[Updated December 2016]
To say that Disney World in Orlando, Florida pulls out all the stops for the holidays is an understatement. Starting in September, the Magic Kingdom is decked out in fall and Halloween décor. The entire resort, including the parks and hotels, later makes the transition to Christmas decorations in November through the first couple days of the New Year. Wreaths, lights, garland -- you name it, they’ve got it.
The holiday festivities alone are enough to draw in thousands of visitors during the last few months of the year. Here’s what you should know when traveling there during this season.
1. Yes, Disney World Can Sell Out:
With children on break from school, thousands of families flock to the Orlando resort, resulting in larger-than-average crowds. Two of the most popular times to visit are the week of Christmas through the beginning of January, and Thanksgiving week. During those times, it’s the norm to have upwards of 60,000 people at each park. During a Christmas week visit one year, my family and I were among a Magic Kingdom crowd of at least 70,000.
Don’t be surprised if some guests are turned away at the gates during the day if the parks and parking lots have reached capacity. Your best bet to avoid getting shut out of a park is to get there when the park opens so you’re guaranteed entrance; buy your tickets in advance if you’re a day guest and not staying on property. Disney resort guests arriving via resort transportation during the day will be allowed into the parks.
If your schedule is more flexible and you can visit at a time that is not directly over those November and December holidays, try to visit the week after Thanksgiving through the week just before Christmas. This way you’ll still get to experience the holiday ambiance minus the hordes of people.
2. Some Special Holiday Tickets Cost Extra:
The Magic Kingdom hosts two events during the holiday season that require special tickets. Mickey’s Not-So-Scary Halloween Party takes place on select nights between early September and late October. Then, Mickey’s Very Merry Christmas Party occurs on select nights between early November and mid- to late December. Both events include themed parades and fireworks shows, along with characters dressed in holiday garb.
At the Halloween party, kids are welcome and encouraged to come in costumes and trick-or-treat. Cookies and hot chocolate, carolers, and snowflakes are among the findings during the Christmas party.
The two events require advance ticket purchases that are separate from the regular price of park admission. On nights that the parties are held, the Magic Kingdom will close earlier than usual, with regular ticketholders being asked to exit the park. Tickets will be checked during the parties to make sure you’re supposed to be there.
On the days that the Halloween and Christmas events take place, the Wishes fireworks show won’t be presented during regular park hours; fireworks and parades can only be seen during the parties, where they have special themes. If you want to see Wishes but don’t want to purchase admission to the parties, take a look at the Magic Kingdom calendar to find a date when the events aren’t taking place.
3. You Can Join the Parade -- Maybe:
Each year thousands of Americans wake up on Christmas morning and tune into the Disney Parks Christmas Day Parade on television, but guess what? It’s not presented live. The parade, which is headlined by many of music’s top acts, is usually taped on the last weekend of November or the first weekend of December.
If you’re thinking of visiting on either weekend, whether or not you’re looking to attend the taping, it’s best to call ahead to confirm the date; it can significantly impact Magic Kingdom crowds. Folks hoping to participate in the taping should know that it isn’t always guaranteed that you’ll find a spot along the parade route or in a viewing area.
4. Food and Hotels Get More Expensive:
Disney hotels hike up their rates during holiday stays, though some dates in between, and before and after have lower prices. If you plan on staying during high or peak attendance, make sure you also budget extra money for your dining expenses: some table-service restaurants that have a fixed price, like ones offering character meals or buffets, impose a surcharge per person during those times. You can definitely expect those additional fees over Thanksgiving and Christmas. The cost of the Disney Dining Plan may also increase during those periods.
5. You Don’t Have to Skip Your Holiday Meal:
Many of Disney World’s table-service restaurants will have special menus on Thanksgiving and Christmas Day. Don’t worry about having to skip turkey on Thanksgiving: a number of restaurants serve a traditional holiday meal in addition to a scaled-back version of its regular menu. For Christmas, more than 15 restaurants offer their own unique take on holiday dishes. Advanced reservations are strongly recommended when dining at any restaurant on these dates.