While Kevin is off enjoying a little well-deserved rest and relaxation, Matt Parrish, his Thirty20Eight podcast partner, is stepping in to pinch hit for Kevin’s monthly column! And he’s got a great new seasonal top ten Disney list for us so let us know what you think of Matt’s list and then sound off in the comments below with your thoughts on other great Filmic Christmas moments from throughout the Disney Parks!
A key pillar underpinning most Disney theme park experiences is the cinematic moment – a feeling that a film is taking place in real time and the guest is the star. Unlike the seedy amusement parks of old (intended to attract seaside visitors or draw the dollar of an unwitting tourist), Disney theme parks were designed to open up the storybook to anyone who desired to see the future, journey through the exotic, ride into the frontier, and celebrate an afternoon on the town square.
Disney’s three-dimensional, cinematic philosophy informing theme park design is not surprising considering the early designers at W.E.D. (now Imagineering) were filmmakers, animators, storypeople, set designers, and other filmic craftspeople by trade. In fact, most early Disney theme park designers had perfected these cinematic expressions in film long before they were tasked by Walt Disney to create physical spaces for guests who wanted to step inside the art.
To their credit, modern Disney Imagineers have successfully stuck to this ethos as theme parks have become more sophisticated and their effects more dynamic. The average Disney guest walking through today’s Pandora or Carsland should feel like they’re walking through a cinematic world as vibrant and kinetic as a film or film genre itself.
On any given day, a guest can be Cary Grant cruising a jitney down Main Street USA. Or Belle dining in and wondering around Beast’s castle. A park-goer might end up a member of the Na’vi sailing down an exotic river or even a cloaked rebel buying blue milk at the Black Spire Outpost. These filmic experiences keep Disney guests traveling back to the theme parks year after year.
However, it’s the Christmas season when these cinematic moments ring most true. Over the years, Disney theme parks have become a Christmas destination celebrating nostalgia, the now, and Christmases yet to be (the “Christmas in the House of 2000” scene in Carousel of Progress comes to mind – “temperature increased to 9-7-5.” Boom!).
So this week’s Top 10 harkens back to the original intent of the Disney theme parks – allowing guests to experience cinematic moments only previously available on the TV or film screen…Christmas Edition! It’s a collection of Hallmark Christmas-esque moments, and you don’t even have to give up your big advertising job in the city to marry that beefy, downhome Christmas tree salesman.
10. Ye Olde Christmas Shoppe – Liberty Square: Magic Kingdom
Ok, we start off with a cheat. But let’s be real… There is never a bad time to commemorate a trip, birth or marriage with a celebratory or personalized ornament from this shoppe. From Christmas tree skirts to model trains and garland, the merch here is all Christmas, all the time. Beyond that, the interior of the shop is intimate and ornate, with wood flooring and window panes inspired by an 18th century look. A dozen Christmas trees light your way through a throwback corner store and provide a medium for your Christmas décor-to-be. Outside, the colonial-era brickwork and archways beckon entry. But the capstone moment is a life-sized Christmas sleigh adorned with poinsettias straight out of Bing Crosby’s Holiday Inn or Alastair Sim’s 1951 retelling of Scrooge. It’s a year-round celebration of Americanized Christmas in its most commercial and charming forms.
9. Osborne Family Spectacle of Dancing Lights – Streets of America: Disney-MGM/Disney Hollywood Studios
I know. I know. We can’t go back. Time marches on! But humor me. And for those who experienced this, you’re glad I added it. This Christmas light display was a show-stopper. It was so big, it was almost overwhelming. The fact that it was inspired by a real-life Clark Griswold – a Midwestern family man who wanted to create a special, dancing light display for his family and community – definitely added to its charm. For the better part of two decades, the Osborne Lights became a signature moment for any and every Walt Disney World guest. From 2001-2016, the recurring light display lived on the Streets of America in Disney-MGM/Disney Hollywood Studios, and just like a neighborhood display from an overzealous dad, every year the performance was bigger and better than the previous year. For some, this was reason alone to visit Orlando during the holiday season. You felt like you were thrust right into the ‘Great Christmas Light Fight’ before that was even a thing. And in an era when Disney Hollywood Studios was desperately searching for an identity, this always felt on-brand.
