Going to Disney World for Christmas was an epic surprise gift from Grammy and Grampy to our family. To be clear, the adults knew, but the kids had no idea! We spent four days in the parks, while spending our first night enjoying the hotel pool and leaving bright and early on the sixth day for snowy Seattle.
The Disney World Christmas Surprise
Our Disney World Christmas plans were revealed after a year of planning! The stress of coordinating our movements around a secret almost killed me! We were all so excited for the kids to finally find out.
The adults primarily communicated over text message about the big Disney World Christmas vacation. We referred to Disney World as the “grocery store.” The code word worked great. My kids can’t stand going to the grocery store and immediately tuned out anything that came after it.
This trip included a lot of planning. My parents went through a Disney World planning company, but there was still a lot of involvement on all of our parts, but mainly for them. Disney has made this pretty complicated leading up to the trip with their variety of packages to “save” money and time while you’re at the parks. We all complained a bit about the user experience before and during our time there, but ultimately, it was a big help.
When the time to reveal the trip came, Grammy and Grampy Facetimed the kids from the park! They were in front of Magic Kingdom. I love Kelly’s face as he is processing what was happening.
The story when we arrived at Casa Nelson on December 22nd was that we had arrived at my parents’ Airbnb to “help them” get ready for my brothers’ arrival. My brother lives in California and was supposed to be spending Christmas with us all in Washington. My parents left early the next morning “to go to Costco” and were gone all day “shopping for Christmas.” That’s the story the boys heard when they asked where Grammy and Grampy were later in the day.
I swear my stomach was eating itself while waiting for the Facetime call! To top that off, I had to purchase a few last minute travel items with the kids in tow too. Sneaking them into my grocery cart had me feel ill.
Not only was keeping everything a surprise a fun way to get the experience kicked off right, it was also super practical when we’re dealing with kids and expectations. The adults involved were going stir crazy with excitement. Could you imagine what the kids would be like leading up to this?
Traveling To Orlando from Seattle
While this was 2021, travel was still very much in the “Covid” era. We were also traveling on one of the busiest airport days of the year! A news crew was at Seatac doing a piece on the line for security. We were at the airport too early to worry that much about the lines.
There was an instance on the airplane before takeoff that was odd. Heading out to takeoff, someone a few rows ahead of us asked for a sick bag, saying they were a nervous flyer and threw up. The flight attendant let them know that they would need to turn around and disembark. I felt terrible for the passenger. So, we turned around and headed back to the gate. It was about an hour delay. Then, upon arriving in Orlando we waited over an hour for our bags to come out too. We were just grateful to be in a warm climate!
Staying at Wilderness lodge
My parents booked Wilderness Lodge knowing my niece and nephew were excited to come to Washington for Christmas. It felt like the Pacific Northwest and reminded all of us of Yosemite’s cabins. We all wore masks indoors, per Disney World Christmas regulations at the time. It’s odd to not see our smiles in our videos.
Our room was very spacious. With Covid, our room wasn’t serviced during our stay, a common practice amongst hotels as a safety precaution, but ultimately to safeguard against staffing issues.
The hotel was decorated with the large central tree in the lobby, tree boughs, reds and greens, and Disney World Christmas lights. It was all so festive. We had a late dinner at their quick service restaurant, Roaring Fork, eating outdoors. The kids were pried away from the pool to get a few bites in.
It was late by the time they got into the pool, but with the time difference, they were wide awake. We just kept pushing along the whole week on Pacific time, allowing us to stay out late with the family.
Slides, warm water, and plenty of room to play in the pools was a huge hit with the kids. Since they were primarily swimming at night, it was dark and on the chillier side for those accustomed to Florida weather. That left the pool pretty empty for our family.
Day 1: Epcot for Christmas Eve
The morning of Christmas Eve started off with breakfast at Whispering Canyon Cafe. We had a great meal, with the kids enjoying Mickey waffles. I used to have a Mickey Mouse waffle maker I purchased off of Amazon. It was a fun way to make waffles for a while. However, after years of dutiful service, it died.
First, I was surprised how much the kids loved Epcot. Out of all of the Disney parks, it feels the most adult to me. Our kids loved being able to walk around the world, taking in the music, sights, the shops, and most importantly the food.
