Yes, it gets insanely crowded in and around the Walt Disney World parks during the holidays. Luckily for you, there are plenty of things to do outside the parks during Christmas week and the holiday season. One of my favorite things to do is to visit each of the deluxe resorts. Disney does a fantastic job of decorating throughout the parks and inside of all the resorts during the holiday season, but the deluxe resorts go above and beyond. Each lobby is a spectacle in and of itself. Each resort is worth a stop during your trip, but I thought it’d be fun to rank my favorites from “worst” to first.
I really think The Polynesian is a bit of a missed opportunity for Disney. The amount of decorations is really surprising for a monorail resort. I know the space doesn’t quite lend itself to housing a multi-story Christmas tree the way the other deluxe resort lobbies do, but I’d really love to see a Polynesian spin on the holidays. There are plenty of areas outside and on the beach that can be decorated (and visible from Magic Kingdom). Maybe Disney would rather not have non-guests scouring the beach and resort, but I’d love for them to find some ways to incorporate more holiday charm into this resort.
There are a few lights up throughout the lobby, as well as some Polynesian-inspired gingerbread houses. It’s worth a stop along your monorail tour, even if it’s just to grab a Dole Whip at Pineapple Lanai or a drink from Trader Sam’s before heading to Grand Floridian.
8. Swan and Dolphin
The Swan and Dolphin are not technically Disney resorts, however, they’re both on property and easily accessible. Deemed “Santa’s favorite resort,” there’s no shortage of holiday decorations and activities. Upon heading to the Swan and Dolphin, the first thing you’ll notice are the palm trees lining the path between the two resorts. Throughout the year, the trees are illuminated in a number of colorful lights. During the holiday season, green and red lights illuminate the trees and “dance” to your favorite holiday music.
Over at the Swan is the world’s largest chocolate Santa sculpture. The sculpture is made from over 1,000 pounds of different chocolates and while you can’t eat it, if you did, it’d contain over 2.9 million calories! There are also a number of both paid and free experiences in the weeks leading up to Christmas.
7. Yacht Club
If the Beach Club is the fun, bursting-with-energy resort, then the Yacht Club is its stuffy older brother. Maybe that’s an unfair comparison to make. Having stayed there this past Easter, I could assure you that it’s a wonderful resort and that its sophistication is rather charming, especially during the holidays.
The Yacht Club feels like a very-scaled-down version of the Grand Floridian. It has that elegance, thanks in large part to its upscale sailing decor. Rather than being decked with over-the-top ornaments and gaudy decorations, it takes a more refined approach with a tastefully decorated tree, wreaths, garland, and pops of color from red roses and poinsettias. The highlight of the lobby is a working train set which hums around a Department 56 town.
Overall, it’s a must-do while in the Epcot area. If anything, it’s fun to see just how differently the Beach Club and Yacht Club decorate for the holidays.
6. Boardwalk Inn
The Boardwalk Inn has one of my favorite lobbies of the Epcot resorts. I’m a big fan of the pastel colors and its elegant-meets-kitschy theming. Years ago, the Boardwalk featured a life-size gingerbread Boardwalk shop — now that was impressive! Since then, it’s moved to a more modest collection of smaller gingerbread houses modeled after the actual Disney BoardWalk. There’s a ton of little details that go into decorating the model and its truly awe-inspiring what the Disney chefs are capable of producing.
I’m actually a bigger fan of the outside decorations than those inside the lobby. There’s something so endearing about the decorated Christmas tree sitting outside on the main lawn, at the rear of the resort. The lampposts and balconies are also draped with beautiful garland. It’s truly spectacular at night — right after grabbing an ice cream at Ample Hills.
5. Animal Kingdom Lodge
The lobby at the Animal Kingdom Lodge is absolutely breathtaking. I never really stopped to appreciate it until I photographed it last Christmas. I usually enter the Lodge and head directly to Boma. The lobby is filled with tons of natural light during the day, and dimly lit at night. The lobby features nods to Africa and its culture everywhere you look: From the enormous Maasai shields that cover each chandelier, to the tables made from mahogany and alderwood, there are so many little details to be appreciated. But this isn’t about the lobby’s intricate theming, it’s about the holidays…
I believe the Animal Kingdom Lodge rivals the Wilderness Lodge in terms of transporting you to a far-away place. Like the Wilderness Lodge, there’s no crazy gingerbread display or over-the-top decorations. Instead, it relies on one of the largest trees on property to bring the holiday spirit. The tree is decorated with carefully selected ornaments and references to traditional African patterns and crafts. There are plenty of seating areas throughout the lobby, making it a great spot to relax after a long morning battling the crowds at Animal Kingdom. The tree and lobby make a great backdrop for a family photo. A Disney photographer is almost always present to take photos, and Santa will be in the lobby most days until December 24th.
