Disney World's Can't-Miss Holiday Events To Plan Your Trip Around

The most wonderful time of the year in the most magical place on Earth is a vacation you'll never forget. Walt Disney World in Florida pulls out all the stops for the holiday season, adding more events during Christmastime than any other special occasion throughout the year. 

Disney starts celebrating the holidays early. Walt Disney World begins to roll out its holiday special events toward the end of the first week of November, with everything available in its entirety by the Friday after Thanksgiving. The festivities continue through at least New Year's Eve, but decorations sometimes linger a bit longer. (What goes up must come down, and that process can take a while.)

The days leading up to and following Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year's are some of the busiest — and most expensive — days of the year to visit Walt Disney World. If you're planning a holiday trip on or near an actual holiday, pack your patience and consider expanding your budget. Conversely, travelers who have PTO days to spare and want to experience Disney's holiday magic can enjoy smaller crowds and cheaper costs in mid-November (with perhaps a slight spike around Veterans Day, November 11) and the first week of December. There's a ton happening at Walt Disney World during the holiday season, so grab your Santa Mickey ears and let the Orlando snow flurries begin!

Jingle Cruise

The dad jokes of Magic Kingdom's world-famous, classically corny Jungle Cruise get some wintry flair with Jingle Cruise, a top-to-bottom holiday overlay. Before guests board their boats, they'll notice props throughout the queue hinting at the skipper's holiday plans. The boats themselves have Christmas-themed nicknames, the cast of robotic animals partake in holiday hijinks, and the skipper's script is sprinkled with puns and punchlines to match the season.

The switch from Jungle Cruise to Jingle Cruise is often the very first of Disney's holiday happenings to roll out, sometimes transforming as early as November 1. Jingle Cruise is popular, with line wait times regularly lasting at least an hour. For the shortest wait, visit first thing in the morning, ride during Mickey's Very Merry Christmas Party, or reserve a Lightning Lane through Genie+. As one of Magic Kingdom's original attractions from opening day in 1971 — and predating even that as a Disneyland original, circa 1955 — it's nice to see Disney Imagineers finding ways to keep this classic fresh and festive.

Mickey's Very Merry Christmas Party

Nothing beats this. Mickey's Very Merry Christmas Party is an after-hours special event at Magic Kingdom with festive entertainment, character greetings, and short waits for favorite attractions. In some ways, Very Merry is the Christmas companion to Mickey's Not-So-Scary Halloween Party, but they're still different.

During the party, "snow" (soap in disguise) falls continuously on Main Street, U.S.A. as Mickey and pals host a stage show at the castle. Cast members serve complimentary cookies and hot cocoa throughout the park. Fireworks launch around the perimeter of Magic Kingdom — a special touch that doesn't happen during the park's regular fireworks show. The showstopper of the night is Mickey's Once Upon a Christmastime Parade, featuring dozens of Disney characters, the iconic marching toy soldiers, and Santa himself. It's a near-perfect event.

Tickets start at $160, increasing depending on the date. The party happens several times a week, from mid-November until just a few days before Christmas. After that, the party's parade, fireworks, and castle show are performed during regular operating hours. That's a nice bonus for those not attending the party, but it comes with the trade-off of visiting Disney during the busiest week of the year. Very Merry's official hours run 7 p.m. through midnight, but party guests can enter Magic Kingdom as early as 4 p.m., even without daytime admission. On party nights, Magic Kingdom closes at 6 p.m., so if you're not planning on attending Very Merry, plan your Magic Kingdom visit for a non-party day so you don't have to cut it short.

Decorations EVERYWHERE

Whatever you're picturing in your head for Disney World's holiday decorations, multiply that mental image by five. Areas in all four theme parks and every Disney World resort hotel (over two dozen of them!) are dressed to the nines with festive cheer, and each set of décor is custom-created to thematically match the location. Especially jaw-dropping are the oversized Christmas trees in each park and every hotel's lobby. Many areas even have their own holiday background music.

