Tuesday 20 December 2011

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Should You Visit Disneyland at Christmas?

Disneyland at Christmas is truly magical, even to someone like me who has a fairly solid line of Scrooge-ness in him when it comes to the holidays. Hour upon hour of Christmas festivities at home usually only serves to drive my mood darker, but even the briefest of exposures to the Happiest Place on Earth will leave my levels of exuberance on par with all the Tiggers of the world. If you gave me two choices of where I'd want to spend Christmas, I'd choose Disneyland or Bethlehem, but of these two places, only one isn't the subject of a massive turf war (the line for Peter Pan excluded).

However, now that I've told you how great Christmas at Disneyland is, let me tell you a few other things that it is. It's crowded, it's expensive, and if you're not familiar with it, it's downright intimidating. I've seen plenty of families having the time of their lives doing a Disney Christmas, but I've also seen plenty of people who looked like they couldn't wait to be anyplace else. It's definitely a tale of two tribes, so how do you know if Disneyland at Christmas is a good idea for your family? Here's five questions to ask yourself, based on our experience of spending the last five Christmases at Disneyland:

#1 - Can you handle crowds?
Let's be clear...we're not talking about normal crowds here. Think Tokyo subway, then expand it to cover about 80 acres. Fortunately Disneyland hasn't adopted the Japanese system of using subway packers to jam everybody into the park yet, but if the crowds keep growing, they might have to consider it (Goofy would be perfect for the job). While non-claustrophobic adults probably won't have too much of a problem, young kids can find it pretty scary to be at knee level with that many people. Our first Christmas in the park, our girls insisted on being carried on shoulders everywhere so they didn't feel like they were going to be trampled. Of course they've insisted on being carried every year since then as well, but the first year we actually obliged them.

#2 - Have you been before?
This isn't meant to be a deal breaker question as both my first time and my kids first visit to Disneyland were at Christmas. Understand going in though, that you're going to see a whole lot less of Disneyland than you usually would as you navigate your way through the crowds. It might be that your kids only remember the magic of getting to visit Mickey at his house, or they might remember the fact that they had to wait an hour and a half to do it. Or they might be like my kids who, after we spent a small fortune on admission and rooms at the Grand Californian, only remember how good the Mickey Mouse ice cream bars were.

#3 - Can you get up early?
At the risk of losing all parents of teenagers, this might be the most important question. If your idea for Christmas break is to catch up on all the sleep you've been missing, Disneyland probably isn't your best destination choice. The key hours for Christmas visits to Disneyland are 8am - 11am. You can get on more rides in these three hours than you will in the next 8 hours of the day. It's also your best chance to grab fastpasses for later, as the popular rides can quite often run out of fastpasses for the day by noon. In addition, getting up early will pretty much guarantee that you get in to the park. They don't advertise it obviously, but Disneyland does sell out, quite often in fact, over the Christmas season. If you've been in the park in the morning, they will almost always let you back in, but once the park is at capacity the dreaded sign goes up and everyone else is turned away.

Photo via Mice Chat
#4 - Do you outnumber your kids?
Zone defense doesn't work when the park is this crowded, you've got to play man-to-man. Ideally, you need a spare as well, to hold places for parades and fireworks. If your vision is you and your extended family walking seven abreast down Main Street towards the castle, then come back in late January. Disney at Christmas is more of a search and reconnaissance type of situation, with one person sent ahead to secure fastpasses and hold spots in line, while the rest of the troops make a slow advance on Mr. Toad's Wild Ride. With proper planning, an extra person can make a touring plan work quite well. Until someone has to go to the bathroom. After that, you're starting from scratch again.

#5 - How long are you visiting for?
Are you going to be in the Disneyland area for just one day? Three days? A week or more? In off season you can cover the Disneyland parks in a couple of days, but it takes a lot longer at Christmas. There are over 50 rides and attractions in Disneyland, and even with all our experience the best we could really hope to do in a full day at the park would be to ride about 15 of them (maybe more if we just kept riding It's a Small World over and over again). That doesn't include stopping for parades, fireworks, or Fantasmic. If you're spending a week in the area, you'll be fine as you can come and go as you please to avoid the largest crowds. If you're trying to make a one day stop at Disneyland on your way through town, prepare to be frustrated.

All of this isn't to discourage you from going to Disneyland during the holidays. You'll notice that we went back five years in a row, and the reason is it's one of the few places that I feel real Christmas spirit. An 8am walk down Main Street on Christmas morning is one of the most magical moments you'll ever experience. I just want you to be aware that the 2pm walk back up Main Street right after the parade finishes, isn't quite as inspiring.

8:30am?? We're running late!