Memories of WDW Christmases Past

by Jim Korkis, contributing writer

Unfortunately, for me, when people ask about the first Walt Disney World Christmas in 1971, I think about Roy O. Disney, the brother who made Walt Disney's final dream come true.

In December 1971, Roy had just recently returned to California after opening Walt Disney World in Florida. It had been a struggle battling against the harsh Florida swampland and brutal weather to meet an almost impossible deadline to open the vacation destination of the world. He was 78 years old and had faced opposition to some of his decisions from executives in the company.

He was looking forward to finally announcing his retirement in February at the stockholders' meeting and had already made arrangements for a cruise with his wife Edna to Australia followed by more trips while Card Walker, Donn Tatum and Ron Miller handled the business of the Walt Disney Company.

For awhile he had been having some difficulty with his vision, complaining about it sometimes being "cloudy". He had assumed he just needed a new prescription for his glasses but kept putting off an appointment because of all the responsibilities of the newly opened Walt Disney World.

Christmas festivities were starting at Disneyland that had celebrated the holiday season since the Park first opened in 1955. As part of a long family tradition, Roy intended to go to the Park with his family to attend the annual Christmas parade.

However, he was feeling poorly and was again having some difficulty seeing so decided to stay home. He insisted that his wife Edna should go and accompany their son Roy E. and his family to see the parade on Sunday December 19. Edna couldn't enjoy herself, feeling that there was something wrong, so the family left Disneyland early.

When they returned, they found Roy collapsed on the floor. He muttered that he had called out for her but she hadn't come. He was rushed to St. Joseph's Hospital in Burbank where his younger brother Walt had passed away several years earlier. Roy died of a cerebral hemorrhage on Monday night, December 20, 1971. Like Walt, he was just days away from celebrating another Christmas.

I never felt that Roy ever got the full recognition he deserved for his contributions to the Walt Disney Company and for the fact that he was such a decent, modest man.

Walt Disney World opened October 1, 1971 but amazingly preparations had already been made to celebrate the Christmas holidays just over two months later.

On December 12th, the Orlando Sentinel newspaper announced:

"Walt Disney World's first Christmas will be a spirited two-week holiday full of gaiety, tradition, colorful Disney character parades, and commemorative religious pageantry of the season.

"Yuletide decorations will bring added sparkle to the already fun-filled Magic Kingdom—'decked out' literally for Christmas with a giant tree and hundreds of wreaths of hemlock and holly.

"Special daily Holiday Parades (beginning December 10) and two mammoth Candlelight Processionals are part of the spectacular events scheduled for the holidays.

"Florally adorned by poinsettias, snapdragons, petunias and 50,000 pansies, the theme park will feature lights and decorations in each of the Main Street shop windows. And in Town Square, a snowy, 50-foot Christmas tree, especially selected and cut from a forest in Paradise, Michigan, will serve as a colorful centerpiece for the festive theme park celebration. More than 1,200 lights and a thousand giant ornaments adorn the tree."

The Holiday Parade was performed twice each day from December 10 through January 2. According to the newspaper account, the parade included, "marching toy soldiers, dancing reindeer, marching bands, girls playing glockenspiels and 50 famous Disney characters come to life." And of course Santa Claus as well was in the parade and at the park.

A Christmas parade in the Magic Kingdom.

"Christmas week was even busier than Thanksgiving," publicity manager Charlie Ridgway told me when I asked him about WDW that first year it was opened. "Our 1,500 rooms in the Contemporary and the Polynesian were booked up for a year.

"Attendance (at Magic Kingdom) increased steadily. It rose to 600,000 in (the month of) December. Hours were extended to midnight for the Christmas holidays. For three successive days at Christmastime, the gate total approached 70,000."

The Magic Kingdom was open on Christmas Eve from 9:00 a.m. to 6:00 p.m.; Christmas Day hours were 10:00 a.m. to 6:00 p.m. Extended hours from 9:00 a.m. to midnight were in effect for the week between Christmas and New Year's.

