Disney, Universal theme parks' holiday celebrations take a 'giant step towards normal'

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Remember the holidays last year? Amid the social distancing, fear of virus transmission, and other COVID-era considerations, it wasn’t exactly the jolliest of times. Even the Disney and Universal theme parks, which generally draw some of their biggest crowds during from October to December, weren’t able to celebrate the holidays in their typical grand fashions.

But go ahead and get your Santa hats, mouse ears, and Gryffindor robes out of storage. Things are looking up considerably this year.

A word of warning, though: although things will be more festive this year, remember that the pandemic is not over and entry requirements such as vaccination cards or COVID tests may still be in effect (especially in California). So if you’re planning a visit, make sure you check the theme park’s website for the latest guidelines.

Here’s what each Disney and Universal park has to offer:

Walt Disney World

“We were in pandemic mode, but we still wanted to get the Christmas spirit out,” says Reed Jones, director of creative development with Walt Disney World Live Entertainment, recalling the considerable modifications the Florida parks made last year. For example, instead of full-fledged parades, mini-cavalcades of holiday-themed characters greeted the reduced-capacity crowds. “This year, we are taking a giant step towards normal.”

Jones says that the opening song from one of the resort’s holiday shows, “We Need a Little Christmas,” is especially apt this year. “We’re all looking for events where we can enjoy the messages of the season–being together, kindness, and love. It’s something we truly need right now.”

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Magic Kingdom

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On select evenings through Dec. 21, the Magic Kingdom is hosting Disney Very Merriest After Hours, a four-hour, separate-ticket event that will include a new holiday show featuring Mickey and Minnie Mouse, a fireworks and projection show, and the return of Mickey’s Once Upon a Christmastime Parade.

All Magic Kingdom guests can enjoy special holiday overlays of the Jungle Cruise (temporarily renamed the Jingle Cruise) and Monsters Inc. Laugh Floor as well as festive projections on Cinderella Castle when the “After Hours” event is not presented.

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Epcot

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Epcot’s International Festival of the Holidays runs through Dec. 30 and brings back the Candlelight Processional, a retelling of the Christmas story with guest narrators such as “Saturday Night Live” alumna Ana Gasteyer (Dec. 17-19), Emmy winner Courtney B. Vance (Dec. 20-22) and “Wheel of Fortune” host Pat Sajak (Dec. 29-30), accompanied by a choir and 50-piece orchestra.

“It’ll be the same, big glorious sound,” Jones says of the returning show. “We’re excited to get it back.”

The Epcot festival also features Holiday Kitchens, kiosks that will be serving seasonal treats, and storytellers and other performers sharing holiday traditions from around the world at the park’s World Showcase pavilions.

Disney’s Hollywood Studios

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The nighttime fireworks and projection show, Jingle Bell, Jingle BAM!, is not being staged at Disney’s Hollywood Studios, but the park is presenting Sunset Seasons Greetings, a series of holiday scenes projected onto the Hollywood Tower Hotel continuously each evening. A certain jolly old elf can be seen cruising down Hollywood Boulevard in the Santa Claus Motorcade.

Disney’s Animal Kingdom

And because he gets around, St. Nick also float down the Discovery River in the Santa Claus Festive Flotilla at Disney’s Animal Kingdom. The park is also offering Merry Menagerie, a presentation of life-sized animal puppets.

In addition to the holiday events, Disney World is celebrating its 50th anniversary with new nighttime shows at the Magic Kingdom and Epcot and other features.

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Disneyland

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Due to California’s strict COVID guidelines, Disneyland Resort was shuttered altogether during last year’s holiday season, only reopening at the end of April. So its two parks are going all out to make up for lost time.

Disneyland Park

The original Disneyland Park has its own separate-ticket, after-hours celebration, Disney Merriest Nites on select evenings in December. It features party zones with characters from “Toy Story,” “Frozen” and other films. And even though it’s only the beginning of December, the popular event is already sold out.

However, all park visitors can enjoy holiday presentations such as the Christmas Fantasy Parade and “Believe…in Holiday Magic” fireworks show, as well as re-themed attractions like It’s a Small World Holiday and Haunted Mansion Holiday.

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Disney California Adventure

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Disney California Adventure presents the multi-cultural Festival of Holidays through Jan. 9. Performers help celebrate Christmas, Hanukkah, Diwali, Kwanzaa, and Three Kings’ Day. There are also booths offering holiday-themed savory and sweet dishes and dancing in the streets when the park presents Disney ¡Viva Navidad!

Universal Orlando

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Holiday fun is back at Universal Orlando through Jan. 2, with both Islands of Adventure and Diagon Alley in Universal Studios Florida presenting Christmas in the Wizarding World of Harry Potter. The highlight is “The Magic of Christmas at Hogwarts Castle,” a reprised projection show that is compelling and stylish.

Universal’s Holiday Parade featuring Macy’s has returned, and along with it, huge balloons sailing above the Studios park. And the green, mean one is holding court at Seuss Landing in Islands of Adventure once again for Grinchmas.

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For an additional fee, the resort also offers Universal’s Holiday Tour, which includes guided visits of both parks’ holiday events as well as exclusive presentations and character meetups.

The company’s West Coast park, Universal Studios Hollywood, has its old holiday event, including “Christmas in the Wizarding World of Harry Potter” and “Grinchmas,” through Jan. 9.

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