Disneyland takes on a special look at Christmas, when seasonal decorations add to its charm. With the kids out of school for their holiday break, it's a fine time to consider making a trip. It's a great time to go, albeit busy - but our tips for planning ahead will help you make the most of it.
See It Now: Take Photo Tour of Disneyland at Christmas
What's Special at Disneyland at Christmas
Christmas Decorations: Town Square at the end of Main Street boasts a 60-foot-tall Christmas tree covered with thousands of lights and ornaments, and Sleeping Beauty's Castle sports snow-topped turrets and more than 50,000 lights. Elsewhere, don't expect something hanging from every tree branch and light pole, but all the major walkways are decorated.
Haunted Mansion: The mansion's Christmas decorations are based on Tim Burton's film "The Nightmare Before Christmas." They include changes everywhere, starting in the entry and continuing all the way to the hitchhiking ghosts at the end - replacements that make this Disneyland's most fun Christmas spot. Ride twice to take it all in, and stop by after dark when candles flicker outside. This is the only time of year that you might need a Fastpass for this ride.
it's a small world: This popular ride is specially and exuberantly decorated for Christmas and there's a special Christmas music track. If you love the ride but hate the song, Christmas may be the time to go.
More Holiday Themed Fun: The Jungle Cruise sails as the "Jingle" Cruise with new holiday-themed jokes. At California Adventure, the World of Color gets a seasonal makeover and in Downtown Disney, boasts a winter village with an ice skating rink.
Christmas Fantasy Parade: This Disneyland Christmas parade runs between Small World and Town Square, along Main Street. Check the entertainment schedule when you arrive to find the parade times. The most crowded place to watch is along Main Street, but it's also the most beautiful. You'll also find plenty of places to watch around the small world plaza. The route is the same as the rest of the year, except that it takes a left turn before reaching Town Square instead of circling past City Hall.
Night Magic: Disneyland is always more magical after dark, but at Christmas staying past sunset is a must. Not only can you watch the Candlelight Processional and the fireworks, but the castle puts on a periodic light show that's bound to entrance.
Fireworks: Disney creates a special fireworks show, just for the season - and there's even a snowfall at the end. If you buy a pair of their Glow With the Show mouse ears, you can become part of the show, too. To get the best snowfall effect, check the map you get at the entrance to see where it happens.
Santa: Frontierland's Big Thunder Ranch becomes a "West Pole" getaway where Santa can unwind with Mrs. Claus and his team of reindeer. In Toontown, Goofy does the honors for Mr. Claus. To get there, go straight through the castle into Fantasyland, then turn left when you reach the Dumbo ride.
Candy Canes: At Christmas, the Candy Palace on Main Street, U.S.A. whips up hand-made candy canes. They start right after Thanksgiving and make only a few small batches a day, a few days a week. They're so popular that guests are limited to buying only two each, and you'll need to pick up a ticket to do that by going to the shop right after park opening time.
- Candlelight Processional: For the first time in December, 2012, this previously invitation-only event opened to the general public for 20 nights, with two performances each night. It was a very enjoyable event, but unfortunately, it has returned to invitation-only status in 2013.
Plan Ahead for Disneyland at Christmas
Disneyland gets its biggest winter biggest crowds over Thanksgiving1 weekend and from Christmas Eve through New Year's Day. In the past, it was less crowded from December 1 through Christmas Eve, but that's changing. I visited on Sunday a week before Christmas and found Disneyland as crowded as it is on a mid-August weekend, but on a Friday afternoon in early December, it was full but packed.
The crowds are manageable if you plan ahead. These are some things to do:
- If you're going for more than one day, buy your Disneyland tickets online in advance to avoid standing in line for them.
- Use Ridemax to avoid standing in line. When I visited to research this article, it saved me two hours in line, just at Space Mountain and Indiana Jones' Adventure.
- If you want to take the special "Holiday Time At Disneyland" tour, reserve a month in advance at 714-781-4400.
- Make reservations for Disneyland restaurants such as the Blue Bayou or California Adventure's Carthay Circle and Wine Country Trattoria up to a month and at least two weeks in advance by phone at 714-781-3463.
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1 Thanksgiving is celebrated on the fourth Thursday of November.
As is common in the travel industry, the writer was provided with complimentary admission for the purpose of researching this story. While it has not influenced this article, About.com believes in full disclosure of all potential conflicts of interest. For more information, see our ethics policy.