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Christmas at Walt Disney World Archives

December 1, 2015

How meeting Santa Claus at Walt Disney World has changed

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It’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas throughout Walt Disney World, including the newly named Disney Springs, formerly known as Downtown Disney. And as is a long-standing tradition, Santa Claus is meeting with children and their families at his chalet in the shopping and dining district. This year, there are some changes you’ll want to be aware of before you go:

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** Santa’s Chalet has moved just past the World of Disney store and is located to the side of the stage, across from Ghirardelli Ice Cream & Chocolate Shop. The chalet itself, as well as the way the trees are decorated with toy trains and planes, remains the same. For some of us who enjoy visiting the same location year after year, that’s a welcome status quo.

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** What has changed is how guests queue up to meet Santa. All guests are asked to check in at the entrance, and they will be placed in a virtual queue and given a pager. So, even if Santa may not be available to hear what's on your children's must-have lists for another two hours, you won't have to spend that time in line. You can shop, grab a bite to eat, or even just rest your tired feet. I'm told the pagers work from Fulton’s Crab House to Earl of Sandwich. Guests are asked to return to the podium within 10 minutes of being paged. This is different from last year when the pager system was introduced and only used if the line got unwieldy; now it’s standard operating procedure. Last year, cast members tested the option of texting guests, too, when it was their turn to join the queue, but that is not being used this year.

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** As in the past, Disney PhotoPass photographers will take photos of your family with Santa, and guests are permitted to do so, as well. So, unlike some of the mall experiences, this trip to see Santa doesn’t have to cost you anything if you are happy with your own photos. We have found the lighting in the chalet to be a bit challenging for those of us using point-and-shoot or smartphone cameras, and this year’s experience was no exception. Still, purchasing a single photo from Disney is only about $15, and that’s still less expensive than many other Central Florida Santa meet-and-greets. And for many Walt Disney World annual passholders, the PhotoPass downloads of images are free, which is a nice perk this year.

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** Santa Claus is extending his time at the Disney Springs Chalet this year, and he will be there from noon to 10 p.m. daily through Dec. 24. Santa Goofy takes over Dec. 25 through 29 at Santa’s Chalet during the same hours.

Despite his busy schedule before Christmas, Santa Claus will be making varied appearances at Walt Disney World. It would seem impossible, but the Jolly Old Elf can be found in these additional locations:

** Epcot: Santa and Mrs. Claus meet guests and pose for pictures for 90-minute sets at 1:30, 3:30, 5:30 and 7:30 p.m. daily through Dec. 24 at The American Adventure. Plus, each country in the World Showcase also features storytellers who describe local holiday traditions. In many countries, the storyteller is a representation of Santa, such as Pere Noel in France and Father Christmas in England.

** Magic Kingdom: Santa meets with guests during the day through Dec. 24 and at Mickey's Very Merry Christmas Party, where he also makes an appearance at the end of Mickey's Once Upon A Christmastime Parade. Admission to the party requires a separate ticket.



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December 25, 2014

Original cast member discusses horticulture's role in decorating Walt Disney World for holidays

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The first time I met Heather Will-Browne, a horticulture area manager at Walt Disney World, it wasn't in person. Instead, my family and I watched her on the Travel Channel special "Walt Disney World Holidays with Samantha Brown" that aired in the early 2000s. Will-Browne discusses the resort's famous hanging poinsettia balls with host Brown, and they joke about the pronunciation of "poinsettia."

Perhaps that seems like a very specific detail to remember, but that show has become a classic for our family - one that we watch every year along with Rudolph, Frosty and the Grinch - and my children and I know all the dialogue. You see, "Walt Disney World Holidays with Samantha Brown" was shown repeatedly on cable television when my son was a toddler and his love of all things Disney was just beginning. He was so happy to see his most favorite place in the world on television, and he was interested in everything the cast members pointed out.

Fast forward about a decade and I had the opportunity to actually meet Brown and Will-Browne in person on separate occasions. (I wish my son had been with me!)

But appearing in a television show about Walt Disney World is hardly Will-Browne's only claim to fame. She actually is one of the original cast members who have worked at the resort since the first day it opened in 1971. Will-Browne also is the first female cast member to work as a gardener, which she did for about 25 years before she was promoted to a manager.

