It doesn’t matter whether you visit Disneyland, Disney World, or Tokyo Disney, as soon as you set foot on Disney property you’re transported into your very own Hallmark movie. You’re Lacey Chabert about to meet your one true love working at the local Christmas tree farm. Disney World tends to outshine Disneyland with their flashy special-ticket Christmas Party and grandiose resort makeovers. So, if you’re used to visiting Disney World for the holidays, just know that everything is smaller and quainter in the California parks. However, Disneyland is still incredibly adorable and has a lot to offer in terms of the holidays. Due to crowds and overall hominess of Disneyland, I’m starting to prefer spending the holidays in California as opposed to Disney World. The best part is you don’t need to spend money on a separate ticket to enjoy the holiday parade and shows!
So, where do you start when planning a Disneyland Christmas vacation? When is the best time to visit for the holidays? What are the must-do shows, parades, and activities? Handmade candy canes, dancing reindeer, and snow on Main Street, these are a few of my favorite things!
When to Visit
Decorations start to go up the day after Halloween, so you might see some lights and décor before this date. For daily showtimes of all parades, street parties, and shows check out the times guides in the parks or online.
If you have a choice, try to visit sometime between the week after Thanksgiving through the second week of December. The lights, decorations, shows, and overall holiday atmosphere will be in full swing and it won’t be overly crowded and possibly a bit cheaper. Last year, my mom and I visited December 9th-December 15th and it was so dreamy. With the Max Pass, we didn’t wait more than 20 minutes on any ride. Even without the Max Pass, we could have accomplished quite a bit.
On Christmas Day and New Years Day, Disneyland crowds are notoriously high and reach their peak capacity. Disney has been known to reach maximum park capacity and close their gates temporarily for new guests to enter around midday, but that doesn’t happen every year. In order to ensure that you enjoy some of what the parks have to offer, I suggest arriving at Disneyland at least an hour before it opens. That way, you can enjoy a few rides before the masses come and you won’t be refused at the gate. If you do get refused at the gate, try visiting California Adventure for a few hours. Disneyland may reopen later in the afternoon.
Where to Stay
Dressed in lights, baubles, and enormous Christmas trees you can’t go wrong at any of the on-property resorts. Each resort is visited by a group of carolers and gets their own personal lobby Santa for pictures too! The only con to staying on-property at a Disney resort is that it’s more expensive than any of the off-property hotels.
At the Grand Californian and the Disneyland Hotel, they imitate the life-size gingerbread house displayed in Florida’s Grand Floridian every year. The gingerbread house in the Grand Californian is a replica of the hotel itself and the house at the Disneyland Hotel is a replica of the castle. If you’re not staying at a Disney hotel, I suggest grabbing a holiday cocktail from the Hearthstone Lounge and curling up next to the lobby fire while the pianist plays relaxing holiday ambiance music. This is my favorite place to take a midday break and separate from the park crowds!
Most off-property resorts are within walking distance or a short bus/Lyft ride to the entrance. I usually opt for a non-Disney hotel because I spend more time at the parks than I do in my hotel room. My three favorite hotels are Anaheim Portofino Inn & Suites (Budget-Friendly), The Anaheim Hotel (Moderate), or Courtyard by Marriott Anaheim Theme Park Entrance (Deluxe). Off-site hotels may do some light decorating, but it won’t be quite as extensive as a Disney hotel. The great thing is, the Disney hotels are very close to the parks so you can pop in and enjoy the decorations whether you stay there or not. If you want to be completely immersed in the Disney and holiday magic, then go for one of the Disney hotels! If you’d rather save some money, then a non-Disney hotel will be just fine too.