Before we went around the world, we stopped in the ocean! While the kids did not appreciate The Seas with Nemo & Friends the way their younger cousins did, they loved the aquarium next door. The Epcot Aquarium is the second-largest the United States! Manatees, sharks, rays, and some smaller fish like clown fish were on display. The smaller exhibits even featured candy canes and other Disney World Christmas themed items for the fish to play around.
From there we enjoyed Living with the Land and Soarin’. The kids didn’t enjoy Living with the Land as much as I did. I really enjoyed seeing all of the alternative ways of food growth. Walt Disney originally intended Epcot to be a city of the future, with people actually living there. A test for building utopia. Living on the Land feels close to what that was supposed to be.
Soarin’ was one of the kids’ favorite rides. They had never gone on the California version of the ride. I remember orange scents when you would fly over the groves in the past. I don’t believe they did that this time. We did get splashed with water. The kids loved it!
We at a light lunch in Mexico and then went off to Ratatouille. My parents gifted all of us Lighting Lane for the ride, essentially eliminating the wait. None of us really knew what to expect with this new ride. We all love the movie. It’s a cute movie about pursuing your passion despite what others might think. The ride itself was amazing. It’s incredible how innovative the Disney Imagineers are. Ratatouille and the Railway ride in Hollywood Studios were so creative. It felt like a group of people sat in a room and said “what if” over and over again.
From there we walked around the World Showcase. The kids really loved Japan and the shops around there. The crowds seemed thinned out by late afternoon.
Christmas Eve dinner was at the Coral Reef Restaurant. Kelly and Wyatt had recently watched Mission Impossible for the first time. The aquarium dining environment reminded them of the scene where Tom Cruise’s character throws his gum at the wall and it explodes. The food was great and the atmosphere kept everyone busy chatting about what we were seeing behind the glass.
After dinner we went back to our rooms to regroup. We were surprised to see fireworks from Magic Kingdom from our balcony. We took a ferry from Wilderness Lodge to Magic Kingdom that took about 15 minutes.
Christmas Eve night was spent at Magic Kingdom in their fake Main Street snow! We started off with Small World, a tradition of our family. Disneyland Small World being better was something we all agreed on. We capped off the night with Jungle Cruise, Pirates of the Caribbean, and Aladdin. Then we had to hustle back for Santa!
Day 2: Magic Kingdom for Our Disney World Christmas
My parents had a small, fake tree delivered to their room upon arrival. They decorated the tree and had a few small gifts for the kids. Even Santa made it into their room, dropping off gifts for the kids. We gathered in their room to open up gifts and get our matching family shirts. The family shirts was a goal of my mom’s. We have seen matching shirts at Disneyland for years, so this was fun.
We started off in Tomorrowland in Autopia. The kids love those cars. Then to Dumbo and Peter Pan. We all love the Peter Pan ride at Disneyland, but the Disney World version was so much longer. We loved it! I always cry a little during it. I think it’s the music and colors. Nostalgia and the moral of thinking happy thoughts that makes me feel overwhelmed with joy. We spent some time on the Liberty Square Riverboat and saw the Disney World Christmas parade from the deck!
The kids’ favorite memory of the trip was Christmas dinner at Be Our Guest. The castle dining area was admittedly insanely busy, but the level of service and quality of food was still fabulous. Our server was attentive and fun. Eating a four course meal, with food the kids’ loved was a memory maker.
Wyatt was able to have the kids’ version of the dinner, which included a “Chip” cup you could paint. There were plenty of jokes made by Shane and Kelly about eating paint. Kelly had the adult version of the dinner and happily ate everything off his plate.
The Beast made many appearances, walking through the dining room, but per regulations at the time, did not stop by tables. We loved the movie aesthetic in the waiting rooms and were grateful to get to dine in the ballroom where the fake snow in the windows made it feel like you were in the mountains. I don’t think I would have enjoyed dining in “the rose room” where petals were falling and it was dark.
We played around at Fantasyland for a bit, and watched Mickey and Minnie dance to Disney World Christmas music then went back to the hotel for a quick break at the pool.
We watched some of the Disney Enchantment Fireworks show when getting back to Magic Kingdom. That was also crazy, even busier than the Disneyland fireworks! I had read bad reviews when it came to the nightly show. However, like most of the firework shows I’ve seen at Disneyland, I still cried a little. It’s just so cute!
