How Walt Disney World Transforms Into a Winter Wonderland Practically Overnight

A winter lights tunnel at Epcot

As soon as the last guests left Walt Disney World on Halloween night, a very special team of elves got to work, decking Disney’s halls for the holiday season. They aren’t the tiny red-and-green-clad elves you may be picturing, but when it comes to Disney, they are Santa’s biggest helpers. Lisa Borotkanics, manager of Holiday Services, and a team of about 160 people pull a few all-nighters each holiday season to ensure every wreath is hung, every tree is trimmed, and every detail is perfect.

You can learn how Disney transforms for Halloween and Christmas in the new book “Holiday Magic at the Disney Parks: Celebrations Around the World from Fall to Winter,” but Travel + Leisure got a peek behind the tinsel from Graham Allan, one of the book’s authors who also works in studio operations for Walt Disney Studios, and Borotkanics, who has spent close to 20 years in Disney’s Holiday Services department.

Borotkanics’ team begins to work their magic after everything closes on Halloween night (or after the final Mickey’s Not-So-Scary Halloween Party, which did not take place this year) and continues straight through Thanksgiving, moving through every park and hotel until the entire resort is bathed in holiday cheer.

Magic Kingdom with Christmas decorations

Some locations, like Epcot, are decorated in just one night, while Magic Kingdom, Animal Kingdom, Hollywood Studios, and Disney Springs get all dressed up over two nights. The theme parks take priority for this big switch, but if you happen to be at Disney World during these nightly transformations, you’ll wake up to find that a new hotel or area of the resort has been bedecked every night — almost like having a new gift to discover every morning.

“I’ve had the luxury of being at Magic Kingdom the first morning after the holiday decor was installed, and there was a young boy who had been there the night before when it was decorated for Halloween,” Allan recalled. “For him, it was truly magical to walk in and see Christmas had appeared overnight.”

For all the guests who leave a pumpkin-filled Magic Kingdom one day and walk into a winter wonderland the next, it may seem like magic, but Borotkanics describes it more like a dance. “Getting this all done is like a finely orchestrated ballet. We work all through the night and coordinate with groups across the property to make sure everything gets done,” Borotkanics said.

This ballet of ladders, boom lifts, ribbons, and wreaths is what Borotkanics and her team spend the entire year coordinating. “If it weren’t for our team having every detail planned out ahead of time, it wouldn’t happen,” Borotkanics said. From the horticulture team who swiftly replants entire flower beds with thousands of poinsettias to the person who places a Santa hat on the Jungle Cruise hippo, everyone knows the choreography and dances their part flawlessly.

A Christmas garland hangs in Main Street at Magic Kingdom

Lest you think Holiday Services is a seasonal responsibility, Borotkanics and her staff (which is much smaller in the off-season) will begin working on next year’s holiday decor as soon as this year’s come down. Everything is packed away into an over 300,000-square-foot storage space before being taken out, inspected, and refurbished or replaced for the following year. These warehouses are stacked from floor to ceiling with boxes of ornaments, vats of glitter, and hundreds of bins brimming with decorating supplies.

Donald Duck as Scrooge in a Mickey display window in Magic Kingdom

“We take everything out and inspect it to see if it needs to be painted, repaired, or retired and replaced,” Borotkanics explained. Of the 300,000 bows Disney keeps on hand, up to 75,000 need to be replaced each year. The oversized popcorn garlands on Magic Kingdom’s tree, however, are at least 20 years old and still going strong.

Once the decorations have passed inspection, Borotkanics and her crew do as much prep work as possible to cut down on what needs to be done when decorating day arrives. “So much is done prior to the installation or it would never get done in one night,” Borotkanics revealed. Decorations are wrapped in plastic to discourage dust accumulation, loaded into tractor trailers, and discreetly parked near the spot where they’ll be installed.

Even the many towering Christmas trees are prepped and ready to go before being installed. “We pre-stage all of our big icon trees in the middle of the night,” Borotkanics said. “The lights are put on and the ornaments are wired into each section.” From there, the sections are slowly transported to their installation location by low loaders. Once they arrive safely, a crane is used to carefully lift them up and maneuver them into place.

In addition to the late-night installations, Holiday Services is responsible for keeping the decorations looking fresh throughout November and December. “We check on the decorations every day,” Borotkanics said. “Sometimes, kids like to get close to the trees and see the ornaments, so a tree may need to be fluffed up. There is daily maintenance throughout the season.”

Though Allan loves the “tinsel in Tinseltown” feel of Hollywood Studios and the way each hotel’s decorations complement its theming, neither he nor Borotkanics could pick just one favorite piece of decor that Disney guests have to see. The sheer number of decorations and Disney’s attention to detail make it impossible to choose, but both agreed that it’s those little details that add up to fully wrap you up in the Christmas spirit. “As soon as you walk under the tunnel and into the Magic Kingdom, you are immersed in Christmas,” Borotkanics said. “It’s all around you, from the decor to the music, and you can’t help but sing along.”

A few things may be missing from this year’s holiday festivities, like the massive gingerbread houses in select hotel lobbies and the Castle Dream Lights on Cinderella Castle (which are being replaced by projection effects), but being at Disney World is still about the closest thing there is to living inside a real-life snow globe. The official dates for this year’s holiday celebration are Nov. 6 through Dec. 30, but if you’re staying close to home this holiday season, you can experience Christmas at Disney by flipping through the nearly 400 pages in “Holiday Magic at the Disney Parks: Celebrations Around the World from Fall to Winter” — preferably near a warm fireplace with “White Christmas” playing softly in the background.

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