My Disney Top 5 - Holiday Season Happenings at Walt Disney World

by Chris Barry, contributing writer
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Welcome to my final Disney Top 5 of 2023!

I hope you are all having a wonderful holiday season. Mine has been exhausting, emotional, peaceful at times and a little crazy at times. In other words, it's been a holiday season and a half!

One thing we did make sure to do this holiday season was to visit my Disney College Program son, Alex, for Thanksgiving. We had never actually spent an actual holiday at Walt Disney World. For example, we've been to the Halloween party several times but have yet to go there on October 31. I've never been there on the Fourth July 4 or Christmas Day. Thanksgiving this year was a first. With the loss of both of our fathers within a few months of each other, Diane and I felt like we needed to not be home for Thanksgiving. Alex was still in the Disney College Program, so we thought to ourselves, let's go and visit him. We even brought my mom along to see him and have a holiday distraction. We booked five nights at Disney's Boardwalk Inn, made a Thanksgiving dinner reservation at Ale & Compass Restaurant over at our favorite resort, Disney's Yacht Club Resort, and were off.

So, did it feel like Thanksgiving when we were there? No...not at all. The Ale & Compass meal was delicious as always, but it didn't feel like Thanksgiving at all, and, given the year we had, maybe that's just what we needed. What it did feel like was Christmas! We've been to Walt Disney World in early December before to see the resort decorations and to attend Mickey's Very Merry Christmas Party a couple of times in years past. Last year, when our other son was in the College Program, we came to see him the first weekend of November, and the Christmas decorations had just started being rolled out. But Walt Disney World is completely decked out in holiday splendor by Thanksgiving. And I was just OK with that. As a matter of fact, I loved it. So, to end the year properly while we're all still feeling the spirit of the season, let's take a look at my Top 5 holiday season happenings at Walt Disney World.

5 – Epcot Candlelight Processional

I remember walking through Epcot a long time ago, in early December. I was at Disney for MouseFest way back in 2003. As I passed from Japan into the American Adventure, I saw something I wasn't prepared for. Dozens of people in robes walked into the America Gardens Theater holding candles. I instantly realized that I must be witnessing the legendary Candlelight Processional. It was quite a sight, and I said, "Someday, I'd like to stay and check that out. " It turns out this was finally the year. My cousin was meeting us down there for a few days, and we had planned to have dinner with them in Germany on Saturday night. Once the Processional dates were announced, she hopped on it and booked the dining package for all of us, and I was so glad that she did. 

For those who don't know, The Candlelight Processional has been at Walt Disney World since the resort opened in 1971 when it was held at the Magic Kingdom. Each year, a long list of celebrity narrators is scheduled throughout the holiday season to tell the nativity story interspersed with a full orchestra and mass choir performing a long list of traditional Christmas hymns. (It's much more of a Joy to the World kind of night than a Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer kind of night.) The event has officially been at Disneyland since 1958, but Walt Disney made sure Christmas carols were being sung live in the park as far back as the opening holiday season three years earlier in 1955.

So, how did I enjoy my first Candlelight Processional? It was a beautiful night to be there in the America Gardens Theater. It's hard to beat the experience of listening to a live 50-piece orchestra accompanied by dozens of choir members and the incredible Voices of Liberty.


The Candlight Processional is a Walt Disney World tradition and a moving evening that shouldn't be missed during the holiday season. Photo by Alan S. Dalinka.

It was a fantastic night and I thoroughly enjoyed it, as did the rest of our party. Our narrator was Chrissy Metz of This Is Us fame in her inaugural year. It was her second night of two, and she was emotional about even being asked to narrate this legendary Disney event. [We caught her walking through Fantasyland the next day, mouse ears on her head, backpack on her shoulders. We were in line for Peter Pan's Flight, about to board our pirate ship, when she and what looked like her mother or grandmother were escorted by their private tour guide onto the fan-favorite attraction right before us.] She seemed legitimately overwhelmed by her participation in the event that night. The Candlelight Processional will undoubtedly get you into the Christmas mood. I recommend booking a dining package to guarantee good seats, mainly when one of the more popular narrators like  Neil Patrick Harris or John Stamos appears.

4 – Olaf's Holiday Tradition Expedition

Each time we've been to one of Epcot's festivals, there has been a different scavenger hunt activity throughout World Showcase. When we were there earlier this year for Food and Wine, it was a search for Remy. This time, the fan-favorite snowman from Frozen needed to be found. It seemed like a simple thing to do, but actually, some of Olaf's hiding places weren't so obvious. You pay $10 at various locations throughout Epcot, like Creations, World Traveler, Port of Entry, or any festival booth, and get an Expedition map. Each time you spot the Olaf statue, you must look at which piece of a holiday tradition he's with. It might be a Yule log or a dreidel or candy canes.


