Visiting the Walt Disney World Resort can be daunting for even for the most seasoned Disney travelers, but visiting during the holidays can be truly overwhelming. There are four theme parks, two water parks, the Downtown Disney district, twenty-one resort hotels, and not to mention the numerous water and sports activities available. All of that alone is enough to keep someone busy on a vacation, but there are numerous special offerings that go under the radar of most visitors… and they shouldn’t.
Special events, backstage tours, and special dining events happen throughout various areas of the resort, but with one major difference: special events are offered for a limited time during the year and backstage tours and special dining events are typically offered year around.
First, we’ll take a look at special events. These events typically happen around the same time of the year, every year. They are highly anticipated by those who know about them, but casual WDW visitor may not be aware. Whether they are sporting events or holiday celebrations, many people build their Walt Disney World vacations around these happenings.
Both Mickey’s Not-So-Scary Halloween Party and Mickey’s Very Merry Christmas Parade are popular events that take place at The Magic Kingdom. Because of the limited amount of tickets sold on select dates— 24 party days for Halloween and 19 party days for Christmas in 2009—these events tend to sell out quickly. The general estimate is 20,000 tickets, but Disney does not release exactly how many they sell for each evening’s party. It is best to purchase tickets in advance of course, but tickets can be purchased on the day-of the party if available.
Advance ticket purchase is the same for both parties. After calling Disney (or purchasing online) and giving a credit card, tickets can be mailed or picked up upon your arrival. If you’re already in the park on the day of the party, proceed to the Rose Garden near Cinderella’s Castle after 4:00 PM and Cast Members will swipe your party ticket and put a wristband on you. Those holding party passes, but not planning on being in the park earlier, can typically head to the main gate at 4pm and look for specially designated Cast Members who will assist in getting you set up. Although the Halloween and Christmas parties officially start at 7pm, guests will be admitted as early as 4pm. When the park closes at 7pm to regular guests, only those guests with wristbands may stay. Cast Members do check and will kindly escort out anyone not wearing a wristband.
Both events have similar set-ups: holiday-specific themed fireworks and parades, character meet-and-greets, access to some regular Magic Kingdom attractions, themed food and beverages, dance parties, and other specialty events and shows.
Mickey’s Not-So-Scary Halloween Party
During the Halloween season there are a number of various events taking place throughout the Walt Disney World Resort, but the largest of these events is Mickey’s Not-So-Scary Halloween Party.
On September 4th of this year, Mickey’s Not-So-Scary Halloween Party kicked off at The Magic Kingdom. Held on select dates through November 1, each of the 24 parties begins at 7pm, after the park closes to the general public, and runs until Midnight. After receiving your wristband, you will be given a trick-or-treat bag.
There are 12 Trick or Treating stations throughout the park with a number of the less busy stations tucked away on the outskirts of Tomorrowland. There is a “top off your bag” station at the entrance where you can do just that… top off your bag with candy.
Mickey’s Not-So-Scary Halloween Party offers a number of special events that shouldn’t be missed, including many of the attractions, which are open throughout the evening. Of the two parade showings at 8:15 pm and 10:30 pm, most families with children typically catch the earlier Mickey’s Boo-To-You Halloween Parade. The 10:30 parade is usually less crowded if you plan on staying late. The parade starts in Frontierland with the ride of The Headless Horseman. Guests are asked not to have any item that will illuminate during his ride as the horse is guided by a light. Sandwiched in between the parade at 9:30 is the “Happy HalloWishes” Fireworks.
Stitch’s Supersonic Celebration stage in Tomorrowland is now home to the Rock It Out–Stitch’s Club 626 Character Dance Party. In front of the Castle, four times during the party, is “Disney’s Villians Mix and Mingle” where guests not only get to see a staged production with some of Disney’s popular villains, but also get to meet some of them after the show.
Another lesser-known Halloween events that take place throughout the Walt Disney World Resort are haunted carriage rides at the Fort Wilderness Resort & Campground. Guests roam the woods of Fort Wilderness on a 25-minute Haunted Carriage Ride while hearing the Legend of Sleepy Hollow.
The Festival of the Masters
Being held in Downtown Disney® from November 13-15, the 34th annual Festival of the Masters is an open-air art festival featuring nearly 150 award-winning artists. To qualify for the Festival, each artist must have earned a primary award in a juried art festival within the last three years. A jury of art experts reviews the submissions and extends invitations to the chosen artists. It has quickly become one of the most recognized art shows in the U.S on the national level. The festival is free to all guests.
