The Halloween decorations are about to be packed away and the holiday decor will soon be unveiled at the Happiest Place on Earth. As much as I adore Halloween Time at Disneyland, the Christmas holiday season is perhaps even more magical. My family has been able to make many trips to experience the Disneyland Holidays over the years.
Everything at Disneyland has been quite different in 2021 since the parks’ reopening, but the holiday season continues to mark the gradual return to more normal Disneyland operations. This year, it’s exceptionally thrilling and comforting to see so many old favorites back again, including larger scale offerings like the holiday parade! Of course, there are always new food offerings, merchandise, and entertainment at Disneyland every holiday too. The same is true this year.
Keep reading to find out what you need to know before you go to Disneyland during the holiday season in November and December 2021 and during the first week of January 2022.
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When Are the Holidays at Disneyland in 2021?
The Disneyland holiday season in 2021 officially runs from November 12, 2021 to January 9, 2022.
The celebration now officially always kicks off in time for the Veterans Day holiday weekend in early November. Never fear if you have an even-earlier November visit either because many of the decorations go up even before the official opening date of the holidays at Disneyland. In fact, the snow on the castle shows up before Halloween!
While many of the offerings in 2021 during the holiday season are familiar favorites from previous years, remember that Disneyland is still operating differently in 2021. There are now requirements like park reservations, mask mandates, some reduced capacity at restaurants, limited shows, and more. See my guide for how to do Disneyland differently in 2021 so you are prepared for the logistics of the parks more generally and the current remaining restrictions.
What to Do: Holiday Ride Overlays in Disneyland Park
Disneyland park has two special ride overlays for the holiday season – both of which are very popular and truly immersive experiences. The Disneyland park offerings to know about are:
Haunted Mansion Holiday
Jack Skellington and his Nightmare Before Christmas pals take over the Mansion with their version of Halloween and Christmas mixed together. Haunted Mansion Holiday is a continuation of the overlay already in place from the Halloween season, so it’s already ready to for early November visitors with no interruption between seasons.
Plan ahead to save time in what can otherwise be a very long standby line. Haunted Mansion Holiday is a smart attraction to “rope drop” to skip longer lines later in the day. And when it is released some time in the coming weeks (likely before Christmas), the new Genie+ service at Disneyland may well be a smart investment to avoid long lines for this attraction and other popular choices.
“it’s a small world” Holiday
Outside, the facade of this classic Disney ride is decorated with thousands of twinkling lights that are breathtaking at night. Inside, Christmas lights and decorations adorn every room and the children sing Christmas carols in a medley with the traditional “it’s a small world” song. In my opinion, the holiday version is better than the original! Be sure not to miss the projections and musical shows that run about every half hour on the facade at night (check the showtimes guides in the Disneyland app for exact times).
Like Haunted Mansion Holiday, it’s a small world Holiday will be one of the attractions available with Disney Genie+ (the successor to Disneyland MaxPass) when it is released later this year. This service will be an excellent option to cut the line which is very necessary during the middle of the day and on busier park days. Early morning and late night visitors on lower crowd days, however, may be able to get on with minimal waits. But this ride is definitely much more popular during the holidays with the overlay, so expect crowd patterns to be very different than they are for the standard version of the ride the rest of the year!
What to Do: Holiday Ride Overlays in Cars Land in California Adventure
Over in California Adventure, there are a few more ride overlays as well. In Cars Land, two rides have gotten holiday transformations. Mater’s Junkyard Jamboree is now Mater’s Jingle Jamboree and Luigi’s Rollickin’ Roadsters turned into Luigi’s Joy to the Whirl.
These overlays are nowhere near as extensive as the ones in Disneyland and mostly just feature some decor and holiday music to help set the seasonal mood. But these are especially great attractions for toddlers and preschoolers at Disneyland with often very reasonable lines in the always amazing setting of a decorated Cars Land, so I highly recommend them!
What to Do: Shows, Parades, & Fireworks
Disneyland’s holiday parades and shows include several of the classics that have been going strong at Disneyland for years. Returning is “A Christmas Fantasy” Parade which runs in the daytime in Disneyland park – usually twice daily. As parades are just starting to come back to the Disney parks (the first in 2021 on either Disney coast was the Frightfully Fun Parade that ran during Oogie Boogie Bash), guests will surely appreciate the significance of being able to see a full scale parade all the more this year.
