Iowa Girl’s guide to Walt Disney World at Christmas

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I’m no expert on Disney World. (You’ll find plenty of those online, both official and unofficial.) But I’m an enthusiastic consumer, and I have a lot of experience (and, no surprise, opinions!) with WDW parks, attractions, and resorts.

I first visited parks with my young daughters (ages 5 and 9) back in the 1990s, then as older kids, and teens/young adults. More recently, I’ve gone with just my husband, Dave, and with just my adult daughters. (My older daughter worked at Magic Kingdom during a semester-long program while she was a student at Iowa State, so I have some insider information.) I’ve visited in spring, fall, and winter (I’ve managed to avoid the heat and crowds of summer, which I recommend). And with my last visit, I can say I’ve been with the whole family during Christmas week, widely known to be the busiest days of the year at the parks.

My recommendations and experiences are in many ways general, but some will not resonate with families with young children. (For these families, I’d just say to go when the parks are LEAST crowded – fall, January-February – and the weather is mild. I would also suggest not trying to see everything a park has to offer in just one day; go multiple days or prioritize your top interests and leave everything else for another trip.)

THE HOLIDAYS AT WALT DISNEY WORLD

 

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Know before you go

  • Plan in advance! The Christmas holidays are CROWDED. Book your resort a year in advance, if you can. I literally tried to book one of the Animal Kingdom Villas in January before our December visit, and they were already sold out.
  • Stay on property. If you stay in a WDW resort, you’ll have access to the transportation system, get “extra magic hours” in the parks, and get to book your FastPasses first.
  • Go to just one park each day. If you try to do a park-hopper pass, you will lose valuable time during these busy days, and in extreme cases, parks can actually be filled to capacity by afternoon.
  • Schedule meals in advance. If you want to do character meals or any sit-down meals in the parks, resorts, or Disney Springs, make plans early and schedule your reservations so you have the best choice of restaurants and times. (Restaurants are pricey, but it’s definitely nice to do a few of these.) If you’re staying in a WDW resort, you can reserve meal times 180 days out.
  • FastPasses are essential, and if you haven’t been to Disney World lately, the system has changed. A lot. You’ll be booking online and they’ll be loaded onto magic bands that you wear at all times. The system can be complicated, with tiers of attractions from which to choose (I learned a lot from Mouse Hacking), but the basic thing you need to know is that if you’re staying in a Disney resort, you can book FastPasses 60 days in advance of the first day of your stay. You’ll be allowed 3 FastPasses per day.
  • My husband, Dave, and I (in consultation with our daughters) had our list of top rides and attractions ready for our 6 a.m. (7 a.m. Eastern) window of opportunity for FastPasses on Oct. 24, and it took us just 13 minutes to scoop up everything we wanted. But some popular rides were already starting to be booked up – our Slinky Dog Dash FastPass was for 6:15 p.m. – the earliest time available on our very last day. More on this later.
  • Plan, plan, plan each day before you get to the park. Keep in mind that it will take time to get to the park via Disney transport (on Christmas Day, our bus to Animal Kingdom filled up with others at our bus stop who were smarter and more assertive than we were; we had to wait for the next bus, making us later than expected). Once you get off the bus, you’ll still have to go through security and then the gates before you’re actually in the park. This all takes a while, so get there early if you have an early FastPass or want to jump onto a popular ride for which you don’t have a pass, or if you have a character breakfast reservation. Early mornings in the parks are really special, too, with dramatic light and fewer people, so it’s a great time to take photos. Get there early!
  • Download the app. This will let you know how long the lines are for rides and attractions at any given time, when the next bus will arrive (we did not find this to be very accurate, so plan accordingly), and show all of your FastPasses and meal reservations. You can also procure additional FastPasses and meal reservations while you’re in the park.
  • Have a detailed list of your top priorities and plans so you don’t miss out on the things you want to do most. Don’t expect to do everything. Let every family member choose the one thing they want to do so nobody is too disappointed.
  • Enjoy the decorations, the special light shows, the Christmas parade, the holiday treats, and other things that you can only see during this special week.
  • Expect big crowds, but don’t let them spoil your fun. It’s completely doable if you plan in advance! And it’s really, truly magical. I highly recommend it.

 

Epcot

 

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When the kids were young, Epcot was their least-favorite park. Now it’s their favorite. And that’s because there’s shopping, great food, and drinking around the world in the park’s World Showcase. For little kids, there are some good shows, like “Turtle Talk with Crush;” rides, like “Frozen” and “The Seas with Nemo & Friends;” and plenty of characters to meet. For adults, there’s “Soarin’ Around the World” (better than ever; this is our favorite Epcot ride, hands down) and the best selection of restaurants in all of Walt Disney World. It’s a super-fun atmosphere.

