Disneyland Castle

'Tis the season for theme park magic! Yep, for many park-goers, semi-arid and sub-tropical climates in Southern California and Central Florida aren't enough to melt the magic of the Christmas season. Especially over the last few decades, Disney and Universal's parks have leaned hard into seasonal celebrations, with Christmas and the December holidays standing out as one of the biggest and most magical times to visit. 

Every theme park has something on offer for the Christmas season... but if you could visit one park on Christmas Day with no crowds to contend with, which would give you the most holiday bang for your buck? Here's our countdown of the best (and worst) parks to visit to celebrate the holidays this year...

7. Disney's Animal Kingdom

Image: Disney

Aside from the massive Christmas tree that stands at its entrance and light decorations throughout Discovery Island, Animal Kingdom doesn't tend to do too much for the holidays. What they do do is very cute, though.

The most clever and beloved must be the Merry Menagerie, a set of wintertime-stylized puppets that spread throughout Discovery Island. The unique meet-and-greet is a very adorable, memorable experience, and feels like the perfect embodiment of how Animal Kingdom and its crafty, natural, hand-made style can meet the holidays head-on. The park also offers two Festive Flotillas – variations of the character-carrying watercrafts that encircle the park, now stocked with Santa Claus and the Discovery Island Drummers.

And of course, after you've experienced the bioluminescent beauty of Pandora after dark, you may notice that the nightly Tree of Life Awakenings has a Holiday variant where the short, unannounced interstitials show wintery animals arriving as the autumnal-colored tree becomes snowy and sparkly. It's a nice little moment, but obviously not meant to be the same kind of showstopping holiday entertainment you'll find elsewhere.

6. Magic Kingdom

Image: Disney

I know at first it might be very disappointing to see Magic Kingdom so far from the top spot on this list, but think about it...

Sure, Main Street and Cinderella Castle are beautifully decorated for the holidays. No question. And yes, the return of Mickey's Very Merry Christmas Party in 2022 is great news. After all, the after-hours, upcharge event includes not just huge showstopping productions like "Minnie's Wonderful Christmastime Fireworks Show," "Mickey's Once Upon a Christmastime Parade," and the "Most Merriest Celebration" Castle forecourt show, but specialized entertainment like the "Club Tinsel" dance party, holiday meet-and-greets, and quick-and-easy ride overlays like Space Mountain – Holiday Run (adding rockin' Christmas music and colorful lights to the ride) and holiday-themed twists on the Mad Tea Party and Monsters Inc. Laugh Floor.

But that's exactly the issue. Individual tickets for the Very Merry Christmas Party ranged from $149 to $199 per person... and sold out in mid-November. The result is that – very intentionally! – Walt Disney World locked its most iconic holiday sights and sounds behind an effective "paywall". Sure, if you can afford tickets to the Christmas Party (and manage to buy them before it sells out), you're in for a wonderful, magical holiday event. If not... Well...

About the only difference a daytime guests will notice is the Jingle Cruise, which at Magic Kingdom mostly amounts to Christmas jokes as opposed to Disneyland's retired version that included lots of festive decor. (It's widely understood that Walt Disney World avoids lavish seasonal ride overlays due to the resort's audience of once-in-a-while or even once-in-a-lifetime visitors, who want to see the real version of the ride, not a seasonal version.)

5. Disney's Hollywood Studios

Image: Disney

Like Animal Kingdom, Hollywood Studios doesn't pretend to be a centerpiece of Walt Disney World's holiday programming... but it's probably got the most holiday programming you can get without paying extra. First of all, the relatively small park makes it easy for holiday decorations to be pretty much ever-present. Hollywood Blvd., Sunset Blvd., and Echo Lake – the three lands that celebrate historic Hollywood – are dolled up in period-appropriate holiday decor that's sure to leave grandma and grandpa recalling the good ole' days. (Gertie the Dinosaur with an ornament hanging from her mouth is a favorite.)

The facade of the Hollywood Tower Hotel hosts Seasons Greetings, a playful, 10-minute musical projection show that's very well done (even if transforming The Twilight Zone Tower of Terror into a gingerbread house or a giant wrapped gift might take away from its intimidation factor). The show also ends with a good ole' fashioned Hollywood snow, which is a magical moment for all. Likewise on-theme is the Santa Claus Merry Motorcade, which escorts Santa through the park in a cherry-red convertible packed with presents.

Basically, Hollywood Studios kind of accidentally offers a really solid Christmastime lineup, and among the best "magical Christmas" moments you can get at Walt Disney World without paying extra... Speaking of which... 

As for the top half...


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