How to celebrate the holidays—and avoid the crowds—at Walt Disney World in Florida

Right after Halloween, the Most Magical Place on Earth transforms into a winter wonderland with festive floats, costumed characters, and thousands of lights

Walt Disney World Resort in Orlando, Florida. | Photo courtesy of Disney

There’s no doubt that the Walt Disney World Resort in Orlando, Florida, knows how to celebrate the holidays. Featuring over-the-top parades, fireworks, decor, and more throughout the 47-square-mile entertainment mecca, Disney has a seemingly endless array of exciting offerings to help visitors celebrate the most wonderful time of the year. 

Come November, Disney World transforms into a winter wonderland. Overnight, pumpkins and bats disappear to make way for wreaths and glittering garlands in the span of just a few short hours. The transition between holidays is an impressive feat, and the expansive decor throughout the parks and resorts is impossible to miss. Immediately upon entering the Magic Kingdom theme park, you’ll be greeted by a giant 65-foot tree, along with an abundance of jolly decorations covering nearly every surface. 

You’ll also find appropriately themed trees at each of the parks, and delightful odes to the holiday season are cleverly tucked into every charming nook and cranny. At Disney’s Hollywood Studios, grandiose versions of favorite Toy Story characters are decked out in winter hats and scarves, and at Magic Kingdom, the beloved Jungle Cruise transforms into a seasonal pun-filled boat ride renamed the “Jingle Cruise.” But while others are lining up early for ideal parade route viewing spots or waiting in a long queue for churros, it’s possible to enjoy some of the more hidden (and festive) gems without fighting crowds.

So if your road trip plans have you heading south this winter, here are a few tips on how to make the most of your holiday Disney visit.

Mickey and Minnie wave from a festive float.
Mickey and Minnie wave to the crowd. | Photo courtesy of Disney

Take pictures with characters

Mickey and Minnie are continuing to practice social distancing due to the COVID-19 pandemic, but you can still see favorite characters during special “cavalcade” appearances. Santa cruises by in a candy-apple red convertible at Hollywood Studios, and at Animal Kingdom, characters dressed in their holiday best float through the park’s river as part of a festive flotilla. Each theme park has similar opportunities to see furry friends and famous princesses without waiting in line. 

You can also take your selfies safely with Disney characters in statue form, with 50 golden figures spread throughout the resort as part of Walt Disney World’s 50th anniversary celebration. And EPCOT hosts Olaf’s Holiday Tradition Expedition Scavenger Hunt, which allows visitors to follow a map to sites featuring various holiday traditions from around the world.

EPCOT International Festival of the Holidays.
EPCOT International Festival of the Holidays. | Photo: Matt Stroshane/Disney

Explore cultures from around the world 

While at EPCOT, take a peaceful stroll through the International Festival of the Holidays. Here, worldwide traditions are depicted through music, dance, and storytelling. Hear tales from Père Noël (Father Christmas) in the France pavilion, a magical barn Santa in Norway, and La Befana in Italy, then watch an energetic performance by a mariachi band as part of Mexico’s Las Posadas celebration. At Animal Kingdom, connect with the natural world as you explore a merry menagerie of winter animals—including reindeer, foxes, polar bears, penguins, and more—crafted in the form of life-size, artisan-sculpted puppets.

a night shot of the hollywood tower hotel lit up
The Disney theme parks come alive at night with unique illuminations and nighttime spectaculars. | Photo courtesy of Disney

Making merriment after nightfall

Some of the most stunning holiday decor can be found in the parks after nightfall. Each of the four Disney parks offers unique illuminations and nighttime spectaculars, but one of the best is Sunset Seasons Greetings at Hollywood Studios. Projections turn the Hollywood Tower Hotel into a Muppets-themed gingerbread house, Frozen’s Arendelle, and more. 

While marveling at these wonders is included in the price of park admission, Magic Kingdom is also home to a special paid nighttime offering on select nights. Disney Very Merriest After Hours features fewer crowds, easy access to attractions, and some seriously interesting (and unexpected) entertainment, including a reindeer hoedown and party with residents of the North Pole at “Club Tinsel.” 

a festive log cake topped with holly berries
Festive foods are available in every park. | Photo courtesy of Disney

Festive food and drink

Disney is known for having a bevy of year-round food items shaped like its famous mascot, but during the holiday season it amps up the cuteness factor with even more Instagram-worthy food and drink items. Sure, there’s Mickey-shaped gingerbread cake pops, cinnamon rolls, chocolate piñatas, sugar cookies, and more—but also try the penguin cupcakes, Olaf-shaped hot cocoa bombs, and reindeer-shaped mousse. 

Adults can sip their way through numerous bars located throughout Disney, each decked out in elaborate decor and featuring appropriately named libations such as Fireside Cider, Elf Elixir, Claus Mo, Snowman on the Beach, and spiked hot chocolate and milkshakes.

a snowman character in a winter scene
Olaf from Frozen. | Photo courtesy of Disney

Resort hopping 

You don’t even have to enter the theme parks to enjoy some of the very best holiday experiences at Disney. Each of the resort’s more than 25 hotels and campgrounds offers larger-than-life seasonal displays and events. Check out Disney’s Grand Floridian Resort & Spa for a 14-foot-tall gingerbread house that doubles as a storefront. Take the monorail to view a modern display at Disney’s Contemporary Resort before celebrating in the tropics (with a side of Dole Whip) at Disney’s Polynesian Village Resort. 

Boat over to Disney’s Fort Wilderness Resort & Campground, where campers deck out their campsites in elaborate holiday displays that would put the Griswold Family to shame. And don’t miss the moving gingerbread carousel at Disney’s Beach Club Resort, which serves as a starting point to explore other themed hotel displays via the Disney Skyliner gondolas. 

But it’s not just Disney hotels that offer cheap holiday thrills. You can also enjoy free admission (and free parking) at Disney Springs, Walt Disney World’s shopping and dining hub. Here you’ll find the Christmas Tree Stroll, which features elaborately decorated Disney-themed Christmas trees. In the evening, enjoy a faux snowfall, made of a warm-weather appropriate soapy concoction known as “snoap.” Disney also has a few spots where you can delight in a wintery atmosphere year-round, including the Blizzard Beach Water Park, which looks like a ski resort that has melted into a watery wonderland. Or check out Winter Summerland Miniature Golf and join Santa and his elves for an off-season round of putt-putt.

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