Will-Browne spoke to Deb Wills in 2011 at the 40th anniversary celebration of Walt Disney World, where she discussed her memories of those early days. (See the video below.) One of her memorable moments was creating the first set of hanging baskets for Main Street, U.S.A. - the very thing I wanted to ask about when I spoke with her recently about the horticulture team's role in decorating for the holidays. I couldn't resist asking her about the television special, too.

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What do you remember when you were filming with Samantha Brown?

Many times when you have an interview and you're interacting with someone, a lot of it depends on how you click with that person, and Samantha was such an easy person to talk to. She just made me feel comfortable.

Did you rehearse that segment?

I'm not very good at rehearsing, or if I try to memorize something, I'll forget it. I always like to go off the cuff and that one was definitely off the cuff.

Did you film other conversations or scenes that did not make it into the special?

I don't think so. Many times, we'd just do one take, and that was it. It's always better if you are spontaneous.

You talk about poinsettia balls/baskets in the television special. Could you tell me how those are used now on Walt Disney World property?

We used to put the holiday [display] in after Thanksgiving. Now, we get poinsettias as early as Nov. 5. Those balls don't last a long time, so in the past when we could put them up last-minute, that made sense. Now, because we have to extend that (show) for so long, most of the baskets are the skirts. For the holiday, it's an ivy skirt, and then we leave a space in the top and we fill that with poinsettias. But we do still make some poinsettia balls and I love them! I like them better than any of the poinsettia baskets that we do.

On Hollywood Boulevard at the Studios, there are balls made out of springer wry, ferns, spider plants and poinsettias. And they are just beautiful. And those have to be started in August. The fern and the spider plants have to have a long time to grow.

How often do you have to change the poinsettias in either of those two baskets?

A lot of it depends on the weather. Many times we don't have to switch them out at all. If they are maintained, those poinsettias can last. Now, if we hit a freeze or frost or there's a hard winter, we may have to change them out. But let's hope not more than once - and if we're lucky, not at all!

What does it take to maintain the poinsettias in the baskets and the Walt Disney World landscape?

Minimal maintenance on a poinsettia basket, but a lot of it has to do with watering. You definitely want to make sure that you don't overwater or underwater it. If we get a lot of rain - something we can't control - that's a bit different. But daily monitoring is the norm, and that's part of being a gardener, especially here at Disney. It's constant attention. It's our whole philosophy about paying attention to detail. It's a judgment call about whether each plant needs to be watered each day.

How has the horticulture department's role in holiday decorating changed over the years?

I am proud to say that we are a huge part of the holiday show at Disney. If you go into the parks, you will see a lot more. Flower towers, for instance. We never used to do these in the parks. Now we have poinsettia towers at The Contemporary hotel, the Transportation and Ticket Center, and they line the bridge at Epcot that leads to World Showcase. We also have added twinkle lights to the plants. At Epcot, we have twinkle lights in a lot of the flower towers. If you go over to Italy, there is a beautiful pink flower tower, and it has the twinkle lights.

Another new thing are the holiday topiaries. This year we have snowflakes at Downtown Disney that are twinkling [on the far side of The Marketplace near Rainforest Café]. We have some "dichondra silver falls," a weepy, silvery plant that gives this whole area a wintery feel.

Our department is also part of Holiday Services, and we have a brand-new Christmas tree at Downtown Disney this year with a different theme. The entire Marketplace area really looks ready for the holidays, and it's one of my favorites.

Which places at Walt Disney World do you consider must-sees for the holidays?

There is a topiary snowman between Germany and The Outpost [at Epcot] that is new this year, and he's very cute. He has twinkle lights, button eyes, arms of sticks, a top hat. This is the first time we've done a snowman.

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Also, the Grand Floridian because it's our biggest poinsettia display. People just get blown away when they see a mass of poinsettias in one area. And we help with the little things, too, like decorating the gingerbread houses with greenery and poinsettias.

We use a lot of red poinsettias because many people just feel like that's the poinsettia for the holiday. They want to see red poinsettias. But one of my favorites is a new poinsettia called Ice Crystals. Ice Crystals are used in the hanging baskets and in the flower tower at Italy. They are just very pretty. They look like they have been dusted with frost. It's a muted pinky-red and then it's got a creamy look, too. It's not red and it's not pink.

How many people on the horticulture team are involved in decorating for the holidays?

Everyone really is involved because holiday is everywhere. No matter what you are taking care of, somewhere in your day, you are taking care of something that has to do with the holiday. The tree farm nursery crew does a lot of work preparing specialty items, like the topiaries, the flower towers, the hanging baskets and then we send those to the parks. Once they are in the parks, those crews have to maintain them. So, we all touch them at some point. I just think we have a spectacular horticulture show for the holidays.