 

We got to the park on Christmas Eve day just before it opened. Without fast passes, we stood in very short lines to meet Mickey and Minnie Mouse and Goofy in Future World and ride the Nemo ride. We had a morning fast pass for “Soarin’ Around the World” and after that we walked to the World Showcase to check out the line for the “Frozen Ever After” ride in Norway. I expected the line to be very long, but it really wasn’t (the standby wait time was listed as 60 minutes, but we were on the ride in less than 40 minutes). It’s a cute, new-ish ride, and I’m glad I got to experience it. I recommend it, especially if you have kids who love the movie, but I wouldn’t stand in a super-long line for it otherwise.

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By this time, we were hungry/thirsty. Let the feasting begin! We sampled foods from Mexico (pork tacos for my carnivorous family members, guacamole, fantastic margaritas), shared several cookies from the Holiday Cookie Stroll (available for $2 each in most of the lands), and caramel popcorn from Germany. I made the mistake of ordering a drink called “Tipsy Ducks in Love” from the tea stand in China – holy moly, that was a strong drink. It’s fun to say the name, but I don’t recommend it.

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We saw Mulan, Mary Poppins, and Alice in Wonderland (above) doing meet-and-greets; rode Spaceship Earth (why this ride is popular is beyond me, but we always seem to do it anyway); had a beer at the Rose & Crown Pub; saw Santas from around the world (below); and listened to fun, rowdy musical performances in Canada and the UK. We walked through a lot of shops, which are always fun to browse.

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Our dinner reservation was at Tutto Italia Ristorante at 7:30 in Italy, and we were ready to sit down. We had a nice (rather expensive) meal and afterwards were ready to go back to our resort. (Epcot has an evening fireworks show, but we didn’t stay long enough to see it. We did see a bit of the special holiday Candlelight Processional, with its huge orchestra and choir. There was a very long line to sit down to watch it.)

 

Animal Kingdom

 

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Merry Christmas! Today we wore our matching Mickey/Minnie holiday shirts. Even Dave.

We chose to be in Animal Kingdom on Christmas Day because we were guessing it would be the least-crowded of the parks. I don’t know if that’s true or not, but the crowd wasn’t too bad except a couple of times when slow-moving scooters and strollers created a bottleneck.

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We hadn’t been at Animal Kingdom for several years, and a lot has changed. There’s a whole new land: Pandora, modeled after the movie “Avatar,” which I’ve never seen and don’t really care about. But the design is pretty cool; it’s mostly weird, oversized plants (above). There are two major attractions in Pandora: “Avatar Flight of Passage” and “Na’vi River Journey.” We had a FastPass for “Flight of Passage,” one of the hottest rides in all of Disney World right now. It did not disappoint. The guy next to me on the ride was obsessed; he described it as “Soarin’ on steroids.” After riding it, I’d go a step further and call it “Soarin’ on acid.” Almost. It’s a visual, physical adventure into a world I don’t recognize. You hop on a flying “banshee” and off you go. I sometimes avoid these kinds of rides because I am prone to motion-sickness and also am claustrophobic, but I’ll say that this ride was pretty thrilling. If it had gone on much longer I might have become slightly nauseated, but as it was, I made it out OK. It’s worth a long wait in the stand-by line.

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My favorite ride at Animal Kingdom is “Expedition Everest” (above). It’s a fantastic roller coaster and, again, worth a wait. We had a FastPass for this one, too, and it was thrilling as always.

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We also stood in a reasonable line for the “Dinosaur” ride and also for the “Festival of the Lion King” show (below). The show features really terrific music and gymnastic stunts – I highly recommend it.

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Animal Kingdom is known for its animals, obviously. The “Kilimanjaro Safari” is still awesome, and they’ve removed the storyline from the ride through the animal park, which I’ve always found annoying. You almost need to go on this ride twice if you want to get decent pictures; sit on the left side first and then the right side of the tram to see animals on both sides and maybe do it later in the day for different light.

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We saw lions, giraffes, elephants, zebras, hippos, and many other animals. Disney has done a terrific job with what is basically a zoo-like large-animal enclosure, and after the safari you can also walk through the “Gorilla Falls Exploration Trail” for primate encounters.

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We found mostly good things to eat at Animal Kingdom. I struggled a bit at lunch and ended up eating pre-packaged hummus and veggies, but others in the family ate shrimp mac and cheese and some kind of chicken. In the afternoon, we splurged on pineapple Dole Whip with coconut rum – it went down so easy! I wanted more.

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We took a lot of photos at the Tree of Life and enjoyed the early-evening light in the Asia section with its glowing lanterns. We saw Russell and Dug (characters from the movie “Up”) – adorable!