While you'll no doubt encounter a lot of decorations by simply going about your day, there are a few displays to seek out using Disney World transportation if you don't stumble upon them. As part of the Disney Springs Christmas Tree Stroll, trees decorated by different Disney characters line the walkways throughout the entire Disney Springs district. The creativity and attention to detail in these are incredible; our favorite is the tree belonging to Miguel from "Coco."

Over at Disney's Grand Floridian Resort, a giant gingerbread house — as in, a large-scale house made from actual, real gingerbread — sets up shop in the lobby and, of course, sells delicious gingerbread treats. At Disney's Yacht Club Resort, an impressive miniature village — similar but much more elaborate than the kind you might set up on your Christmastime mantle — is simply entrancing to look upon. Lastly, an out-of-the-way visit to Disney's Fort Wilderness Campground is more than worth the trek to check out guests' amazing homemade displays of lights, figurines, and Disney homages in the "yards" of their RVs, campers, and tents.

Minnie's Holiday Dine

Two words: Santa Goofy. You'll find him here — along with his pals Minnie, Mickey, and Pluto — at Minnie's Holiday Dine, a special lunch and dinner served at Hollywood & Vine at Disney's Hollywood Studios. Minnie Mouse is hosting a holiday celebration, and you're invited. Minnie's Holiday Dine is the only character meal at Walt Disney World that receives a holiday overlay. It's a great option for families seeking festive photos with high-profile Disney characters without having to hunt them down individually at Mickey's Very Merry Christmas Party.

A buffet serves an extensive lineup of shrimp, herbed chicken, tenderloin steak, turkey breast, roasted pork, seared salmon, couscous salad, macaroni & cheese, and more, with sugary holiday treats for dessert. The cost is around $60 for adults and $40 for kids ages 3-9. Kids 2 and under eat free.

You can (and should) take advantage of making reservations in advance, which you can do up to 60 days prior to dining. (When you book Minnie's Holiday Dine, make sure you're reserving lunch or dinner. Breakfast in the same location is Disney Junior.) Alternatively, Christmas isn't the only time of year Minnie likes to celebrate. Throughout other seasons, her lunch and dinner at Hollywood & Vine are themed appropriately, from Halloween to the Oscars and everything in between. The meal is a fun choice no matter when your vacation is, and it's eligible for the Disney Dining Plan.

Disney Jollywood Nights

The merriment of Christmas blends with the romanticized glamor of old Hollywood during Disney Jollywood Nights, an after-hours, separately ticketed party at Disney's Hollywood Studios. Among the highlights are the Jingle Bell, Jingle BAM! fireworks, a live Muppets variety show hosted by Kermit the Frog and Miss Piggy (!!!), as well as specialty lounges at The Hollywood Brown Derby and near the Tower of Terror. As the beloved, now-defunct Hollywood Studios attraction The Great Movie Ride once proclaimed, "Hooray for Hollywood, indeed."

Disney Jollywood Nights take place on select nights from mid-November through the week before Christmas. Tickets range from around $160-$180, depending on the date. Party hours are 8:30 p.m. to 12:30 a.m., and party guests can enter Hollywood Studios starting at 7 p.m. without daytime admission to the park.

If you're trying to decide between Mickey's Very Merry Christmas Party and Disney Jollywood Nights, there are a few factors to consider. Very Merry is longer (five hours vs. Jollywood's four, or eight hours vs. Jollywood's five-and-a-half hours, if you consider the early entry). The price is about the same. Very Merry happens about twice as many nights as Jollywood, so the former may offer more options when planning your vacation itinerary. Beyond that, it comes down to what kind of entertainment you're looking for or which park's rides you like most.

Projections on park icons

Guests who stick around until nightfall at Magic Kingdom, Disney's Hollywood Studios, and Disney's Animal Kingdom can take in the technicolor eye candy of holiday-themed projections. Magic Kingdom presents A Frozen Holiday Surprise, a brief stage show in which Elsa transforms Cinderella Castle into a wintry wonderland with the help of Anna, Kristoff, and Olaf. It happens during Mickey's Very Merry Christmas Party, as well as during regular Magic Kingdom park operations.

