[Updated November 2016]
Any trip to Disney World usually feels like a special event, but did you know that the resort hosts unique parties and festivals all year long? Here’s what you can expect from several of the most popular celebrations.
1. Marathons and races
Thousands of runners and spectators descend on the resort to participate in several races that take place throughout the year. Each has its own special theme and includes expos, after-parties, and races for kids and grownups.
There’s the Princess Half Marathon Weekend, or the Disney Princess Enchanted 10K. And for the truly ambitious, the Glass Slipper Challenge combines the half marathon and 10K for a 19.3-mile run.
The piece de resistance of Disney World’s race weekends is the Disney World Marathon Weekend, a four-day event that consists of a 5K, 10K, half marathon, and marathon. The marathon is a sight to see: athletes run through all four parks and across the resort's major roadways. You can further test your endurance if you sign up for Goofy’s Race and a Half Challenge, combining the full and half marathons. If that isn’t enough, there’s the Dopey Challenge: running all of the weekend’s races for a total of 48.6 miles.
There's also the Castaway Cay Challenge that invites those running in any of the Disney World Marathon Weekend events to take part in the Castaway Cay 5K when sailing with Disney Cruise Line the Monday after the races.
For fans of the force, there's the Star Wars Half Marathon - The Dark Side that features kids' races, a 5K, a 10K, and the 13.1-mile race, plus stormtroopers cheering runners along the way. Expect other appearances by characters from a galaxy far, far away. Think you can tackle the 10K and the half marathon? Enter the Dark Side Challenge and you'll be given a special finisher medal, in addition to medals from the two individual races.
2. Night of Joy
More than a dozen popular acts in Christian music take the stage at the Magic Kingdom during the two-night Night of Joy event, which requires a separate admission ticket. Those going to the park during those days but not attending Night of Joy should be aware that the parks close a little earlier than usual. In 2016, catch it on September 9 and 10.
3. Epcot International Flower and Garden Festival
Epcot gets even more colorful during the International Flower and Garden Festival, which takes place in the spring. Highlights include designer presentations, lessons, play areas for kids, a concert series with live music, and Disney character topiary displays. The good news is that access to the festival is included with your park admission. The World Showcase even sets up outdoor kitchens so you can try seasonal foods from across the globe.
4. Epcot International Food and Wine Festival
Come back to Epcot in the fall for the International Food and Wine Festival, offering a tour of cuisines from around the world. With 30 food and beverage stations, the event invites guests to take part in culinary demonstrations, beverage seminars, an Eat to the Beat concert series, and dining experiences from world-renowned chefs. This festival is also included in your park admission, though select events and dishes may require additional fees.
In 2016, the event will run between September 14 and November 14, and will feature appearances from Andrew Zimmern, Buddy Valastro, Cat Cora, and other celebrity chefs. On the music front, Hanson, Boyz II Men, and Wilson Phillips, among others, will take the stage during nightly performances.
5. Grad Nite
For years, Disney World hosted hundreds of local high school seniors at the Magic Kingdom during a yearly ticketed event called Grad Nite. The spring after-hours party even brought in big-name acts of the time -- from Run-DMC and New Kids on the Block to the Backstreet Boys and Britney Spears -- to celebrate students' final days of high school. While the event came to a close in 2011, Grad Nite will be revived in 2017 at Typhoon Lagoon. Grad Nite H20 will take place April 7, 21, and 28, with admission priced at $55 per person. From 8 p.m. to midnight, there will be dance parties, Disney characters, and food and unlimited drinks in a souvenir mug scattered throughout the water park. Note that sales must be arranged through the high schools.
6. Festival of the Arts
An inaugural event for 2017, this Epcot festival will run from January 13 to February 20 between Fridays and Mondays. Touted as a celebration of visual, performing, and culinary arts, it'll feature pieces by legendary Disney artists -- including Mary Blair and Herb Ryman -- along with performances of music from Broadway hits like The Lion King and Aladdin. On the culinary front, there will be food studios creating delectable works of art.