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Our Christmas dinner was excellent. We had a reservation at Yak & Yeti, a Pan-Asian restaurant. We got there early and sat in the bar for a while, which was very enjoyable. The restaurant menu was not as vegetarian-friendly as I’d hoped, but our server recommended a tofu dish that was incredibly tasty. I think everyone found something good to eat.

 

Magic Kingdom

 

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I guess I failed to mention why we decided to go to Disney World over Christmas in the first place. My birthday is Dec. 26, and I turned 60 this year. I wanted to do something really special with the whole family, so this was it. We spent my birthday in Magic Kingdom and even in the enormous crowd, I felt like the center of attention.

Disney people are so nice. They give you a birthday button and then all the cast members say “happy birthday” to you all day long. One of the Disney photographers took my picture at the parade; even people IN the parade said happy birthday to me! I was surrounded by Disney love.

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We got to the park early (we had an “extra magic hour” starting at 7 a.m. that morning) because we were afraid it would take forever to get there (it didn’t). So we got through security and the entrance gates in no time. There were not many people there when we arrived, and I’m guessing those who were there were heading for some top attraction for which they had no FastPass. We took advantage of the emptiness and took a gazillion photos in front of Cinderella’s castle. The morning light was perfect! (see above) We even got to see the park-open show (below).

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We had an 8:30 reservation for a character breakfast at the Crystal Palace. I’ll admit it – I wanted to have breakfast with Winnie the Pooh and friends! This is a great thing to do with kids, but it’s fun for grownups, too. Once you get to your table, you have access to a huge buffet of very good food, and you can eat as much as you want – including, of course, Mickey-shaped waffles.

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The characters – Pooh, Piglet, Tigger, and Eeyore – come around to each table and will let you take pictures to your heart’s desire. You don’t even feel rushed. I was wearing my “60 and fabulous” shirt and hammed it up with all the characters. The food was great; I ate way too much. It was a good time and worth what we paid for it.

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Before the park got too busy, we stood in a short stand-by line for the “Pirates of the Caribbean” ride (meh) and then used (some would say wasted) a FastPass to meet Mickey at the Town Square Theater. We claimed our spots on the curb along Main Street well in advance of the noon Christmas parade. We had a clear view of Cinderella’s Castle as the parade began (it came from that direction) and the sun was in the right place for perfect viewing and photos. (This never happens!)

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The Disney Christmas parade is something I watch on TV on Christmas morning (or record it and watch it later), and I’ve always wanted to see it in person. I was pretty excited, and it did not disappoint. Disney does everything right, from the music to the dancers, to the floats, to the characters. It was fun, fun, fun.

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I should mention at this point that if you’re planning to visit Magic Kingdom in December but not the week of Christmas, you can pay extra for “Mickey’s Very Merry Christmas Party” on some evenings. If you choose not to do that, you won’t have access to all the holiday specialness, like the parade and some of the shows.

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We had a FastPass for the “Seven Dwarfs Mine Train” ride, which is cute and entertaining but not worth a long wait. And then we were stuck in Fantasyland with thousands of other people in crowds so big we could barely move. We might have gotten a little bit crabby. We tried to find a place to buy beer, because that would have cheered us right up, but although Disney World overall has really stepped up its game in terms of adult beverages, the Magic Kingdom is still rather dry. You can only get drinks at the sit-down restaurants, and for that you must have a reservation on a day this busy. So, no drinks for us.

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We walked around, drooled over the holiday treats, and took notice of the stand-by line waits – many were 180 minutes. That’s three hours! No thanks! We tried to ride “It’s a Small World” because the line seemed reasonable, but it didn’t move fast enough for us so we bailed. We had an afternoon FastPass for Big Thunder Mountain Railroad, which is always a thrilling ride.

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And then it started to get dark, so I took a lot of early-evening photos with the Christmas lights and the castle. At around 6:15 they do a holiday castle-lighting ceremony with “Frozen” characters, and the castle becomes a winter wonderland right before your eyes (below). The only thing that would make this ceremony better is FEWER PEOPLE in front of me, or perhaps to be taller so I have a better view.

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Once the castle was lit, it was only a matter of time before it got dark enough for the holiday fireworks spectacular, but first we watched a very cute holiday show in front of the castle (below).

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We were hungry so we sat in Tomorrowland and ate bad food and shared a cake-batter-flavored shake from Auntie Gravity’s Galactic Goodies. And then we went to the “Monsters, Inc. Laugh Floor” show. You can always count on this show to be hilarious, even if you’ve seen it 20 times.

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We stood at Casey’s Corner for the fireworks. Again, there were SO MANY PEOPLE that it was hard to get good photos of the full castle with the fireworks behind it, but I tried valiantly. The show was wonderful, but I honestly think the “Wishes” show I’ve seen so many times before is actually more magical because it has more of a storyline. But I’m not complaining – Disney does the best fireworks in the world.

