They say Walt Disney World is the most magical place on Earth. After visiting the Orlando, Florida, theme park during the holiday season, I’d argue that’s doubly true when the entire resort is decked out for Christmas.
The holiday festivities at Disney World began November 6 this year, and I visited with my family a week later to kick off the Christmas season. Things looked a little different than a typical Disney Christmas -- both Mickey’s Very Merry Christmas Party at Magic Kingdom and the Candlelight Processional at EPCOT were canceled and there were no Castle Dream Lights glittering on Cinderella Castle.
That being said, I was still bursting with holiday cheer and appreciated the measures Disney put into place to encourage health and safety. Mask-wearing is enforced for all guests two and older, temperature checks are required prior to entry, and floor/ground markings throughout the resort help guests to stay distant from one another. Disney really got creative and found some fun ways to keep the Christmas spirit alive. Here’s what you won’t want to miss if you’re visiting this holiday season, which runs until December 30.
Stroll Around To See The Holiday Decorations
As soon as Disney’s Halloween festivities end, they begin the process of giving the resort a full holiday makeover. Most of these happen overnight, with the theme parks taking top priority. By Thanksgiving, every park, hotel, and even Disney Springs is adorned with trees, lights, wreaths, and bows. Each park has its own unique charm, so it’s really worth visiting them all.
Animal Kingdom’s decor takes a more organic bent, with nature-inspired elements and recycled materials. The Asia section is decorated for Diwali, the Hindu festival of lights, and Pandora, The World of Avatar is done up with handmade decorations built by the human residents of the fictional alien planet.
Hollywood Studios has a ’50s Tinseltown feel, with colorful lights and ornaments, classic holiday tunes, and, yes, lots of silver tinsel. At night, the park’s Hollywood Tower Hotel (the building that houses the Tower of Terror ride) becomes the Hollywood Holiday Tower Hotel thanks to colorful projections that transform the facade into a series of holiday scenes.
Epcot’s Taste of Epcot International Festival of the Holidays doesn’t begin until November 27, when visitors will be able to experience the traditional flavors and fun of the 11 countries represented in the World Showcase. Don’t worry, decorations are already popping up if you visit before that date.
Magic Kingdom’s decor is found mainly in Town Square and on Main Street U.S.A. near the main entrance to the park. Because Main Street is fashioned after a turn-of-the-century small town, the classic fruit-adorned wreaths, colorful lights, and oversized popcorn garland on the 65-foot-tall Christmas tree impart the same vintage vibe. At night, Cinderella Castle also gets the projection effect treatment, with four whimsical holiday designs that switch out about every 15 minutes.
Watch Disney Characters (And Santa) In The Daily Cavalcades
Disney World has yet to bring back parades and nighttime shows since reopening in July, but there’s still plenty of entertainment in the parks. Several times a day, cavalcades travel down each park’s main thoroughfares or waterways, and for the holiday season, they’ve added Christmas music, festive floats, and favorite characters dressed in their holiday best.
To stop crowds from forming, there are no published times for these cavalcades, but each park has a few different cavalcades that pop up randomly throughout the day. Like the decor, each park’s festivities are different, but one thing they all have in common is Santa. He has a different vehicle at each park, and my favorite was his shiny red convertible, which we saw in Hollywood Studios. You can even catch him at Disney Springs on a pontoon boat in Lake Buena Vista.
Though the times aren’t published, it’s easy to know one is about to start because the music in the area picks up. If you are wanting to catch a particular character, check with a nearby Cast Member (how Disney refers to its employees); they may be able to help you out. My favorite was Goofy’s Scrumptious Cavalcade at Magic Kingdom because Goofy and Clarbelle’s floats smelled like fresh-baked gingerbread cookies!
Go On A Christmas Tree Scavenger Hunt At Disney Springs
I highly recommend planning some downtime from the parks into your schedule because Disney Springs has a lot going on for the holidays this year. Their annual Christmas Tree Trail has been reimagined as a Christmas Tree Stroll. Instead of being placed together in one area, the trees are spaced out all over Disney Springs so guests can see them all in a socially distanced manner. When you arrive at Disney Springs, pick up a map from one of many participating locations. If you find all 12 trees, you can turn your map in for a special prize. There’s quite a bit of walking involved if you want to see them all, so allow about 30 minutes to an hour to complete the “stroll.”
After you see all the trees (or if you need a snack break), some of Disney Springs’ holiday treats look almost too good to eat. The Mickey Santa Dome Cake at Amorette’s Patisserie and the Peppermint Bark Ice Cream from Haagen-Dazs are at the top of my list. If you are in the mood for a full meal, Jock Lindsey’s Hangar Bar takes on the most dramatic transformation of all the restaurants at Disney Springs with festive decor and an exclusive holiday menu.
Eat A Socially Distanced Dinner With Disney Characters
For health and safety reasons, Disney World has cut way back on character dining experiences. We always try to work at least one character meal into our trips (it’s a great way to see multiple characters without waiting in a long line), so we booked a dinner at Minnie’s Holiday Dine for the final evening of our trip.
Located in Hollywood Studios’ Hollywood and Vine restaurant, Mickey, Minnie, Pluto, and Santa Goofy dance around the restaurant to holiday tunes while you dine. They aren’t signing autographs or doling out hugs and handshakes, but you can snap a socially distanced selfie or take a photo of the characters from your table.
The atmosphere is jolly, and the food is even better. Bread and salad are served family-style, and each diner gets to choose an entree and dessert (get the Pork Osso Bucco; you won’t regret it).
If you want to dine with Minnie and her friends, Disney is currently allowing online dining reservations up to 60 days in advance. Character dining bookings can get snatched up quickly, so if you are planning a trip, you want to make a reservation as soon as possible. If you have a Disney account, you can use the website or My Disney Experience app to check periodically for openings. One may eventually pop up due to a modification or cancelation.
Go For A Ride On The Jingle Cruise
The Jungle Cruise is a classic Magic Kingdom attraction. Each holiday season since 2013, the “punny” boat ride through the rivers of an imagined Asia, Africa, and South America gets upgraded to the Jingle Cruise. There are gifts and decorations in many of the ride’s show scenes, and the skippers switch out their all-season corny jokes for even cornier holiday ones.
Because it’s only available for a limited time, the queue can grow quite long as the day goes on. I recommend heading straight for this Adventureland ride when you enter the park or waiting until evening and going for a nighttime cruise. The afternoon is always busiest.
The most important things to know about visiting Disney right now actually have nothing to do with the holidays. There’s no way around the fact that visiting a theme park in the age of coronavirus is different than it was before. Pack plenty of masks (you may want to swap them out during the day if it’s hot or rainy), bring your own hand sanitizer, and be prepared to use your mobile phone for everything from ordering meals to checking in to your hotel. Download the My Disney Experience app before your trip and familiarize yourself with the functions before you head out.