In Italy Olaf was hiding out by the Venetian gondola. In the back of his sleigh is a panettone, a traditional Italian sweet bread served during the holiday season. Photo by Chris Barry.

Match all the stickers to the correct locations on the map, then head back to any areas where the maps are sold and collect your prize. This time around, we had a choice of cookie cutters. We opted for the Olaf cookie cutter because it was his expedition, but you could also choose from Sven, Elsa, or Anna cookie cutters. My wife and I thoroughly enjoy these scavenger hunts. It makes you focus and take time walking through each of the beautiful World Showcase pavilions on your quest. We sampled some treats and drinks from the Festival of the Holidays food booths along the way. We also came across a few different Santas. Our favorite was in the UK. We likely would have walked all through the Showcase anyway, but this makes you an active traveler instead of a passive one, and it's something different to do. Sometimes, you need an excellent quest to go out on together!

3 – Resort Lobbies

One of our favorite things to do at Walt Disney World any time of the year is resort hop. We love our time in the parks, but lately, we've been making sure that we set aside plenty of time to visit our favorite resorts, and there's no better time to do that than during the holiday season. Disney goes all out to decorate their resort lobbies for the season with trees, wreaths, garlands, lights, and gingerbread houses, the big attraction in each lobby. On this trip, we were staying at the Boardwalk Inn, so in addition to that beautiful lobby, we made sure to make the lap around Crescent Lake to the Yacht and Beach Club and even checked out the Swan and Dolphin. The winner for us, hands down, was our all-time favorite resort, Disney's Yacht Club Resort. The lobby was beautifully decorated, and we loved their tree the most, with its nautical-themed ornaments.


We were raised on the water in a boating family. The Yacht Club Christmas tree ornaments strike a familiar chord with me. Photo by Chris Barry.

In addition to the tree and all of the lighted garlands was an incredible lighthouse made of gingerbread. And on top of all that, there's also a fantastic train set and Christmas village set up in the lobby. 


I could spend all day watching the train roll around the Yacht Club Christmas village, looking at all the small details they've included. Photo by Chris Barry.

We had tickets to Mickey's Very Merry Christmas Party on our second night there, so the daytime wasn't a park day. We spent the morning over in the Crescent Lake resorts and then had some lunch before heading over to the monorail resorts for the afternoon. We started at the Contemporary and looked for the Hidden Mickeys and the famous five-legged goat on their gingerbread house.


Look carefully and you can spot Mary Blair's famous five-legged goat on the Contemporary's gingerbread house. Photo by Chris Barry.

Then it was time for the Polynesian, which goes for a much subtler decorating vibe. If you're looking for something subtle, don't head to the next resort, Disney's Grand Floridian.


The Grand Floridian's massive gingerbread house draws guests from all across Walt Disney World, not just those staying at the flagship Disney hotel. Photo by Chris Barry.

The Grand Floridian lobby turns into an attraction all unto itself during the holiday season with its massive Christmas tree and life-size gingerbread house, complete with cast members inside selling treats!

2 – Mickey's Once Upon a Christmastime Parade

Disney is known for its parades, and this is probably my favorite one of them all. We secured tickets to Mickey's Very Merry Christmas Party for several reasons. A special ticketed event at the Magic Kingdom is always great. We've been to the Halloween party several times and the Christmas party only twice, but the park has a different feeling on these special nights. The lighting, special treats, unique shows and fireworks, rare characters, and special parades make these hard-ticketed events worthwhile. 


Nothing makes me feel more like a kid again than seeing the wooden soldiers march down Main Street, U.S.A. Photo by Chris Barry.

In this particular writer's eyes, the pinnacle of the night is staking a claim on Main Street, U.S.A., for the parade. Once it starts snowing, there's just about no place else I'd rather be. The catchy song, the characters all dressed up in their holiday best, and the unique floats all lead up to the big moment, at least for me. When I catch a glimpse of the wooden soldiers, that's when I know my money has been spent. I don't know what it is about these guys, but I'm in a very happy place when they march down Main Street in the snowstorm. It's one of my all-time favorite Disney moments of them all.

1 – Main Street and Town Square Late at Night

I've been writing here on MousePlanet for years about the joy of staying late at the Magic Kingdom. That's especially true during the holiday season. When I say late, I mean past the officially stated closing time. Most guests leave for the night and rush out to the boats, buses, and monorails. The music is still playing. The park is still lit up, and you can have some real quality time with just a few guests around you. I like to linger in the Emporium for a while, get some shopping done, and then exit onto Main Street and take the whole place in.


This picture was taken at 12:42 a.m., 42 minutes after the Christmas party officially ended and we weren't done yet. Photo by Chris Barry

I'll do this on any given night at the Magic Kingdom, but even more so during the holidays. If you don't feel immersed in the Christmas spirit at that moment, then you might be the Grinch himself—before his heart grew three sizes. My son Alex and I have been staying until the last minute. At that point, Main Street and Town Square were ours, and I cherish those moments the most.  