8. Viva Navidad! Celebration – Paradise Gardens: Disney California Adventure
Historically, Disney limited its street parties to afternoon parades or hard-ticket events. But in the 2010’s, Disney began to introduce DJ’s and dance parties that echoed Disneyland 1950’s bandstand offerings. Sure, there were failures (Stitch’s Supersonic Celebration comes to mind), but the W’s were BIG. And to me – there is no better festive, daytime Christmas party than Viva Navidad! at Disney California Adventure. What began as a daytime parade, featuring folklorico and samba dancers, live musicians, The Three Caballeros (Donald Duck, Jose Carioca, and Panchito), and giant mojiganga puppets of Santa & Mrs. Claus, has become a daytime PARTY AND PARADE in Paradise Gardens! Advice – take an outdoor seat near the Paradise Garden Grill and watch the area come to life with authentic costumes, music, and fun. You can even meet The Three Caballeros in person. If you simply want to see the parade, post up near Goofy’s Sky School. The event is high energy and high spirit with a Jose Feliciano punch!
7. Santas Santas Everywhere! – U.S. Disney Theme Parks
What I really wanted to put here in the 7 spot was meeting Santa inside Elias & Co. at Disney’s California Adventure. There is hardly anything more cinematic or post-war iconic than stepping off the Red Car Trolley and into Elias & Co for a date with a true, department store Santa. But since that experience no longer exists (Santa moved to the Redwood Creek area), you must voyage to O-town for interesting and accessible Santas. They are, in no particular order: Surfin’ Santa (in Hawaiian shirt) at Blizzard Beach, Barn Santa (think blue-collar, mountain Santa) at Epcot’s Norway pavilion, P’ere Noel (a classic!) at Epcot’s France pavilion, and of course Father Christmas at Epcot’s UK pavilion (this one looks like a Dickensian Ghost of Christmas Present). Each and every one of these is unique and represents how the mostly-western world sees Christmas relative to their culture.
A quick aside, here. The department store Santa is gone, but maybe the most filmic Santa moment has not yet been mentioned. It’s tradition for families to wake up on Thanksgiving and wait to see Santa in the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade before moving on to football and food. But in true cinematic fashion – and instead of simply watching it on TV – Disney gives you the opportunity to experience the Macy’s moment at both the Magic Kingdom and Disneyland. It’s the rare time of year when the collective anticipation surrounding the final nighttime float does not surround Mickey Mouse. During the Christmas season, Santa is the star. And just like in Miracle on 34th Street, he’ll wave from his sleigh before he stops by find out what the kids want for Christmas.
6. Main Street Confectionery – Main Street: Disneyland & Magic Kingdom
Nothing says filmic Christmas moment like hopeful kids peering through frosty, storefront windows filled with endless rows of caramel apples, chocolate-covered rice treats, scones, Mickey-shaped cupcakes, and snowman cookies waiting to bake. Granted, there are confectionaries and bakeries at nearly every Disney theme park, but the timelessness of Main Street USA lends itself to Dickensian holiday feels. If what Hollywood has suggested is true, the very heart of the holiday season is the innocent excitement shared by bright-eyed kids staring through storefront windows and dreaming of a possible Christmas morning. Disney Tip – if you have children (or friends and family with childlike wonder), snap a candid shot while they’re looking in on sugar artists mixing up joy.
