When my family moved from Maryland to Florida two years ago, we bought our Walt Disney World annual passes almost immediately after driving over the Florida state line. Living 90 minutes from the most magical place on earth has made us a bit obsessed, and these days we find ourselves doing something Disney-related almost every weekend.
Since we're not shy about our love of Mickey and friends, we're routinely inundated with questions from out-of-state friends wanting advice on what to prioritize when they make the trek to Orlando during the holidays.
Walt Disney World ushered in the season in early November — and after several reconnaissance missions, here’s our family’s guide to the best things to do and see at WDW during this festive season.
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Magic Kingdom Park
There are two ways to experience the Magic Kingdom during the holidays. First, there's a regular admission ticket ($110-$130 for the day). The ticket enables you to ride the rides and see all the holiday decorations, and for some, that's enough.
More than 5,000 feet of garland decorates the Magic Kingdom, as well as 40 trees and nearly 150 wreaths.
The Jungle Cruise turns into the "Jingle Cruise," and Queen Elsa turns Cinderella's castle into a sparkling ice palace during the “A Frozen Holiday Wish" show.
Magic Kingdom insider tip: Indulge your sweet tooth with the Sugar Rush Cupcake — themed around the new "Ralph Breaks the Internet" movie — at Main Street Bakery and the Ugly Sweater Brownie from the hot dog restaurant Casey's Corner. Fans of "The Nightmare Before Christmas" will love seeing Zero the pup featured in a red velvet waffle sundae available at Sleepy Hollow in Liberty Square.
For more cheer, check out Mickey's Very Merry Christmas Party, a special event held on select nights in November and December.
With tickets averaging around $100 each, it's fair to ask if it is worth it. It is.
There are shows, dance parties, special character opportunities and foods that aren't available outside of the party. Disney cast members hand out unlimited hot chocolate and cookies, Mickey's Once Upon a Christmastime Parade rolls through the streets of the park and it snows on Main Street U.S.A. — all things exclusive to the after-hours event.
Magic Kingdom insider tip: If the cost of park tickets for the day on top of the price of Mickey's Very Merry Christmas Party seems overwhelming, consider spending the morning exploring the shops and restaurants at Disney Springs (no ticket required) or lounging by your hotel pool.
Park guests who have Mickey's Very Merry Christmas Party tickets can enter Magic Kingdom Park at 4 p.m. and ride all the rides. You can't book fast passes, but the lines are usually not that bad. So you could spend the morning relaxing, then plan to stay at Magic Kingdom until late in the evening — the party lasts until midnight!
Disney's Hollywood Studios
Usually, Hollywood Studios is where we interact with Star Wars characters and take in the Indiana Jones Epic Stunt Spectacular. During the holidays, it gets a Christmassy upgrade with glitzy, 1950s-inspired decorations.
Called the Flurry of Fun, the whole park turns magical. In a projection on the outside of the Tower of Terror, the iconic tower turns into a series of holiday scenes, and snow falls on Sunset Boulevard.
Hollywood Studios insider tip (for adults!): Pop into the Dockside Diner for a hot chocolate flight that involves vodka, Irish liquor and cherry bourbon. (I'd much rather have this hot chocolate than the kind Mickey's handing out at his party.)
Toy Story Land opened this past summer, so our kids still find all of the rides new and exciting. But for the season, they especially love decor like the green alien ornaments and the 10-foot-tall sugar cookie statue of Hamm wearing a Santa hat. (It made for a great photo opp, as does a pic with Santa at the Once Upon a Toy Shop.)
The park's Frozen sing-along celebration is always a big hit with kids and parents. There's a special guest at the show this time of year: Olaf the snowman joins the cast, and together with Anna, Elsa and Kristoff, sings a few holiday numbers.
Hollywood Studios insider tip: Grab a Fast Pass for the Frozen sing-along and surprise your kids when Olaf arrives. (Even my 10-year-old son enjoyed the addition to the show.)
Hollywood Studios offers two ticketed events for the season. The first, the Jingle bell, Jingle BAM! Holiday Dessert Party, is an event held outside the Chinese Theater. Guests enjoy appetizers, desserts and holiday cocktails. A surprise Disney character poses for photos with guests. (We met Santa Goofy.) After dinner at their reserved tables, guests head to a special viewing area for the show. Tickets range from $80-$90 per adult and are $45 per child, and can be booked in advance online.
At Minnie's Holiday Dine at the Hollywood and Vine restaurant, guests can meet Minnie and friends — dressed in their holiday best — during lunch or dinner. Tickets are $50 for adults and $30 for kids. Note: This event is extremely popular, so book tickets in advance online!