Like the holiday parade, other Christmas traditions from Disneyland were transplanted to Walt Disney World including the huge decorated tree in Town Square and the Candlelight Processional ceremony. Main Street was decorated to resemble a winter painting by Currier and Ives.

Mickey and Friends gather around the huge decorated Christmas tree in EPCOT.

Dr. Charles Hirt of the University of Southern California, who had created the Candelight Processional for Disneyland, flew out to Walt Disney World to inaugurate the version held in the Magic Kingdom.

WDW's very first Candlelight Processionals were held on December 18 and 19 at 6pm each evening. The processional traveled down Main Street from the Cinderella Castle forecourt to the Main Street train station.

Roughly 1,200 carolers each night from across the state of Florida made up the choir. Actor Rock Hudson narrated the Christmas story. He had been the narrator for the 1968 Disneyland ceremony as well as the one in 1972 and would return to Florida to narrate the 1973 and 1974 performances at WDW.

Frederick Fennell conducted the orchestra. The living Christmas tree was made up of boys choirs from Orlando and St. Petersburg.

One of my fondest WDW Christmas memories was gathering in front of the television set with my family on Christmas Day to see the Walt Disney World Christmas Parade broadcast. It was much different than what is aired today.

First, like the Pasadena Tournament of Roses Parade on New Year's Day, it was live. The Walt Disney World Christmas Parade had always been broadcast live on Christmas Day, usually on CBS, with whom Disney had partnered for Thanksgiving and New Year celebrations as well, until Disney bought out ABC in 1996 and the show shifted to that network and that was the last year the parade was broadcast live.

It was determined that there were too many negative variables from inclement weather to performers not being able to appear on that particular day so that it was more reasonable to pre-tape the event to guarantee a good show. The taping usually takes place over two days sometime during late November or even as late as early December.

During the taping, floats are frequently stopped and restarted many times and performers repeat their routines several times. Guests on Main Street and in front of the castle are encouraged to cheer and applaud loudly, sometimes at nothing just to get a reaction shot for the cameras.

The early broadcasts were 90 minutes long. It became two hours long in 1988, the first year there was a simulcast from Disneyland. In recent years, it has been trimmed to an hour.

Second, the focus of the parade was to showcase the park, not forgettable musical performances, and to offer glimpses into the "coming attractions" for the parks.

Although most of us remember Regis Philbin, he was not the original host for the Walt Disney World Very Merry Christmas Parade. He brought his own special passionate energy and perspective that always made it interesting. Regis loved having notes of "fun facts" (sometimes written with a wonderful expertise by Disney expert Greg Ehrbar) to include for each parade.

Walt Disney World Very Merry Christmas Parade was broadcast live for 90 minutes from Walt Disney World for the first time Christmas Day in 1983 with Joan Lunden and talk show personality Mike Douglas serving as the hosts.

Lunden who was well known for her role as co-host of ABC's Good Morning America show loved doing the show and bringing her family and would continue to be the primary host for the parade on television for over a decade.

The following year, Bruce Jenner was Lunden's co-host and Regis Philbin popped up in a few segments as a roving commentator on the street. In 1985 and 1986, Lunden hosted with dancer Ben Vereen. Then from 1987 to 1990, it was Lunden and actor Alan Thicke (with Regis still out on the street and doing special reports).

In 1991, Regis finally came in off the street and joined Lunden, sitting at her side as the co-host and continued to do so up through the 1995 parade. In 1996, it was Suzanne Somers and Jerry Van Dyke doing the emcee duties.

In 1997, Melissa Joan Hart and Ben Savage shared the magic. In 1998, Caroline Rhea and Richard Kind did the same. It wasn't until 2001, that it was Regis and Kelly Ripa hosting from the center of Town Square on Main Street USA—and they continued to do so together until 2008. The program won a special Daytime Emmy in 2005.

