Recently, I was talking to someone about the magic of theme parks—specifically about how to share that magic with a cynical adult. He said it’s not about pointing out a ride’s elaborate facade or an incredible feat of engineering. I started to protest, “But these are all important parts of making a theme park special!” No, my friend insisted, it’s about the people. It’s about how those of us visiting a theme park react to and share experiences together and make memories. Whether you’re with a group or alone, it’s about how you interact with elements of the park, characters in the park, and the impressions all of it leaves behind.
This was at the front of my mind when Walt Disney World hosted Nerdist to experience holidays at the parks. I observed adults giggling in delight as fake snow “fell” from the sky. People sang along to a The Nightmare Before Christmas show with exuberance. Puppets from Animal Kingdom’s Merry Menagerie turned a group of grown-ups into excited kids. In moments loud and quiet, I noticed people making memories all around me. My friend was right. That’s what theme parks are about.
Of course, it’s easier to tap into wells of emotion during the holidays. This time of year tends to soften our hearts and awaken a childlike joy. As Walt Disney World ambassador Raevon Redding put it, “I’m normally happy nine times out of 10, so this time of year I’m really happy everyone’s happy—we’re all in unison. And I’m not all the way Buddy the Elf… but I’m close.”
It was hard not to feel a lightness of heart upon seeing the towering Christmas tree upon entering Magic Kingdom or getting up close and personal with Lucille the seal from the Merry Menagerie. That sweet puppet had so much life and personality I believed she was real. Festivities extend beyond the theme park gates too. Walking the trail of themed trees at Disney Springs buoyed my spirit on a blazing Florida day (the Haunted Mansion tree is everything). The smell of gingerbread fills a handful of Disney hotel lobbies thanks to giant confectionary constructions, including the Grand Floridian.
Inside the parks, two different parties fill the calendar for the holiday season: Mickey’s Very Merry Christmas Party and Disney Jollywood Nights. The former is a long-time family favorite, the latter is a brand-new event geared towards adults. I attended Jollywood Nights on its first night and while the event has room to grow and improve, the two shows were stand-outs.
First up, What’s This? Tim Burton’s The Nightmare Before Christmas Sing-Along happens four times a night at the Hyperion Theatre. The show takes two performers on a dreamlike adventure through some of the movie’s best songs using creative props and storytelling. This delightful show really leans into the charm of curiosity and wonder. The more you sing along when the show invites it, the more fun you’ll have. And the best part: Jack Skellington and Oogie Boogie both appear. The life-size Jack Skellington puppet normally appears at Mickey’s Not So Scary Halloween party. I was so excited to see the impeccable puppet get a holiday outing. It’s like seeing Jack from the film come to life, which means it’s kind of mind-blowing.
Oogie Boogie isn’t as intricate as Jack just because of the nature of the character. Jack Skellington is a spindly skeleton-like being; Oogie Boogie is more of a shapeless burlap sack. Still, the character moves on stage exactly like he does in stop-motion in the animated movie. It’s uncanny. The Sing-Along uses Oogie Boogie’s unraveling to excellent effect, too. I walked away from the show with a need to watch The Nightmare Before Christmas as soon as possible.
The second show, Disney Holidays in Hollywood, also takes place four times an evening during Disney Jollywood Nights. The Theater of the Stars performance is an old school variety-style show celebrating the holidays. Kermit the Frog and Miss Piggy cohost the event. And look, The Muppets are criminally underutilized in Disney Parks so I’m overjoyed to see them starring in this show. Miss Piggy remains the best diva ever, and her dialogue in this performance cements it. Kermit keeps it real, while Tiana, Minnie Mouse, and Mickey Mouse bring holiday cheer.
But the part of the show that caught me and my feelings unexpectedly was Belle. Remember Beauty and the Beast: The Enchanted Christmas? The 1997 direct-to-video holiday film takes place within Beauty and the Beast and is a fun enough movie centered on a kind of bizarre plot about the villainous organ called Forte. But it does have a showstopper of a song: “As Long As There’s Christmas.” Belle sings this live during Disney Holidays in Hollywood. Maybe it was the late (for me) hour or maybe it’s because Belle is one of my favorite characters, but something about hearing this deep cut of a song and its earnest lyrics wrapped around my heart. It brought up warm and fuzzy memories of holidays past and hope for holidays to come.
Blowers above the theater sent snow falling onto the audience as the show ended, eliciting laughs and shrieks. The snow was soapy and manufactured. The feelings were not.