Nothing about the seasonal Holiday D-Lights tour says value. Based on the description, Disney Institute takes you to 3 holiday events (which all park guests can see), 1 backstage location & feeds you a little bit – for $199.
The draw is that tour guests (age 16+) have the unique opportunity to see Walt Disney World’s three major holiday events in one night: Cinderella Castle Lighting at Magic Kingdom, Osborne Lights at Hollywood Studios, and the Candlelight Processional at Epcot.
Holiday D-Lights is the most exclusive standard tour offered at Walt Disney World. Available 9 nights in 2011, there were only 360 guest spaces available on this seasonal tour.
With this in mind, I made sure to book my space as soon as the Candlelight celebrity narrators were announced in June. Since a Candlelight Processional viewing is part of the tour, I wanted to get my whole $200 worth (discounts available.)
Since Holiday D-Lights was only offered Mon-Wed for three weeks after Thanksgiving, there weren’t many narrators to choose from (many of the tour date narrators were still TBD). I ended up settling on a “Who’s That” as most of the big names are reserved for weekends.
Come November, Disney released an updated celebrity narrator schedule. As soon as I noticed my beloved Neil Patrick Harris was performing on a Monday, I called and rescheduled my tour date. Given the limited number of nights, I was surprised there was still availability.
Like all the Disney Institute-lead tours, Holiday D-Lights guests check in outside of Epcot in front of Guest Relations to the far right of the turnstiles. By the time I arrived at 3:45pm for the 4pm tour, the rest of the group had already shown their IDs and received their nametags and wristbands.
After one last call for folks to use the restrooms, all 40 of us (a full tour) plus our two guides headed off to board a Disney Cruise Line bus that would serve as our chariot for the evening.
Wilderness Lodge – Whispering Canyon Café
Our first stop was the Wilderness Lodge. This was the first of several changes from previous seasons of Holiday D-Lights. 2011 was the tour’s third year of operation, and the food offering has changed each year. We started our tour off with a family-style all you care to eat meal at the Whispering Canyon. Our meal included cornbread, coleslaw, baked beans, corn on the cob, fries, potato wedges, sausage, chicken, barbeque ribs and endless soda or tea.
(Note: Guests with dietary concerns should alert the phone agent when booking the tour. Also be sure to remind the tour guides when checking on the day of so they can make sure alternative food is available when you arrive.)
The food at Whispering Canyon was delicious as always, and I was glad I was prepared to eat a full meal at 4:30pm. In previous years, guests had a light buffet later in the tour. The guide said this year’s meal change was due to guest feedback saying that the buffet food wasn’t filling enough. (That may the first time I heard the phrase “due to guest feedback” used for good.)
Event and Decorating Support
Straight after dinner, we headed backstage to the Event and Decorating Support warehouse (another schedule change from 2010). This was the first stop where we needed to use the audio headset provided to us earlier. These headsets allowed everyone to hear the guides no matter where we were standing.
Event and Decorating Support teams are responsible for the decorations for over 3,400 events a year world-wide. They pull between 200-400 building permits a week!
They do work for corporations as well as individuals who contact Disney wanting to have Disney decorations for their events. Patrick, part of the Event and Decorating Support team, mentioned that their biggest private client is a grandfather who spends $3.5-4 million a year for his family’s Christmas celebration. That’s just for decorations!
We didn’t get to walk around very much in the warehouse, but they did have a small photo op set up exclusively for the Holiday D-Lights tour. This is noteworthy since photography backstage is an explicit no-no at Disney.
Magic Kingdom – Cinderella’s Holiday Wish Castle Lighting
Outside the Magic Kingdom, we had to stop at a security checkpoint where a guard boarded the bus and checked our bags just like they do when you enter through normal guest entrances. We did this before entering each park’s backstage area.
We entered from a parking lot located to the right side of Main Street, U.S.A. We walked up and stopped at the entrance to the Hub just in time to see the Castle stage show lighting ceremony. In previous years, the Castle lighting viewing was from the Noodle Station near the smoking section. Big improvement!
After the Castle lighting, we stopped below the 65 foot Town Square Christmas tree to learn about what it takes to decorate the Magic Kingdom for the holidays. The tree does not go up until after the taping of the Christmas Day parade in early December. If you take Holiday D-Lights the first week it’s offered, the tree will not be in place yet.