Interview with Heather regarding Epcot's International Flower and Garden Festival



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November 29, 2014

What's new with meeting Santa Claus at Walt Disney World

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Santa Claus began meeting with guests at his chalet at the Downtown Disney Marketplace earlier this month, and my children were among those getting in a pre-Thanksgiving visit. We have been going to this location outside the World of Disney store for years and look forward to our annual tradition. But this year, we decided to go earlier than usual -- before we and Santa are busy closer to Christmas.

In the past, we could count on a typical wait of 45 to 60 minutes to see Santa, especially on weekends in December, but it seems as if that is a ghost of Christmas past. Walt Disney World officials are employing their world-famous line-management techniques to help whittle away the amount of time guests actually have to stand in a queue.

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When the line begins to get unwieldy, cast members will begin placing visitors in a virtual queue with the use of pagers or text alerts to guests' cell phones. So, even if Santa may not be available to hear what's on your children's must-have lists for another two hours, you won't have to spend that time in line. You can shop, grab a bite to eat, or even just rest your tired feet. I'm told the pagers work from throughout the Marketplace -- from the Lego Imagination Center to Rainforest Cafe.

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Santa Claus will be at his chalet from noon to 9:30 p.m. daily through Dec. 24. He takes short breaks at 2:15, 4:45 and 7:30 p.m. Here are a few things to know before you go:

** You can take photos with your own camera, but the lighting in the chalet leaves a lot to be desired for folks using point-and-shoot cameras or cell phones. It certainly can be overcome with a more advanced camera, though. Ideally, you might want to try setting your light metering before it's your turn to talk to Santa.

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** Don't despair if you don't have fancy photo equipment! Professional photo prices are reasonable, compared with visiting Santa at many malls and events. I speak from a decade's worth of experience of meeting Mr. Claus when I say this. You can order a download of your favorite photo on My Disney Experience for the regular price of $15. Once you download the photo, you can make as many prints as you wish.

Despite his busy schedule before Christmas, Santa Claus will be making varied appearances at Walt Disney World. It would seem impossible, but the Jolly Old Elf can be found in these additional locations:

** Epcot: Santa and Mrs. Claus meet guests and pose for pictures at 1:30, 3:30, 5:30 and 7:30 p.m. daily through Dec. 24 at The American Adventure. Plus, each country in the World Showcase also features storytellers who describe local holiday traditions. In many countries, the storyteller is a representation of Santa, such as Pere Noel in France and Father Christmas in England.

** Magic Kingdom: Santa makes an appearance at the end of Mickey's Once Upon A Christmastime Parade at Mickey's Very Merry Christmas Party. Admission to the party requires a separate ticket.

If he's not called back to the North Pole, Santa likely will be in the Magic Kingdom on Dec. 20 to 24 and in most hotel lobbies between 5 and 9 p.m. on Christmas Eve. (At Fort Wilderness, he can be found on the porch at Crockett's Tavern.)



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June 21, 2014

June is the time to plan your Christmas trip to Walt Disney World

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Christmas won't even wait until July for those who are planning a holiday visit to Walt Disney World. That's primarily because making dining reservations is a priority for most guests, and in order to secure a table at some of the most popular restaurants, it must be done as soon as the booking window opens. And that time is now.

All visitors can make reservations for table-service restaurants up to 180 days in advance. Guests who are staying at Disney hotels can book dining reservations for their entire stay up to 190 days from the day they check in for the length of their stay.

Recently I have just spent several days making reservations for the holidays, and even at 180 days prior to my preferred dining dates, I still couldn't get some reservations. And that, unfortunately, is the new normal. Be forewarned that it's almost impossible to get a Be Our Guest reservation unless you are staying at a Disney resort and are able to book ahead of the general public. Still, there's always the possibility of a last-minute opening -- especially the day before -- because Walt Disney World's dining reservation policy imposes a $10 per person fee if the reservation is not used or cancelled one day in advance. So keep calling 407-WDW-DINE and checking online at My Disney Experience.

