Celebrating a Walt Disney World Christmas Year-Roundby Jim Korkis, contributing writer
While many Walt Disney World fans mourned not being able to celebrate a traditional WDW Christmas this year or in some cases not even being able to visit the vacation destination itself, it will be possible to enjoy a Walt Disney World Christmas every day of the year once this pandemic unpleasantness finally abates.
It is not just that WDW and Christmas share so many things in common from family, celebration, giving, decorations, music and so much more magic. WDW is actually home to Santa and Christmas year round.
In fact, it is the location of Santa's vacation home.
Opened March 12, 1999, the Winter Summerland miniature golf courses located near the entrance to the Blizzard Beach water park was the second such venue built for Walt Disney World.
"Because of the success of (the first mini-golf course on property) Fantasia Gardens (in 1996), Walt Disney World Operations realized the potential of tapping into this new market and came to us with the idea of creating another miniature golf course," said senior show producer Ron Chesley. "With all of (creative director) Joe Lanzisero's and (concept designer) Robert Coltrin's experience from creating Fantasia Gardens, we could build 'em for the next twenty years!"
These were built to try to keep guests on WDW property instead of venturing to the popular mini- golf venues like Pirate's Cove Adventure Golf, Jungle Golf and Congo River that were nearby in the Orlando and Kissimmee.
In January 1998, the area next to Blizzard Beach was selected as the optimum location and that influenced the direction of a storyline that tied into that unique water park where a freak snowstorm in Central Florida led to the creation of Florida's first and only ski resort. In fact before Coronado Springs Resort opened across the street in 1997, the site was going to be Disney's Alpine Resort that would have overlooked the melting snows of Blizzard Beach. The Alpine Resort would have been a moderately priced hotel and as one of the perks for staying there, guests would have been able to ride a chair lift to the water park and access to the miniature golf course.
One of the reasons the idea of a hotel connected to a water park was eventually rejected according to Imagineer Kathy Mangum was "the water parks need to be rehabbed just about every year, which means draining them and sandblasting the bottom. We didn't want the guests overlooking an empty water park. It would ruin the story".
The back story of the water park was that the snowy weather did not last long, leaving behind a soggy melted venue that was converted into a water park using the same infrastructure that had been installed for the ski resort.
"Conceptually, the idea of Winter Summerland is a perfect marriage with Blizzard Beach," said Lanzisero. "It's got that whole screwy look of winter in Florida already going for it – that fish-out-of-water type thing that we Imagineers love to run with."
Show writer Kevin Rafferty, Lanzisero, Coltrin and associate show producer Darrell Rodriguez spent four days together in a conference room in what Imagineers' call a "mini-Blue Sky" retreat where ideas are shared without restriction.
"The way we worked together and built off of each other's talents to create a holistic concept was amazing," Rodriguez said. "Those four days were really a testament to how ideas gel at Imagineering as well as it all being a lot of fun. A lot of pizza was ordered, a lot of donuts consumed and a lot of design was created."
The official WDI back story was:
"Late one moonlit Christmas Eve, as Santa was flying over Florida on his way back to the North Pole, he glanced down and could not believe what he saw. Santa found snow in a place that is usually hot. After surveying the strange location, he decided to build a vacation destination for his off-duty elves -- a Winter Summerland.
"The only thing Winter Summerland lacked was a golf course. So the elves divided into two camps, one that enjoyed the warm Florida sun and another that preferred the snow and cold of the North Pole. In this Winter Summerland, the elves built two distinctly different 18-hole golf experiences -- a sand course and a snow course.
"Both courses at Winter Summerland are loaded with interactive elements that will entertain and engage golfers of all ages. On the snow course, Squirty the Snowman sprays water on unsuspecting guests when their golf balls pass beneath him. On the sand course, guests putt over a slumbering Santa buried underneath a tremendous sand mound.
"Although the elves were split into different camps, they agreed that the last couple of holes should converge within an old log campground lodge. Upon sinking their last putt on Hole 18, guests journey through cyberspace via the WinterNet as a computer downloads a special greeting from Santa. Winter Summerland also features Santa's winterbago, a converted travel trailer that houses the starter booth, and small snack and gift shops."
The Winter Summer Lodge serves as a sturdy and welcoming home built from logs for the Clauses and a summer toyshop was also built for those workaholic elves who still felt the desire to continue working as well as a beachfront barn for the playful reindeer.
