After the final blaze of glory from the fireworks, lasers and 200,000 shimmering white lights draped over Cinderella’s Castle, the dazzled holiday crowd at Walt Disney World slowly begins to exit.
As they stroll down Main Street, U.S.A. in the Magic Kingdom, the sounds of Manheim Steamroller’s pumped-up holiday tunes fill the air. The stores are decorated with wreaths, garland, twinkling LED lights and brightly colored ornaments.
It’s about 70 degrees — and then suddenly, it’s snowing. In true Disney fashion, large flakes gently fly down from rooftop snow guns, landing and melting on short-sleeved shirts and bare arms.
The unexpected flurry during the “Castle Dream Lights” show is just a small part of the holiday ambience created by Disney’s special effects artists and imaginative engineers for the Christmas season. Here are eight more attractions that make Disney special during the holidays.
1. Light shows
Also at Cinderella’s castle is “Celebrate the Magic.” Digital images of colorful bows, gingerbread houses, candy stripes and festive gift wrap are projected onto the castle, which serves as a kind of visual canvas.
Another show, “Holiday Wishes: Celebrate the Spirit of the Season,” showers the castle in a spectacular pyrotechnic display choreographed to traditional holiday favorites. “Holiday Wishes” includes live entertainment with Disney characters dressed up in their best Christmas outfits, including Tinker Bell soaring into the sky over the crowds.
2. Party with Mickey
Visitors can meet and greet Disney stars at a special event, “Mickey’s Very Merry Christmas Party,” which runs from Nov. 7 to Dec. 19.
The soiree goes from 7 p.m. to midnight on select evenings. A separate admission wristband is required for the after-hours gathering, which includes “Mickey’s Very Merry Christmas Parade,” Santa Claus, complimentary cookies, hot cocoa and the above-mentioned magical snowfall. Party tickets cost $67 for visitors over 10 and $62 for children ages 3 to 9.
Note: If you don’t mind larger crowds as it gets closer to the holiday, the parade, stage shows, castle illuminations and fireworks are free with regular park admission tickets after Dec. 20.
3. The Christmas story
At Epcot, you can take part in the “Candlelight Processional,” a joyous retelling of the Christmas story that runs from late November to Dec. 30.
The biblical account is read by a celebrity narrator, accompanied by a 50-piece orchestra and choirs from 200 schools across the country.
This year’s readers include Neil Patrick Harris, Nov. 30-Dec. 2; Whoopi Goldberg, Dec. 5-6; Sharon Stone, Dec. 15-17; Ana Gasteyer, Dec.18-20; Marlee Matlin, Dec. 21-23; Isabella Rossellini, Dec. 24-25, and Blair Underwood, Dec. 26-27.
Outdoor performances take place rain or shine at 5, 6:45 and 8:15 p.m. on a first-come, first-served basis at the America Gardens Theatre in Epcot (one of the four Disney theme parks).
The processional is one of the most popular park events, so cue up early. Folks in line can listen to earlier performances while waiting to enter.
Reserved seating is available with a Candlelight Dining Package at select Disney restaurants. Lunch starts at $35 and dinner at $50 per person. (Note that availability is often limited.)
4. Dancing lights
One little girl’s wish turned into a massive seasonal display with millions of flashing lights at the Osborne Family Spectacle of Dancing Lights in Hollywood Studios, another one of Disney’s theme parks.
Jennings Osborne, a businessman from Little Rock, Ark., put up his first string of 1,000 lights in 1986 to please his six-year-old daughter, Allison Brianne, nicknamed “Breezy.”
By 1993, the display on Osborne’s home had more than 3 million lights and created huge traffic jams. As the light show grew bigger, neighbor complaints and lawsuits followed.
Eventually, Disney contacted Osborne about moving the lights to Orlando. A fan of the resort, Osborne agreed and the park added 2 million more lights.
The free display now includes 10 miles of twinkling rope lights, which are connected by 30 miles of extension cords and require 800,000 watts of electricity.
Starting in September, it takes 20,000 man-hours to install the red, green and blue LEDs, which dazzle from Nov. 7 to Jan. 4.
When a Christmas song is played, the awesome lights, animated figures and 3-D effects “dance” to the music. Snowflakes drift down from 33 snow machines.
