Nothing I’d read about either of Walt Disney World’s holiday tours (Yuletide Fantasy and Holiday D-Lights) seemed to bode well. Both multi-park tours are offered by the Disney Institute, which means higher pricing than single park tours, since separate park admission is not required. So right off the bat, there is a strike against the tours’ perceived value.
If you haven’t noticed, I place a lot of emphasis on value. Not just the cost of a tour or the use of a ticket day, but what you receive in exchange for forfeiting precious vacation hours.
At $84 (without discounts or tax) for 3.5 hours, the Yuletide Fantasy tour looked like a losing proposition. In comparison, the 4.5-5 hour UnDISCOVERed Future World tour is only $54. (And is the best tour value on property.)
As I set out for my 9am Yuletide Fantasy, I tried to remind myself of the the $71.57 (with Disney VISA discount & tax) I paid back in June when I booked. It seemed so long ago, but $70 is $70.
Value aside, many of the Yuletide Fantasy reviews indicated disappointment with the subject matter. At its heart, Yuletide Fantasy is about holiday traditions around the world with a little bit of Disney holiday magic sprinkled in. Anyone going in thinking they are going to see Disney Christmas behind the scenes, ala an HGTV special, is likely to be let down.
This is where reading tour reviews really comes in handy. Disney’s descriptions are often vague at best. I find having an expecation of tour content has increased my tour enjoyment across the board. In that spirit, I’m going to share with you the tour stops and a few bits of information we learned.
The day before my tour, the Disney Institute called to remind me of the tour meeting place and time and to bring a photo ID. This was a welcomed reminder since, having booked back in June, I was paranoid I’d show up on the wrong day. (I also have this fear every time I go to the airport. I think there’s a name for that.)
By 9am the morning of the tour, all us on the tour had arrived outside Epcot, and we were off. Much like Backstage Magic, we boarded a large tour bus. In addition to providing a welcomed seat between stops, the bus also severed as our locker.
Holiday Traditions Around World Showcase
We had two guides for 34 guests. Starting at the first stop behind Epcot’s World Showcase, we were divided into groups and split up during the stops. This meant each guide only had 17 people, which was much nicer than when I was in a group of 32 with one guide on the Backstage Magic tour. Both guides were enthusastic about the holidays and happy to have the opportunity to lead this limited offering tour.
Calling the guides enthusiastic about the holidays may be the understatement of the year. My guide has kept one of his many Christmas trees up in his house for three years. Straight. A good 20% of the tour was hearing about the guides’ personal holiday traditions – which was surprisingly enjoyable. I’m not sure I’d be game if knew up front I’d was paying $70 to hear about a random person’s Christmas celebrations, but it really just psyched me up about the holiday season.
Our first stop was Epcot’s Germany Pavilion. We entered from backstage and stepped out into a deserted World Showcase. When I booked the tour, the phone agent assured me there was no difference between the 9am and 1pm tours. While the content may be the same, there is all the difference in the world between going on a tour when a park is closed and when it is open. Do the 9am tour.
Since the World Showcase doesn’t open until 11am, there were still Cast Members sprucing up the area. We were allowed to take photos onstage as long as we didn’t take any photos of the workers, vehicles, pressure washers, etc. This is standard practice for tours, so I focused on taking photos of pavilion details that are difficult to shoot with swarms of people or harsh afternoon light.
We learned about the origins of the Christmas tree and other traditions that started in Germany. We also visited the Christmas shop, die Weihnachtsecke, and discussed the dubious history of the pickle ornament. Afterwards, we stopped outside the miniature village and train set on the the way to the Italy Pavilion.
In Italy, we learned about the witch, La Befana. This and several of the other stories we heard on the tour overlap with the tales told by the Holiday Storytellers in World Showcase. Having visited all the Storytellers, I do not consider them a substitute for the information provided on the tour.
We also heard about the history of Hanukkah and Kwanza in the American Pavilion as well as the story of the daruma dolls in Japan. A couple from Japan on our tour validated and elaborated on the guide’s explanation of the daruma dolls. This was a special moment for our group and the guide, who had never had a Japanese guest take the tour with him before. The couple also identified the shimenawas, rice straw ropes, that are the Japan Pavilion’s only holiday decorations.
After we finished up the four countries (Germany, Italy, America & Japan), we exited backstage near Japan to our awaiting coach.
On our way to the Magic Kingdom, our guide confessed that he wasn’t sure what we were going to see or if we were going to be able to do the tour as usual. It was the morning of the taping of Disney’s Christmas Day Parade in the Magic Kingdom. Organized chaos is definitely the approriate description for what we witnessed.