In December 2009, Regis, recovering from hip surgery, was absent from the festivities, and Ryan Seacrest reporting from California joined Kelly Ripa who was in Florida. This was also the year that the show's name was changed to a new title, Disney Parks Christmas Day Parade. By 2010, Seacreast and Nick Cannon had become the hosts, and it continued every year to shift focus and hosts but lost the excitement and magic of those earlier broadcasts.

Today, of course, WDW visitors enjoy things like touring the resort hotels to see the gingerbread structures or walking the Christmas Tree Trail at Disney Springs. But once upon a time there were many Holiday traditions that are now long gone and perhaps little remembered except by us "old timers". How many of these do you remember or experienced?

After more than a decade, in 2009, Walt Disney World did not install The Lights of Winter at Epcot. It was unexpectedly announced that it had been officially retired.

The Lights of Winter was a canopy archway of 30,000 dazzling colored lights, running along the walkway from Future World to the World Showcase Plaza that would be synchronized to a selection of holiday music. The immersive, towering experience delighted guests who loved walking under the arches of dancing lights.

The reason given for its removal was antiquated technology ("tech to operate the lights is obsolete, prompting us to retire the lights" stated the official Disney twitter account) even though several sections had already been updated in past years and, in fact, the Osborne Family Spectacle of Lights had recently undergone an overhaul to bring it up to modern technology.

Jolly Holidays Dinner Show at the Contemporary was always a favorite for me and my family.

"Those Jolly, Jolly, Jolly Holidays! Those Holly, Holly, Holly Jolly Days! All the decorations! Many celebrations! Many happy faces! Cozy fireplaces! Let the bells ring out now! Everyone sing out now!"

The Jolly Holidays Dinner Show at the Contemporary Resort.

The Jolly Holidays Dinner Show at Disney's Contemporary Resort was performed from 1992 through the 1998 Christmas season when it was discontinued. The Fantasia Ballroom was converted into an immersive theater-in-the-round setting for a dinner show with more than 100 talented performers in a musical extravaganza.

Besides the raised main stage, there were several smaller stages on the outer perimeter of the decorated tables that seated groups of hungry guests for the holiday dinner show.

Performers spilled out into the audience, as well. The show took place at "Holiday Village," where the patriarch of the town known simply as "Papa" (and looking a bit like a grey-bearded Sebastian Cabot with a deep gravely voice) recalled his memories of the holidays.

Mickey, Minnie, Pluto, Goofy and Chip 'n' Dale cavorted with perky singers and dancers. The Country Bears dropped by to perform a tune before they went back out into the snow to play. There was even a short version of the Nutcracker Suite featuring the hippos and ostriches from Fantasia.

Of course, some scenes and costumes seemed to be borrowed from other holiday park shows including the tap dancing horses for the sleigh ride, the marching toy soldiers and Santa Goofy making an appearance.

In addition, guests enjoyed an all-you-can-eat feast of fresh-cooked turkey, honey-baked ham and other holiday treats. It was a hugely popular show, often completely sold out even at a premium price, although significant changes were made in its final year that did not please everyone.

The Country Bear Christmas Special was a special holiday edition of the popular Country Bear Jamboree attraction that premiered simultaneously during the 1984 holiday season at both Disneyland and the Magic Kingdom at Walt Disney World.

It was the first Disney parks holiday overlay. It featured new costumes, settings, songs and re-programmed movements for the Audio-Animatronics bruins. The last time it was performed at WDW was in 2006.

Liver Lips McGrowl dressed as Elvis with a Christmas tree shaped guitar. Teddi Barra attired in ski gear had a cast on her leg. Terrence in white fur looking like a polar bear was next to a penguin encased in ice.

Big Al dressed as Baby New Year. Even Buff, the buffalo on the wall, wore a Santa Hat while his deer companion Max had a red light bulb on his nose and goofy moose Melvin had a string of Christmas lights hanging on his antlers.

The songs included "Blue Christmas," "It's Beginning to Look a Lot Like Christmas," "Sleigh Ride," "The Christmas Song (Chestnuts Roasting on an Open Fire)," "Winter Wonderland" and other holiday standards—all done with a country music twang.

