Walt Disney World at Christmas Time

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.

Magic Kingdom

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‚Äôs 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

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.

Hollywood Studios

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.

Animal Kingdom

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

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.

Adding Magical Experiences: Dinner Packages and More at Walt Disney World

Please note: Many indoor restaurants remain closed or with limited service. Please check the Walt Disney World website for the latest information.

We’ve already talked about Character Dining, but there are so many other special dining options at Walt Disney World resorts that include more than just eating. Some are complimentary upgrades, and others you pay a premium for.

There are few dinner experiences that are just so unique, they are noteworthy on their own.

Before we had our daughter my husband and I had an excellent meal at Restaurant Marrakesh in the Morocco Pavilion in EPCOT. This restaurant, besides serving excellent Mediterranean food, features bellydancers tableside. So cool! In addition, when we ate there we got priority seating for the Candlelight Processional, a special Christmastime show offering. No additional fee required.

I’ve noticed over the years that Disney World often offers dining packages with priority seating for in demand shows. Sometimes, like in this instance, it is offered for free by taking a less desirable dining time (late afternoon), other times it’s offered up as a premium package with desirable reservation times followed by the show.

The Biergarten Restaurant in EPCOT’s Germany Pavillion offers German fare like sausage and saurkraut along with a show. Oompa music, yodelling and more are showcased at this buffet. I’ve always wanted to do this, but the idea of eating heavy meat and potatoes when it’s hot outside is never appealing. Maybe next visit.

San Angel Inn Restaurante in EPCOT’s Mexico Pavilion offers a unique nighttime dining experience all day long. It appears you are the base of ruins under a night sky. Food here often offers a mixed rating, but the setting often makes up for it.

Be Our Guest restaurant in the Magic Kingdom has been a hot ticket since it opened. And Disney has noticed, making it a premium offering for dinner. The theming of this restaurant is unmatched and truly an experience. In the past, the restaurant was counter experience (read cheaper) for lunch, but that may have changed.

Sanaa at Animal Kingdom Lodge not only offers excellent fine dining African cuisine, but you can also view the Lodge’s Sunset Savanna area which includes Giraffes, Zebras and more! This is included in your experience, no upgrade! We did this on last visit and had a delicious meal with top notch service.

Raglan Road in Disney Springs is a crowd favorite, not so much because of the food, but because of the live music and Irish step dancing. It’s not making any foodie’s list, but the entertainment is enjoyable. I haven’t been myself yet.

If you are looking for dining with a Magic Kingdom Fireworks view, California Grill at the Contemporary Resort is one of your best bet. This is a hot ticket though can and be difficult to get, as the Grill has a sterling, legendary reputation, and perfect views. Narcoosee’s at the Grand Floridian is also an excellent choice. Known for their seafood, they also have excellent steaks.

An inexpensive option is some take away food from Captain Cook’s at the Polynesian and watching the fireworks from a grassy area on the hotel property. We did this and had a wonderful, relaxing evening, complete with the famous Dole whip! The barbecue sandwiches were tasty too.

If you want the best views of EPCOT’s end of day spectacular HarmoniUS, Rose and Crown’s patio in EPCOT is where it’s at. You can purchase a dinner package for a premium and watch the show from your table, or take your chances with a regular dinner reservations. Other options without the premium “package” price tag include La Hacienda de San Angel in Mexico Pavilion and Spice Road Table offering a Mediterranean small plates menu in the Morocco Pavilion.

There are also dessert party packages for both Magic Kingdom and EPCOT shows. At last visit to the Magic Kingdom we did the dessert package, and although it was pricey, I thought it was worth it for a special treat. The desserts are all you can eat and excellent. After you finish eating you sit in a special roped off area in the grass directly in front of the castle. As someone who doesn’t like fighting crowds for anything, this allowed us to relax and spread out. It also saved us a lot of time as some can wait hours staking out the best spots for the fireworks.

I also sat in a premium seating area for EPCOT back when it was Illuminations. I don’t recall how I scored this spot, but it was on my trip with my husband. We were on the opposite side of the lagoon from World Showcase and it didn’t strike me as a particularly good spot. Watching the EPCOT show is not nearly at a premium as the fireworks in Magic Kingdom, so I would skip this.

This is just scratching the surface, there are plenty of other premium dining packages that incorporate show reservations, tours and other unique experiences that can tap into your special interest.