Visitors at Hollywood Studios can enjoy Sunset Seasons Greetings. It gets its name from Sunset Boulevard, the street leading to The Twilight Zone Tower of Terror. That ride's exterior, the fictional Hollywood Tower Hotel, becomes a canvas for projections during Sunset Seasons Greetings. Nightly during the holidays, guests can gaze upon special moments featuring Mickey Mouse, "Toy Story" friends, the Muppets, and Olaf. Over at Animal Kingdom, guests can gather in the park's central plaza for Tree of Life Awakenings Holiday Edition, a series of nature-focused projection vignettes.

Rather than having specific showtimes, both Sunset Seasons Greetings and Tree of Life Awakenings Holiday Edition occur continuously every few minutes once it's dark outside, making them easy to work into your itinerary wherever they fit best. Sunset Seasons Greetings is also one of the only places in Walt Disney World where it snows! The others are on Main Street at Magic Kingdom during Mickey's Very Merry Christmas Party and near the oversized Christmas tree in the Town Center at Disney Springs.

Merry Menagerie

As guests wander Discovery Island at Disney's Animal Kingdom, they can encounter lively "villagers" with impressive animal puppets celebrating the winter season in an entertainment offering known as Merry Menagerie. From penguins to polar bears, talented performers bring these creatures to life as they roam about. Live musicians accompany them with beautiful, stripped-down performances on instruments like steel drums and the violin.

Merry Menagerie isn't a show with scheduled performance times, nor is it akin to character greetings with a formal line for photos and autographs. While you can find set times in the My Disney Experience app, that schedule simply indicates when the Merry Menagerie will be exploring around the park's central plaza. They might be anywhere in the general vicinity interacting with guests; there's no stage, no queue, and no scripted programming. You can feel free to politely approach them for a conversation or a photo — or they might walk right up to you instead!

Out of the four Walt Disney World theme parks, Animal Kingdom has the least amount of holiday celebrations. Merry Menagerie is one of the few instances of dedicated holiday in the park, joining the park-wide décor — which is fantastic and nothing to sneeze at — and the brief Tree of Life Awakenings Holiday Edition projection-mapping moments at the end of the day.

For the First Time In Forever: A Frozen Sing-Along Celebration

At Disney's Hollywood Studios, guests can join the royal historians of Arendelle inside the Hyperion Theater during For the First Time In Forever: A Frozen Sing-Along Celebration. The show recaps the "Frozen" soundtrack and encourages audience participation. Anna, Elsa, and Kristoff make live appearances, too.

During the holiday season, Olaf joins the cast for a few songs from "Olaf's Frozen Adventure," the 2017 half-hour holiday special. (You might remember it as the made-for-TV program that Disney overestimated interest for and placed before all theatrical screenings of "Coco," much to the confusion and displeasure of many moviegoers.) The holiday additions to the sing-along are integrated into the main show, rather than being a separate show altogether. Olaf even sports his little blue bowtie that he wears in the special. After the show (or at any point throughout the day), you can take family photos with Olaf himself next door at Celebrity Spotlight, the only place in Disney World to personally meet the huggable snowman.

Candlelight Processional

Celebrity narrators, a huge choir, and a live orchestra make up the Candlelight Processional, a free concert at EPCOT recounting the Nativity story and featuring traditional Christmas music. The celebrity line-up changes from year to year, but a few mainstays show up almost every season, like Neil Patrick Harris and Whoopi Goldberg. In the past, we've enjoyed the show narrated by Jodi Benson (the voice of Ariel in "The Little Mermaid"), Anthony Mackie (Falcon in the Marvel Cinematic Universe), and news anchor Meredith Vieira. Knock on wood, but it's a bit astonishing that Candlelight is included with park admission, seeing as it runs nearly an hour and has a caliber of talent you'd easily pay good money to enjoy at the symphony in your hometown.