5. The Matterhorn Christmas Star – Fantasyland: Disneyland
This one no longer exists, but boy I wish it did. As I considered what this list should be, I realized the Matterhorn Star is as cinematic today in pictures as it must have been in person. For years, the Matterhorn became a Christmas icon in Disneyland Park – more important than Sleeping Beauty Castle. As Disneyland’s tallest structure, there was no more iconic setting than the Swiss peak to signify the Christmas season. The Matterhorn Christmas Star was on display beginning in 1961 and extended the snow-capped mountain by about 25-feet. Each year, Fantasyland became full Christmas theater as an industrial crane was used to set up the icon (these pictures still exist, too!). Although the star was retired in the early 1970s (its departure allegedly related to the energy crisis of the decade), for at least a decade families traveled from all over California to look up in wonder at its Christmas splendor.
4. It’s a Small World Lighting Ceremony – Fantasyland: Disneyland
Brimming with historical and cultural significance, the It’s a Small World attraction in Disneyland not only deserved its own plaza and show building, it received one in good faith. And because Christmas is rooted in faith, it’s important to note that Walt Disney Imagineering – in its infinite wisdom – understood this attraction represented the very heart of what makes Disney so much bigger than theme parks, films, and TV. For so many, the thrust of this attraction is a hopeful light in a world of darkness. A shared experience in a world of isolation. A gentle boat ride that forces us to slow down and consider our connective threads. The attraction is timeless in a changing world, and somehow its Christmas lighting ceremony takes on a new history for this cultural landmark. Beyond the multi-colored lighting of the exterior Mary Blair whimsy (which is charming and beautiful in its own right), the trees in the plaza area are wrapped and lit to create a sense of brightness and warmth (you know, that merry and bright thing). Pro tip – hang around this spot during the annual Christmas parade to see Santa, toy soldiers, and the dancing troupes make a pass. It’s all very special.
3. Snowflakes on Main Street USA – Main Street USA: Disneyland & Magic Kingdom
This one is just as much feels as framing. Picture this: you walk under the Main Street Depot, into the Town Square, beyond the towering Christmas tree, and as you square your eyes to picturesque Sleeping Beauty Castle, it begins to snow. The show has begun. You pass by the warm, yellow and white lights of the Emporium, and you’ve stepped into your own turn-of-the-century Christmas village. Wreathes hang overhead, streetlamps flicker, and a horse-drawn trolley passes as the cool, damp snow collects in your hair. You’re the star in the Christmas film, and the Christmas celebration has just begun.
2. Christmas on Echo Lake – Echo Lake Park: Disney Hollywood Studios
A midcentury era Christmas on Echo Lake was EXACTLY what this park needed as it shifted away from its production roots and into a consortium of new IP’s. The irony here is that this area of the theme park has been relatively untouched after years of refurbishment, so it seems strange that a Christmas overlay here would make much difference. And yet, that’s probably what makes it so special! The giant alumin-style Christmas tree and decorations breathed new and festive life into a familiar land. Many longtime Walt Disney World guests who lamented the removal of the Osborne Lights were pleasantly surprised at how charming and intimate Echo Lake could be during the holidays. Pro tip – this is a great time of year to take a picture with the George Bailey crate near Min and Bill’s with the Echo Lake Christmas tree in the backdrop.
1. Buena Vista Street Plaza – Buena Vista Street: Disney California Adventure
You can’t do this any better. If Disney Imagineers were hoping to recreate a moment out of Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life, they nailed it. But what actually improves upon the moment is the feeling that you’re in a Christmas movie while you experience it. It’s meta! To maximize this moment – grab a cup of coffee and snack at Fiddler, Fife and Practical just after dark, have a seat alongside the trolley circle across the street from the beautifully-lit tree, and watch the trolley go by as 1940s and 50’s Christmas music sets the mood. And if you really want to catch the spirit, find an early seat for the Buena Vista Street tree and street-lighting ceremony. This is one of those rare occasions where the moment is actually better than the memory. Where theater of the mind can’t quite capture how it feels to be there. The scale. The beauty. The intimacy. This is, in fact, the best cinematic Christmas moment in any Disney theme park.
Matt Parrish is the cohost and cofounder of the Thirty20Eight, a podcast about theme park history and pop culture. He currently teaches in the Department of Media, Journalism and Film at Missouri State University and enjoys traveling to theme parks across the United States.