From Halloween to Christmas Eve, there’s nothing Disney does better than holidays at the parks. Special fireworks light up the sky behind Sleeping Beauty Castle, ghosts and ghoulies dance along Main Street, U.S.A., and there are more specialty food items than any one person can reasonably consume in a week’s worth of food stand visits and fine dinners.
Still, the Disney Parks aren’t unique in their holiday specialties—plenty of theme parks near and far also have access to faux snow, holiday characters, trick-or-treat opportunities, and themed parades—they just happen to be the best at making the holidays come alive. How do they manage to set themselves apart from the competition year after year? Let’s take a closer look.
1. Rare character meet-and-greet opportunities
Santa Claus is a busy man during the month of December. One minute, he’s lounging in his sleigh at Universal CityWalk, then he’s hosting friends at his Christmas Cabin in Knotts Berry Farm’s Wilderness Dance Hall, swinging’ round for a pit stop with Mrs. Claus at his outpost in Six Flags, with just enough time left to drop in at his chalet in Disney Springs. Unlike many other parks, however, Disney doesn’t just play host to the Christmas VIPs during the holiday season; they invite a whole host of seldom-seen Disney characters to cavort around the parks as guests celebrate big-ticket events like Halloween and Christmas.
Granted, these rare meet-and-greets are usually reserved for the hard-ticketed Mickey’s Not-So-Scary Halloween Party and Very Merry Christmas Party, which significantly raises the price of admission during select nights throughout the holiday season(s). Here, guests are invited to visit with fur and face characters ranging from Jack Skellington, Sally, and the Seven Dwarfs to Tarzan, Jane, Jafar, as well as a whole host of traditional characters decked out in holiday garb.
One exception to this trend is the Easter season, when parkgoers may stop in to see Thumper, Miss Bunny, Rabbit, and Mr. and Mrs. Easter Bunny regularly (and without an additional upcharge!) in the weeks leading up to the holiday itself. While spotting hard-to-find characters may not be on everyone’s Disney Parks bucket list, it’s a great opportunity for meet-and-greet enthusiasts and families with young children, and one that makes the holidays feel even more special.
2. Holiday parties
Until you’ve swung by one of their famous holiday parties, you haven’t truly celebrated the holidays at the Disney Parks. Yes, it’s an expensive add-on—an adult ticket will run you upwards of $95/person per party—but if you make it a half-day at the parks instead of paying double the admission price, you’ll more than get your money’s worth during the six-hour event.
In the fall, Mickey and his costumed pals help transform Magic Kingdom into a trick-or-treater’s dream (er, nightmare?) come true with villain-centric meet-and-greets, complimentary candy, the Boo-To-You parade, and Halloween-themed HalloWishes Fireworks. After Thanksgiving rolls around, the festivities are tweaked slightly for the winter holidays, as Main Street, U.S.A. is doused with snow, Elsa lights up the castle during A Frozen Holiday Wish ceremony, and partygoers snack on Christmas cookies and hot cocoa at treat stations around the park before the sky lights up with Holiday Wishes Fireworks. Perhaps best of all, each of these parties allows guests to enjoy relatively low crowds throughout the night, making each show, parade, and popular attraction infinitely more enjoyable.
Not only are these family-friendly parties the perfect way to get into the holiday spirit, but they’re pretty unique to Disney. Aside from horror-themed Halloween festivities at Universal Studios, Six Flags, and Knott’s Berry Farm (rebranded as Knott’s Scary Farm during October), Disney’s hard-ticketed Halloween and Christmas parties haven’t become anything close to a widespread phenomenon among U.S.-based theme parks yet, making them a can’t-miss attraction from year to year.