Before we entered backstage, a security guard boarded our bus and checked everyone’s bags like at the normal guest entrance. As we pulled up to the the parking lot on the right side of Main Street, U.S.A., it was clear it was not business as usual. The tour guide had to negotiate with Cast Members to allow us to pull the bus to the drop off point. Half the small lot was taken over by sound equipment and crew.
We made our way to Town Square and circled around the parade crowds to the bathrooms next to Guest Relations. After a quick break, we all huddled outside the Chamber of Commerce to learn about why fruit and candy canes are used in the decorations in Town Square, which is set in the early 20th Century.
Next, we made our way through the parade taping hubbub and through the gift shops (which were being blocked off to guests) to the alley on the right-side of Main Street. Here we learned how the story of Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer was created and handed out at Montgomery Wards.
It was a very heart warming story – which of course I went home and looked up on Snopes. Totally false. This is just one example of how many stories on Disney tours are just that – stories: part fact, part legend. I understand many of the cultural tales we heard during the World Showcase portion of the tour may have many variations, but I sort of expected the information about Rudolph to be accurate seeing as how it is relatively recent history. My discovery didn’t devalue my experience on the tour, but my heart felt a little colder.
At Magic Kingdom, we kept hearing the parade taping crew shouting over megaphones at the crowd. They were trying to keep everyone pumped up and excited for the cameras. This sometimes drowned out our guide, but it really added to the tour experience. Personally, I would never go fight the crowds during the parade taping, so it was fun to be able to march straight through as part of an official group.
Next we visited the Grand Floridian, the crown jewel of Walt Disney World’s resort holiday displays. The Grand Floridian not only boasts one of the 9 giant trees on property, but it also houses the famous gingerbread house (which, in true Disney fashion, doubles as a gift shop.)
Here we had 15 minutes to checkout the decorations at our leisure. It was pretty busy in the lobby, and I was very glad I had already visited before to get photos of the ginger bread house without mobs of people in front of it. I realize most people don’t have that luxury, but just in case you’re looking at my photos thinking about how peaceful it looks – it’s all lies! (Hey, I’ve already made it clear I’m a liar.) I used up most of my 15 minutes lying on the ground waiting for people to move away from the tree.
As we boarded the bus, our driver handed out Mickey-shaped holiday rice krispie treats. I heard a few guests wondering why we didn’t receive gingerbread like they sell from the gingerbread house. I’ll tell you why – it tastes terrible! (And costs more than rice krispie treats.) I, for one, was delighted that we didn’t receive any stale chocolate-covered shingles.
Our last stop was definitely the most anticipated – backstage at Holiday Services.
The Holiday Services warehouse is located on the North end of property in the same area as Central Shops (seen on Backstage Magic) and Event and Decorating Support (seen on Holiday D-Lights.) I’ve never seen the HGTV Disney Christmas special, but it is my understanding this is the warehouse they visit on that show.
For a warehouse, it is pretty magical. Rows upon rows are labeled with resort names. Trees and wreaths are stored whole, complete with wired-on ornaments and lights. There is an aisles of buckets filled with every size, shape and color of LED lights with labels indicating the number of strings held within. Endless open bins of theme-specific ornaments. They even have shelves dedicated to gallons of glitter representing every shade in the rainbow.
We got to tour through the main storage area and workstations. We spoke with a few of the 26 Cast Members who work on Christmas year-round. They go one by one through previous years decorations, inspecting them for necessary updates: worn ornaments, damaged bows, etc.
This was hands down my favorite stop. I could write whole essays on what we learned at Holiday Services, but I want to save some of it for you to discover yourself on the tour.
After leaving Holiday Services, our bus dropped us back in front of Epcot. On our way out, we each received a commemorative tour pin. These holiday tour pins change yearly, so the 2011 edition was limited to those guests going on Yuletide Fantasy that season.
Overall, the tour was fantastic. I had low expectations based on some previous reviews and was certain it was overpriced at $84. However, as we were saying our farewells, all I could think about was how much I wanted to do it again next year.
Yuletide Fantasy was the perfect way to get in the holiday spirit. It really made me stop and admire the beauty of Walt Disney World at that time of year. Learning about the various customs and legends from the World Showcase countries increased my appreciation for all the thought that goes into the decorations. Visiting backstage emphasized all the hard work and organization it takes to pull that off.
Was it worth it? Absolutely. As I’m writing this, my desire to retake the tour has only increased. It may not be the cheapest per-hour tour, but it would be a prefect addition for anyone taking a trip to the World during the holiday season.
So, who’s taking me in 2012?
*If you want to learn more about the Yuletide Fantasy tour, be sure to check out our tour page here. In addition to finding tour restrictions and discounts, we’ve included links to reviews from other websites so you check out other people’s opinions on this tour.
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