The Haunted Mansion at night was fun. The kids and I had done a unit on the architecture inspiration behind the Haunted Mansions over different Disney properties. That was in preparation for another surprise Disney trip! The Haunted Mansion at Disney World is different than Disneyland. The Disney World mansion is modeled after the Harry Packer Mansion in Pennsylvania. The Disneyland ride is inspired by the Shipley-Lydecker House in Baltimore. It’s a New Orleans style home oddly placed in Maryland.
To be honest, we were all a little disappointed in the lack of Nightmare Before Christmas crossover. We saw the crossover last time we were at Disneyland.
Then, Wyatt rode the first scary ride of the trip. He went on Big Thunder Mountain with Shane and I. It was fun to go with him sitting in the middle between Shane and I. I remember going on the ride with my dad at Disneyland, worried about falling out. My dad’s knees stopped the bar from going all the way down to my lap. I never fell out. Ha!
As the night went on the adults went on Space Mountain, the kids went with Grammy and Grampy on different rides in Tomorrowland. Space Mountain in Orlando felt much longer than Disneyland’s version. It’s such a bizarre ride, but it works.
We returned to our hotel at midnight, enjoying the festive environment at Magic Kingdom for most of the day.
Day 3: Hollywood Studios
The next day started bright and early at Hollywood Studios. The first ride we went on was Mickey and Minnie’s Runaway Railway. Like Ratatouille, this was so creative! My favorite part was when the cars went into a dance class. The ride pauses as all of the cars shuffle in and then they begin dancing in unison. It was so fun and unexpected.
Wyatt was on the lookout for churros throughout the trip. He had one at Epcot, but named the churro at Hollywood Studios his favorite. It’s hard to compete with a glittery, frosted baked good over a plain one.
While waiting for our time on Star Wars we got in line for Toy Story Mania. That was the only ride we went on where we began to get annoyed with the wait. It felt like it was never ending. The ride was another innovative concept. We were able to interact with the Toy Story themed games as we went along. The kids loved it and everyone was pretty competitive with the scores at the end.
It was finally time for Star Wars Rise Against the Resistance, the attraction that inspired our Disney World Christmas. My parents are such Star Wars nerds. I don’t think you needed to know anything about the story or characters to really enjoy this ride. The gifted us Lighting Lane again. The line leading up to the ride was incredible! It was a ride in of itself, giving you the impression you were really going off planet. The kids even asked, “Are we in space?”
Then we went on Smugglers Run. While still amazing, it was nowhere near the quality of Rise Against the Resistance.
Lunch was at Docking Bay Food and Cargo. We were all able to make the order much earlier in the day, scheduling it after our timed rides. The food was incredible for being quick service! Each of our meals was an other worldly take on popular cuisine. I don’t know if Wyatt’s space twist to his doodles was as appreciated as all of the rest of our meals.
We also tried the Green and Blue Milk. Kelly went with the Blue Milk. Wyatt wasn’t having it. He drank a space themed Coke and was happy. The kids also had the colorful popcorn from Kat Saka’s Kettle. Wyatt didn’t mind the popcorn being red and purple.
Then it was time for Star Tours. It still works. I didn’t think it felt out of date, for being the older of the three Star Wars rides we went on. Kelly really didn’t like that ride when he was five at Disneyland. He enjoyed it much more knowing with certainty we weren’t actually going into outer space, lead by C-3PO.
For dinner we ate at Hollywood and Vine, a character dining experience. Mickey, Minnie, Goofy, and Pluto dance around to Christmas music and entertain the kids while you eat. Like other character experiences they were to remain at least six feet away from guests. At one point a small child ran towards Mickey to hug him and Mickey turned away with his arm over his face. The character handler ran in front of the child. We all kind of laughed, but it was still sad for a little boy to be shunned by who he saw as a good pal.
After dinner Wyatt went on Hollywood Tower of Terror, that was much scarier than the previous day’s Big Thunder Railroad ride. When we were sitting in the elevator you could see he was nervous. I put my arm around him not only to calm him, but to feel like I was keeping him in his seat. None of it was logical, but it made me feel better.
We went back to Galaxy’s Edge at night. How amazing are the lights and sounds in the dark?! The attention to detail when it comes to Disney is inspiring.
Day 4: Animal Kingdom
Our final day in the parks was spent at Animal Kingdom in the morning, while hopping to Epcot and Magic Kingdom later in the evening.