Along with EPCOT International Festival of the Holidays, the Candlelight Processional typically starts the Friday after Thanksgiving. It performs three times nightly through the end of December at the American Gardens Theater, an outdoor venue near The American Adventure in World Showcase. For a good seat, line up at least an hour before showtime. For guaranteed seating, purchase a dining package (but still plan on waiting in line).

While we're on the topic of Christmas events focused around the Nativity story, if you're visiting Disney World on Christmas Day and would like to attend a religious service in observance of the holiday, call 407-939-2273 a few weeks before your trip for information. A Catholic mass and a Protestant service are usually held on Christmas morning at one of the hotel's convention ballrooms.

EPCOT International Festival of the Holidays

Traveling the globe in EPCOT's World Showcase can be one of the most enriching parts of a Walt Disney World vacation. This is especially true at the end of each year, when you can learn about different countries' holiday traditions as part of EPCOT International Festival of the Holidays.

At the heart of the Festival of the Holidays is the international storytellers, who share their culture's customs in charming, small-scale shows that are more like campfire stories rather than the elaborate productions elsewhere in Walt Disney World. Some of these storytellers embody Santa Claus-like personas, while others represent holidays like Lunar New Year, Hanukkah, and Kwanzaa. (We especially enjoy Father Christmas in the United Kingdom, La Befana the witch in Italy, and the Monkey King in China.)

Also in World Showcase, "holiday kitchens" (walk-up windows) serve traditional holiday cuisine native to each country. These small servings are perfect for snacking, or visit a few in a row to create your own meal of sorts. If you've got a sweet tooth, check out the holiday cookie stroll by collecting stamps at five different cookie locations throughout World Showcase. For menus and showtimes for everything across EPCOT International Festival of the Holidays, pick up a free Festival Passport on your way inside the park. Over in Showcase Plaza, the Joyful music group performs favorite Christmas and Kwanzaa songs, rounding out a phenomenal festival that you can experience daily during EPCOT's regular park hours and included with admission.

Living with the Land — Glimmering Greenhouses

One of the most tranquil attractions in all of Walt Disney World, Living with the Land is a calm boat ride that teaches guests about horticulture and farming while passing through EPCOT's real greenhouses and science labs. At the end of the year, it becomes Living with the Land — Glimmering Greenhouses, with special narration and holiday lights throughout the experience. Living with the Land rarely has a wait, so it doesn't really matter when you visit crowd-wise, but during its Glimmering Greenhouses engagement, ride at night. The attraction is enjoyable anytime, but the lights are particularly dazzling after dark, when their glow inside the ride's centerpiece greenhouse feels extra magical.

Living with the Land is far from the most thrilling Disney World ride, and likely isn't at the top of most guests' must-see attractions. All the same, it's an underrated gem that's indicative of EPCOT's early purpose as an educational hub showcasing futuristic technology. For some extra "education," follow up the ride with a character meal hosted by Chip and Dale at Garden Grill, the attached restaurant that serves the food grown inside Living with the Land. Disney also offers the Behind the Seeds Tour, a one-hour backstage look at Living with the Land that guests with an interest in horticulture will love.

Tasty treats and festive food

Throughout all of Walt Disney World, visitors can enjoy specialty menu items. The most extensive selection of seasonal cuisine can be found at the holiday kitchens of EPCOT International Festival of the Holidays, with small plates of food that are traditionally part of different countries' celebrations. Mickey's Very Merry Christmas Party and Disney Jollywood Nights also have their own lineups of dining options just for those parties. At Disney Springs, Jock Lindsey's Hangar Bar — named and themed after the pilot from "Raiders of the Lost Ark" — fully commits and becomes Jock Lindsey's Holiday Bar, with an entire menu of festive food and drinks.

If you're visiting Walt Disney World on Christmas Day, but want the comfort of a home-cooked holiday meal, inquire about the Christmas Feast. Offered at a handful of onsite Disney resort hotels, it comes with turkey, cornbread stuffing, mashed potatoes, veggies, and cranberry relish. Alternatively, as mentioned elsewhere in this list, Minnie's Holiday Dine at Disney's Hollywood Studios offers a character meal buffet all season long.