Visitors, too, can become part of the festive points of light; Disney sells “Glow With the Show” mouse ear hats that flash in sync with the multi-colored magnitude.
5. Eye candy everywhere
In the first week of November, Disney cast members unload about 125 semi-trailer truckloads of decorations for a miraculous makeover.
Halloween pumpkins disappear as 1,314 wreaths are hung, 15 miles of garland are strung and 1,300 trees are draped with 300,000 yards of ribbon and bows.
Large centerpiece trees in the four theme parks and 24 resorts showcase ornaments that reflect the motif of each area. The 60-foot tree in Epcot sports earth-like balls, the Wilderness Lodge tree is decked with teepees and canoes, the Grand Floridian’s five-story tree is dressed with Victorian antiques and the tree in Animal Kingdom is trimmed with stuffed animals and tribal art.
6. Delicious décor
Disney pastry chefs construct six life-sized mostly-edible creations. A gingerbread carousel at the Beach and Yacht Club Resort twirls with ponies made of chocolate and fondant, giant candy cane poles, handcrafted poinsettias and hand-painted cartoon portraits.
It takes 800 pounds of flour, 600 pounds of sugar and 1,050 pounds of honey to make the Grand Floridian’s 16-foot-tall gingerbread house. Inside, the staff sells cookies and peppermint-chocolate bark and teaches classes on making gingerbread houses and ornaments.
7. Tales and treats in Epcot
Yuletide customs and special foods from other countries are celebrated at Epcot’s World Showcase, a horseshoe of pavilions representing 11 nations.
During “Holidays Around the World,” each pavilion features special fare and a storyteller sharing festive yarns from countries such as Mexico, France, China, Morocco and Japan, allowing you to experience holiday customs from many cultures.
8. Epic fireworks show
Also in Epcot is Showcase Lagoon, a 40-acre man-made lake where “IllumiNations: Reflections of Earth” takes place at 9:30 each night.
Synchronized to a symphonic score, the spectacular 13-minute-long fireworks show is paired with flashing lasers, dancing flames, cascading fountains and a large rotating globe with curved LED screens displaying images of people and places.
The finale ends with “Let There Be Peace on Earth.”
It’s a fitting place to end a Christmas visit, or perhaps, to welcome in the New Year.
Planning your trip
Before you shout, “Ho! Ho! Ho! I’m going to Disney World,” you’ll need to do some serious trip planning, especially at holiday time.
Orlando is one of the most popular destinations for folks from Western New York, but there are deals to get there if you book early enough (so if this year doesn’t work out, plan early for next year).
A quick check with Southwest and JetBlue at press time produced non-stop flights starting at about $230 from Buffalo. Allegiant Air has direct flights for $145 from Niagara Falls.
To find these bargains, check the “Low Fare Calendar” at Southwest.com or “Best Fare Finder” at Jetblue.com.
Both these web tools provide a calendar that lists the days with the cheapest airfares. Usually, mid-week departures on Tuesday or Wednesday offer the lowest prices to Orlando.
Allegiant Air flies to Orlando/Sanford Airport, which is not quite as close to Disney attractions. That’s reflected in lower ticket prices. Note, however, that Allegiant offers only charter flights, which means that flight times and dates are limited. You should also factor in the price of a car rental or additional ground transportation from Sanford to the Disney complex.
On the other hand, “Guests staying at select Disney hotels and resorts can catch their complimentary Magical Express buses at the Orlando Airport,” explained Renee Pilley, a Disney travel specialist in the Amherst office of AAA. “You can walk off the plane, check your bags and they will be delivered to your hotel room three hours after you arrive.”
If Disney is your only destination in Orlando, this can be a good way to go. “The bus eliminates the need for a rental car and navigating through traffic,” Pilley added. “It’s very convenient and makes for a more relaxing vacation for adults.”
Information about the Magical Express bus and other recent Disney innovations like Magic Bands, FastPass+ and Memory Maker is available at Disneyworld.disney.go.com.
If you don’t have time for online research, travel agents like Pilley can share their Disney expertise and offer money-saving options on airfares, ticket packages, dining plans and hotel choices.
“We can customize your vacation to specific family needs, availability and budget,” Pilley said.
“If you have a problem or need to make a change, we’re here to take your call,” she added. “With online reservations, it is sometimes more difficult to get in touch with someone to help you.”