Tuesday, November 01, 2011

Celebrating Thanksgiving at Walt Disney World

Walt Disney World is notorious for having amazing holiday celebrations.  The parks are fully decked out in orange and black for Halloween, and their Christmas decorations are like nothing I've seen anywhere else!  The parties in Magic Kingdom, Mickey's Not So Scary Halloween Party and Mickey's Very Merry Christmas Party, are phenomenal (so I've heard).   The Candlelight Processional in Epcot is touching, and the Osbourne Lights in Disney's Hollywood Studios are out of this world!

However, sandwiched in between those two fabulous celebrations Thanksgiving occurs.  For Thanksgiving 2010, my family went on a week long vacation to Walt Disney World.  The first thing we noticed as we walked into any of the Parks was that they were decorated for Christmas the first sign of which was the HUGE Christmas tree greeting us at the entrance to each park.  In fact, Thanksgiving was mostly looked over in the Parks.  I'm not sure if this is because Thanksgiving is holiday specific to the United States, and Disney goes for a more International crowd; or maybe it is because their Halloween and Christmas decorations are so amazing that they just don't leave time for Thanksgiving in between.  No matter the reason, Thanksgiving at Walt Disney World has a very Christmas-y feel to it.
Me, Thanksgiving week in Magic Kingdom.
Can't you tell it's Thanksgiving?
If you are going to Walt Disney World for Thanksgiving, there are certain things you need to know:

Crowds will be HUGE.
You will experience level 10 crowds most of the week; although the first of the week isn't as bad.  That means lines are going to be LONG and parade/fireworks areas will be shoulder to shoulder.  How do you survive these crowds and still enjoy your visit?  I recommend tackling this vacation week ONLY if you are highly familiar with the Parks and do NOT plan for this visit to be the only one you make in years.  

You will need to go having a good understanding of the FastPass system (how to use it, what attractions are best to use it for, and when to use it).  Knowledge of how crowds tend to move around the parks can be helpful, and some families find a touring plan to be useful.  I recommend Touring Plans for this information.  Others really like sites that give more specific plans like Tour Guide Mike and RideMax.  (A quick warning, you must pay for those sites. Many people find free message boards like the DisBoards very helpful.) Because we were familiar with the Parks, we did not use a mapped out plan for the days, but the above sites were helpful for planning a bit in advance.

During our trip, we did not notice the crowds except for during parade and fireworks times.  We used FastPasses for anything over a 30 minute wait, and so we only stood in lines for 30 minutes at most (usually less).  Afternoons were spent relaxing in the pool, napping in our room, or shopping at Downtown Disney.  Believe it or not, we rode every single ride we wanted to ride including all of the E-ticket attractions.  Going with a plan during high traffic periods, like holidays, is a must.
My sister & I - PhotoPass lines can be a bit long. If the location you
like has a line, wait & come back later. We got this shot without
waiting at all.
Thanksgiving Day can still rock.
We went to Disney's Animal Kingdom for Thanksgiving Day.  Most touring sites will tell you that Magic Kingdom and Epcot are the most crowded on T-Day, and they're right!  We arrived at DAK right after it opened for the day and rode every ride in the park before lunch.  Enjoy Magic Kingdom and Epcot earlier during Thanksgiving week in order to have lower crowds there.
Thanksgiving Day (in front of a Christmas tree) 

Table services are booked well in advance.  Instead of battling it out for a reservation, we celebrated Thanksgiving by dining at Garden Grill earlier in the week.  On Thanksgiving Day we stayed out of the madness of a sit down meal and ate at some counter service places we had been wanting to try: Flame Tree BBQ for lunch and Wolfgang Puck Express in Downtown Disney for dinner.  The latter of the two was not crowded at all, worked with the Disney Dining Plan, had amazing food, and the service was over-the-top!  Find an out of the way place to eat your meals on Thanksgiving Day.

Christmas might cause you to forget Thanksgiving.
The Parks are decorated so beautifully for Christmas that it's easy to forget the holiday you are celebrating is actually Thanksgiving!  We, the adults on our trip, had sort of missed the boat until my then 6 year old niece asked us over dinner what we were all thankful for.  I admit, I stopped opening Vinylmations and got quite a bit choked up over that!  What a sweetheart she was to remind us to pause and be thankful!

Your photos will look like you were celebrating Christmas in July.
2 Days after Thanksgiving
The photo opportunities over this holiday are great!  Know that you will come back from the Parks with Christmas card-ready photos!  Ironically, the weather is usually mild at this time of year.  We started our morning with hoodies on and before lunch we had usually shed them for t-shirts and jeans.  We ended up with photos of us in front of winter-clad Disney characters looking like we were there in July instead of November! 

If you can handle the crowds, celebrating Thanksgiving at Walt Disney World makes for a beautiful vacation!  You can attend MVMCP (early or late in the week) if you'd like, and the Christmas parades and shows are in full swing.  This December I'll be going to the Parks during the actual Christmas season, so I'm looking forward to experiencing a Disney Christmas instead of a sort-of-Disney-Christmas-except-it's-Thanksgiving  vacation!
Ready for a Christmas card!


  1. I loved your article! I think it's wonderful how you touched on how to enjoy WDW with level 10 crowds and shared how you didn't have to wait long and all that.

    Not holiday related, but isn't Wolfgang Puck Express awesome? We went there for the first time this year and LOVED it!

    How sweet that your niece stopped everyone to ask what they were thankful for. :)

  2. HI Joanna, Great post, I loved your tips and yes fast pass is a must during this time of he year. Awesome pictures too..

  3. What a great post! I don't think I'd plan to go to WDW during Thanksgiving week, but I'm glad for the information. We like to go more in the off-season. You got some GREAT pictures though!

  4. Terrific post Joanna! I couldn't agree more Thanksgiving is a blast if you're prepared!
    I love visiting right after Thanksgiving to get in the Christmas spirit:)

  5. What an excellent post! Joanna, these are great planning tips! I'm going on my first Thanksgiving to Disneyland so I'll use your tips since they'll likely apply to all the parks.

  6. Great tips for surviving WDW during the busy season! I hadn't thought about the whole Thanksgiving piece as far as decorations go. I hadn't thought of that before!

  7. I've been searching all morning for tips on how to tour WDW during Thanksgiving and yours is the best out there - thanks!