Editor's Note: Those who choose to travel are strongly encouraged to check local government restrictions, rules, and safety measures related to COVID-19 and take personal comfort levels and health conditions into consideration before departure.
Each November, Disney’s parks transform into beautiful winter wonderlands practically overnight, complete with holiday decor, seasonal treats, and festive entertainment. The holiday season is one of my favorite times of year to visit the theme parks — with oversized Christmas trees, cheerful encounters featuring characters dressed in festive attire, and delightful entertainment combining Disney magic and holiday nostalgia, there’s truly no place that does the holidays quite like Disney. And as a self-professed theme park lover and Travel + Leisure’s resident Disney expert, I’ve visited the parks many times during the holiday season — in fact, I was there just last December — so I was excited to see how this year’s modified celebrations compare.
Capacity is limited during the busiest season.
Disney World theme parks are currently operating with limited capacity to encourage physical distancing. The holidays, especially Christmas and New Year’s Eve, are a famously crowded time to visit. A few years ago, I visited the parks during New Year’s week, and on New Year’s Eve, Epcot actually reached capacity, so it was packed, though we still had a blast dancing our way through World Showcase countries and counting down to midnight with fireworks. This year, there won’t be any over-the-top fireworks shows, but the lowered capacity means guests can make the most of their holiday with shorter wait times, room to roam, and plenty of festive magic. Plus, there aren’t any FastPasses currently available, so guests don’t have to stress about making it to each ride reservation on time, giving them more flexibility throughout the day.
Classic holiday events are canceled, but the parks are still very merry.
Beloved holiday events like Mickey’s Very Merry Christmas Party and Epcot’s Candlelight Processional were canceled this year, but there’s still plenty of cheer around the parks. One reason I love visiting the Disney parks at this time of year is the festive decor, and guests can still find that this season. Massive Christmas trees, sparkling garlands, and other seasonal decorations are already up throughout the parks. The Taste of Epcot International Festival of the Holidays brings festive cheer in the form of delicious eats at Holiday Kitchens located throughout World Showcase and holiday entertainment. Again, there won’t be any major nighttime shows this year, but Cinderella Castle in Magic Kingdom will light up with holiday projections each night. So, while I missed some of the usual festive fanfare, I still felt the holiday spirit at the parks this year.
Festive cavalcades have replaced classic parades.
Several holiday cavalcades cruise around all four theme parks at undisclosed times each day, replacing the traditional parade with a shorter yet still festive experience featuring just one or two floats, boats, or cars, as well as characters and music. For example, in Animal Kingdom, flotillas with characters and live entertainment sail down Discovery River, and at Disney’s Hollywood Studios, a Santa Claus motorcade rides down Hollywood Boulevard. In Epcot, characters roam around World Showcase, and at Magic Kingdom, you can spot princesses, Mickey and his pals, and others atop floats. I prefer the cavalcades to the lengthier parades, and here’s why: Since you don’t know exactly when they will happen, you don’t have to line up ahead of time, so you can make the most of your time in the parks, experiencing more attractions and exploring the themed lands. And because they’re somewhat spontaneous, there’s far less crowding, meaning you can get a better view of Mickey and his pals. Plus, they’re short and sweet, so any onlookers disperse quickly once the cavalcade has passed.
Seasonal treats are back and better than ever.
Festive treats are a big part of the holiday experience at Disney, so I was excited to see that so many fun snacks hit menus across all four theme parks this year. I ate my way through Magic Kingdom’s seasonal offerings, and I can say with confidence that this year’s holiday treats will not disappoint. The Taste of Epcot International Festival of the Holidays will also introduce a number of delicious seasonal food and drink items when it begins on Nov. 27. Of course, other food and beverage locations are different than they were a year ago due to new health and safety protocols — dining capacity is limited and there aren’t as many character meal options, but overall, my dining experiences at quick-service and table-service restaurants were positive.
Masks, temperature screenings, and social distancing are the norm.
Of course, there are a number of health and safety protocols that weren’t in place a year ago, like mandatory masks, physical distancing, and temperature screenings. There are also hand sanitizer dispensers all over and signs reminding guests of the new policies, and cast members are quick to remind visitors to keep their masks over their nose and mouth should they slip down. There are even Disney face masks in holiday prints — a very 2020 souvenir. Lines for rides may appear longer because they’re stretched out to account for physical distancing, and most guests use the My Disney Experience app to order their holiday snacks. These changes aren’t necessarily holiday-specific, but they serve as reminders of the special precautions that likely never crossed our minds in 2019.
Elizabeth Rhodes is an associate digital editor at Travel + Leisure who loves all things theme parks. Follow her adventures on Instagram @elizabetheverywhere.
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