If you’re spending time at Walt Disney World over the holiday season, you’re probably a little overwhelmed with all the ‘must-do’ activities there are to do (read all about Christmas at Walt Disney World here!) The focus is always on Magic Kingdom, with Mickey’s Very Merry Christmas Party and the beautiful lighting ceremony at Cinderella’s Castle. But as a local, my favorite park over the holidays is Epcot. Not only do they have the Candlelight Processional, which is one of my very favorite things to do over the holidays, but they go all out with celebrating holidays around the world at the International Festival of the Holidays (previously called Holiday’s Around the World, in case you’ve been before!) With food, decorations, and stories from each country highlighting how they celebrate the holiday season, there is so much to see and do, it really is a fantastic experience. There are lots of food options to choose from, as well as a lot of different holiday narrators in each country, so you need to plan your time carefully if you want to see and do everything, especially with kids – I know mine have a limited attention span when it comes to things like this! Here is my guide for 7 things to do at the International Festival of the Holidays at Epcot with kids.
1. Listen to stories of holidays around the world
Each of the countries around the World Showcase features a storyteller during the International Festival of the Holidays, and these storytellers tell the story of how that particular country celebrates the holiday season. These are the absolute highlight of the festival for me, and a great way to not only learn more about how the different countries celebrate and their particular traditions, but also keep kids occupied as you walk around World Showcase. The storytellers are engaging, and the performances are the perfect length of time so that the little ones won’t get restless. The performances are all outdoors, so they are weather permitting; weather this time of year is generally very pleasant, but on a hot day, or a rainy one, you might not get to see them all. The festival guide has a list of the times each storyteller will be out, and it’s pretty difficult to catch all of them, so definitely pick your must-sees. My personal favorite is Helga in the Germany Pavilion, who tells the story of The Nutcracker, while last year my son absolutely loved Pere Noel in the France Pavilion, who tells a story of how children in France leave out their shoes on Christmas Eve. This is one of my favorite things to do at Epcot during the holidays!
2. Try different countries holiday treats
Pretty much every festival at Epcot these days includes food booths, and this one is no exception. You can pick up a festival passport when you enter Epcot, and this lists the food and drink options you can find at each booth. Each country features different holiday treats and drinks, and just like with the Epcot Food and Wine Festival, portions are small and perfectly sized for sampling without getting too full.
There are usually new food items to try each year, and it’s fun to grab a snack or a drink as you sit down to watch a storyteller, or wander around World Showcase. One of my favorite things to eat is the classic turkey dinner from the American Holiday Kitchen in the America pavilion, featuring turkey with gravy and cranberry sauce, stuffing, mashed potatoes and green beans, and my favorite drink so far this year has been the Spiced Rum Punch Slushie in the France Pavilion.
A new addition for this year is the Holiday Cookie Trail, which I think is a really cute idea. You purchase five particular cookies from around the festival, and get your festival passport stamped in each location, then turn your completed passport to Holiday Sweets and Treats for a complimentary cookie and glass of milk. The cookies are only $2 each so this is a pretty reasonable activity, and you don’t have to buy them all on the same day; just bring the same passport on each trip during the festival so you have all of your stamps in one place. The cookies we tried were delicious, and we’re excited to turn in our completed passport once we’ve completed the set for our free cookie and milk!
3. Admire the holiday decorations
No one decorates for the holidays quite like Disney does, and Epcot is no exception! Every pavilion is decorated for the holidays, and at night, the lights are beautiful. The America Pavilion is my personal favorite for the decorations, with a gorgeous Christmas tree outside the gift shop, as well as the beautifully decorated American Gardens Theater. My kids love all Christmas decorations, and the ones at Epcot are some of their favorites!
4. Meet Santa and Mrs Claus
There are a few different places you can meet Santa at Walt Disney World over the holidays, but only in the American Pavilion at Epcot can you meet Mrs Claus as well! Tucked in the back of the pavilion next to the gift shop (and just for the record, next the nicest bathrooms in all of Epcot!) you can find Santa and Mrs Claus meeting and greeting guests. The setting for the meet and greet is beautiful, and there is a Photopass photographer there to capture the moment. We visited during the week in November in the middle of the day to find absolutely no line, and plenty of time to chat with Santa (not that my toddler wanted anything to do with him!) but I’m sure the lines can get long on the weekends or closer to Christmas. Santa and Mrs Claus have set times to meet guests every day, and these can be found in the event guide.
5. Shop for merchandise
It would’t be Disney without a little Christmas shopping! Not only will you find plenty of themed t-shirts, sweaters, pins, and other holiday paraphernalia, but the World Showcase offers unique holiday markets with more one-of-a-kind souvenirs. In the Germany Pavilion, for instance, my son was enthralled with a professional glass blower who was making the most beautiful Christmas ornaments. A word of caution however: there are also plenty of pop-up stores I noticed around World Showcase with huge arrays of Disney toys, and my kids had to be hustled past those pretty quickly!
6. Watch the Candlelight Processional
Hands down one of my favorite Christmas traditions at Walt Disney World is the Epcot Candlelight Processional. Running from mid-November to the end of the holiday season, the Candlelight Processional is performed at the American Gardens Theater in World Showcase three times a night, so there are plenty of opportunities to catch a show. The Candlelight Processional is the retelling of the Christmas story by a celebrity narrator, accompanied by a live orchestra, the Voices of Liberty singers, a Cast Member choir, and high school choirs from around the country, singing Christmas carols and other holiday favorites. We have seen this show every single year since we moved to Central Florida in 2006, and have taken our kids along since they were tiny babies.
Regardless of whether you are particularly religious or not, the music and songs from this show are fantastic, and really get you in the holiday spirit. The celebrity narrators vary from year to year, but one recurring narrator, and our personal favorite, is Neil Patrick Harris, who does a great job telling the story.
I’ve seen kids of all ages in the theater to watch the show, and most seem to do really well with the show; there is a lot going on with all of the music and lights, and it seems to hold most kids attention. Our eldest has done well with the show every year, but this was the first year our youngest didn’t make it all the way through before losing interest! Obviously you know your kids best, and whether or not this is something they would enjoy sitting through.
Depending on how popular the narrator is on the night you plan to attend, you might want to look into the popular Candlelight Processional dinner package. This comes with a meal at one of the Epcot restaurants (for the last two years, Trattoria al Forno on the Boardwalk has been included as well) and reserved tickets for the show. What time you eat dictates the show time you get tickets for, so if you have a breakfast or lunch reservation on the package, you’ll be seeing an earlier show, whereas a dinner reservation will get you tickets to a later show. When a narrator is extremely popular (Neil Patrick Harris is one of those narrators!) then it is very hard to see the show waiting on a stand-by line; folks have been known to line up as early as 1pm for a 5pm show, and there is no guarantee of getting a seat at all. If you can’t get into the theater at all, there is the option to stand in the back to watch and listen, and this might be a great option if you’re not sure how your kids will like the show. You can read my full review of the Candlelight Processional, including everything you need to know about this years show here.
7. See Illuminations with the Message of Peace
Illuminations is one of my favorite nighttime shows at Walt Disney World, and at Christmas, the show is made all the more beautiful with the addition of the Message of Peace tag. This is a brief addition at the end of the show, with messages from each of the countries around World Showcase, as well as more lasers, fireworks, and music. It is especially powerful at this time of year, and an addition I really love. These fireworks are such a great way to end a day at Epcot as it is, and this message just makes them all the more special. Really, what better way to cap off a day celebrating holidays around the world than with a message of peace and unity?
Have you visited the International Festival of the Holidays at Epcot with kids? What did you do? Let me know in the comments!