At Disney, it’s home for the holidays
By Steve Hendrix,
My personal Walt Disney World word cloud — you know, those graphic sets of adjectives that use type fonts to rank our feelings about something — would feature a great big FUN, an equally large EXPENSIVE and a pretty bold CROWDED. The biggest of all would be ENCHANTING. I do love the place, and so does my family.
But the smallest word, down in the tiniest agate, is the word I would least apply to the Magic Kingdom: HOMEY. There’s not much that’s warm and domestic in a visit to the crazed, crammed, sense-rattling spectacle of WDW’s theme parks, hotels and waterparks. A terrific family experience, sure, but one more likely to leave the family feeling spent and exhausted than cuddled and coddled.
That’s why I’d always dismissed the appeal of a Christmas visit to Disney. The holidays are one of the most popular (i.e., jampacked) blocks on the park’s calendar. The regular over-the-top decor is pumped to an almost hysterical degree. The parades, theme restaurants and shows are all retuned to Yuletide frequencies.
That’s all fine, especially in the weeks before the Big Day. But I couldn’t imagine spending Christmas itself in a place that wouldn’t be able to provide the requisite living-room lounging, the presents around the tree, the pancakes in pajamas, all lit by tacky lights of my own stringing. (Secret note to adult readers: And just where would you hide that new bike from Santa?)
But then I read about one of the lesser-known enclaves within Disney’s vast holdings: a group of cabins in one corner of the Fort Wilderness Campground. Unlike the thousands of hotel rooms and condos on Disney property, each of these cabins is a genuine, if petite, single-family dwelling. Each comes with a kitchen good for cookie baking, a family room ready for a tree, deck rails begging for tacky lights, a yard where even an inflatable Snowman can be imagined and a driveway just right for the launching of a new Schwinn. They did seem to offer a chance to have a Disney Christmas that felt a bit like home for the holiday.
They’re also not cheap, natch, about $450 a night in late December. To make the budget work, the five of us drove the 880 miles from Washington, cramming most of the 16 hours into one day. We slept one night at an interstate motel and pulled in the day before Christmas Eve 2010 to find the revels well advanced.
The cabin precincts, a series of loops and cul-de-sacs, are at the edge of the campground, which is where the real full-contact holiday-decor war goes on. The Winnebagos and Airstreams are nearly buried in Christmas bling. With their neon palm trees and glowing Donald Duck sleighs and working reindeer carousels, these are some campy campers.
It’s a version of a good old neighborhood lighting arms race, with some families coming year after year, trucking in more plastic Santas, additional miles of candy cane lights, just one more mechanical Mickey to wave at the slowly passing onlookers — and there are a lot of those, the campground decorations having become a holiday event in their own right.
There’s a competition each year for the most fabulously excessive. Rich and Roxanne Burke, who drive down every year from Cape May, N.J., won the blue ribbon back in 2002, thanks to a killer artificial snow machine that transformed their RV-sized bit of central Florida into a little patch of Fargo. But the contest has gotten ever more heated, and unless they can get a coveted corner lot or one with extra outlets, the Burkes don’t always play.
“We don’t enter every year,” said Roxanne as she repositioned a string of errant lights. “It can be too much. It used to take us five days just to set it all up.”
It may have been an off year, but their 44-foot Holiday Rambler was barely visible beneath draperies of glowing bulbs. A wreath adorned the hood of the yellow-and-black golf cart. A robotic Mickey and Minnie pumped along on a railway handcar, and the five life-size hitchhiking ghosts from Disney’s Haunted Mansion, now wearing red Santa hats, wagged their thumbs at roadside.
And the Burkes’ site was one of the more understated.
A few hundred yards away, the cabins were a collection of subtler holiday excess. There were a few blow-up snowmen, some mechanical Santas, but mostly just rooflines and decks trimmed with lights.
The cabins are identical log-sided shoeboxes, spare but well appointed. A rear bedroom holds a double bed and a stack of bunks, while the living room features a comfortable pull-down Murphy bed. The kitchen is bright and serviceable, the whole interior paneled in warm wood planking. The place was a little crowded when the Murphy bed was down, but otherwise plenty roomy for the five of us and our trunkload of Christmas-alia.