4. The Contemporary
The Contemporary Resort will more than likely be the first stop on your monorail tour of the Magic Kingdom resorts. Unlike most other deluxe resorts, its giant tree is located outside the lobby. The tree, along with the Contemporary serving as a backdrop, makes for a really beautiful photo. Another awesome detail is the giant Mickey wreath hanging outside of the window of the 4th floor concourse, facing Bay Lake Tower. The wreath is lit up at night and should be visible from the monorail upon entering the resort.
The main draw at The Contemporary is the Mary Blair-inspired gingerbread display. Each year, The Contemporary creates a gingerbread display inspired by Mary Blair’s famous vector-style work and with nods to her design in “it’s a small world.” The display had a Frozen theme the past few years, but this year Cinderella and Cinderella Castle will be featured.
It’s slightly underwhelming when compared to the displays at Grand Floridian and Beach Club, but still beautiful, nonetheless. There will be tons of different treats sold, as well as souvenirs. While there, be sure to stop by Contempo Cafe, which usually has some delicious seasonal cupcakes.
3. Beach Club
I may be a bit biased, as the Beach Club is our “home resort,” but I believe that the lobby is a must-stop during the holidays. The lobby plays on the resort’s playful, whimsical nature with a life-size working gingerbread carousel. The carousel has a different theme each year. Two years ago, each horse was decorated as a member of the Fab Five: Mickey, Minnie, Donald, Goofy, and Pluto. Last year, it had a Lilo and Stitch ‘Ohana theme (take notes, Polynesian). This year, the carousel will be themed after Donald and Daisy.
Aside from the gingerbread house at Grand Floridian, the carousel may be the most impressive holiday display. The lobby does tend to get a bit crowded with guests waiting for reservations at Cape May Cafe and those snapping photos of the carousel, so I’d recommend waiting for an off-peak time to visit, like mid afternoon or in the evening.
2. Grand Floridian
I know what you’re thinking: “How can you possibly have the Grand Floridian at number 2?”
The Grand Floridian certainly has the most intricate and gorgeous displays of all the deluxe resorts. The lobby is anchored by an enormous, Victorian-themed Christmas tree. Just across the lobby is a life-size gingerbread house, equipped with a working chimney.
The Grand Floridian certainly has the most sophisticated holiday decor. It’s elegant yet comfortable, and very much reminiscent of a Victorian seaside hotel. The soft colors, crystal chandeliers, and cathedral ceilings offer a fantastic backdrop for the elegantly decorated Christmas tree. The year-round fresh scent of the Grand Floridian lobby is accompanied by the smell of evergreen from the humongous tree, and cinnamon and fresh gingerbread billowing from the house’s working chimney. Either an orchestra or pianist is usually in the lobby, playing soothing holiday music to set the mood. The gingerbread house doubles as a stand that sells treats and different holiday-themed drinks. Guests can pick up a gingerbread or holiday cookie to munch on while roaming the lobby, or purchase a wrapped gingerbread shingle to take home as a souvenir.
Overall, the Grand Floridian certainly lives up to its name. It’s grand, all right, but it’s hard to beat my number one…
1. Wilderness Lodge
Escape from the crowds of Magic Kingdom to the Wilderness Lodge. Nestled away along Bay Lake, the resort feels as though it’s miles away from civilization — which is exactly what you’ll be craving after battling the crowds all day. Unlike most of the other deluxe resorts, there’s no life-size edible creations or intricate displays. You won’t find gingerbread cookies or holiday-themed drinks, either. The resort relies on its rustic mystique coupled with a simple Christmas tree to match its theme — and that’s exactly what makes it so special during Christmastime. It’s the resort’s immersive decor that makes you forget that you’re still in Disney, coupled by its year-round ski lodge-like theming that makes it the perfect resort during Christmastime. You’ll feel as though you’re taking a break from the slopes while seated around the multi-story fireplace, rather than having spent the day waiting in line under the (hopefully) hot Florida sun.
Don’t forget to take a quick trip across the resort’s property where you’ll find Fort Wilderness. Campers at the resort’s campground arrive as early as mid-November. Many campers decorate their campsite with tons of lights, inflatables, and displays. Some of the campsites rival Disney’s decorations! Disney offers a horse-drawn “sleigh” ride around property for $84 per family. Most sleighs comfortably fit up to four adults.
Pete Pirone is a 32-year-old writer who loves Walt Disney World. He grew up going to Disney. His family has celebrated birthdays, anniversaries, holidays, and even attended a wedding at Disney World.
Pete and the rest of the Pirone clan have celebrated every Christmas from 2009-2018 at Disney. Having spent years traveling during the most crowded time of the year, Pete uses his knowledge to develop tips and tricks for tacking the crowds and creating an efficient trip itinerary—no matter when you go!
When he's not writing, Pete is cooking and trying out new restaurants. He's a huge foodie and can often be found dining and eating his way around Walt Disney World.
Pete also hates writing in the third person...