 

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And thus ended my magical birthday at Magic Kingdom.

But wait! This is Disney! When we got back to our resort, the staff had loaded our room with birthday balloons, cookies, a jar of cocoa mix, a mug, two bags of popcorn, and a birthday card. That was a wonderful end to a wonderful day. I was too giddy to go to sleep.

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Hollywood Studios

 

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Our day in Hollywood Studios started with some logistical stuff. We had to check out of our room, stow our luggage at the resort, and make a reservation for the Disney transport to take us to the airport later that night. Our adventure was coming to a close much too soon. But we made the most of it…with matching shirts.

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We arrived at Hollywood Studio right as it opened, and based on our experience the day before, we made a beeline to the “Tower of Terror” ride and got right on. (By the time we rode, the stand-by wait time was 60 minutes, and later that day it was 175 minutes!) We grabbed a coffee and walked around a bit, then went back to “Tower of Terror” and rode it again with our pre-arranged FastPass. We love this ride. We got to be in the front row the second time, which is always the best.

We hung out by Aerosmith’s Rock’n’Roller Coaster until it was time for our 11:55 FastPass, then walked right on. We love this roller coaster, and it never fails to thrill. You just scream the whole time and then laugh when it’s over.

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Hollywood Studios has greatly improved its food and drink options since the last time we were there. We didn’t have reservations, but after a short wait we snagged a table at the Hollywood Brown Derby Lounge and enjoyed drinks and small plates on the patio. In the afternoon, we went to “For the First Time in Forever: Frozen Sing-Along Celebration” stage show (above), and we stood in a not-too-terrible standby line to ride “Toy Story Mania!” (The line is almost as amusing as the ride.)

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Although “Toy Story Mania!” has been open for several years, Toy Story Land is a new section in Hollywood Studios. It’s adorable; at least I think it is – it’s kind of hard to see with so many freaking people. It was really crowded. The line for “Slinky Dog Dash” was ridiculous – at least three hours; but then again, other rides in the park had lines that long as well. It’s just that time of year.

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No matter, we had our final FastPass for “Slinky Dog” so our wait was not long at all.

This ride has received some rave reviews, but honestly, I didn’t think it was that great. Sure, it was fun, and it was really cute, but to wait in line for three hours? No way. My recommendation is, if you don’t have a FastPass and the line is more than an hour, just go look at the ride and say, “Oh, how cute!” and then go ride something with a shorter line. It did not thrill me. (However, I will say it’s a good first roller coaster for a younger kid. So, again, if the line is short, ride it.)

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We drank beer and shared a big pretzel and a cheese plate on the patio at the new BaseLine Tap House, which was a really fun atmosphere. And then we watched the Flurry of Fun “Sunset Greetings” light show at the Hollywood Tower Hotel – a just-for-the-holidays light show, complete with “snow.”

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It was a great way to end the day. (There’s also a fireworks show, but we needed to head to our hotel to sleep for a few hours before our early-morning flights home.) Here are some parting shots from Hollywood:

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Disney Springs and the resorts

 

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I should mention that we stayed at Coronado Springs Resort (above), which was nothing too fancy but was in an ideal location – not too far from anywhere. It’s one of WDW’s “moderate” resorts – nicer than the “value” resorts but not nearly as pricey as the deluxe resorts. Our room was fairly comfortable, considering we had four adult human beings all trying to get showered and dressed at the same time every morning. Someday I would love to stay at the Grand Floridian or Animal Kingdom Villas, but when you figure how little time you actually spend at the resort, it just doesn’t seem worth the extra cost.

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We visited the Grand Floridian on this trip; the resort has fabulous holiday decorations, as you would expect (above). We shopped and then ate lunch outdoors. We also visited the Yacht and Beach Club and BoardWalk Inn (all next to each other) and enjoyed a huge family-sized “kitchen sink” sundae (below) from “Beaches and Cream” by one of the pools.

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We also spent some time our first day at Disney Springs (formerly known as Downtown Disney), which is an expanded shopping and dining destination (above). We spent some money there, walked through the Christmas Tree Trail, and ate dinner at Frontera Cocina.

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All in all, it was a fabulous vacation for my Disney-loving family and a great 60th birthday adventure for me.

 

 

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3 comments so far

  1. Tim Coble on

    That looks absolutely fantastic!!! But then, you are much much braver than I am to tackle WDW at Christmas!

  2. Joyfull one on

    It was like being there to hear your succinct and yet excited comments. I would trust no one else but you, Carole, to give such good advice about WDW…and celebrating a birthday! Loved the themed shirts. Thanks for sharing your always good writing.


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