An hour after our arrival, the cabin was our own, wearing our familiar, bizarro assemblage of Christmas lights from drugstores and ornaments from grandparents and paper chains from Greenwood Kindergarten.
You can order a fully decorated four-foot (artificial) tree from Disney’s floral department for $395, but most of the cabin dwellers we met had brought their own. As had we, a three-foot lower section cut from the seven-foot Fraser fir standing in our family room back home. I mounted it in a small wooden stand, put it in the front window and hung it with a string of miniature lights and the few ornaments it could hold.
“Is there room for presents?” asked Harry, 5, eyeing the tiny tree skeptically. We assured him that the same elfin magic that allowed Santa to come down the chimney of a cabin that didn’t have a fireplace would enable him to fit the usual princely haul around that tiny trunk.
Our last domestic chore was a trip to the Winn-Dixie grocery store about 15 minutes outside the park gates. Then, with our base firmly established, we turned to the Disney side of this Disney Christmas.
We had four days, which we wanted to make equally Disney and domestic. Knowing that Christmas week is one of the resort’s most crowded, we began to plan our forays strategically. The centerpiece of our plotting was the schedule of Extra Magic Hours, a terrific perk that allows overnight guests of Disney hotels (and cabins) exclusive access to the theme parks for a few hours. On a rotating basis, one or two of the parks will let guests in before they open to the general public in the morning or let them stay after they close at night.
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.
One special we did spring for was Epcot’s thrice-daily Candlelight Processional, a heavily produced telling of the Christmas story by a celebrity reader backed by a massive choir and orchestra in an open-air theater. The narrators have included Whoopi Goldberg, Isabella Rossellini, Blair Underwood and Marlee Matlin. Ours was Edward James Olmos, who dove into the King James language with gusto.
Most notable about the Candlelight Processional (other than a truly biting wind off the lagoon) was the sudden appearance of Jesus in the middle of the season. Christmas at Disney is an overwhelmingly secular affair, far more ho-ho-ho than holy, holy, holy. To hear Olmos boom over a trumpet fanfare about the birth of a savior was almost startling.
In all, we spent a bit more than half our waking time in the theme parks. But it was the rest of the time that came to feel a lot like Christmas. We had a modified version of our traditional Christmas Eve shrimp boil, steaming up the cabin windows and scenting the woods with Old Bay. We baked cinnamon rolls, wrapped presents (some brought from home, others bought on site), watched “The Homecoming” on the cabin DVD player, the five of us crowded into the Murphy bed with cider and popcorn.
On Christmas afternoon we made a leisurely tour of the big hotels to see the unbelievable lengths Disney goes to in dressing up properties that are already highly festooned: The two-story Victorian gingerbread house at the Grand Floridian; the groovy lights in the Contemporary; the massive garlands outside the Polynesian. Everywhere, the Christmas trees (thousands of them). On all sides, the poinsettias (millions of them). On every surface, the lights (billions and billions and billions of them).
At Wilderness Lodge, after craning our necks at the six-story tree soaring up into the timber-frame lobby, we spent the afternoon in the vast outdoor pool and then ended a lovely Christmas with dinner in the raucous Whispering Canyon Cafe.
But it was Christmas morning that was the real test: Could a holiday amid the Disney glitz also include those essential notes of homey warmth?
The 25th began when Harry opened his eyes to the first shaft of sun from the cloudless blue sky. He was first up, exercising his youngest-child prerogative to wake the house at the first official second of day. As he eyed the mountain of wrapped packages that had appeared around the tree, Ann and I sleepily shook his sisters awake.
We quickly started the coffee, the tension building, then all settled around the heroic diminutive tree, took a deep breath . . . and dove in for the usual riot of paper ripping and bow scattering. Within an hour, the rustic chairs and Mickey pillows were buried in ribbons and plastic wrapping. The sound of Tyrie’s new Sims game competed with the sizzle of pancakes and the crooning of Dean Martin over the tinny iPod speakers. Isabel was draped over an ottoman reading the novel she’d found in her stocking. Ann and Harry were opening a junior bookbinding kit.
We’d easily converted a Disney lodging into a Hendrix living room.
“Should we get dressed and go to one of the parks?” I asked, spatula in hand, slippers on my feet.
“Nah,” said Isabel. “Not right now. Let’s stay home for a while.”
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