There are some very specific reasons the holiday season is so popular at Walt Disney World. The weather is more than manageable, the crowds–with the exception of Thanksgiving week and the weeks of Christmas and the New Year–are some of the lowest crowd levels of the year. The most obvious reason is the many marvelous ways the holidays are celebrated at Walt Disney World. Mickey’s Very Merry Christmas Party is the big celebration at the Magic Kingdom; the Osborne Family Spectacle of Dancing Lights is considered to be the top attraction at Hollywood Studios; and the Animal Kingdom has the Jingle Jungle Parade. But at EPCOT, the holidays are celebrated with three unique events: Holidays Around the World, Illuminations: Reflections of Earth’s Peace on Earth Holiday Enhancement, and Joyful! A Gospel Celebration of the Season.
Each day of the holiday season, EPCOT’s World Showcase comes to life as each of the pavilions allow guests to experience their holiday traditions and cultural diversity. There are storytellers in each country, sharing tales about their native traditions unique to their country.
In Mexico, guests celebrate with Los Tres Reyes or The Three Kings as they share their story of their journey to find the baby Jesus. In Norway, Sigrid tells tales of Julenissen, the Christmas Gnome. The Monkey King in China tells stories of the Chinese New Year. In Germany, St. Nicholas and Helga speak of holiday traditions, the first Christmas, and the Nutcracker. La Benafa talks to guests about how Italy celebrates the Epiphany. In America, Santa and Mrs. Clause present Christmas, Hanukkah, and Kwanzaa in Santa’s workshop. In Morocco, guests find Taarji sharing the customs of Ramadan and Ashura. In Japan, the Daruma Doll seller talks about the Japanese New Year. Pere Noel recreates the magic of Christmas in France reading a letter from a little girl. Father Christmas in the United Kingdom shares stories of English and American traditions. Finally, in Canada, Nowell the Lumberjack tells of his journey to find Santa at Christmas. Depending on the weather and how fast a guest may travel, it is certainly possible to hear all of the holiday traditions in World Showcase in a single day.
After hearing the holiday tales from around the globe, it’s a great idea to head back to the American pavilion to witness the Candlelight Processional. The Candlelight Processional is a tradition that goes back to 1958 at Disneyland in California. When Walt Disney World opened in 1971, it hosted its own Candlelight Processional in the Magic Kingdom with Hollywood screen legend Rock Hudson was the first guest narrator.
By the time the ’90s rolled around, the Candlelight Processional had grown in popularity so much, the decision was made to move the event to EPCOT. In 1994, the Candlelight Processional made its grand debut in EPCOT’s World Showcase at the America Gardens Theatre.
What makes the Candlelight Processional so popular is not easy to explain. It hosts an impressive array of talent. There are more than 90 performances during the season, 12 celebrity guest narrators, 19,000 musical performers, and more than 160,000 guests enjoying the sounds of the holiday season. Best of all, the performances are included in a day’s admission to EPCOT.
The choir looks like a human Christmas tree. The nationally acclaimed Voices of Liberty is adorned in red and black robes to form the base of the tree. Disney cast members from all areas and departments audition for the choir during the summer and the selected members begin rehearsing in September. Dressed in green robes, the cast members make the branches of the Christmas tree, a stunning visual backdrop for the celebrity guest narrator. School, church, and community choirs from more than 30 states send audition recordings to Disney in the hope of being selected to participate. A rule allows only existing groups to participate ( a group may not form for the sole purpose of performing in the Candlelight Processional). The visiting singing groups fill out the rest of the stage in their glowing golden robes. The celebration is rounded out with a fifty-one-piece orchestra, with some of the most talented professional musicians in Central Florida.
It may be hard to imagine topping such a spectacular musical performance, but Disney does by adding a celebrity guest narrator. Over the years, an impressive list of celebrities has been invited to read the Story of the Nativity to an audience of 1,800+ strong several times an evening. Some celebrities have become fan favorites: John O’Hurley, Gary Sinise, and most recently, Neil Patrick Harris, draw the largest crowds.
For those who think WDW is losing value, attending the Candlelight Processional may very well change your mind. It’s become so popular, waiting in the stand-by line will not guarantee entrance to a performance. Depending on the popularity of the celebrity guest narrator, the stand-by line may be an exercise in futility ever since WDW introduced the Candlelight Processional Dining Package for lunch and dinner. It entitles guests to seating for the performance, as well as an exclusive viewing area for Illuminations.
Illuminations: Reflections of Earth is the perfect end to a day spent at EPCOT. There is a little extra pixie dust sprinkled on the performance during the holiday season–a holiday tag follows the usual production. After the regular finale, a female announcer speaks, “And now, at this special time, as we embrace a promise of a new year, we would like to offer one final message.” The song, “Let There Be Peace On Earth,” then plays as the Earth barge closes. After the barge closes, the message “Peace on Earth, Good Will to Men” is shown in several languages. When the language is spoken, that country’s pavilion lights up. When the American pavilion lights up, iconic American newscaster Walter Cronkite says, “During this glorious time of year, there is one message that rings out around the world in every language. Peace on earth. Good will to men is a wish to hold in our hearts throughout each passing year. A gift of immeasurable value. A treasure being handed down with care, from generation to generation. And so our holiday wish is that everyone, everywhere, share in the spirit of the season. Peace on earth, good will to men.” Cronkite’s words have become the iconic holiday message of EPCOT.
Joyful! A Gospel Celebration of the Season is a Christmas musical performance put on by a Central Florida R&B group known as D’Vine Voices. Their combination of live instruments, powerful voices, and funky interpretation of Christmas music is performed several times daily at Future World’s Fountain Stage.
A beloved holiday tradition at EPCOT ceased in 2009. The Lights of Winter show began in 1994 and was the centerpiece of the Holidays Around the World at that time. With more than 30,000 synchronized dancing lights and magnificent music, the Lights of Winter seamlessly bridged the gap between Futureworld and the World Showcase. While the Lights of Winter was ultra-popular with guests, Disney felt the technology was not up to par with the technology on display at The Osborne Family Spectacle of Dancing Lights, and they were removed in 2009. Each holiday season when Holidays Around the World is announced, fans around the globe reminisce fondly about Lights of Winter.
While any time is a good time to visit WDW, it is difficult to argue that the holiday season can be beat. The entire resort has so much to offer, but EPCOT especially embodies the spirit of the season. Many things at WDW should be experienced at least once by Disney fans, and EPCOT’s Holidays Around the World should be at the top of every list.