In addition to dining, there certainly are other aspects of a December vacation at Walt Disney World to lock down now. As I mentioned, choosing to stay at a Walt Disney World hotel can give visitors an advantage in booking dining reservations -- if it's done enough in advance. Not sure which hotel to choose? Of course, that is a personal preference and one that relies heavily on your allotted budget. If you want to control your spending by staying in a value or moderate resort, though, you should be aware that there usually is a large number of kids and coaches staying at a couple of the value and moderate hotels during the first half of the month. That's because the Disney Parks Christmas Day Parade taping, which features a grand-scale production number on Main Street U.S.A., typically takes place the first weekend of December, and the Pop Warner youth football championship is hosted by ESPN Wide World of Sports during the second week.

Other reservations you should consider making in June are for special Christmas entertainment offerings. Mickey's Very Merry Christmas Party takes place on select nights in the Magic Kingdom in November and December and requires a separate ticket. Many of the nights are discounted if purchased in advance. Annual passholders, Disney Vacation Club members and members of the U.S. military also receive further discounts if they purchase their tickets in advance. Finally, be aware that even the early dates may sell out, so if you need to go on a certain night because of your touring plans, don't wait to buy your tickets at the gate. The first night of the party sold out last year! Tickets went on sale at the beginning of May for Mickey's Very Merry Christmas Party dates.

Epcot's Candlelight Processional is the very popular retelling of the Christmas story that includes a mass choir, live orchestra and celebrity narrators. It's performed three times each night from the day after Thanksgiving through Dec. 30. Guests line up hours beforehand just to secure a seat in the open-air theater. However, there is a way to avoid those lines. Lunch and dinner packages are offered, which guarantee the participant reserved seating at one of the performances and a designated viewing area for holiday fireworks that night, in addition to the meal. Packages are expected to go on sale soon.

Christmas events at Walt Disney World probably seem like a long time away now that the first days of summer are here. But if you're planning a vacation here during the winter holidays, take the time now to book those special events that will mean the most to you and your family. Otherwise, you might find yourself missing out on some of the experiences that help make the holidays so magical at The Most Magical Place on Earth.



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December 5, 2013

Where to find Santa Claus (and the Mrs.) at Walt Disney World

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What could be more magical than meeting Santa Claus when you're at Walt Disney World? Fortunately, there are many opportunities for local guests and for visitors staying on property to persuade the Big Man they belong on the Nice List.

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Leading up to Christmas Eve, Santa welcomes guests at his chalet at Downtown Disney. This is one of the most popular locations, perhaps because it is completely free. There is no charge for parking and no obligation to purchase professional photos from Disney's PhotoPass team. Families can use their own cameras, though the lighting in the chalet isn't the best for point-and-shoot cameras or cell phones. A more advanced camera, though, would be able to compensate.

If you don't have an expensive camera, though, consider purchasing a professional image. Prices start at about $15 for a download, which is a lot less expensive than many other locations.

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Santa's Chalet is located between World of Disney and Ghirardelli Soda Fountain and Chocolate Shop and is open from noon to 9:30 p.m. daily through Dec. 24. Santa takes short breaks to feed his reindeer at 2:15, 4:45 and 7:30 p.m. As you would expect, a line forms before the chalet opens. The average wait is about 30 minutes, I'm told.

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This year, the new animated movie, "Disney's Frozen," has a presence at Santa's Chalet. There are signs showing the main characters and a cute photo opportunity with a statue of Olaf the snowman. Plus, when we were there last weekend, cast members were handing out "Frozen" trading cards at the exit.

My husband and I have been taking our children to this location since they were very little, so I was surprised when a cast member told us recently that Santa's Chalet will be moving to the West Side near Cirque du Soleil for the 2014 season. Apparently, the chalet will be only one part of a larger Winter Wonderland area. Sounds interesting, right?

If you're going to be at the Magic Kingdom or Epcot before Christmas Day, you'll be able to find Santa splitting his time there, as well. As improbable as it sounds, Santa is at Candy Cane Garden adjacent to City Hall in the Magic Kingdom each day between 10 a.m. and 5 p.m. He also stays for Mickey's Very Merry Christmas Party and can be seen in the party's Mickey's Once Upon A Christmastime Parade.

At Epcot, guests also can meet Mrs. Claus with her hubby outside the American Adventure. The couple appears at 1:30, 3:30, 5:30 and 7:30 p.m. daily for 70-minute sets. Plus, each country in the World Showcase also features storytellers who describe native holiday traditions. In many countries, the storyteller is a representation of Santa, such as Pere Noel in France and Father Christmas in England.