Christmas at Disneyland
Can’t-Miss Holiday Menu Items:
- Holidays Churros: Gingerbread Churro (near Sleeping Beauty Castle), Churro Sundae: Peppermint ice cream and a cajeta-filled churro garnished with chocolate brownie crumbles, chocolate sauce, and whipped cream (near Golden Horseshoe), Churro Bites with eggnog gelato and caramel sauce (Hungry Bear), Gingersnap Churro with cream cheese dipping sauce (Cozy Cone – California Adventure)
- Philly Cheesesteak Hot Dog: Premium hot dog with sliced roast beef, peppers, onions, and cheese sauce (Refreshment Corner)
- Eggnog Latte Cheesecake finished with white chocolate mousse “foam” and a sprinkling of nutmeg (Jolly Holiday)
- Holiday Brownie topped with white chocolate mousse, sprinkles, chocolate presents, and a Christmas tree Gingerbread Cookie (Jolly Holiday)
- Chocolate Mint Yule Log: Chocolate sponge surrounded by mint chip filling and finished with buttercream, white chocolate curls, and white chocolate crispy pearls (Plaza Inn)
- Holiday Pastry Wreath: Pate choux dough filled with cranberry-raspberry compote with orange and white chocolate mousse and finished with green chocolate, silver and gold edible glitter, yellow and blue crispy pearls, a yellow chocolate bow, and a red rose (Red Rose Tavern)
- Dessert Nachos: Cinnamon crisps topped with apple filling, vanilla sauce, cajeta caramel, and whipped cream (Rancho del Zocalo Restaurante)
- Frozen Abuelita Hot Chocolate: Frozen Mexican hot chocolate with chocolate sauce topped with peppermint whipped cream and crushed candy canes (Rancho del Zocalo Restaurante)
- Green Alien Holiday Macaron (Galactic Grill)
- S’mores Parfait: Layers of chocolate pudding, chocolate cake, marshmallow filling, crushed graham cracker, and ganache topped with chocolate chips and a toasted marshmallow (Galactic Grill)
- Candy Cane Beignets (Mint Julep Bar)
A Christmas Fantasy Parade
People who are used to Disney World’s Christmas parade may feel let down when they see Disneyland’s parade. I personally think it’s adorable and since the parade performs during the day, you don’t have to buy an additional ticket to see it. It even features some of the same Disney World characters, like the dancing reindeer, the trumpet-playing toy soldiers, and of course, Santa. This parade happens twice a day at 3:30 PM and 6:00 PM every day so you’ll have plenty of opportunities to watch it. I like to view Disneyland parades near it’s a small world on the elevated walkway to the right of the churro cart and the Matterhorn. I don’t have to fight to see over people and the fence serves as a convenient shelf for my souvenirs and chimichangas.
Believe…in Holiday Magic Fireworks
Disneyland has fine-tuned their projection mapping skills and display images on Main Street, Rivers of America, and it’s a small wconvenientd to the show ambiance. This means you’re not limited to watching the fireworks from Main Street! I like to watch from it’s a small world because crowds are thinner and the attraction is decorated so cute! If you want to watch it from the castle, I prefer viewing in the middle of Main Street so I can see the whole castle and experience the Main Street images and snow. Fireworks happen nightly at 9:30 PM.
Wintertime Enchantment at Sleeping Beauty’s Winter Castle
I had no idea about the random nightly castle lighting and holiday projections that happen on Main Street when I visited last year. The music swelled, lights turned low, and then the castle was completely covered in icicles. It’s a really beautiful moment! I know this word gets tossed around a lot, but this experience was truly magical for me. The magic happens nightly at 7:00 PM and 8:00 PM
Candlelight Processional (Main Street at the Train Station)
If you get lucky and book your trip the first week of December you might have the opportunity to watch the Cast Member choir sing holiday songs and listen to stories told by celebrities. Some past appearances were Chris Hemsworth and Dick Van Dyke. They only run for two days for two performances, so try not to be disappointed if you don’t make it! The rumor is that these performances will be held on December 1 and 2. You will still have plenty of opportunities for holiday fun! When the official schedule releases for 2018, I’ll update it here.