In addition to the art, the Festival also features diverse artistic experiences, live entertainment, children’s activities and culinary treats. Included are the House of Blues Folk Art Festival and the Central Florida Chalk Artists Association, where more than 6,000 square feet of sidewalk at the Downtown Disney Marketplace is transformed into a giant canvas for talented chalk artists to showcase their masterpieces. And kids can create their own works of chalk art as well.
Unlike the Halloween offerings where The Magic Kingdom has all of the “must-see” events, each of the four Walt Disney World theme parks hosts holiday events that are “must-see”.
The Magic Kingdom has Mickey’s Very Merry Christmas Party, Epcot® has the Candlelight Processional and Holidays Around the World, Hollywood Studios has The Osborne Family Spectacle of Dancing Lights, and Animal Kingdom has a special holiday parade called Mickey’s Jingle Jungle Parade. All of the events, with the exception of Mickey’s Very Merry Christmas Party, are included with theme park admission.
The Magic Kingdom
As with the Halloween party, not only will the Magic Kingdom be open exclusively to guests wearing holiday party wristbands from 7pm to Midnight, but also the ticket purchasing and wristband retrieval for Mickey’s Very Merry Christmas Party is exactly the same. The other events are also similar in nature, just with a holiday overlay. The special parade is titled “Mickey’s Once Upon A Christmastime”, which is exclusive to the Christmas party until December 18th, and then runs through the rest of the holiday season. There is also a themed fireworks display, “Holiday Wishes: Celebrate the Spirit of the Season”, complete with an original holiday score. For the past few years Mickey’s ‘Twas The Night Before Christmas stage show was performed at Tomorrowland’s Galaxy Palace Theatre. However, since the demolition of the Galaxy Palace Theatre (according to reports in The Orlando Sentinel) a new show called “A Totally Tomorrowland Christmas” is being created for the new Tomorrowland stage. The other stage show of the party is “Celebrate The Season”, performed at the Castle Forecourt Stage.
Other Mickey’s Very Merry Christmas party happenings include Character Dance Parties. Cinderella’s Castle is dripping in Castle Dream Lights, beautiful white and blue lighting resembling icicles. There is even a castle lighting ceremony presented nightly. Holiday Treats (sugar cookies, hot cocoa, apple juice, apple slices, etc) are typically given out at four outposts: the Diamond Horseshoe (Frontierland), Terrace Noodle Station (Tomorrowland), Scuttle’s Landing (Fantasyland), and the Columbia Harbor House (Liberty Square). If you wander back and forth on Main Street, you’ll notice that it’s snowing throughout the evening–something else to add to the magic of the party. There are also special character meet-and-greet locations throughout the park, including the opportunity to see Santa Claus.
Epcot® is the perfect place to get an international feel for the holidays. To celebrate Holidays Around The World, each country in World Showcase is traditionally decorated. As part of this holiday celebration, beginning on November 27th and running through December 30th at the American Gardens Theatre, Epcot® presents a Candlelight Processional, a once-in-a-lifetime event featuring the retelling of the story of Christmas by a celebrity narrator. This year’s lineup includes stars such as Isabella Rossellini, Anika Noni Rose (star of the upcoming animated feature The Princess and the Frog), Ugly Betty star Vanessa Williams, Whoopi Goldberg and others.
Since there is no admission to The Candlelight Processional, with the exception of general park admission, the show tends to fill up quickly, but guests can get (and are recommended) to participate in one of the Candlelight Dinner Packages. This package includes dinner at select Epcot® restaurants (prices are based on type of restaurant and are broken down in Tiers 1, 2, and 3), reserved seating at the Candlelight Processional, and a special viewing of Illuminations: Reflections of Earth. It’s also important to know that taking the dinner package is almost the only way to get a seat – those with dinner packages are seated first and those without (and have been standing in line) are given any remaining seats. You should know that that this is one of the few packages that you cannot book through the online dining service – you must call Disney Dining to reserve this package. But the good news is that the Disney dining plan can be utilized, It takes only 2 table service dining credits per person.
Disney’s Hollywood Studios
Also included with park admission is the Osborne Family Spectacle of Dancing Lights. This show, which takes months to put up, can be seen nightly on the Streets of America. To truly appreciate this event, one must understand the history of it.