Characters like Goofy, Pluto, Anna & Elsa, Buzz & Woody, and several Disney princesses and princes ride on the holiday themed floats. And it’s all capped off with Santa himself closing the parade. The parade is always popular, so plan to camp out at least a half hour or more for prime seating on its route from it’s a small world to Town Square at the end of Main Street U.S.A. (the reverse route is used for the second showing).
After the sun goes down, the Believe… in Holiday Magic fireworks show is another can’t-miss. Projections appear on the castle and Main Street USA. And it all ends with a magical snowfall. Who said there’s no such thing as winter weather to California? The fireworks will be offered nightly this holiday season – a change from other fireworks offerings in 2021 that were only on weekends.
Over in California Adventure is ¡Viva Navidad! – part parade and part street festival. It is part of an expanded celebration that debuted in 2016, Festival of the Holidays, which is also making a return (more on that below). I got to see ¡Viva Navidad! for the first time a few years ago and must admit it exceeded my every expectation. The show is led by the Three Caballeros and features Mexican and Brazilian dancers and music. It’s a joyful celebration that had everyone dancing and singing along.
Note that in 2021 the other nighttime spectacular – “World of Color – Season of Light” won’t yet be back in 2021. Disney continues to make repairs on the fountains used in the show.
Festival of Holidays
The debut of Festival of Holidays in 2016 was a resounding success, resulting in a major expansion the past few years. It’s back in 2021 and just as big as ever over in Disney California Adventure park.
Festival of Holidays celebrates diverse cultures from around the world, with musical performances, crafts, dancing, and FOOD – lots of it. Expect to see nods to Christmas, Diwali, Hanukkah, Kwanzaa, and Three Kings Day. The concert schedule is robust so be sure to check the times guide or the Disneyland app to see when shows will take place. One of the new character additions to watch for this year will be Mirabel from the upcoming Walt Disney Animation Studios film “Encanto,” located in Paradise Gardens.
The other the big draw for this festival is the food. Fans of food festivals like Disneyland’s Food and Wine Festival or Epcot Epcot Flower and Garden Festival will enjoy a holiday spin on that same tradition: the Festival Foods Marketplace.
The marketplace features a dozen booths with holiday treats and drinks, including many specialities new for this year. I tried 9 different items during my two day visit the last time the parks were open for the holidays and was wowed by pretty much every one. My favorites included the shrimp and grits (of course – I’m Southern!), holiday stuffing mac n cheese, turkey slider with cranberry dressing, and hot cocoa macaron.
Disney mixes up the menu a bit every year, so watch for the release of the 2021 foodie guide to the Festival of Holidays on the Disney Parks Blog for the complete offerings (I’ll link it here when it is published).
While visitors can certainly order the food items a la carte, I am a big fan of the “Sip and Savor” pass. Historically, this offering was only available to Annual Passholders (now known as Magic Keys), but it expanded to all guests a few years ago. The Sip and Savor pass comes with 8 tickets for any of the food, dessert, or non-alcoholic drink options at the Festival Food Marketplaces. It’s a great way to taste a wide variety of foods while saving money. (Pricing for 2021 has not been released yet but in 2019, it was $56 for all guests or $51 for Annual Passholders.)
Photos with Santa
What holiday outing is complete without a chance to see the big man himself? While sitting on Santa’s knee can’t quite return in 2021, he’s available for more distanced photo opps in Redwood Creek Challenge Trail in Disney California Adventure park this year. You can be sure to find Photopass photographers at this location to get everyone in the holiday shot.
A huge part of the magic of the holidays at Disneyland is the decor. In Disneyland park, the most unique decor and my personal favorite undoubtedly goes to the Mardi Gras colors and themed Christmas decor in New Orleans Square.
Always a favorite is the giant tree near the park entrance on Main Street, U.S.A. and the hub decorated in poinsettias. Finally, Sleeping Beauty castle decorated with a winter overlay that lights up at night is a spectacle to behold. With the new darker blue colored castle turrets that went up in 2019, the castle has a slightly different snow-covered look this year!
