Disney Christmas Travel Tips
At Florida’s Walt Disney World, the holidays aren’t just a celebration. They’re an epic production that calls for some 8.5 million lights and 15 miles of garlands.
Record crowds show up to rock around Disney World’s 1,300 individually decorated Christmas trees. After all, it’s the holiday season, when kids are out of school and millions of families take vacation. On at least one or two days between Christmas and New Year’s, the Magic Kingdom theme park routinely gets so overstuffed with tourists that by lunchtime, guests are turned away at the gates.
How bad does it have to get for Mickey Mouse to tell you there’s no room at the inn? The company won’t reveal the capacity of each park, but the Magic Kingdom is widely reported to hold as many as 100,000, equivalent to the population of a small city.
Related: T+L’s Disney Secrets
Numbers this big require some special navigation strategies. To make sure you don’t miss anything worthwhile in Walt Disney World during your end-of-the-year visit, we’re sharing some essential Christmas travel tips.
One Christmas time highlight is Epcot’s daily Candlelight Processional, an 800-person pageant with a changing roster of name-brand talent, guest Mass choirs, and a 50-piece orchestra presenting the Christmas story. While there’s no charge for first-come, first-served seating, the waits can drag on for more than two hours. If you purchase the Dining Package, you’ll get meal vouchers for a restaurant like Rose & Crown Pub plus access to prime reserved seating at the Processional.
Aside from mounting special events, it takes a 30-member team of full-time holiday stylists just to transform the resort—with its four theme parks, two waterslide parks, and two dozen hotels—into a (warm-weather) winter wonderland.
By mid-November, when this dedicated staff is through garnishing the theme park, nothing is left unadorned—not even a Mouse. The prices are embellished too, since rack rates for Disney’s hotels can be nearly twice what they cost at other times of year. Generally, the more a resort costs, the better its decorations are.
Read on for the complete guide to the perfect Disney World Christmas. Stick to our tips and you’ll find that, despite the crush of people and the higher prices, there’s still quite a lot of joy to the World.
Jason Cochran is the author of Frommer’s EasyGuide to Walt Disney World & Orlando, named Guidebook of the Year in the Lowell Thomas Awards by the Society of American Travel Writers.
Arrive at Least One Hour Before the Park Opens
On several days during the week between Christmas and New Year’s, the Magic Kingdom may reach capacity by late morning, when management will close the entry gates until conditions ease (in 2013, December 31 was the worst day, but it’s different every year). The hordes don’t usually begin to disperse until late afternoon, so get there early or you may be told to turn around and visit another park for the day. For more elbow room and a nearly zero chance of sealed gates, consider visiting the week after New Year’s instead; the impressive decorations usually remain up for the first few days of January.
Hit Your Must-Do Rides First
Lines will be long, so if there’s something you simply must ride, do it right after “rope drop” (which is what Cast Members—a.k.a. Disney employees—call the park’s opening). At the Magic Kingdom, where lines are the densest, the in-demand rides include Space Mountain, Seven Dwarfs Mine Train, Splash Mountain, and Peter Pan’s Flight. You can squeeze even more into the start of your day if you purchase your entry ticket weeks ahead and use it to reserve Fastpasses (timed attraction reservations) on the Disney website.
Book All Sit-Down Meals Now
Restaurants are full even at quiet times of year, so if you want a family dinner at a waiter-service restaurant, booking an ADR (Advance Dining Reservation) is crucial. And there’s a side benefit: if you have a dining reservation in a theme park, you’re more likely to get inside the park even if it’s nearing capacity and other guests are being refused entry. One of the most festive places to eat is the Biergarten in Epcot’s Germany pavilion, which adds special holiday buffet items and serves cups of hot glühwein at a little Christmas market just like the ones in Europe.
Stay in a Disney-Run Hotel
Besides proximity to the parks, there’s a practical reason to stay in a Disney-run hotel (or in the Starwood-run Walt Disney World Swan and Dolphin hotels). You have the option of booking your allotment of three daily Fastpasses 60 days ahead. If you’re not staying in a Disney hotel, you get half as much time and you could be crowded out of the best rides. Another perk of staying on Disney turf: as parks approach capacity, entrance is restricted to customers in stages, and if you’re staying in a Disney resort, you’ll make the cut until the final moments when the park is closed to everyone.