As I write this article, I'm recuperating from the exhaustion of the holidays. We had 23 people over at our home on Christmas Day, and it was a joyous occasion. We did have several family members pass away this year, so there was an underlying melancholy feel to the day as well. But it was essential to move forward and host the day. My neighbor and I were commiserating while raking leaves recently. He lost his mother this year. I lost my dad and my father-in-law. He and his husband throw legendary holiday parties, and they were curious if this year they should proceed given the lousy year he had and the loss he suffered. In the end, though, he decided that rather than dwell on the loss, they should, and I'm quoting him here, "...celebrate life!" That simple sentiment solidified our commitment to have family and friends over to our home on Christmas Day. We would miss those who weren't with us, but we are celebrating life. 

I felt the same way at Walt Disney World this holiday season. We knew that the first Thanksgiving without our dads would be rough, so why not head down to Disney, a place that celebrates life and wonder? Let's go and soften the blow and soak up some magic with family members. And that's just what we did. And just like every Disney trip, it was exhausting at times, but it was also healing and good for the soul, much like the Christmas Day we just pulled off. You can't beat a Christmas Day at the Barry house. Ok. Walking around the fully decorated Magic Kingdom at night or watching the trains glide around the Christmas village at the Yacht Club lobby are close seconds! You know what I mean if you're returning from Disney this holiday season. If you've never been, there's always next season!

That's all for this time. As always, I'd like to hear what you have to say. Click on the link below to share your thoughts. I wish you all a happy, healthy, and joyous New Year. Celebrate life, and I'll see you next year with another Disney Top 5.

 

Comments

  1. By wdwchuck

    Looking forward to what Dave1313131313 has to say.
    My experience at WDW during Christmas time has been very similar. It is really hard to do a top 5 when just walking around the resorts and parks are all top 5 material.
    5. The Grand Floridian resort.
    4. The Beach Club resort.
    3. Magic Kingdom park at night
    2. Tree lighting at Hollywood Studios
    1. Pat Sajak narrating the Candlelight Processional

    So grateful Christmas is still celebrated in grand style at WDW. Hope that never changes.

  2. By cbarry

    Quote Originally Posted by wdwchuck View Post
    Looking forward to what Dave1313131313 has to say.
    My experience at WDW during Christmas time has been very similar. It is really hard to do a top 5 when just walking around the resorts and parks are all top 5 material.
    5. The Grand Floridian resort.
    4. The Beach Club resort.
    3. Magic Kingdom park at night
    2. Tree lighting at Hollywood Studios
    1. Pat Sajak narrating the Candlelight Processional

    So grateful Christmas is still celebrated in grand style at WDW. Hope that never changes.

    Most of my Top 5's are equally as hard to actually make an order. All 5 things on my list are prety much equal favorites!

    And yes, nobody goes as all out for Christmas as Disney does and I do hope that stays that way.

  3. By wdwchuck

    Thanks Chris, and as always, really appreciate you doing these Top 5's. Enjoy reading them.

  4. By Pammer

    I'm sorry for your losses this year, Chris; may 2024 bring you & your family peace & joy.

  5. By Dave1313

    Happy New Year everyone!

    I agree, it's really hard to come up with just 5 here.

    Of those Chris listed, the only one I have never had much interest was the Olaf search game. I'll casually notice the characters here or there for this (or the similar searches at other times of the year), but I've never been interested enough to do the search formally with the map and fill it out for the prize (maybe because at least on some small level, I recognize I have too much "stuff", and adding the random "prize" to my collection is not really a good idea ).

    I will say for the parade, I really wish WDW had the parade for regular MK visitors like DLR has done in the past (I'm not sure if they still do or are maybe migrating to paid events for Christmas at DLR also). I believe I have read they do this at WDW for maybe the last week or so before Christmas, but not for most of the season. I realize it will never happen since there is no lack of customers interested in paying for the special MVMCP events. It's nicer to have options for "2nd attempts" if things don't go well (example, severe rain). When I went in 2019, the MVMCP date I had was a very rainy evening. It was rainy enough that I believe they cancelled the parade entirely. So no opportunity to try to come back another time to see it (unless you bought multiple days of MVMCP tickets, but to me that's an excessive expense to have a second chance at the parade just in case it's rained out).

    Definitely agree on the dining package being the way to go for the Candlelight Processional. (coincidentally, I tried Biergarten for my first time with the Processional dining package - liked it! ). The amount of time required to wait in line to successfully acquire a general seat can be as bad or worse than some of the big rides, particularly for some of the more popular narrators. I will say though, that once or twice I've been able to get just a quick sampling for the show while passing by on the walkway. Obviously we're not trying for staying for the whole thing by standing, but it wasn't so crowded that the CMs were in their "move along" mode like it gets near firework and/or parade time at MK sometimes. So it was possible to hear/see a little bit of part of the performance.