This was not a Disney original or even their idea, but that of one man—Jennings Osborne. In 1986, Jennings’s daughter Breezy told her father her Christmas wish was to see their house covered in lights. That first year Jennings covered his Little Rock, Arkansas home with 1000 red lights. Breezy was so thrilled that Jennings decided to do it every year, but to keep making it bigger. By 1993, the display grew to three million lights and could be seen by plane from as far as 80 miles away. Among the dancing lights and whirling three-dimensional replica of the world was a computerized light display of a train engineered by a waving Mickey Mouse. “It was our own little Disney World,” recalls Jennings.
Unfortunately, their neighbors thought the light show was a nuisance and didn’t see it as the spirit of the season. A lawsuit was filed and heard by the Arkansas Supreme Court. To appease his neighbors, Osborne agreed to several compromises including shortening the time his lights were turned on, as well as hiring off-duty policemen to assist neighbors leaving and returning to their homes.
But one family pulled at his heartstrings that made him defy a court order. A family from Pine Bluff arrived right after the lights were ordered to be turned off. Jennings said, “The father had gotten off late from work and rushed his children to see the lights. He told me his story and I just couldn’t say no.”
As a result, Osborne paid a $10,000 fine for defying the court order. “And it was worth every penny,” Jennings says. His neighbors used this defiance to have the display shut down for good. The Osborne’s appealed to the United States Supreme Court but Justice Clarence Thomas sent the motion back saying that it was not unique enough.
Walt Disney World caught wind of the story and quickly contacted Jennings and invited him to bring his light show down to Orlando. Approximately 90% of the lights and animated displays come from the original Osborne collection.
In 1995, Osborne’s light show was originally displayed on Residential Street at the then Disney-MGM Studios. But in 2003, Residential Street was bulldozed to make room for the “Lights! Motors! Action! – Extreme Stunt Show”. For the first time since the light show premiered, that year the Studios went without the show. Eventually, the Osborne Family Lights found a home on the Streets of America, where it has been ever since.
Today there are over 4 million lights blinking, twinkling, and dancing at Disney’s Hollywood Studios from November 10 through January 4th. Every day, prior to dusk, a child or family of children are selected to throw the switch to start the lighting spectacular. Just as snow begins to fall on the Streets of America, the countdown begins. Then all at once, the dark, drab streets light up and glow brilliantly. Along with the snow, holiday music fills the air as the display glows and dances to music every 15 minutes. As you walk around make sure to notice the holiday store windows. There are a lot of little details to notice including the mannequin leg lamp from “A Christmas Story.”
Disney’s Animal Kingdom
Although some may say this is just another ‘holiday parade’ or an overlay on the Jammin’ Jungle Parade (which is technically correct), Mickey’s Jingle Jungle Parade is much more than that. This parade deviates from the “traditional” parades and carefully blends the theatrics of the stage version of The Lion King and the beauty of Epcot’s® Tapestry of Nations Parade.
With floats carrying the Fab Five (Mickey, Minnie, Goofy, Pluto, and Donald), this holiday parade goes beyond tradition by incorporating moving animal sculptures created from many unique materials and “powered” by humans. You’ll notice the puppeteers at first, but quickly forget they are there. In addition to the floats and animal sculptures, there are numerous stilt walkers dressed as animals and dancers parading down the route interacting with the audience. This 17-minute parade happens on a daily basis from November 28 through January 4.
New Year’s Eve
In addition to the park’s holiday parades and shows, The Magic Kingdom, Epcot®, and Hollywood Studios run special fireworks displays to ring in the New Year. In fact, Epcot® and The Magic Kingdom does two fireworks shows: an early presentation (for those who don’t want to stay out late) and the usual countdown to midnight presentation.
At the Magic Kingdom, the “Holiday Wishes” fireworks display begins at 8:30pm and then then starting at 11:55, the special New Year’s Eve “Fantasy in the Sky” fireworks show. This particular show starts like any other, with the fireworks launched behind Fantasyland. Then at midnight, the show builds to include “stereo” fireworks. Special launch locations are set-up at six points around the Magic Kingdom and all are synchronized for a perfect way to welcome a new year.
At Epcot®, IllumiNations: Reflections of Earth – the holiday edition – begins at 8:00 p.m. Then at 11:45, a special New Year’s Eve IllumiNations begins with perimeter fireworks around Epcot®. What makes this show special is that these fireworks are launched in the order of which each country entered the New Year (starting with Japan, then China, and so on.) As well, if you are at Epcot® for the midnight fireworks and stand on the bridge near the Odyssey, you can clearly see the midnight Disney Hollywood Studios’ fireworks and even some from the Magic Kingdom’s as well.