Adjust Your Expectations
With gridlock this thick, you won’t be able to do everything you want. On Christmas Day, you also won’t see the parade that’s aired annually on ABC—that’s recorded earlier in December. Instead, make the day about enjoying the ambience, looking at decorations, and finding a spot for the epic holiday parade. People start lining up for the evening show at dinnertime; the cul-de-sac at the City Hall end of Main Street, U.S.A., is the best because you’ll see the floats from several angles.
Focus on Epcot and Animal Kingdom
Crowds are worst at the Magic Kingdom, the most popular park at Disney World—and on earth, attracting an estimated 18.5 million visits in 2013. Sometimes people are elbow-to-elbow, and it can take an hour simply to travel from one end to the other. Even the heartiest holiday cheer can wither under those circumstances. Disney’s Hollywood Studios’ shortsighted design also breeds bottlenecks, but Epcot and Disney’s Animal Kingdom are more spacious, so you will feel less hemmed in there.
Reserve a Seat for the Candlelight Processional
The descendant of celebrity nativity shows at Disneyland that once starred the likes of John Wayne is Epcot’s daily Candlelight Processional. This 800-person pageant features a changing roster of name-brand talent, guest Mass choirs, and a 50-piece orchestra presenting the Christmas story. It’s the only place at Disney you’ll hear an explicitly religious message connected to the holidays. There’s no charge for first-come, first-served seating, but people can wait two hours or more. Free up your schedule by purchasing the Dining Package; you’ll get meal vouchers for a restaurant like Rose & Crown Pub plus access to prime reserved seating at the Processional. Tickets go on sale in July, but you won’t know the full schedule of celebrity narrators until the fall. Regulars back for 2014 include Whoopi Goldberg and Neil Patrick Harris. Rock Hudson and Cary Grant were the first to do it in Florida in 1971 and 1972, in the first 14 months that Walt Disney World was open.
Eat Meals at Off Hours
There will be formidable lines at the Quick Service food counters. That means you should take your lunch before 11 a.m. or after about 3 p.m., and do your dinner at about 4 p.m. or closer to 8 p.m. Packing your own snacks is also wise.
Bring Your Own Stroller
Disney rents strollers, but they sell out fast. Try not to require a locker for the same reason. In fact, plan ahead so you can opt out of anything that requires you to line up for a service, including Fastpass rescheduling, last-minute restaurant reservations, or wheelchair rentals.
Sneak a Glimpse Behind the Scenes
At Disney, the holidays are staged like a military operation. There’s an entire department called Holiday Services dedicated to creating and maintaining the decorations that hang around the resort, and each year, it marshals 150 semitrailer trucks to haul the handiwork into place. You can tour that backstage warehouse complex for $89 on the three-hour Yuletide Fantasy backstage tour, but you have to book it months ahead.
Stock Up on Limited-Edition Merchandise
Christmas is such big business that a holiday-themed souvenir store operates year-round at Downtown Disney, soon to be renamed Disney Springs. (And the Mickey Mouse Ears mash-up with Santa’s long red ermine cap will always be the quintessential holiday souvenir.) But the inventory amps up in the fall, when shops are stocked with new lines of holiday-only merchandise, some of it available only for a single season. True Mouseheads don’t miss out on the bounty—limited-edition Mickey ornaments, dated commemorative plates and figurines—though this year, expect Frozen to sweep the hottest holiday items with booty like plush Olaf dolls dressed as Santa’s elves.
Admire Disney’s Hollywood Studios After Dark
After an Arkansas town ordered an injunction against Jennings Osborne for overdoing it on the Christmas cheer and plaguing his neighborhood with traffic jams, Disney acquired the rights to his display—and it has mounted it at Hollywood Studios every year since 1995. The Osborne Family Spectacle of Dancing Lights requires some 10 miles of rope lights and twinkles in a choreographed show, and it switches on at dusk nightly in the Streets of America section starting in mid-November. It’s included in a standard admission ticket.
Consider a Vacation Rental
Are you traveling with five people or more? Rent a house. Most standard Disney rooms won’t fit more than four or five, so families are often forced to double expenses by reserving two. That can sting, considering prices are already at their peak over the holidays; the cheapest room Disney offers is typically $198 a night. Two basic Disney rooms for seven nights would cost some $2,800, and two Garden View rooms at the Grand Floridian would cost more than $10,000 for seven nights—whereas you can rent a two-bedroom home for a week for around $1,000 from a company like All Star Vacation Homes or Alexander Florida Holiday Homes. Besides, with all those Disney crowds, at the end of the day, you’ll really crave extra space to spread out. The downside is you won’t get the early entry privileges that come with staying on property.
