Christmas in Disney World

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My grown daughters and I just spent a few fun-filled days in Florida, reveling in two of our favorite things: Christmas and Disney.

We have visited the Disney parks many times before, starting when the girls were little. Our older daughter, Katie, spent a semester working at the Magic Kingdom on the Disney College Program a few years ago. She absolutely loves Disney, and so do we.

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We decided to go to the parks during the Christmas holiday because 2015 is the last year for the big Osborne Family Spectacle of Dancing Lights at Hollywood Studios. I have to admit I’d never heard of this until Katie called me in a panic: THIS IS THE LAST YEAR. MOM, WE HAVE TO GO.

Apparently this holiday light spectacular has been going on for 20 years, so I’m not sure how I missed it…except that we’ve never been in Disney World over the holidays before.

So we booked flights for the three of us (Dave stayed home and watched the pets), reserved a room at one of the cheapest and least interesting of the Disney World resorts (All-Star Sports), along with two days of park-hopper passes.

This was back in September. As the vacation grew closer, Katie did all the planning so we’d have fast passes and dining reservations (people are doing this way in advance these days). She also came up with our schedule: One full day in Epcot, next morning in Magic Kingdom, and the afternoon/evening in Hollywood Studios….with a few other fun activities thrown in.

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We left home at the ridiculously early time of 4 a.m. last Sunday to get to Des Moines International for a 5:50 a.m. flight. I won’t bore you with all the irritating flight-delay details, but I will just say that we were still SITTING ON THE TARMAC IN DES MOINES at 12:30 p.m. We should have been in Orlando at 11 a.m. We were grumpy and disappointed that our afternoon and evening plans were pretty much ruined (thanks a lot, Delta Airlines).

Once we finally got to the Orlando airport, things picked up. Thanks to the magic of our magic wrist bands, we hopped aboard Disney’s Magical Express (really just a very efficient shuttle bus) and headed to our resort. Check-in was speedy at that time of night (it was around 7:30 p.m. when we arrived), and we quickly changed clothes to begin our much-delayed evening activities.

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The idea was to take the Disney transport bus to Magic Kingdom, where we’d board the monorail and ride from resort to resort, looking at holiday decorations and going to theme bars for appetizers and drinks — a monorail pub crawl, if you will. This was supposed to be a leisurely activity begun in the mid-afternoon, but because of our delay we were tired and hungry when we began, and the process of riding the shuttle to the park and standing in line for the monorail took longer than we expected because Magic Kingdom had just closed for the night and a few thousand people were leaving all at once. We got off at the Polynesian Resort (omitting the Contemporary Resort entirely due to time) and headed to Trader Sam’s, a tiki bar with expensive rum drinks and a short list of appetizers. We sucked everything down like we were starving and immediately felt better.

From there we took the monorail to the Grand Floridian – by far the swankiest resort in Disney World. I would love to stay there someday, but a quick look at prices shows rooms in the “Grand Fla” start at $571 per night, compared with our room, which goes for $109. You get what you pay for, but still.

Anyway, we drooled over the Grand Floridian’s gorgeous holiday decorations, including an enormous Christmas tree and a life-sized gingerbread house. We ordered drinks, a cheese plate, and a dessert in Mizner’s Lounge (very classy, with live music). We sat there until we were too sleepy to move.

The trip back to our lesser resort consisted of taking the monorail back to Magic Kingdom, where we could catch a bus to the All-Star.

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We decided to sleep in the next morning since we’d had such a long day on Sunday. After breakfast in the resort cafeteria, we got to Epcot around 9:30. There’s not much to do on the Future World side (in my opinion). We took pictures, poked around in the shops, and got our pictures taken with Mickey and Minnie until our fast pass time came around for Spaceship Earth, which is always kind of a low-key but fun thing to do.