    As to the lobbies, I try to check out the main ones around MK and EPC resorts. It's hard to pick a favorite, but I really like the decorated Wilderness Lodge lobby (definitely worth the boat trip, even though it's not quite as convenient/easy as hitting the three Monorail resorts). I recall the Gingerbread house they had was pretty nice too. I do of course give major points to Yacht Club for the operating train display .

    It's hard to argue against putting Main Street and Town Square as #1. Impressive even with only it's regular night time lighting, add the Christmas decor and it's even more so.

    Here's a few more minor things I consider worthwhile, if time allows:

    I liked the Christmas Tree Trail (now Christmas Tree Stroll, I guess) at Disney Springs. It's obviously not Parade or Processional level of entertainment, but the trees are for the most part very well done. (though I will admit there is one I don't really care much for, I won't state which one it is. )

    While on Main Street, check out the special windows in the shops (or even other parks, I think DHS does nice window displays too). I believe they have Mickey's Christmas Carol scenes in the Emporium windows.

    While in Epcot, the Holiday Storytellers can be nice to see. I've not seen all of them by any means, but was pleasantly surprised while sampling some of the food booths one year near France. While enjoying whatever sweet treat I got at a table near the France booth, I happened to catch Pre Nol doing his show nearby, and it was quite nice. The next time I'm there during the holiday season, I intend to try to check out at least a few others. While Disney lists the various performers for each country on their web site as to which days of the week they perform, I'm not sure(?) if there is any sort of published schedule with times, so it could be time consuming to try to catch these, especially if trying to see a lot of them.

    Last thing I'll mention, while they are not at the level of intensity and following as DLR's Haunted Mansion overlay for Nightmare Before Christmas, the decorated overlays for both Jungle Cruise and Living with the Land (and maybe even the Tomorrowland Speedway lights) are positive additions to WDW holiday time in my book.

  6. By wdwchuck

    Thanks Dave! Always enjoy when you chime in on these Top 5's. I am going to make it a point to hit Wilderness Lodge next year. That wasn't even on our radar for Christmas decoration seeking. And yes, getting the dining package for the processional is the way to go. We have done it a couple times at different restaurants and it was well worth it.
    I wonder if the Christmas tree you don't like is the Nightmare Before Christmas tree? I am not sure what type of person likes that sort of stuff. Seems better left to Halloween.
    Between that one and the Star Wars one we are like, huh? But to each his own.

  7. By Dave1313

    Quote Originally Posted by Dave1313 View Post
    .......... I happened to catch Pre Nol doing his show nearby, and it was quite nice. .........
    Odd typo/editor issue there . I copied the exact text from the Disney web site, and it looked correct in the Reply window (it even looked right when I replied with this correction), but apparently the accented character's don't get processed properly when the text gets shown after editing. Obviously, I meant "Pere Noel" for France.

    Quote Originally Posted by wdwchuck View Post
    Thanks Dave! Always enjoy when you chime in on these Top 5's. I am going to make it a point to hit Wilderness Lodge next year. That wasn't even on our radar for Christmas decoration seeking. And yes, getting the dining package for the processional is the way to go. We have done it a couple times at different restaurants and it was well worth it.
    I wonder if the Christmas tree you don't like is the Nightmare Before Christmas tree? I am not sure what type of person likes that sort of stuff. Seems better left to Halloween.
    Between that one and the Star Wars one we are like, huh? But to each his own.

    I may be giving some points at WL for the size of the tree. The huge Icon Trees just put each display over the top to get extra points from me. While I similarly like AKL's display (with the multi-story lobby, it's of course another of the Icon Trees), I would not necessarily recommend people take the time to go all the way to AKL if they did not have any other reason to go, just since it's just not convenient to get there and it's all alone.

    You are close on the tree. It was actually the regular Haunted Mansion tree in 2018 (and I think also 2019, though I didn't take a picture of it that year). I don't think they had one for The Nightmare Before Christmas (though I was only there in 2018 and 2019). Realizing they modify the trees a bit each year, the details can change somewhat, I guess. The element of the design I noted that just made it not a good look for me was a huge representation of the Ghost Bride that took up nearly the entire top half of the tree. For me it's not just the mixing of the themes, it was this dominant element that made it almost look like a Ghost Bride with a tree rather than a tree with a more normal sized ornament representing the Ghost Bride. I'd not be a fan even for trees/topics other than the HM if some element similarly took up so much of the tree.

    But on the other hand, I am a Star Wars fan, so I didn't have any complaints about the SW tree (I actually do have a fair number of SW ornaments myself, but I don't make them the dominant look for my tree). So as you say, to each his own. .

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