We took advantage of that schedule on both ends, going early one morning to Hollywood Studios and on another to the Magic Kingdom, where we experienced the surreal joy of walking down a Main Street peopled with dozens, rather than tens of thousands, of fellow tourists. A few hours later, when the madding throngs had neared gridlock levels, we took the bus back for a little time under our quiet pine trees.
On the evening side, we spent late hours at Epcot once and at the Magic Kingdom twice. My wife, Ann, and Isabel, 14, rallied for a midnight outing on Christmas Eve itself, while Tyrie, 11, and Harry and I settled down for that long winter’s nap, Orlando version. And on the day after Christmas, the girls and I made an epic night of it, staying in a nearly empty Magic Kingdom until 3 a.m., riding the usually impossibly crowded headliner rides over and over with no waiting: Space Mountain, Big Thunder Mountain, the Haunted Mansion. I rode my personal favorite-since-boyhood, Pirates of the Caribbean, five times in a row.
But on that first night, Epcot was the park open late, so we planned to have dinner there and spend a couple of hours seeing Christmas decor from around the globe at the World Showcase.
With some time to spare, we changed into bathing suits and walked in the chilly dusk to one of the outdoor pools serving the campground. The air temperature was in the low 50s, but all Disney pools are heated through the winter. A thick mist hung over the water. It was Dickensian, a fog punctuated by warm halogen lights with “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen” floating from some unseen sound system. We were charmed, and alone.
Hours later, after a dinner of lamb and couscous at Restaurant Marrakesh in the Moroccan Pavilion, we were on a strolling tour of Santas from around the world. We passed the severe Norse version in Norway, the bonhomous Canadian Saint Nick, France’s Pere Noel with his lovely white cowl.
But we were pulled away from the figgy-pudding feel of the British tea shop by the commotion at the adjacent lake. Epcot’s usual evening fireworks-laser-fountain spectacle, Illuminations, was unfolding with a holiday theme. The massive floating ball that acts as a video screen was playing peace-on-Earth images to a narration by Walter Cronkite. The huge flares of fire ringing the lake threw an orange glow on banks of holly and poinsettias.
Disney Christmas is a mix of regular events tweaked for the holidays, such as Illuminations and the nightly Main Street parade, and seasonal special attractions. Our favorite was the Osborne Family Spectacle of Dancing Lights in Hollywood Studios. This unbelievable light display actually started as the home display of an Arkansas family but now (to the undoubted relief of their neighbors) covers several blocks of soundstage streetscape.
The biggest special event is Mickey’s Very Merry Christmas Party, a series of parades, shows, fireworks and an Imagineered “snowstorm” on Main Street. It occurs on certain nights in November and December, and the park is closed to all but those who buy the additional ticket (around $50 or $60 per person, depending on age and when you book). Fans rave about the chance to enjoy a less-crowded park, but since we had similar opportunities as overnight guests, we decided not to spend the money.