid it on the weekends, when locals crowd it out).
2. Mickey’s Very Merry Christmas Party
Who wouldn’t want to be a special guest at Mickey Mouse’s Christmas Party at the Magic Kingdom? That’s exactly what happens at Mickey’s Very Merry Christmas Party. Like Mickey’s Not So Scary Halloween Party, which I’ve written about recently, Mickey’s Very Merry Christmas Party is a separately ticketed event which takes place on select nights at the Magic Kingdom. Guests who have purchased tickets can arrive in the mid-afternoon, and regular, non party guests must leave at 7:00 p.m.
Party guests enjoy shorter lines for attractions and a special parade and fireworks shows. Several stations throughout the park offer cookies and hot chocolate, and carolers entertain on Main Street, U.S.A. One of the coolest features at Mickey’s Very Merry Christmas Party is the snow on Main Street, a unique treat especially when the weather is still warm. My family has attended the party twice, and we consider it a highlight of a holiday trip to Walt Disney World. If you’re balking at the extra expense of the party ticket, which can run upwards of $60 per person, the party is well worth every penny.
1. Candlelight Processional
The most beautiful holiday tradition at Walt Disney World is also the most meaningful – Epcot’s Candlelight Processional. The Candlelight Processional is a tradition that dates back to Disneyland’s early days. In the event’s current form, a celebrity narrator tells the Biblical Christmas story accompanied by a 50-piece orchestra, a choir of WDW cast members, and school choirs from around the nation. This year’s narrators include Gary Sinise, Dennis Haysbert, and (my favorite) Amy Grant.
While no one has written an official history of the Candlelight Processional, a 2009 article tells some of the legend behind this incredible tradition:
According to legend and an unpublished manuscript about the history of Disney entertainment by Ron Logan, one day in 1958, Walt Disney supposedly remarked to his friend Dr. Charles Hirt of the University of Southern California, “We need Christmas carolers at Disneyland. Can’t we have a choir assembled at the hub of Main Street by the Railroad Station in Town Square? Have them sing to the guests there, and I’ll listen from my office over the Fire Station.”
So, in December 1958, the first evening Candlelight Processional was held with singers from sixteen choirs moving down Main Street to the Plaza where they performed a full concert with the Dickens carolers singing from the Sleeping Beauty Castle balcony above.
Celebrity narrators were introduced in 1961 with actor Dennis Morgan having the distinction of being the first one. He performed that role 1961-1964 and again in 1966. Dick Van Dyke, to help promote Mary Poppins, was the narrator in 1965.
Over the years, other narrators included some of Hollywood’s biggest stars including Cary Grant (who narrated at five of the ceremonies including one in Florida), Rock Hudson (who took part six times in the Florida ceremony and three times in California), John Wayne, Buddy Ebsen, Howard Keel (1985 and 1986 in Florida and 1987 in Disneyland), John Forsythe, James Earl Jones, Pat Boone (who sang “Go Tell It On the Mountain” as part of his narration) and many more. Howard Keel’s presentation at Disneyland was filmed and shown on the Disney Channel.
“Cary Grant and Rock Hudson both wanted to narrate the ceremony again and again and they did it for free!” Hirt recalled.
Stormy rain clouds hovered over the ceremony in 1970 when Charlton Heston was narrator.
“He looked at me,” Hirt remembered , “and said ‘If I can part the Red Sea, then I can keep it from raining!’”
It did not rain on the ceremony that year.
In 2008, my family and I had the privilege of watching Marlee Matlin and her interpreter narrate, and watching her enjoy the rhythm of the music she could not hear was a special treat.
These amazing Christmas traditions (and so many more) help add to the magic of Walt Disney World. The holidays are a wonderful time to make the trip to Central Florida to experience these special events and attractions. Even if you can’t imagine squeezing a trip into the busy Thanksgiving and Christmas season, I encourage everyone to make the trip at least once in a lifetime. You won’t regret making the season extra magical.
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