"We wanted to create an integration between challenging play and really cool icons," said Lanzisero. "We wanted to purposely increase the playability factor over what we had done in Fantasia Gardens. Plus Santa apparently had some skiing and sunbathing mishaps which are evident in the course and hopefully will produce some giggles."
The Summer Course features surfboards, sandcastles and ornaments hanging from palm trees. The Snow course is a little easier with gravity helping younger golfers get the ball in the hole. Merry obstacles include inner tubes decorated like giant peppermints, hockey sticks and the drawbridge of a fantastical, melting snowman and castle.
Since the courses were designed to be "elf-size', it means that there are the perfect proportion for younger guests. Both courses have a replica of Cinderella's Castle that looks like ice and sand respectively. Photo opportunities include the ability to sit behind the reins of Santa's sleigh or gather in front of a surfing Santa statue created by the elves that is a replica of the park's logo: a smiling surfing Santa with a camera hanging around his neck.
However, even before the opening of this fanciful creation, WDW guests could enjoy Christmas by shopping at a dedicated Disney Christmas shop. Today, there are three on WDW property.
Ironically, the Christmas shop at Disney's Hollywood Studios is closed this holiday season. It's A Wonderful Shop opened in June 1992. The park was originally going to be dedicated to the Hollywood films of the 1930s and 1940s.
It's a Wonderful Life is the title of a beloved 1946 Christmas film directed by Frank Capra that has become an annual viewing tradition for many people. So, it seemed a natural connection to have the name of the shop reference the popular movie. Unfortunately, the Imagineers did not reference Bedford Falls, New York, the fictional town where the movie takes place. However it is on a secluded small town street located just beyond the Muppet Courtyard opposite the Muppet Stage 1 store.
Ye Olde Christmas Shoppe in Liberty Square opened February 1996 at the Magic Kingdom.
When the Magic Kingdom opened in 1971, there was no Ye Olde Christmas Shoppe across the street from the Hall of Presidents attraction.
That Colonial inspired building was devoted to three other businesses: Mademoiselle Lafayette's Parfumerie which was one of only four perfume shops in the United States at the time that allowed customers to blend fragrances of their choice from dozens of bottles. The guest's special mixture could be recorded at the store for future refills. The Silversmith Shop featured silver trinkets for purchase. Supposedly, it was the establishment of Johnny Tremain, the hero of the Esther Forbes' novel that was used as the basis for the Disney live-action movie. Old World Antiques had authentic antiques, as well as reproductions ranging in price from five dollars to fifteen thousand dollars.
As tastes and business needs changed, the building was converted and reopened February 5, 1996 as Ye Olde Christmas Shoppe. Former Imagineering Show Writer Shawn Slater came up with the story concept for the new shop:
"Here in Liberty Square, at the close of the 18th century, Americans herald the birth of a new nation and their newfound freedoms, including the religious freedom to celebrate the traditions of Christmas. It's a simpler observance, prior to the advent of tinsel or trees or Santa Claus.
"Beautiful greens, adorned with fruit and pinecones and other natural items, decorate doors, sashes and mantles. Candles gleam in every window, and you can almost smell the mince pies baking.
"Ye Olde Christmas Shoppe is actually a series of buildings, storefronts with second story residences brimming with busy craftspeople preparing for the upcoming festivities. Each shop has its own purpose and, thereby, its own character.
"More formal in nature, the Music Teacher's Shop is set with recorders, mandolins and fiddles, perhaps readied for playing a ball in honor of Twelfth Night (January 6). The music on the sheets and meeting the ear is that of Watts' beloved Joy to the World and traditional English favorites, The Holly and the Ivy and I Saw Three Ships.
"Next door is a Woodcarver's Shop, casual and more rough-hewn. The tools of the trade sit amidst curled shaving of pine and cherry. In the corner is a lovingly crafted hobbyhorse, and decorative holiday ornaments are all around.
"Nearest the Liberty Tree is the quaint home of a family of Pennsylvania Germans, folk artists and craftsmen whose hospitality is evident in the beautiful items they offer for sale and in the pot of hot cider they keep on the stove. They are always ready to welcome townsfolk and travelers alike, spreading wishes of good cheer.