Finally, as in years past, if he's not called back to the North Pole, Santa likely will be in most hotel lobbies between 5 and 9 p.m. on Christmas Eve. (At Fort Wilderness, he can be found on the porch at Crockett's Tavern.)



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November 30, 2013

Samantha Brown Disney special is 1 of our favorite holiday shows

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Family traditions are a large part of celebrating holidays, of course. And these things that we do year after year become ingrained in our collective memories. Among the most memorable traditions are the foods we eat, the decorations we cherish, and even the movies and television specials we watch.

Like so many others, our family looks forward to certain shows in December -- even though we have them on DVD and could watch them at any time during the rest of the year. Must-see holiday TV for our family includes "Frosty the Snowman," "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer" and "How the Grinch Stole Christmas." And my husband and I always watch the 24-hour marathon of "A Christmas Story" late on Christmas Eve.

When my son was very little, though, he became fascinated with a Christmas special on the Travel Channel, "Walt Disney World Holidays with Samantha Brown." It first aired in 2003, though I think we caught it a year or two after that. During those 45 minutes, host Samantha Brown takes viewers on a tour of many of the popular Christmas-themed activities at Walt Disney World. Plus, she also goes behind the scenes, showing the audience where all those gorgeous Christmas decorations are stored, how the popular poinsettia balls and topiaries are created and more. For my young son, the special was a little slice of heaven, combining his love of Walt Disney World and Christmas with an energetic TV personality.

We have watched "Walt Disney World Holidays with Samantha Brown" so many times that my son and I can quote the one-liners to each other. "At 3 a.m. " not a creature is stirring, not even a Mouse," we say in unison.

After one holiday season of watching the show repeatedly, the next year I decided that I would surprise my son with a day at Walt Disney World during which we would do many of the things Samantha Brown does in the show. We primarily focused on visiting the amazing decorations at the resorts. We stopped by the Grand Floridian to see the life-size gingerbread house and reminded each other what Sam says: "Please don't eat the house!" My children remembered that she peers into the coin purses hanging from the Victorian tree in the lobby, and they did the same.

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From there, we headed to another edible display at Disney's Beach Club -- a gingerbread carousel. This display actually spins and, if you look closely, you might find a Hidden Mickey or two. Nearby, the BoardWalk Inn has its own gingerbread display. The show depicts an old-fashioned boardwalk amusement park, though it has morphed into a gazebo scene since then. Boma at Animal Kingdom Lodge has a gingerbread display, too. This one is of an African marketplace. "Vegetables made out of chocolate. Isn't that the way it should be?" Sam asks.

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The Travel Channel special highlights activities in the theme parks, as well, some of which no longer take place. So, watching the show now is a fun way to remember old favorites, such as the Epcot Tree-Lighting Ceremony and the Lights of Winter. As Sam says, "I think this is one of the very best holiday presentations in all of Walt Disney World. Whatever you do, don't miss it!" Many of us agree with her and wish those events still took place.

Still, plenty of the holiday celebrations in the theme parks remain the same since the show debuted. Like Samantha, we have enjoyed a family dinner at Liberty Tree Tavern, which serves a traditional holiday meal of turkey and all the fixings, and we have celebrated at Mickey's Very Merry Christmas Party. At Epcot, we have journeyed through the countries to experience "Holidays Around the World" and have attended the moving Candlelight Processional.

There is one holiday-themed activity at Walt Disney World that is shown in the special that we haven't done -- tour the Holiday Services Warehouse, where all the decorations are stored. That experience actually is available as part of Disney's Holiday D-Lights tour, but the minimum age is 16 and my son is 11. Clearly, that just might become a holiday activity in the future.

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Years later, I actually met Samantha Brown on the media preview sailing aboard the Disney Dream. It was a fangirl moment for me, and I wished my son had been with me. Samantha was just as nice as she appears to be on TV, and she even wrote my son a note for his autograph book.

The Travel Channel no longer shows "Walt Disney World Holidays with Samantha Brown" in its rotation. It was replaced by "Disney Holiday Magic with Samantha Brown," which was filmed in 2007 and updates the resort's activities, including The Osbourne Family Spectacle of Dancing Lights. Surely, it's time again for the host to come back for another sequel!

Does your family have a special holiday tradition at Walt Disney World? What about a favorite Disney-themed holiday special on TV? We'd love to hear about it in the comments.



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About Christmas at Walt Disney World

This page contains an archive of all entries posted to A Mom and The Magic in the Christmas at Walt Disney World category. They are listed from oldest to newest.

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