As we boarded the bus, we each received a snowman rice krispie treat for dessert. On our drive over to the Studios, we watched a short video showing the castle lights at 4 of the 5 Disney castles across the globe. Disneyland Tokyo is the only park that does not have castle lights since it is not owned by Disney.
Disney’s Hollywood Studios – Osborne Lights
Next, we headed over to Hollywood Studios for The Osborne Family Spectacle of Dancing Lights. Each year, Disney swathes the Streets of America with millions of Christmas lights that “dance” in time with holiday music. The original lights belonged to Jennings Osborne of Little Rock, Arkansas. Once Jennings was court-ordered to take them down, they found their way to Disney.
The original lights have all been replaced with LEDs, but the sheer magnitude of the display remains. This was probably the most informative of the park stops as the guide spent time explaining the history of the lights and pointing out little details and tributes throughout the display. We even found the famed purple Halloween cat that is hidden in a different place each year.
We stayed long enough to see two cycles of the lights dancing (which happens every 5-7 minutes), before we had to be off to make of final stop. While this tour needed to keep to a strict schedule, it never really felt that rushed.
Epcot – Candlelight Processional
Backstage at Epcot, we passed by the tent housing all the choir groups getting ready for Candlelight Processional. Each day, there are three shows generating over 800 choir robes that have to be washed and returned for the next night. (We saw the outside of Laundry Services next to the Event and Decorating Support Warehouse.)
We entered World Showcase from behind the American Adventure. This was our last stop, so everyone was instructed to take their bags with them. The guides did offer a ride to front of Epcot after Candlelight if anyone needed it, but everyone opted to stay in the park for Illuminations (an added “bonus” for the tour since we were not using park admission.)
As indicated in reviews from years past, our Holiday D-Lights Candlelight Processional seating left a lot to be desired. We sat to the far left of the stage pretty far back. Unfortunately, a pole blocked the celebrity narrator. I came to see Neil Patrick Harris, dammit!
I was able to scoot around to take photos, but the pole was definitely a distraction. As far as tour content goes, our seating location is my only gripe about the tour. I see no reason why dining package and standby guests are receiving better seats than the Holiday D-Lights tour participants paying $199 a head.
After the performance, we all met up in the lobby of the American Adventure. Our guides bid us farewell and handed out commemorative tour pins. The pins for the holiday tours change every year, so the 2011 Holiday D-Lights tour pin was a limited edition run of 360. The pin collectors in the group actually started hopping up in down in excitement.
Our tour dispersed just in time to find a spot to view the 9:30pm Illuminations with the Holiday Tag. A perfect end to (mostly) lovely evening.
Overall, I really enjoyed the tour – but at $199 for 5 hours, I can’t help but question its value. The only tour more expensive is Backstage Magic, which is $229 for 7.5 hours. Backstage Magic takes you to 5 backstage locations, and Holiday D-Lights only takes you to Event and Decorating Support. Both tours include a meal at Whispering Canyon and don’t require separate park admission.
Unless you’re in town for a short time and want to see all 3 holiday events in one night, you probably already have some form of admission. Even if you’re only in the parks for 2 days, you could feasibly see the Castle Lighting and Osborne Lights in one night and Candlelight Processional on the other. With the money saved skipping the tour, you could even book one of the Candlelight dining packages with reserved seating.
If money is not a concern, Holiday D-Lights is a good time. If you do decide to try out the tour in 2012, here are my top tips:
- Book early and keep your eye on the Candlelight Processional celebrity narrator schedule for changes.
- Notify phone agent of any dietary concerns when booking.
- Be prepared for an early dinner (but bring along a snack just in case the tour changes again for 2012).
- Dress for the weather. Disney won’t cancel the tour for rain or cold, so be prepared or be miserable. Candlelight seating is open air.
- Bring a telephoto lens for the Candlelight Processional if you have one. You’ll need it to get any decent shots of the celebrity narrator from the tour’s seating area.
*If you want to learn more about the Holiday D-Lights tour, be sure to check out our tour page here. In addition to finding tour restrictions and discounts, we’ve included links to reviews and podcasts from other websites so you check out other people’s opinions on this tour.
*Agree or disagree with this review? Have any specific questions about this tour? Just let us know by posting in the comments below.