Over in Disney California Adventure, Buena Vista Street and Carthay Circle get festive. But the crown jewel is in California Adventure in Cars Land. Neon and holiday lights combine for true holiday awe at night. Plus, the tire themed wreaths and decorations add a whimsical flair in keeping with the movie’s endearing sense of humor.
Check out this a deeper dive into the Christmas decorations at Disneyland from This Crazy Adventure Called Life.
After Hours Event: Disney Merriest Nites
For the first time ever, 2021 will bring a separately ticketed holiday party to Disneyland. Traditionally, only Walt Disney World had a Christmas party (Mickey’s Very Merry Christmas Party, changed to Disney Very Merriest After Hours in 2021).
This new Disneyland party – Disney Merriest Nites – will be offered 6 select evenings in Disneyland park. The dates for the event are: November 11, 16, and 30 as well as December 7 & 9, 2021 (all Tuesday and Thursday nights). All of the parties have already sold out at the $165-175 price, so it seems likely this party will be back with even more dates in 2022.
The party will feature a special night time showing of A Christmas Fantasy parade, but the most anticipated entertainment is the six themed parties happening in six of the lands, hosted by an iconic character.
The event will be less like a full scale party and more like an after hours event. That means some seasonal offerings but also a focus on shorter ride lines too.
If you don’t have tickets to the party, be aware of the dates it is offered, especially if you plan to spend the evening in Disneyland park. Because Merriest Nites is an after hours event, Disneyland only closes a little earlier than usual at 8:00pm, but it still shortens the day for non-party guests and makes things more crowded from 5:00pm onward (when partygoers can enter the park during mix in hours).
Tips & Tricks for the Holidays at Disneyland
1. Prepare for crowds: The Holiday season at Disneyland is always popular, so plan accordingly. If you are expecting to go on a crowded day, read up on my best line Disneyland avoidance tips and on things to do on a crowded Disneyland day. And be ready for the release of Disney Genie+ (the successor to Fastpass and Maxpass) which will surely help with lines.
2. Don’t pay full price for your tickets: This tip is true all year round, but who couldn’t particularly use a little extra cash in your pocket around the holidays? The bottom line is that I don’t recommend buying your tickets from Disney. Why? You’ll pay full price! I have a partnership with the largest seller of Disneyland vacations, Get Away Today, where you can buy any multi-day tickets or Disneyland vacation packages at a discount – and usually the discounts for the end of the year are some of the best ever. Use promo code TYKES10 for an extra $10 off all package stays of 2 nights or more.
3. Maximize Photopass: There are so many photo opportunities during the holidays. If there is ever a time to spring for Photopass, this is it! (Photopass will be included in the $20 cost of Genie+ when it is released.) Some of the best spots for photos include: Cars Land sign, in front of Sleeping Beauty Winter Castle, in front of its a small world holiday, by the tree on Main Street USA in Disneyland, and anywhere you see a holiday costumed character!
4. Make time for shopping: The merchandise at Disney is always pretty amazing, but Disney goes all out for holidays and special events. You can always find some special holiday gifts for Disney fans on your list. World of Disney in Downtown Disney is always one of the best places to go to shop. I recommend doing this on your arrival or departure day when you don’t have a park ticket to maximize your time in the parks. And when you are in Disneyland park, be sure to check out the brand new Plaza Point Holiday Shoppe at the end of Main Street USA that now features unique holiday gifts year round.
5. Treat yourself: And it goes without saying that you’ll be tempted by at least a few of the holiday treats. The Festival of Holidays Festive Food Marketplaces are teeming with options, but there are more choices all over the parks. The perennial favorite the past few years seem to be flavored seasonal churros so keep an eye for the 2021 food innovations.
6. Don’t forget the hotels and Downtown Disney: Last but certainly not least, it’s not only the parks that get a holiday makeover during the holiday season. Downtown Disney has festive decor and the hotels really go all out too. The tree and gingerbread house in the lobby of the Grand Californian are always a sight to behold. The hotel also has a pop up sweet shop with additional holiday goodies. Both the Disneyland Hotel and Disney’s Paradise Pier will have special decor as well.
Need even more Disneyland Christmas info? Check out these articles for more:
- Best Things to Do and See at Disneyland Holidays
- Top Disneyland Holidays Picks for Families with Young Kids
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