Bottom line: There's so much creative, cheery, Christmas-y food at Disney World, and it's hard to find a dining establishment that doesn't get into the holiday spirit with at least something on its menu. Each year, Disney publishes foodie guides — one for parks, another for hotels — on the Disney Parks Blog, denoting nearly every specialty holiday food and drink so you can plan ahead.

Must-have merch

As for holiday merch, it comes in plentiful quantities across Walt Disney World IP. New holiday-themed collections of pins, mouse ear headbands, spirit jerseys, Loungefly mini-backpacks, and so much more can be found in every theme park and onsite hotel.

For the biggest selection, visit the Emporium at Magic Kingdom, Creations Shop at EPCOT, Mickey's of Hollywood at Disney's Hollywood Studios, Discovery Trading Company at Disney's Animal Kingdom, or World of Disney at Disney Springs. We'd be remiss if we didn't also mention the ever-popular holiday popcorn buckets, which come in new shapes and sizes (literally) each season. (In 2017, the must-have item of the year was the elusive and iconic Pluto popcorn bucket, depicting Mickey's pup wearing a Christmas sweater.)

If you're a fan of any of the particular events happening throughout Disney World during the holidays, you can probably find some merch to represent it. Disney sells a line of items only available at Mickey's Very Merry Christmas Party, as well as apparel for EPCOT International Festival of the Holidays and plush toys of Merry Menagerie's animal friends.

Ghosts of Disney Christmas past

If you took a Disney holiday trip years ago and you're looking through this list for that favorite tradition you remember, a few of Disney's signature events are now defunct. Arguably the most significant was the Osborne Family Spectacle of Dancing Lights, a breathtaking display of millions of lights adorning the "backlot" streets at Disney's Hollywood Studios. The lights all synchronized with classic Christmas songs ("Carol of the Bells" by the Trans-Siberian Orchestra was just incredible) while "snow" descended from the rooftops. Its final Christmas season was 2015, after which the entire backlot area closed to make way for Star Wars: Galaxy's Edge and Toy Story Land. The trade-off might be worth it in the end, but the Osborne Lights were something special.

The runner-up for the most-missed Disney holiday tradition, also with lights (seeing a pattern here?), was the Dream Lights icicles that bathed Cinderella Castle in wintry splendor from 2007 through 2019. The Dream Lights were truly a you-have-to-see-it-to-believe-it sight, with even the most pristine photographs not doing the visuals justice. RIP.

A few other noteworthy special offerings are now distant memories, too. Among them are the Holiday Wishes fireworks from Mickey's Very Merry Christmas Party at Magic Kingdom (replaced by Minnie's Wonderful Christmastime), the holiday theme at the end of the now-closed IllumiNations: Reflections of Earth fireworks at EPCOT, and Mickey's Jingle Jungle Parade at Disney's Animal Kingdom (a holiday overlay of the park's daily parade that bid farewell when the regular version closed in 2014).

Christmas every day

If you wanted to plan a Disney trip during the holiday season, but had to visit during another time of year, there are a few places throughout Walt Disney World where you can get your Christmas fix year-round. Disney's Winter Summerland mini-golf, attached to Disney's Blizzard Beach water park, was designed by Santa Claus himself (so the backstory goes). You can choose between two courses, each offering 18 holes, at the current cost of $14 for adults and $12 for kids ages 3-9.

You can find holiday merchandise any month of the year at Ye Olde Christmas Shoppe in Liberty Square at Magic Kingdom and Disney's Days of Christmas in the Marketplace area of Disney Springs. The latter is especially cool — the entire store "takes place" underneath a Christmas tree, with oversized branches and ornaments coming out of the ceiling!

If you've always wanted to experience Disney's version of snow, stop by For the First Time In Forever: A Frozen Sing-Along Celebration at Disney's Hollywood Studios. Every performance concludes with Elsa belting out "Let It Go," and as she does, the audience gets covered — and we mean covered — in Disney's specialty soap snow. Additionally, if you're home for the holidays, consider participating in 12Ks of Christmas, a virtual runDisney event you can join in from wherever you are.