Things looked a little different this year, but they were still very merry.

By Tarah Chieffi
November 23, 2020
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Credit: Tarah Chieffi

Editor's Note: Those who choose to travel are strongly encouraged to check local government restrictions, rules, and safety measures related to COVID-19 and take personal comfort levels and health conditions into consideration before departure.

Since Walt Disney World reopened on July 11, fans have been closely monitoring the changes at the theme park resort. And much like the rest of the world, things look and feel different inside the Most Magical Place on Earth. Safety signs warn guests of the dangers of being at a theme park, thousands of floor markings help visitors stay physically distant, and many of the typical entertainment offerings are limited for health and safety reasons.

The popular Mickey’s Not-So-Scary Halloween Party was canceled this year, leaving many fans wondering if Disney’s holiday celebrations would get the axe, too. On Sept. 8, they got their answer. In a post on the official Disney Parks Blog, Disney announced a collection of modified holiday offerings, including entertainment, seasonal treats, and decor, to begin on Nov. 6.

Though Mickey’s Very Merry Christmas Party and the annual Candlelight Processional were not on that list, I had never visited Disney World during the holidays, so I packed up my family and headed down to Orlando for a Christmas-filled day at Magic Kingdom. Even with this year’s changes, I was overcome with Christmas joy, and it was the perfect way to kick off the holiday season.

Upon walking through the gates, I was greeted by Magic Kingdom’s 65-foot-tall Christmas tree in all its towering glory. When I spun toward the Walt Disney World Railroad platform, Mickey, Pluto, and even Alice in Wonderland were waving down at guests. All around me on Main Street, U.S.A., where the bulk of the park’s decor can be found, were wreaths, lights, garlands, and holiday displays in shop windows.

Credit: Tarah Chieffi

At the end of Main Street, Cinderella Castle looked much like it does on a regular day at Disney (still sparkling, thanks to its recent makeover), but that all changed at nightfall. In lieu of the Castle Dream Lights — the thousands of white twinkling lights that adorn the castle in a typical year — there were four different holiday-themed scenes displayed on the castle via projection mapping. They were all gorgeous, but my particular favorite was the ugly holiday sweater design.

Another spot where things differed from the norm was the menu of holiday foods and beverages. The options did seem to be fewer than previous years, but there still were plenty of treats to choose from. It was hard to decide because most dining locations had at least a couple of limited-time options, but I went with some delicious gingerbread churros, and we couldn’t go home without a Mickey Christmas tree popcorn bucket. 

In a strategic play to discourage large crowds and better enforce physical distancing, Disney has forgone fireworks, parades, and character meet-and-greets since reopening. I wasn’t expecting much in the way of entertainment or “streetmosphere,” but I was happily surprised. The Dapper Dans barbershop quartet was singing at the Main Street Walt Disney World Railroad station, costumed characters were waving at guests from afar, and jolly cavalcades strolled through the park throughout the day. I even snapped a selfie with Santa on his sleigh.

Credit: Tarah Chieffi

I have a hard time saying I prefer any of these modified offerings (who wants to say anything positive about a pandemic?), but there is something to appreciate about the intimate, more impromptu entertainment options. Without the large crowds and long lines, it often felt like the characters were waving right at me. I don’t care how old you are, there’s nothing like Minnie Mouse blowing a kiss right to you.

During Mickey’s Very Merry Christmas Party, a few rides like Space Mountain and Mad Tea Party typically get an overlay with a little holiday twist, like red-and-green lights and festive music. This year, however, only the Jungle Cruise got a holiday transformation in the form of the punny Jingle Cruise. The skippers had a treasure trove of cheesy Christmas jokes and some of the animals donned silly Santa hats.

Though I spent the entire day feeling like I was living inside a snow globe, my looming awareness of the pandemic kept me from going full-on Hallmark Christmas movie. The dangers of traveling, visiting a theme park, and simply going about daily activities are very real, but the safety measures Disney has put into place, along with my own precautions, helped me feel safe and enjoy my visit.

Credit: Tarah Chieffi

Audible safety messages played intermittently throughout the day, cast members often reminded guests to wear their masks correctly and keep them on, even for photos, and I wasn’t afraid to speak up when someone wasn’t minding the floor markers while we were queued up for a ride. Hand sanitizer was available all over the park, so much so that I barely used my own. 

If you’re considering a visit this holiday season, there are plenty of things to take into account before deciding to travel. Along with health and safety considerations, Disney has details on the modified state of the theme parks, restaurants, and resort hotels on its website

That being said, spending the day with my family at Magic Kingdom was one of the most special days I can remember ever having at Disney World — and I’ve spent a lot of time there. We still oohed and ahhed, laughed, and ate way too much cotton candy. Despite everything, the magic is still alive, and being surrounded by holiday cheer made it all the more special.