Haunted Mansion Holiday – Disney really struck gold with The Nightmare Before Christmas. Due to the movie taking place during Halloween and Christmas they can decorate the ride with the movie’s theme in September and keep it up until the holidays are over in January! Jack, Sally, and Oogie Boogie animatronics are added along with eerie Naughty & Nice Lists and an “appearance” by Jack’s dog Zero. Food & Beverage also creates a custom gingerbread house from scratch and it’s placed in the infamous ballroom scene. Disney loves their giant gingerbread houses! Take a deep breath because they pipe in gingerbread scents too! Fun Fact: Take a good look at Madame Leota when you ride the attraction. The fortune teller is not played by the original Leota Toombs (former Disney Imagineer), but by her daughter, Kim Irvine.
it’s a small world Holiday – If you’re interested in learning the history of the holiday overlays at Disneyland and Disney World I highly suggest watching Decorating Disney: Holiday Magic and Halloween. They’re both on YouTube right now and I’ve watched them both several times. My favorite part is when they show the process of transforming it’s a small world into a holiday wonderland. 500,000 lights are hung, the famous clock gets a Santa hat, and every single doll, duck, or hippo gets a special holiday outfit. The outcome is spectacular and pictures don’t do it justice.
it’s a small world Holiday Lighting
Every night at 5:15 PM there is a ceremonial lighting of the beloved attraction. It’s a fairly quick presentation, but it reminds me of the old tree lighting ceremonies with a touch of Disney magic. Such a cute way to start off the festive evening!
Hand-Pulled Candy Canes
Since 1968, candy makers have been handmaking 18-inch candy canes to distribute to a limited number of guests every day. Some Cast Members have been making these candy canes since the tradition started! To retrieve a candy cane, a very limited amount wristbands (around 120) are handed out at the park opening. Head to the park at least 45 minutes before opening so you’re one of the first groups to enter the parks then head straight to either Candy Palace in Disneyland or Trolly Treats in California Adventure. There’s a limit of one wristband per guest so you cannot grab extras for the rest of your party. I’m a little intimidated by the process so we opted out of the candy cane frenzy last year. I hope to cross it off my bucket list someday! Let me know in the comments if you have any candy cane grabbing tips! Last year, candy canes began distribution on November 24th. I will update the date when it is released for 2018.
Atmosphere & Entertainment
Meet Santa Claus
The playground at the Redwood Creek Challenge Trail is dressed up for the holidays every year and it’s incredibly adorable. You can get your picture taken with Santa and the line is generally shorter here than his location in Disneyland. Last year, they provided pictures with different Santas who were ethnically diverse and Mrs. Clause made appearances as well. Meet and greet times are stated on the Disneyland app, but they generally run between 10 AM – 5:00 PM. You may find him at Critter Country in Disneyland this year, but only California Adventure has been confirmed for 2018.
Buena Vista Street
The most traditional photo-friendly area is Buena Vista Street with the centerpiece being the 50-foot Christmas tree covered in 20’s and 30’s inspired ornaments. Holiday Mickey and Minnie also make appearances in front of the tree, making it extra cute and fuzzy.
Buena Vista Street Community Bell Ringers
In addition to the 20’s and 30’s holiday decorations on Buena Vista Street, groups of carolers wander the streets singing holiday songs and wielding handbells to accompany themselves. Think of them as California Adventure’s Dapper Dans.
Frozen – Live at the Hyperon
This is a permanent show held daily in the theatre near Guardians of the Galaxy. It may not be exclusive the holiday season, but it still fits the winter wonderland theme! The air-conditioned and snowy show will serve as a respite from the SoCal “winter” too. The actors are super talented so you won’t get a subpar imitation of Idina Menzel!
Cars Land at Christmas
Cars Land is quickly becoming the Main street USA of California Adventure. It’s an incredibly well-executed and accurate replica of Radiator Springs, so it’s already photogenic. Add some holiday decorations and now it’s the perfect setting for a PhotoPass picture. In November, tires become wreaths, traffic cones are Christmas trees, and even Flo’s gets a retro tinsel tree in the window. Makes my heart melt with Christmas joy!
Luigi’s Joy to the Whirl
I firmly believe that Luigi’s one of the most underrated rides in Disneyland. Off-season, the little buggies dance in a cute choreographed number to Italian numbers sang by Luigi. During the holidays, they dress up the shop and Luigi sings holiday tunes while the cars dance along. I think the technology is killer and it’s suitable for all ages so that’s always a plus.