"At Ye Olde Christmas Shoppe of Liberty Square, Christmas comes anew with the dawning of each day, its spirit alive forever in the hearts and homes of its residents."
The new shops were actually cleverer than this simple description suggests. Outside the music shop was a sign stating "Music & Voice Lessons by appointment: Ichabod Crane, Instructor". That reference was to the music teacher protagonist of the same name in Washington Irving's famous Legend of Sleepy Hollow tale that has other references scattered throughout Liberty Square.
The woodcarver's shop was subtly meant to suggest Gepetto and a wooden Pinocchio figure was on a top shelf.
Outside of the Pennsylvania German household was a handmade heart sign stating "Kepple est. 1779" to honor Walt Disney's great-great-grandfather Kepple Disney born in Ireland in 1776 which, of course, is a reference to the Revolutionary War. A tribute to Walt's grandfather, also named Kepple is at the General Store in Frontierland on some bags of "Uncle Kepple & Sons" livestock feed.
Over the last two decades, things that helped tell these stories have been removed and rearranged to make room for more merchandise and less maintenance but many of the original references still exist for sharp-eyed guests.
However, when most WDW guests think of purchasing a unique Disney Christmas souvenir, they make plans to go to Disney Springs to visit the largest and oldest Disney Christmas shop on property.
Lake Buena Vista Village opened on March 22, 1975. This shopping venue evolved into Walt Disney World Village starting in 1977. In 1989, it underwent another name change and became the Disney Village Marketplace. The name was changed yet again in 1996 to Downtown Disney Marketplace before being extensively remodeled into Disney Springs in 2015.
The original shopping venue had a store called Anniversary Room that sold china, silver and giftware. It became the Christmas Chalet roughly around 1986 and that store moved over the years to three different locations before finally settling where previously the Team Mickey Athletic Club was operating and being renamed the Days of Christmas in 1996.
The festive store celebrates Christmas, in particular a Disney themed Christmas, 365 days a year with a variety of merchandise from a Santa hat with Mickey Mouse ears to ornaments, stockings, lights, cards, plush dolls, figurines, collectible plates, tree skirts and more. Many items can be personalized for a small fee and the staff often personalize more than 60,000 individual items in a year. The staff is specially trained in doing the personalizations and must pass a test before they are allowed to handle the merchandise that is a prized treasure of the guest.
The store at 6,000 square feet is the largest Christmas shop on Disney property. Background music of holiday tunes fill the air along with the scents of cinnamon and Winter herbs. While the store is especially busy during the holiday season, it still is very alive during the rest of the year with guests often purchasing items to save for Christmas decorating. In addition there are Hanukkah, Nightmare Before Christmas and Frozen items for sale as well.
The name of the Disney Springs shop comes from the famous song The Twelve Days of Christmas where on each day an eager suitor gifted the love of his life with the appropriate number of presents for each day leading up to Christmas day. Throughout the location there are 12 scrolls each with one verse and with matching scenes but distinctly themed to Disney. Some guests love going through and finding them all.
Here are the verses of the Disney adaptation of the classic poem:
- On the first day of Christmas, my true love gave to me, Mickey in a yule tree.
- On the second day of Christmas my true love gave to me, Two Tweedledees.
- On the third day of Christmas, my true love gave to me, Three Little Pigs.
- On the fourth day of Christmas my true love gave to me, Four chiming bells.
- On the fifth day of Christmas, my true love gave to me, Five Goofy Things.
- On the sixth day of Christmas, my true love gave to me, Six Ducks a-playing.
- On the seventh day of Christmas, my true love gave to me, Seven Dwarfs a-mining.
- On the eighth day of Christmas, my true love gave to me, Eight Toys a-spinning.
- On the ninth day of Christmas, my true love gave to me, Nine Genies flying.
- On the tenth day of Christmas, my true love gave to me, Ten Minnies a-dancing.
- On the eleventh day of Christmas, my true love gave to me, Eleven puppies panting.
- On the twelfth day of Christmas, my true love gave to me Twelve Fairies a-flitting.
For years, the store was home to a true Hidden Mickey because it was covered up by a wreath that has since been removed so people were unable to find it. You might want to look at an area with dark grainy faux wood or ask a cast member working there to give you a hint.
So, any day of the year, WDW is the home to not only the Christmas spirit, but an opportunity to immerse in an actual Christmas experience.