WDW officially stated that the show would no longer be offered because of disappointing guests who wanted to see the original version because of the extended time to install and remove the overlay.

Back in 1992, when Disney's Port Orleans Resort had only been open a year and was not yet designated as "French Quarter," the resort offered a free nightly holiday gift to all WDW guests for a couple of weeks beginning approximately at 7:00 p.m.

In the open area outside the food court, an energetic harlequin jester costumed in Mardi Gras colors of yellow, green and purple entertained the audience with juggling, comedy, and, finally, balancing a six-foot ladder on his chin. His smiling painted face of red circled cheeks and jingling bells on his headgear brought joy to even the youngest member of the audience.

There was free cider, a sugar cookie and hot roasted chestnuts as the appreciative audience gathered to watch the 15-minute show. Then, the jester led the audience (sometimes accompanied by a three-piece band) to the open grassy courtyard by the pool.

In the dim light, the jester held a lit candle and told the story of the Noel Candle, the origin of the French tradition to have a small candle burning in the window on the eve of Noel, to light the way for the solitary Christ child. Then song sheets were handed out so the guests could sing carols together.

For more than 15 years in the 1980s and 1990s, the Disney Village Marketplace (now known as Disney Springs) ushered in the season with a performance of The Glory and the Pageantry of Christmas.

It was literally a traditional "living nativity scene" enactment that was originally performed at the open-air pavilion known as the Captain's Tower (now Pin Traders), but soon moved to the larger venue of the Waterfront Dock Stage. The shopping area nearby was decorated to suggest a re-creation of the little town of Bethlehem.

Mary and Joseph approached the manger and she revealed a child wrapped in swaddling clothes. The shepherds appeared. The angels appeared, rising up from behind the manger. There was a total cast of 36 performers.

The narration told how the shopkeepers of the village brought gifts including cheese from the dairyman and breads from the baker. Sadly, one little orphan child had no gift to bring. To the strains of the song "The Little Drummer Boy," a small child walked up to the manger and encouraged by Mary, played his drum.

There was no official announcement of the reason for the show's cancellation, but there were rumors that it had grown so popular that large audiences caused logistical challenges. There were also some grumblings that the show was not substantially increasing sales at the nearby shops.

But perhaps the most missed holiday treat was The Osborne Family Spectacle of Dancing Lights that lasted from November 24, 1995 to January 6, 2016 at Disney MGM (now Hollywood) Studios.

William Jennings Osborne passed away in July 2011 but in 1986 as a special Christmas treat for his then 6-year old daughter, he created a huge light display on his house (and later the surrounding houses) in Little Rock, Arkansas. When he encountered legal objections from his neighbors, he donated everything to Walt Disney World.

Walt Disney World officially described the experience on its website:

"Marvel at millions of glittering lights perfectly synchronized to holiday music. Share in an awe-inspiring seasonal treat for the entire family. Brilliant multi-colored bulbs wrap the buildings, changing hues and brightness throughout the show at Disney's Hollywood Studios.

"As joyful music surrounds you, a sea of twinkling lights form twirling carousels of heavenly angels, toy soldiers, a spinning Earth, and even Santa and his trusty reindeer. It's something you have to see to believe!"

It was indeed something that needed to be seen and experienced as there is no way of describing the feeling of being completely immersed in brightly colored, ever-changing lights in the somewhat cool night air of Orlando during the Christmas season. The area was demolished to make way for Star Wars: Galaxy's Edge.

Even Dinosaur Gertie at Hollywood Studios gets in the holiday spirit.

One of the things I miss most about celebrating Christmas at Walt Disney World is sharing it with my late mom and dad who filled with the spirit of the holidays would still hold hands, smile broadly at the parade and shows and always made sure that I had some kind of Disney related present under their Christmas tree no matter how old I was.

If you want to extend the spirit of a Disney Christmas, my book Vault of Walt: Volume 7 Christmas Edition is filled with nothing but Christmas stories of Walt Disney, the parks, the Disney films and more.