How do you make the most magical place on earth even more magical? Go during a holiday celebration of course!
It has been a decade since I visited Walt Disney World resorts during the holiday season, but the memories are still very fresh in my mind. It was a special and magical last minute trip that I would recommend to anyone as a return visitor.
The first question when visiting during the holiday season is when will the parks and resorts be decorated? The answer varies, but usually by the second week in November, as that is when the Magic Kingdom begins hosting their special Christmas afterhours event. This year it’s called Disney Very Merriest After Hours. More on that later. The decorations last through the end of the year.
Crowd calendars are very important this time of year as some days are the busiest in the park the entire year. However, there are a lot of pockets of lower crowds during November and December which make for great weeks to visit. Check out this crowd calendar for more.
The decorations during the holiday season are most notable in Magic Kingdom. Main Street, USA is just beautiful. Some rides have Christmas theme overlays including the famous Jungle Cruise that transforms into the Jingle Cruise. Ride at night to enjoy the lights. A few other rides include a holiday overlay including Space Mountain, Tomorrowland Speedway and Monsters Inc. Laugh Floor.
Typically Cinderella castle gets a iced overlay of beautiful white lights. The lights are usually illuminated with some fanfare with Elsa. It’s a cute little show at the castle stage worth catching. However, due to the 50th Anniversary Celebration these decorations will not return in 2021. My best guess is that they return in 2023. There is usually a holiday themed end of day fireworks display, which also may take a backseat to the 50th Anniversary Celebration this year.
Disney Very Merriest After Hours occurs in the Magic Kingdom after it closes to day guests, running from 9 p.m. until 1 a.m. Ticket holders are let into the parks at 7 p.m. however, and no Magic Kingdom ticket, outside of the pricey event ticket, is required. Included in the event is holiday festivities, character greetings, Minnie’s Wonderful Christmastime Fireworks Show, holiday attraction overlays, and more. Also Mickey’s Once Upon a Christmas Parade will occur which is notable since all parades have ceased operation since the pandemic began. This parade also may occur during Christmas week for regular Magic Kingdom guests.
EPCOT also gets dressed up for the holidays as part of the EPCOT International Festival of the Holidays. Small huts around World Showcase offer seasonal snacks and treats from around the world. My favorite thing out of the huts on last visit was getting gingerbread from a giant life sized gingerbread house in the American Pavilion. So fun! Holiday Storytellers also make a special appearance, most of whom are each country’s version of Santa Claus. There are two other special performances. Joyful! A Gospel Celebration of the Season begins at the end of the November and runs through December. Its future in 2021 and beyond is uncertain. The other show is Candlelight Processional which is confirmed to be returning in 2021. I had the pleasure of attending this at my last holiday visit. This is a choral, Christian based show. It’s not for everyone, but we enjoyed it. I would recommend getting a dinner package as we did, so you don’t end up spending hours in line queuing up for it.
In Hollywood Studios projections and some oversized baubles decorate the park. But the big highlight here is a special holiday themed character dining at Hollywood and Vine called Minnie’s Holiday Dine which gets good reviews. The end of day fireworks show also gets a holiday update, but what happens in 2021 is anyone’s guess.
In Animal Kingdom, holiday displays have always been muted, outside of the spectacular and huge Christmas tree at the entrance. A few years ago, however, Disney upped their game and the park was transformed into a celebration of winter. There are hand-crafted holiday decorations including colorful, animal-inspired luminaries on the rooftops, wireframe bird-shaped lanterns, and themed garland. But the real highlight appears to be a new puppet menagerie in which performers intermingle with guests with winter themed animal puppets. The puppets did not appear in 2020 and it is unclear whether they will appear in 2021 or beyond. (I hope so!)
Disney Springs, a Disney owned outdoor mall and entertainment complex, features a wonderful Christmas tree stroll which showcases trees themed around Disney characters. Because this is a mall, expect it to be very crowded on weekends. Best times to avoid crowds are Monday, Tuesdays and Wednesdays. The hours of 6 to 8 p.m. are busiest.
Disney Hotels and Resorts
Perhaps my favorite thing to do though during the holidays is visiting all the Disney resorts and their spectacular decorations. Touring hotels may sound silly until you realize all the modes of transportation you take and the extent of theming and decorations they have. Plus, they have excellent restaurants on their own. Gigantic Christmas trees, seasonal trees and so much gingerbread. All of this without paying a park ticket. For a full breakdown on how best to make a whole day (or two!) out of touring the resorts (and you should!) check out this excellent guide at the Disney Tourist Blog.