Mater’s Jingle Jamboree
The overlay for Mater’s Junkyard Jamboree is similar to Luigi’s. Instead of Mater singing his normal Cars-related songs, he switches it up with something more festive. Although it’s not the most innovative kiddie ride, it is cute and adds to the holiday atmosphere.
World of Color – Season of Light
World of Color gets a holiday makeover with seasonal tunes and clips from Disney movies. World of Color has been down for renovation since Pixar Pier opened in April and many were hoping it would reopen sooner rather than later. There is still no complete confirmation that Season of Light will be shown again this year, but we’ve been seeing rumors that construction has ended. I will update here when I get the news.
Festival of Holidays
One of the coolest things Disney has done is create an inclusive celebration that incorporates many other cultures and holidays in addition to Christmas. My favorite part is, of course, the food!
The festive Food Marketplace lines up several booths featuring desserts, small plates, and drinks inspired by a different country or holiday. My favorite two favorite treats are the Nashville Hot Turkey Sandwich and theWarm Bourbon Cider with House-made Bourbon-infused Marshmallow. You can also get the infamous Mimosa Flight which includes a Pomegranate, Mimosa Pear Mimosa, and White Cranberry Mimosa!
Can’t-Miss Menu Items for 2018 Festival of Holidays Booth:
- Warm Bourbon Cider with House-made Bourbon-infused Marshmallow (Visions of Sugarplums Booth)
- Eggnog Cocktail with Whipped Cream and Nutmeg Dusting (Favorite Things Booth)
- Holiday Ham Shanks with Brown Sugar-Pineapple Glaze (Favorite Things Booth)
- Warm Peppermint Chocolate Float with Peppermint Hot Chocolate, Vanilla Ice Cream, Whipped Cream and Peppermint Crumbles (Holiday Duets)
- Turkey & Stuffing Tamale with Cranberry Relish (Merry Mashups)
- Sparkling Wine Punch with Chandon Brut, Sparkling Wine and Lime Sherbet (Merry Mashups)
- Merry Cherry Pineapple Punch with Red Maraschino Cherries non-alcoholic (Grandma’s Recipes)
- Nashville Hot Fried Turkey with Dill Pickles (Spicy Celebrations)
- Frosty Frosé with Fleurs de Prairie Rosé, Blue Curaçao, and White Cranberry Juice served frozen with Mint Sprig (Winter Sliderland)
- Milk Chocolate Candy Cane Pot de Crème (Winter Sliderland)
- Black Forest Yule Log (A Twist on Tradition)
A variety of entertainers perform throughout the day on the stages near Pixar Pier and Pacific Wharf. The featured bands last year were Mostly Kosher who sang some Hanukkah-inspired songs, an all-female mariachi band, and a Kwanzaa/Christmas a cappella group.
¡Viva Navidad! Street Party
I get extremely excited when I see the Three Caballeros come out to play. Something about them that’s incredibly old school and nostalgic for Walt’s era. Every hour starting at about noon the Caballero, dancers, and puppeteers celebrate Navidad in the streets of California Adventure. Mariachi musicians and large Santa and Mrs. Clause puppets called mojiganga join in too!
Downtown Disney will also be completely decked out for the holidays with trees, wreaths, and ornate decorations. The musicians and entertainers will update their usual songs with familiar holiday tunes. In addition to decorations and music, in previous years Disney opened Olaf’s Frozen Ice Rink next to ESPN Zone. The area featured rentable ice skates, some fun holiday treats, kids activities, and PhotoPass opportunities. I will make sure to update the post if and when the hours and prices are released for 2018. Also, World of Disney is a great place to pick up all the special holiday merchandise in one place!
Where to Eat Christmas Dinner
If you want something a little fancier than the food kiosks from the Festival of Holidays, there are a few restaurants that serve up some very nice meals.