As the parks can be very crowded, it is recommended that you not only make your travel and dining plans early, but also arrive early. Also it is best not to park hop on New Year’s Eve. While you can expect to get into a park, it may not be the park where you planned on celebrating the New Year. Many of the restaurants will typically feature a special New Year’s Eve meal and you should be in the park that you are dining at early, because there is a good possibility that even if you have a dining reservation that you will not be allowed in should that park have reached maximum capacity.
The Walt Disney World Resort offers a number of backstage tours for every interest and curiosity. Whether you are into steam trains, horticulture, or curious to take a peek behind the Disney curtain, there is a tour for every interest. Many of these tours do require theme park admission, but some do not.
If you are a holiday fanatic and a Disney trip is what you are planning for the holidays, then there are two tours that you should look into: the Yuletide Fantasy tour and the brand new Holiday D-Lights Tour.
Both the Yuletide Fantasy tour and the Holiday D-Lights Tour do not require theme park admission and nor are they included and although they sound a little similar they are different.
The Yuletide Fantasy Tour has been a staple of the Walt Disney World Backstage Tour repertoire. The tour begins and ends at Epcot®. Officially beginning at 9 am, the tour starts outside the gates at Epcot® Guest Relations Window—8:45 am is when they ask you be at the gate and it’s important to bring a photo ID with you. The first part of the tour takes you through select pavilions in World Showcase. The guides point out the holiday decorations in each of those countries and talk about those countries’ holiday traditions and cultural origins of many popular traditions. Traveling by bus, a Disney Hotel is on the route. They usually don’t reveal the hotel until you get there but… spoiler alert… typically it’s been The Grand Floridian Hotel. After that the tour heads over to the Magic Kingdom and then behind the park to Holiday Services. Holiday Services is a large warehouse that not only takes care of creating decorations for all the theme parks, but also the 26 hotels, Disney Cruise Line, a private island, and the East Coast Disney Time Share properties. The bus then heads back to Epcot® where they let you off at the main gate. The tour is typically 3 hours long, but has been known to go as long as 4 hours. Also, eating a good breakfast is highly recommended as is bringing a bottle of water. At the end of the tour each guest received a limited edition pin and holiday ornament. Beginning November 27th and running until December 30th, The Yuletide Fantasy Tour is offered Monday through Saturday at a cost of $79 per person. There are some discounts available for the tour: AAA, Walt Disney World Annual Passholders, DVC members, and Disney Visa. Also note, the minimum age is 16 years of age.
New for 2009 is Disney’s Holiday D-Lights tour. This tour is offered on a much more limited basis, Mondays and Wednesdays from November 30th through December 16th. This tour is really about Disney holiday traditions that have also become traditions for many Disney guests during the season. This tour is the only way someone can experience all three major holiday displays all in one night!
This tour is given in the evenings only you get an insider’s look at the Osborne Family Spectacle of Dancing Lights, see and learn about the transformation of Cinderella Castle in all its icy glory, and become a special guest at the Candlelight Processional, one of the longest-running Disney holiday traditions.
What makes this tour different is you are a guest at these three parks. Not only do you experience the holiday shows, but you also learn about the ins-and-outs about what it takes to create these holiday spectaculars. In addition to seeing Epcot®’s Candlelight Processional, the holiday magic of the Magic Kingdom’s Main Street and the transformation of Cinderella Castle, and Disney’s Hollywood Studios’ Osborne Family Spectacle of Dancing Lights, you will also go backstage to Decorating Support. This is different from Holiday Services in that the Decorating Support team is responsible for the Castle Dream Lights and more than 3400 other events – big and small – that happen each year at Walt Disney World and around the world.
This tour will run 4 1/2 hours in length beginning at 5:00 pm. Guests are asked to arrive at the Epcot® Guest Relations Window by 4:45 pm and, as with all tours, each guest (16 years of age and over) must have a photo ID. The cost for this tour is $179 per person (theme park admission is not required nor is it included). There are some discounts available for the tour: AAA, Walt Disney World Annual Passholders, DVC members, and Disney Visa. A souvenir limited-edition keepsake pin is also included. However this souvenir pin is really special, there are only 400 pins available and they light up!
As you can see, planning a Walt Disney World vacation takes a lot of work, but planning a Walt Disney World Holiday Vacation takes a bit more. With careful planning and some forethought, these holidays will not only be happy, but will create memories for years to come.