Planning a Christmastime trip to Disneyland can be a little daunting for anyone, especially for someone like me who is new to all things Disney. After an incredible, albeit brief, experience in the Happiest Place on Earth earlier in the year, I was excited to experience the park during the December holiday season. After a lot of research, I knew that Disneyland takes Christmas very seriously and in addition to all of the normal attractions, I couldn’t wait to enjoy the special events and foods available for just a few weeks every year. A couple of months ago I wrote this post about how I was planning my 2-day trip the weekend before Christmas and now I want to share how everything went, what I thought about the experience and whether or not Christmas is a great time to visit, or to be avoided.
Timing and Where to Stay
I was in the Anaheim area in the first place because I was on a cruise that ended in Los Angeles. As such, I really didn’t have any flexibility with timing but, even if I had, I wouldn’t have changed very much. I spent two very full days in the Disneyland Resort the Friday and Saturday before Christmas, which in 2018 fell on a Tuesday. It’s well known that the week between Christmas and New Year is amongst the busiest for the park, but I couldn’t find as much information about the days before the holiday. Friday was perfect, the crowds were extremely light and I was able to ride just about every attraction on my to-do list thanks in part to the very modest crowds and great use of single-rider lines and FASTPASS. Saturday was noticeably busier, peaking in the early afternoon. I was thankful that I had crossed off the most popular rides on Friday, because Saturday saw longer wait times and harder to obtain FASTPASS time slots. I asked a cast member for the reason, and they surmised it was because it was a Saturday. Basic logic, weekends are busier than weekdays. In spite of the larger crowds, they are nothing like the resort sees on Christmas Day or New Year’s Eve, but they did impact how I organized my visit.
Anaheim has no shortage of hotels, so it becomes a matter of preference. If I had my druthers, I would have preferred to stay onsite at the Grand Californian Hotel, but the prices for even the base rooms were astronomical. Instead, I booked a suite at the nearby Hilton Anaheim, which is a very short walk from Disneyland. I had visited the hotel but never stayed there, and I was a little disappointed. It’s a massive property, catering to both conference and theme park crowds. It’s very much a machine, churning visitors in and out. The public spaces were nice, but my room was very disappointing. As I suspected, since it’s a very popular hotel the owners don’t see the need to spend a lot of money on upkeep. They’ll always get heads in beds, so why bother. As a result, my suite was a place I avoided rather than sought refuge in, which is a shame. When I visit again, I’m likely to choose either the Marriott or a newer property like Hyatt House.
Holidays at the Disneyland Resort
Disney takes the holiday season very seriously, and there are any number of special events and themed attractions to celebrate the season. That being said, visiting both Disneyland and Disney California Adventure is basically the same in December as it is in July. The same attractions are open, FASTPASS should be used the same way and it’s of course important to plan certain aspects of your trip well in advance. It’s the holiday specialties that draw most people to the parks though in the weeks before Christmas, and you’ll want to make sure to experience as much as you can. Certain attractions are reimagined for Christmas, turning them into holiday themed rides. In Disneyland the most popular of these festive attractions are the Haunted Mansion and “it’s a small world.” The Haunted Mansion goes through a “Nightmare Before Christmas” makeover, and it’s a lot of fun to experience. “it’s a small world,” sees special regional Christmas decorations and songs and the exterior is specially lit for Christmas. In Disney California Adventure, both Mater’s Jingle Jamboree and Luigi’s Joy to the Whirl are redesigned and are a lot of fun to ride.
Of course, both parks undergo a massive holiday transformation with enormous Christmas trees and decorations in every possible corner of the parks. There’s a lot to see and enjoy, so be sure to add in some time to just admire the impressive décor. Both parks also feature special holiday parades, tree lightings and themed character experiences, all of which should be on your to-do list. In Disneyland there’s an additional event that I loved, the Wintertime Enchantment at Sleeping Beauty’s Winter Castle. The castle is decked out in wreaths, icicles and festive decorations and every night the castle shimmers to life. During this event, music plays over the loudspeakers and “snow” even begins to fall. It’s an extremely well executed effect and I’m so happy I stayed a little later in the day than I had planned to experience it.
Eating all the food
This is where things start to get a little confusing just because of the many options available. On any given day, the food options at Disneyland are considerable. Whether it’s in Disneyland itself, Disney California Adventure or Downtown Disney, the many options mean that you’ll never get tired of trying new things. During the holidays though, Disney rolls out even more choices; special holiday offerings showcasing the best of the season. Before I left home, I printed off checklists of the special holiday food items for sale so I could better plan my snacking experience. That being said, I was only able to get through a tiny fraction of the list, there was just too much to eat. From holiday-inspired churros to the incredible Festive Foods Marketplace in Disney California Adventure, the options were a little overwhelming but certainly delicious.
One thing to note though is that if you want to eat on-site at a sit-down restaurant, you need to make reservations well in advance. Disney allows for reservations to be made online starting at two months in advance. As soon as that window opened for my own trip, I very quickly booked reservations at the two restaurants I missed the first time – the Lamplight Lounge and Café Orleans. Honestly, I was a little disappointed with the sit-down dining experiences. At Lamplight the service wasn’t great and the food just ok. At the Café Orleans, the service was excellent but the portion sizes so large we couldn’t get through the meal. If I had to do it over, I would have instead opted to enjoy more of the à la carte choices at the Festive Foods Marketplace, but overall it’s not a huge complaint. I was also lucky though to be in Disneyland when their newest restaurant opened, the Tropical Hideaway. Located in Adventureland, it’s a fun quick-service restaurant with great food and an expansive Dole Whip menu.
Many guests aren’t aware of this, but Disneyland offers a variety of special interest tours led by extremely knowledgeable cast members covering a variety of topics. They come with an additional charge of course, but I was very curious about them. During the holiday season they feature a special holiday tour, but I instead booked the Grand Circle Tour. I plan on writing a full post about it, but in brief the tour provides a behind the scenes look into Walt Disney’s love for trains and provides an opportunity to see how it defined Disneyland. It was an incredible experience and easily one of the best walking tours I’ve ever been on.
Looking back at the experience, I’m very happy that I decided to visit the Disneyland Resort during the holiday season and I’m confident that I planned my trip pretty well. My biggest concern going into it was crowd size but, as I mentioned, it wasn’t a big deal at all. Financially, I kept track of expenses through the purchase of Disney gift cards at a warehouse club before I left home. They sold $100 gift cards for $92, which of course equates to a savings but also was a great way of tracking money spent. I combined the cards onto one gift card, and used that for everything in the parks. If possible, this is how I’d like to spend money in the Disney Parks moving forward, it just makes a lot of sense. Other than a couple of food hiccups, Disneyland and Disney California Adventure were everything I had hoped for and more. One of the many reasons why I love Disney is for the resort’s ability to transport guests to an easier and simpler time. For a brief few days, everything seems right in the world, and during Christmas this feeling is only enhanced. Everyone seemed happy, the decorations were festive and Christmas carols played in the background. It was a wonderful way to embrace the holiday spirit and I know it won’t be the last time that I experience Disney during the holiday season.