June 25, 2013

Review: Visiting Disney at Christmas

The Magic Kingdom tree.
My family and I visited WDW during the Christmas season last year for the first time ever. Now that Christmas is six months away (yup, I went there), I thought I'd share my experiences in case any of you are starting to plan a trip, or are thinking about a holiday trip, because if you are, I would tell you to stop.

I understand that lots of people love WDW at Christmastime, as evidenced by the park attendance numbers, but I found it to be my least favorite WDW experience. Some background: we flew to Orlando on Christmas Day, stayed at an off-property hotel (the time share points were gifted to us), and purchased two days of ParkHopper passes. We normally go to WDW in May or September, but the free hotel stay was enough of an incentive, even if it meant visiting the park during its busiest days of the year. Plus, we really wanted to see New Fantasyland.

I'll start with the lowlights (there were highlights too, we'll get to those):

The Crowds: You know that scene in The Lion King where Simba is nearly trampled by wildebeests? WDW at Christmastime is like that, all day, except some of the wildebeests have strollers.

That's me, trying to get a FastPass. Or a beverage. Or into a store. 

Here is what Disney does not tell you about high-volume days: you will not be able to walk normally, instead doing what I call the "robot shuffle" - where your feet scrape slowly along the pavement like a robot, versus the natural heel-toe stride. At times, you will not be able to move at all because the crowds are so dense it causes a complete standstill, causing extreme feelings of claustrophobia - this happened to us in the Animal Kingdom, and now I have a new sympathy for cattle. You will not be able to see or appreciate any of the holiday decorations, since your gaze needs to be focused directly in front of you all times, lest you trip (or are pushed) into someone. You will get on maybe one or two rides all day, since FastPasses are gobbled up quickly, queue times are pushed into ridiculous territory (a 90 minute wait for It's a Small World, for example), and it takes forever to cross from one section of the park to the next, since you have to robot walk everywhere. The stores will be packed, the restaurants will be full, and your ankles will be bruised from stroller collisions. If you use the resort bus system, you will wait in an incredibly long line before you get to board. If you drive, it will take you at least 30 minutes to get onto a monorail (2 hours at park closing), and you will sit in a traffic jam when you leave the park.

Phoning It In: We made reservations to have Christmas dinner at the Yachtsman Steakhouse, something we were all really excited about because we'd never been there before and had heard wonderful things.  When we arrived, we were surprised to find out that night's dinner was prix fixe (something we weren't told about when we made the reservation). Had we been told when we made the reservation and seen the menu in advance, we probably would have eaten somewhere else - the starter and soup/salad options were things that presented problems for my companions (not for dietary reasons, just picky eater reasons) and there were no alternatives since we couldn't order off the regular menu. And we each ordered the same steak, cooked the same way (medium), and received three different results. One was fine, one was on the rare side, and one was still alive. All around us, we saw other patrons sending their steaks back and/or complaining, so it wasn't just our table. Given all the rave reviews I've seen about the Yachtsman, I can only guess that since it was Christmas, they had the B Team (or D team) running the kitchen, instead of their usual chefs. Either way, when you're paying that much money for dinner, it's unacceptable.

Extortion: Disney is great at this one. We were jazzed about seeing Holiday Wishes, especially after experiencing the amazingness that is Happy Hallowishes. Given the crowd situation detailed above, we staked out our fireworks spot (the smoking area by the Tomorrowland Terrace Noodle Station - not ideal, but at least it was a seat) hours in advance. But it was unseasonably cold that day, and all our layers weren't cutting it. So my mother left to go to Mickey's Star Traders and get a WDW throw blanket we had been seeing around that Disney was selling for $15. A half hour later (remember, it takes forever to navigate the parks with all the crowds) she returned empty-handed. After waiting in a giant check-out line, she was told the blanket is $15 if you spend $45 on other merchandise; otherwise it costs $35 (don't quote me on that $35, but it was something like that). She explained that we had been in the parks all day and had already spent well over $45 on things. The salesperson told her if she could produce receipts she could purchase the blanket for $15, so my mother was forced to robot shuffle back to our table, get the receipts (which were still in the bags she left behind while we saved her seat), and return to Mickey's Star Traders, wait in another long check-out line, just for the privilege of purchasing a Mickey throw blanket that probably cost $2.50 for Disney to make.

Now for the good stuff:

The Osborne Family Spectacle of Dancing Lights: Of all the holiday things available in the parks during Christmas, this was the one I was looking forward to the most. And unlike most of our holiday experience, it didn't disappoint. Offered at Disney's Hollywood Studios, the Streets of America come to life thanks to millions of glittering lights that dance and sparkle timed to a medley of holiday music. It's festive, enchanting, and breathtaking - everything we had hoped for in our Disney holiday visit. It was also our most relaxing evening - it's included with admission, and you can stay as long as you like, so we wandered through multiple times.

New Fantasyland: While we saw a preview version of Enchanted Tales with Belle during our trip last September, this was our first time visiting New Fantasyland (when do we stop calling it that?). It was much smaller than I thought it would be, and I wished I could have looked around more to savor all the artistry (the Crowd Monster made this difficult), but it was wonderful to finally see this addition to the park in person, especially after all the years of rumors, announcements, and updates. It looks great, and the LeFou's Brew at Gaston's Tavern is pretty much my favorite thing ever. We only made it on one FastPass ride that day (the Crowd Monster strikes again), and we chose Ariel's Undersea Adventure. The ride is fun, especially for kids, but I forgot how much fun it was to ride a new attraction for the first time ever. Disney has since added some new things (and there will be more to come) to New Fantasyland, and I can't wait to have more first-timer experiences like that one.

Yuletide Fantasy Tour: One of the best WDW tours we've ever done, and we've done some great ones. A blurb doesn't really do this one justice, so I'll save the full review for a future post.

And now, over to you - have you been to WDW around the holidays? Did you love it? Hate it? Would you do it again?

Related Links:
* The WDW Holiday Newbie
* Review: Mickey's Not So Scary Halloween Party
* Bay Lake Tower of Terror


Annie said...

I can't really comment about WDW Christmas festivities as I have not been there during the Holiday season BUT I can tell you that the Holidays at Disneyland are one in the same. It's very tough as well to get through the crowds and night shows are INSANE. Still.. there is a certain joy about walking through the park with all it's decor and seeing the themed fireworks with snow. Not gonna lie, I usually tear up a bit haha!
I've learned to take the Holiday season for what it is, enjoy the park and it's goodies knowing that you probably won't be able to check off your entire list of To-do's. People watching is FANTASTIC at night! LOL
So all in all I think having the mind set that it's going to be crazy helps a lot to be prepared to battle crowds. It's worth going to me, even for a few hours if I can. If I didn't have an Annual Pass, I would plan for another time of year.

Jessica said...

I am obsessed with Disney during the holidays. Now, before I start, let me preface my comment with the fact that I am an annual passholder and a Florida resident, so Disney trips happen frequently. Therefore, I'm not always trying to do everything every trip.

I agree with a lot of what you said...especially the crowds. It is insane the closer you get to Christmas. However, I've gone in the beginning of December, and I've never had a problem.

The extortion bit is something I have a problem with Disney all year round. Right now, I believe they're doing one of those deals but with towels.

As for the highlights, Osborne Family's Spectacle of Lights is not to be missed! It's my favorite part of Disney at Christmastime, and it is the perfect way to kick off the holidays.
Epcot is another great place during the holidays. There seems to be less crowds, and each country puts out trees and offer a fun presentation about Christmas and how they celebrate.
And of course, Cinderella's Castle is absolutely beautiful.