Christmastime at Disneyland — Past and Present

by Jim Denney, author of Walt’s Disneyland

Disneyland is one of the best places to be at everybody’s favorite time of year. The Christmas theming of Disneyland (which began on November 9 and continues through January 6) is a rich and nostalgic feast for the senses: holiday decorations, lighting, carolers, parades, holiday foods, Christmas-themed attractions, and more.

ChristmasCastle-3Most of Disneyland’s special Christmas attractions are returning for 2018, including the “Believe in Holiday Magic” fireworks display, the “Christmas Fantasy” parade, and Sleeping Beauty’s Winter Castle. The Castle overlay includes the addition of 80,000 lights, snow-capped roofs and turrets, countless icicles, and a nightly lighting ceremony with gingerbread-scented “snow.” Also returning: the popular Christmas overlays for two of Walt’s original attractions, “it’s a small world” and the Haunted Mansion.

The Haunted Mansion Holiday overlay premiered in October 2001, and features characters from Tim Burton’s 1993 film The Nightmare Before Christmas. By the way, I consider the Haunted Mansion to be one of Walt’s original attractions, even though it didn’t open until August 1969, almost three years after his death. Walt conceived the Haunted Mansion in the early 1950s and began serious planning for the attraction in the early 1960s.

SmallWorldXmasDisneyland introduced the holiday overlay of “it’s a small world” in 1997. It’s fitting that an attraction Walt conceived as a message of hope for global peace and unity should reflect the season of “Peace on Earth.” The Christmas overlay for “it’s a small world” features an additional 30,000 lights, Christmas decorations throughout the attraction, and a soundtrack that adds “Jingle Bells” and “Deck the Halls” to the Sherman Brothers’ iconic “it’s a small world” theme.


JingleCruise-2Disney has decided not to reprise the “Jingle Cruise” Christmas overlay for Walt’s original Jungle Cruise attraction. The Jingle Cruise debuted in November 2013 and ran for four consecutive holiday seasons but was discontinued for 2017. The Jingle Cruise featured seasonally renamed cruise boats (“Yule Kissimmee,” “Sleigh Ride Sadie”), and a jungle decked out in Christmas gifts, fruit cake, candy canes, ornaments, and tinsel. Cruise boat skippers sported Santa hats and spieled Christmas-themed puns (“During the holidays, these rivers are tough to navigate because of the Yuletide”). While waiting in queue, guests would enjoy Christmas music from the antique radio in the holiday-themed boathouse. The Jingle Cruise will be missed, corny jokes and all.


MainStTree-2There are several beautiful Christmas trees around Disneyland and Disney California Adventure. The best and brightest is the sixty-foot Main Street tree in the Town Square, adorned with nearly 2,000 ornaments.

Disneyland has not always been so extravagantly decked out for the holidays. When the Park opened in 1955, money was tight. The huge crowds that flooded the Park in July dwindled to a trickle during a heat wave in August. Some days, the Park’s main gate counted only a few hundred guests for the entire day. As Pat Williams and I wrote in How to Be Like Walt, “The day before Labor Day, as the thermometer hit 110, Walt sat in front of the Golden Horseshoe, staring bleakly. Frontierland was a ghost town.” After the heat wave receded, the crowds began to come back — but not in the droves the Park had seen in July. The summer season was over, kids were back in school, and Disneyland had not met its profit projections.

As Christmas 1955 approached, the Park not only wasn’t making money, it was going broke. So there was almost no money in the budget to decorate Disneyland for its first Christmas. But Walt made sure there was a Christmas tree in the park, located not in Town Square as it is today, but in the Central Plaza, the circular park in the center of Disneyland. There were also pine garlands and holly wreaths hanging on the Castle exterior and at the Frontierland stockade entrance.


For the holidays, Disneyland also rethemed its outdoor stage in Magnolia Park in Adventureland, calling it the Disneyland Christmas Bowl. The gazebo bandstand served as a stage for choirs and carolers performing Christmas music. Magnolia Park closed in 1962 to make room for an expansion of the Jungle Cruise.