Epcot is Disney's way of throwing a bone to adults. From amazing food in the World Showcase to easy access to alcoholic drinks, this is a far cry from the Magic Kingdom.
The International Festival of the Holidays showcases traditions, foods and entertainment from around the world. As we sampled our way through the Holiday Kitchens throughout the park, there were two standout dishes: The sofrito-marinated beef from the Feast of the Three Kings kitchen, and the chicken and matzo ball soup from L’Chaim, a traditional Jewish kitchen.
It was a nice surprise to discover some kid-focused holiday season entertainment while we adults had our Epcot fun.
Epcot insider tip, part 1: Do the Holiday Cookie Stroll, where guests purchase cookies from six locations around the park. The kids enjoyed getting stamps in their event passports and collected a "completer cookie" and glass of milk when they finished.
Epcot insider tip, part 2: Spend the $6.99 for a Chip ’n Dale’s Christmas Tree Spree map. It's a scavenger hunt where kids hunt for Christmas ornaments. (At the end, kids turn in their completed map for a prize.)
Epcot insider tip, part 3: Epcot is the only place in Walt Disney World to meet the characters Wreck It Ralph and Vanellope von Schweetz, from "Ralph Breaks the Internet." (Find them in Future World.)
Finally, you can't visit Epcot during the holidays without seeing the Candlelight Processional, a telling of the Christmas story with a 50-piece orchestra, full choir and celebrity narrators like Neil Patrick Harris, John Stamos and Helen Hunt. There are three performances each evening.
If you want guaranteed seating for the performance, check out the Candlelight Processional Dining Packages — dinner reservations at select restaurants that come with reserved seating during the performance.
Disney's Animal Kingdom
While there is plenty of holiday decor at Animal Kingdom, it has the smallest presence of holiday activities of all the parks.
The huge Christmas tree at the park's entrance is adorned with amazing animal-themed ornaments. And in one of its live shows, UP! A Great Bird Adventure, there's a tribute to the Indian festival of lights, Diwali.
Animal Kingdom insider tip: If you want a photo with Mickey and Minnie Mouse dressed in festive Christmas attire, this is the easiest place in all four parks to get it.
Disney Springs may not be a theme park, but the retail and restaurant complex has a number of holiday-themed activities.
The Void at Disney Springs offers virtual reality adventures ranging from Star Wars: Secrets of the Empire, where you move through a special mission as a Storm Trooper, to their newest experience released just in time for the holidays, Ralph Breaks VR, based on the film "Ralph Breaks the Internet."
Disney Springs insider tip: Santa's Chalet is the best place to get that Santa pic. Why here? Because you don't have to wait in line. Put your name into a queue and you'll get a text message when it's your turn. While you are waiting for that text, head to Splitsville Luxury Lanes for some bowling in a beautiful facility.
While lots of restaurants offer holiday-themed specials, we love the deals here. At Chef Art Smith's Homecomin', guests who dine in their "ugly" Disney Christmas sweater get get a free slice of Hummingbird Cake with holiday sprinkles and at Mario & Enzo's Ristorante, families who attend their Sunday brunch in Christmas pajamas get a complimentary photo to take home.
To save money while feeding your family, check out the family-style plates at Wine Bar George (they feed 2-4 people) or hit a happy hour at Terralina Crafted Italian Restaurant or Paddlefish — both offer gorgeous water views and unbeatable food and drink specials.
Disney Springs insider tip: Don't miss the Christmas Tree Trail, a walking path lined with 27 themed trees that represent classic films like "Toy Story" and "The Jungle Book." Along the way, try peppermint cotton candy and Mickey Mouse gingerbread cookies.
Another great way to spend a non-park day is visiting a few of the resorts to look at their holiday decorations. At Disney's Grand Floridian Resort & Spa, there's an enormous gingerbread house in the lobby (the resort is celebrating the house's 20th season this year) and at Disney's Contemporary Resort, there's an 18-foot-tall gingerbread recreation of Cinderella's castle.
At Disney's Polynesian Village Resort, the lobby Christmas tree is decorated with fragrant flowers. Disney's Animal Kingdom Lodge has a 45-foot Christmas tree decorated with reproductions of African masks and African decor, and there's a holiday village with miniature train at Disney's Yacht Club Resort.
Resort hotels insider tip (for adults!): All of the Disney resorts have fantastic bars. Let the kids rest their feet while you have a cocktail. You have earned it.