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Once the World Showcase area opened up at 11 a.m., we had plenty to keep us busy: Shopping, eating, and drinking around the world. We started at the Mexican marketplace, ate a terrific pizza in Italy, drank a beer at the Rose & Crown in the UK, and had dessert in France. Somewhere in there we had a fast pass for Soarin’ – one of our favorite rides.

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We did a bit more shopping and enjoyed the “International Yuletide Extravaganza” that included Santa Claus and other versions of Father Christmas in each of the lands, plus music and holiday decorations. We also had some yummy tapas in Morocco and shared a big glass of white sangria.

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We had planned to stay in Epcot until the park closed, but the pull of the Magic Kingdom was too strong. We decided we had to see Cinderella’s castle lit up for the holidays and watch the lighted parade and fireworks. So we left Epcot as it began to get dark and took the monorail to Magic Kingdom.

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Evening in the Magic Kingdom is the closest thing you can get to “magical” if you ask me. I will never get tired of seeing the lights and the fireworks. And the holidays make it even more special. The lights and decorations on Main Street alone are worth the price of admission. I just could not stop smiling. We watched the castle-lighting ceremony (it has a Frozen theme now). I couldn’t take my eyes off the castle, with its gazillion dripping icicles and always-changing colors.

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The evening lighted parade is not my favorite; I’d rather see the daytime parade. But it was still sort of fun and passed the time until the main attraction: fireworks. I’ve seen the Magic Kingdom fireworks at least half a dozen times and I just think they’re better than ever. The Disney folks just really know how to pull out all the stops with their music and story-telling.

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We left the park with a few hundred thousand of our closest friends all heading for the transport buses. We got home tired and happy and slept for what seemed like just a few short hours before heading back to Magic Kingdom for the Park Open show.

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This is something they do every day, but a lot of people never see it because they get there too late. Even Katie had never seen it, and she worked in Magic Kingdom for five months. It’s a cute show, with the “mayor” and singers and a train that brings Mickey and Minnie and all their friends to open the park.

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By the time we got into the park (it seemed like we just left) we were hungry so we headed to Starbucks. Yes, you can find a Starbucks in every Disney World park, and the lines are ridiculous.

 

After breakfast we rode a few rides. The girls went on Pirates of the Caribbean while I drank my Café Americano and sat in the sun. We all rode the carousel and stood in line for the new Seven Dwarfs Mine Train, which is sort of along the same lines as Big Thunder Mountain Railroad in terms of thrill, but underground and with dwarfs.

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We had lunch reservations at the Be Our Guest restaurant in the Beast’s castle from Beauty and the Beast (above). I wanted to eat there just so we could see it, and the decor was pretty cool. There are three themed dining rooms, and the servers bring your food on fancy carts. (The ordering process is by computer screen, which we didn’t much like, but it’s efficient.) The food selection is good – I actually had a quinoa salad, if you can believe that.

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We transferred to Hollywood Studios for the afternoon and evening. We had fast passes for Aerosmith’s Rock’n’Roller Coaster and Tower of Terror, two of our favorite rides ever. We rode the Great Movie Ride and watched Muppet Vision 3D, both of which are feeling kind of outdated to us. We went to the Frozen Sing-along, which we thought would be lame but ended up being a blast, complete with snow falling in the theater. It’s a part-movie, part-live-action concert. I loved it.

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By the time we got out of that, it was dark and the main event was happening: the Osborne Family Spectacle of Dancing Lights. Yay! This is what we came for! And it did not disappoint. Since this is Disney, they wouldn’t just have a bunch of Christmas lights up on some buildings. No, the lights are choreographed to music and they are FABULOUS.

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Apparently this family from Arkansas, the Osbornes, had this elaborate collection of holiday lights and eventually they got so out of control that the neighbors complained so in 1995 the family donated the lights to Disney. This year really is the final year for the lights, and I’m so glad we saw them. I felt like crying, they were so awesome.

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So that’s it – that’s our Grownup Girls vacation in Disney World. And now we’re back in Iowa and wearing boots again. Happy holidays, everyone!

 

 

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