Another feature of Disneyland’s first Christmas was the premiere of the Mickey Mouse Club Circus in Fantasyland. The attraction featured circus acts and live performances by the original Mickey Mouse Club Mousketeers with Jimmie Dodd and “Mooseketeer” Roy Williams. The Mickey Mouse Club Circus lasted only six weeks and was Christmas-themed for much of that time. You can view a 39-second color movie of the Mickey Mouse Club Circus on YouTube.


FireHouseChristmasTreeAtNiteWhen Walt was in the Park, he would light a lamp in the window of his apartment over the Fire House to let his staff know he was on the property. Ever since Walt’s death, that lamp has remained lit as a tribute to Disneyland’s late founder — except at Christmastime, when it is replaced by a lighted Christmas tree.

BaltimoreLamppostXmas-1During the Christmas season, the gas-fired streetlamps along Main Street are hung with wreaths and ornaments. (A side note: Disneyland bought the antique streetlamps from the city of Baltimore, paying scrap metal prices — three cents a pound.)

The Candy Palace, which opened on July 22, 1955, still graces Main Street with its nostalgic fragrances (vanilla most of the year, peppermint and gingerbread at Christmastime). The scents come from a device called a Smellitzer (a portmanteau of “smell” and “howitzer”).

When Pat Williams and I wrote How to Be Like Walt, we interviewed entertainment historian Les Perkins, who told us about an incident during Disneyland’s first year of operation. Walt wanted to hold a twice-daily Christmas parade down Main Street during December but the accountants told him it would be a wasteful extravagance.

BaltimoreLamppostXmas-2-Dusk“Walt called accountants ‘bean counters,’ ” Perkins said. “The ‘bean counters’ approached Walt and said, ‘Why spend money on a Christmas parade? It won’t draw people to the Park. The people will already be here, so it’s an expense we can do without. No one will complain if we dispense with the parade, because nobody’s expecting it.’

“Walt said, ‘That’s just the point. We should do the parade precisely because no one’s expecting it. Our goal at Disneyland is to give people more than they expect. As long as we keep surprising them, they’ll keep coming back. But if they ever stop coming, it’ll cost us ten times that much to get them to come back.”

That’s why the Christmas parade has always been a part of Disneyland — even in 1955, when Disneyland’s budget was tight and profits nonexistent. The next time you visit Disneyland at Christmastime, and you and your family are wowed by the Christmas sights, sounds, and fragrances, remember Walt Disney.

Walt was a nostalgic futurist who looked beyond budgets and bean-counters and saw Christmas magic in the air.

MickeyXmas    MinnieXmas

PlutoAtNite(DCA)   ChristmasPoo-CritterCountry


Learn more about the history of Walt’s original Disneyland attractions in Walt’s Disneyland by Jim Denney. It will expand and enrich your Disneyland experience the next time you visit the park.

Jim Denney has more than 120 books to his credit, and has co-written books with sports stars and Hollywood celebrities. His previous book on Walt Disney, How To Be Like Walt (co-written with Orlando Magic founder Pat Williams) has remained in print for a dozen years, and has garnered 4.8 out of 5 stars in 185 customer reviews on Walt’s Disneyland: It’s Still There If You Know Where to Look by Jim Denney (Anaheim, CA: Writing in Overdrive Books, May 2017) is available at; Paperback $15.99; Ebook $5.99.

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Walt’s Disneyland: It’s Still There If You Know Where to Look is NOW AVAILABLE for just:

$15.99 paperback

$5.99 Kindle ebook

After you read it, please do me a favor and write a customer review of the book. And if you have any questions or comments, feel free to write to me. My contact information is in the front of the book.


One thought on “Christmastime at Disneyland — Past and Present

  1. Disney does not deserve anything
    They are the money left at its highest
    And so is their fake news paper
    Will never buy , or go to anything
    They are tied to
    My family of six in the past have been to
    Disney world at least 16 times
    Staying in their resorts
    Not a lot of money for them I am sure
    But now we go to universal studios
    Same money but more fun
    Knowing I am not giving them anything
    The biased mouse can get it from someone else


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