Ride the Jingle Cruise at the Magic Kingdom
This holiday-themed overlay of the classic safari-styled boat ride debuted in 2013. It’s nothing elaborate, but it’s cute—and notable as it’s the only attraction that is altered to celebrate the holidays. Boats are renamed (for example, the Ganges Gertie becomes the Garland Gertie), new props are installed, and a few of the guides’ famously corny jokes are replaced by equally forehead-smacking yuletide chestnuts.
Consider Mickey’s Very Merry Christmas Party
But don’t insist on it. Disney cleverly convinces people to pay twice in one day by throwing a separately ticketed evening event in the Magic Kingdom during which guests can catch the Mickey’s Once Upon a Christmastime parade, stand under foam “snow” on Main Street, U.S.A., dig into cookies and hot cocoa, and watch the bespoke Holiday Wishes fireworks (lots of green and red). If your budget forces you to choose between this event or seeing the Magic Kingdom the usual way, don’t fret. On the nights when the Very Merry Christmas Party isn’t being thrown, you can still see the Kingdom’s holiday lights in full twinkle. You’ll also get a parade—just not the special Christmas parade or the cookies and cocoa.
Tour Disney Hotel Lobbies
You can’t always gain access to a Disney hotel by road if you’re not staying there, but from the Magic Kingdom, anyone can ride the monorail to three of the most elaborately decorated hotels: the Contemporary, the Polynesian, and the Grand Floridian. That last one is the most unmissable: its 16-foot-tall gingerbread house requires 1,050 pounds of honey to bake and more than 160 hours to decorate. It’s a little different every year, and it’s occupied not by a witch but by a kiosk selling hunks of its principal building material. If you’re at Epcot, pop out the International Gateway to visit Disney’s Beach Club Resort next door, where each year there’s a life-size, hand-painted four-horse carousel made with gingerbread and chocolate fondant.
Make a Circuit of World Showcase
You might think it would be impossible to figure out how to bend Epcot, fashioned after a World’s Fair, into something Christmassy. But Disney’s witty solution is Holidays Around the World, which stations storytellers in 11 national pavilions to tell you about their own traditions. They may include Father Christmas in the United Kingdom, Helga and the story of the first Christmas tree in Germany, and—because Santa is conspicuously missing from most other places in Mickey’s domain—Mr. and Mrs. Claus in the American Adventure pavilion. Appearances are scheduled, so consult the free Times Guide distributed around the park.
See the Macy’s Holiday Parade in Person at Universal
Once the turkey is sliced on Thanksgiving evening, many floats and balloons from New York City’s Macy’s parade are whisked to Universal Orlando, where they ply the streets of Universal Studios in the Diagon Alley area—part of the new Wizarding World of Harry Potter—every day from early December to early January (times vary per day, though 5 p.m. and 8 p.m. are typical). Next door at Islands of Adventure, Seuss Landing is gussied up with bizarre, Seuss-inspired decorations and presided over by a sneering Grinch in a Santa suit. It’s the amusingly sour antidote to Disney’s sugary Christmas cheer.
Catch the Fake Snow in the Fake Town
Remember Celebration, the idealized all-American town Disney built in the 1990s? During the month of December, this stage-managed village, now independent from the Mouse, mounts a timed snowfall and ice-skating rink. Okay, the snow is actually a flurry of evaporating suds and the rink is actually a sheet of oiled plastic, but there’s something endearing about watching this Cleaver-ized Florida town try to pretend it has a Frank Capra heritage. The “snow” falls on the hour from 6 p.m. to 9 p.m. nightly on the pond in its Town Center—also worth visiting for dinner at Cuban restaurant Columbia, on offshoot of the Tampa original established in 1905. The town is next to the Disney resort property between U.S. 192 and I-4.
Buy ICE! Tickets in Advance
It’s worth the three-minute detour from the Disney property to visit Gaylord Palms, which mounts ICE!, a spectacular over-the-top display that turns 2 million pounds of ice into hand-carved sculptures, walk-through fortresses, a crystalline nativity scene, and slides. In 2014, its master sculptors are crafting their chilly extravaganza along a Nutcracker theme.