Carthay Circle (California Adventure): This upscale restaurant and lounge will supply a birdseye view of the giant Christmas tree on Buena Vista Street from the patio. Carthay serves some of the best Disney food and cocktails I’ve ever had. They have one Holiday Cocktail offering which comes with Bombay Sapphire, St. Germaine, Lillet Blanc, lemon juice, cherry bitters and Crème de Yvette garnished with a lavender sprig. For a less expensive dinner at California Adventure, Wine Country Trattoria has a romantic Italian atmosphere with a rooftop lounge and the Lamplight Lounge is brand new with a great view of Pixar Pier.
Napa Rose (Grand Californian Hotel): Another upscale dining experience is located inside The Grand Californian and hosted by Andrew Sutton, the same Chef in charge of Carthay Circle. Much like Carthay, the food is incredible, the wine list extensive, and the outside terrace with fire pits are a fantastic way to end the evening.
Blue Bayou (Disneyland): Set inside the entrance of Pirates of the Caribbean, you’re paying for the very cool dining atmosphere. They do have one holiday offering this year and that’s the Gingerbread Crème Brûlée with Chantilly cream and a mini gingerbread chocolate man. The New Orleans nighttime environment is complete with a starry night sky and fireflies. I will say, the food here is not my favorite, but it is definitely fun to eat inside a ride!
Cafe Orleans (Disneyland): If the only reason you’re eating at the Blue Bayou to try their famous Monte Cristo, Cafe Orleans serves the same sandwich along with the added bonus of Mickey Beignets for dessert! The holiday offerings at Cafe Orleans are the Santa’s Lumps of Coal Beignets: Chocolate-hazelnut beignets tossed in peppermint mocha sugar and topped with peppermint ice cream and Beef and Grits: Braised beef served over cheesy grits with a cabernet sauce.
Carnation Cafe (Disneyland): For the classic Disney atmosphere and something a little more casual, Carnation Cafe has incredible soul food. The restaurant opened along with the park in 1955 and features classic dishes like Walt’s Famous Meatloaf, fried pickles, and baked potato soup. This year they are featuring a holiday special: the Roast Beef TV Dinner which comes with roast beef topped with roasted shallot and sun-dried cherry demi sauce, mashed potatoes, haricot verts, and carrots and served with chocolate croissant bread pudding and crème anglaise. It’s located on Main Street so you’ll get the added holiday feeling from the area!
Traditional Christmas Dinner
In the past, the following restaurants served a holiday-themed dinner. This information was graciously provided by Mouse for Less last year. I will update the article if new info surfaces for this year!
Story Tellers Cafe (Grand Californian)
Napa Rose (Grand Californian)
Goofy’s Kitchen (The Disneyland Hotel)
PCH Grill (Paradise Pier)
How to Book & Plan
If you’re a Disney vacation DIYer then be sure to download my free Disneyland planning eBook. You’ll get the book and a few extra Disney planning freebies are thrown in. For booking, go through Get Away Today to get discounted tickets and packages. They’re doing an awesome deal right now for deeply discounted. Use my link here for the Get Away Today discounts!
Details for the holiday discounts are:
- Up to $31 off Disneyland® Resort Tickets while supplies last
- Must be purchased at least six days prior to travel
- Free shipping on all tickets
- Valid for travel throughout 2018
- Includes one Magic Morning
- Get up to $400 in downloadable coupons (including free Chatbooks photo book for November travel)
If you want to try a Travel Agent, I’m certified to book for all Disney destinations as well as Universal vacations. My packages and tickets are the same prices as stated on the Disney website, but you’ll have my expertise as a resource to deal with the logistics of planning your vacay. I’ll be your personal concierge for everything you may need! If interested, email me at email@example.com
If you’re a bit of a Grinch and think Christmas is all about commercialism, the idea of walking down Main Street suddenly engulfed by snow and holiday music makes you sick, then Disney might not be for you. If you identify with my corny and cockeyed attitude towards the holidays, then spending the season at Disneyland is completely unbeatable and unlike anywhere in the world.
Ready to start planning your holiday vacation? Be sure to sign up for my newsletter and download my FREE Disneyland Planning eBook here. You will also get some other fun planning goodies thrown in!
Do you have a Disney Christmas tradition that you do in the parks at home? I wanna hear about it! Comment below!