This article was originally published in 2018.
This is part one of a three-part series where we explore all Walt Disney World has to offer for the holidays: Without a park ticket!
My family and I love the marathon of twinkling lights, hot cocoa and short ride lines that is Mickey’s Very Merry Christmas Party… and yes, it’s simply magical. But with tickets starting at $109 each, your holiday wonder could turn into wondering how much you’ve just cut into the holiday gift budget.
But before you “bah humbug”, try our family’s festive alternative to partying with Mickey: The decked halls of Walt Disney World includes cheap (and even free) activities that pack enough Christmas cheer and hot cocoa to make your spirits bright.
This merry self-guided tour hits up five resorts with transportation taken care of by the Disney monorail and ferry boat systems. The loop will take about 5 hours from start to finish, or just 3 hours if you skip out on the bonus journey to Fort Wilderness.
Leis and Whips at The Polynesian Resort
Park or otherwise travel to the Polynesian to start off our tour (parking is free for day guests). The “Poly” is notoriously light on holiday decor, but that makes it perfect for your initiation into how Disney relates each resort theme to the holidays. In the Great House, oars and tiki totems are incorporated into the evergreens.
A ukulele player may play “Mele Kalikimaka” and encourage you to sing along, and Christmas Lilo and Stitch merchandise is available for purchase.
The Poly is also one of the few places in Walt Disney World to grab a Dole Whip, so head to the Pineapple Lanai if you’re craving a tropical treat. Be sure to stroll through all of the hallways to take in the tropical holiday magic here.
Our next stop is the Grand Floridian, so head to the second floor to catch the monorail.
It’s a Jolly Holiday at Grand Floridian
Entering the second floor of the lobby, here’s an instant Christmas feast for the senses. There’s holiday music, glittering bows, and yes, you’re not crazy — it smells like cookies. This can be an overwhelming scene of festive opulence, so let’s make the most of it.
Your first view of into the lobby is flanked by two beautifully decorated trees. This is an ideal photo spot — and everyone knows it.
If it’s crowded when you arrive, we’ll be back here later, so no worries. Continue to the grand staircase to the right for your first glimpse of the giant gingerbread house below, then make your way down to the main floor of the lobby.
The grand Christmas tree and gingerbread house both offer Photopass opportunities, and the lines are generally short, even on a weekend. What is rarely short is the line for the pricy treats sold inside the gingerbread house.
I’ve got a better idea: Follow signs for 1900 Park Fare to find a lobby exit.
Outside, you’ll take in some beautifully arranged poinsettia decorations on your way to The Gasparilla Island Grill. There, grab some holiday treats and hot cocoa to go. You can score snowman rice crispy treats and apple crumb cake to enjoy right outside with a castle view, or return to the comfy lobby furniture with your snacks to listen to a live pianist or participate in the free gingerbread chef demonstrations that happen each day at 1 p.m.
Once you’ve properly soaked in the holiday spirit, head back upstairs to catch the monorail (and get that photo by the railing if you didn’t before).
Cinderella Festivities at The Contemporary
After resisting the urge to make a flailing leap out of the monorail during a stop at the Magic Kingdom, pat yourself on the back all the way to the Contemporary Resort.
Upon arrival, head down the escalator to the fourth floor where Chef Mickey’s, shopping, and an 18-foot tall gingerbread creation await: For 2018, Disney’s master chefs have created an “It’s a Small World”-style castle for Cinderella. But even a castle can be hard to find when situated behind a gift shop. Walk around Fantasia Market until you see the glimmer of the glass slipper.
You’ll also encounter another holiday specialty treat booth… with much shorter (if any) lines than the gingerbread house at the Grand Floridian. Here you can score Cinderella specials like Bibbidi Bobbidi Bundt Cake ($6.50), and even a White Chocolate Cinderella ($25).
There are also more traditional Christmas snacks like Chocolate Peppermint Cookies ($5.50) and Gingerbread Boys ($6.00), and more um, adventurous fare like Candy Cane Gelato ($6).
If you’re ready for some real food, the Contempo Cafe is steps away. They have a few seasonal offerings, like the Hot Turkey Sandwich with cranberry aïoli ($11.99). It’s a good spot to grab a cheap coffee ($3.29) and reflect on your holiday adventures so far while the Express monorail zips by overhead.
And If You’re Feeling a Little Wild…
If you’re up for even more yuletide fun after your Seven Seas Lagoon excursion, it’s time to take a side quest on Bay Lake. Head down the escalator to the 2nd level of the Contemporary where you can exit to the back of the resort. There’s a Sorcerer Mickey topiary there to greet you (photo opp!) on your way to the docks.
Board a vessel headed for Wilderness Lodge (right side of the dock). It’s a short trip, and adding a boat ride to the tour sure adds an extra layer of adventure.
At the Wilderness Lodge, you’ll see one of the largest trees yet, nestled in the coziest of Christmas wonderlands. There is a table of holiday decor and snacks available for purchase, this time with a German Christmas theme. These include Stollen Bread ($5.89), Reindeer Food ($6.19) and German Cookies ($4.69). Is it time for another hot cocoa yet? That’s available ($3.79), but they’ve also got mulled wine for the big kids ($10).
The grounds at Wilderness Lodge are stunning, so if you’re up for walking and eating your treats (all treats are wrapped), I recommend you head over to the DVC side of the resort to see the decorations there, too.
From here, you can either take a ferry boat to the Fort Wilderness Campgrounds (blue flag) or back to the Magic Kingdom (green flag). At Fort Wilderness, you can jingle-all-the-way via old fashioned Horse-and-Carriage rides, available for $55.
After sunset, you can also stroll through the Fort Wilderness campsites, which the campers go all-out to decorate for the season. Allow about an hour to take in their not-so-amateur displays.
If you’re wrapping up this tour late into the evening, head back via the ferry boats and monorail to the Polynesian in time for fireworks on the beach. You can enjoy sipping wine from the Barefoot Pool Bar (or grab yet another hot cocoa from Capt. Cook’s) while watching Happily Ever After or Holiday Wishes.
Which show you get will depend on whether or not it is a Very Merry Christmas Party Night, so plan accordingly. Try to time your journey to get back to the Polynesian by 8:30 p.m. for Happily Ever After, or 9:30 p.m. for Holiday Wishes.
Even if you go all-out on this tour with snacks, carriage rides, and even a restaurant stop, it’s likely you’ll still save a bundle over the price of Mickey’s Very Merry Christmas Party. Will you be at the party this year, or budgeting for gifts instead? For more holiday fun, check out our WDW Christmas Checklist!