Before entering the park we enjoyed coffee from a cart outside. We would need it! Staying at the parks until midnight every night, getting out by 9am was starting to slow us down. In the park, we noticed the polar bear puppets right away. What a beautiful representation! The Tree of Life and the area surrounding it was busy, but we got right in to take family photos. My family loves to take photos.
The first stop was Pandora, so we were off! Passing by the Discovery Island Drummers and Discovery River Character cruise boats was fun. A little mini parade happening all day. Pandora was beautiful. Again, the attention to detail was appreciated. My brother especially enjoyed it. Shane and I saw Avatar with my parents in Imax when I was pregnant in the first trimester with Kelly. I felt so sick throughout the flying scenes I don’t have the best memories of that movie. My brother loves the world James Cameron created.
Going on the Avatar Flight of Passage was another memorable experience. I really didn’t know what to expect with this ride. We had Lightning Lane passes again. The passes made the wait significantly less, but we still got to experience the background and setup for what you were doing in the ride. We would be “synced” with our Avatar, who would connect with a banshee and fly over a valley. Pretty fun concept, no crazy flights or problems, just a beautiful flight.
Getting setup on what looked and felt like a restrictive arcade bike was a good sign that this was going to be an intense experience. My brother looked around while we were in the ride and saw that there were rows and stories of people flying on these odd bikes above the screen. So bizarre.
Unfortunately, it was too intense for my parents, who became ill after the ride. It took a while for both of them to recover afterward. I liked the ride, but it’s much more of a thrill seeking ride than I had thought it would be. I loved how the bike contraption “breathed” under your legs when the screen had you land. For a moment you do think you’re flying through the air. And then you start feeling a little nauseous – ha!
While my parents rested Wyatt and Shane went on Expedition Everest, another roller coaster for Wyatt. That was one of his favorite rides. He was pretty brave to do it! When I was 22 I coached a drill team that went to Nationals at Disney World. While everyone was grouped off I was able to go on that ride. All I remember is the part that drags you backward after almost falling off the mountain.
While we waited for them we walked around the animal exhibits until lunch. This zoo was incredible because of the level of attentiveness all of the Animal Keepers gave the guests. One of them shared with the kids her experiences on a research team in Africa. Pretty impressive.
Lunch was at Harambe Market. Another delicious meal! On our way to California this year we listened to Jim Gaffigan’s bit on Disney. Towards the end he jokes about what kind of adult goes to Disney World by themselves – weirdos. However, I could see going to Disney World by myself if dining was important to me. Across all of their properties and regardless of quick or table service, we had consistently fabulous service and meals. Quality of product and service elsewhere has been lacking right now. I love seeing people who enjoy serving others and take pride in their part of creating goods.
The rest of our family stayed at Animal Kingdom. We went back to do the pool and pack. It was our last night at Disney. For dinner we went back to Epcot where the boys had pizza in Italy. They ate at the Pizza al Taglio Counter-Service Window. They thought it was the best pizza they had ever eaten.
We also bought Haribo candy in Germany, boba in Japan, and warmed Chestnuts while heading out of Epcot (plus a few other snacks and drinks along our way).
As the night was coming to a close we took the monorail back to Magic Kingdom to meet up with the rest of the family. They had enjoyed good seats for the fireworks display. To say goodbye to our Walt Disney World Christmas we walked around Main Street and in and around Cinderella’s Castle. The colors, music, Disney World Christmas lights, and hidden areas around Cinderella’s Castle are so worth the extra time exploring the area.
It was time to say goodbye. We were all sad. We packed and got ready to leave around 4am the next morning, taking Disney’s Magical Express service to the airport. I guess the bus service ended only two days later! It was a great benefit in getting back to the airport. We had a car service on our way there to eliminate some of the stops.
At the airport our flight was only delayed by thirty minutes! We were so lucky. Many Seattle flights were canceled or delayed that day due to the snow storm and limited staffing. When we got back to Seattle there were lists of canceled flights, empty shops and restaurants, and frazzled travelers.
One man was working the car park, running back and forth to get each guest’s snow covered car. We brushed the snow off the car and hustled back to Casa Nelson. Shane went to check on how the boat had fared over the snowy Christmas. All was good!
What an incredible gift! I’m so grateful my boys have memories of Disney with their family. It’s fun to play and be silly with each other. Thank you Grammy and Grampy for the best Christmas vacation yet!