It was 7:14 a.m., and guests were starting to line-up outside the gates to start their day in the Magic Kingdom. But inside the park, out of view, the last two holiday wreaths of the night were still being installed just under the train station. When those excited guests would walk in just 30 minutes later, they wouldn’t know what was happening inside mere moments earlier.
For the guests who left the park well after midnight with Halloween decorations still in place to return the following morning to see the Magic Kingdom totally transformed for the holidays, it truly feels like it must have happened with the wave of a magic wand. And that’s not entirely false, as it is magical, even when you see how the magic happens.
In reality, turning Magic Kingdom, then a Halloween-themed land, into the “Merriest Place on Earth” overnight takes months of planning, preparation, hard work and quite a few sleepless nights.
This year, TPG had the opportunity to stay up through the wee hours and see Disney’s magical holiday transformation in action. Here’s what it takes to make the Magic Kingdom very merry between the hours of about 1 a.m. and when the park opens at 9 a.m.
The big night(s)
The merry makeover began when the final guests filtered out of the Magic Kingdom at 1:17 a.m. Within just three minutes, at 1:20 a.m., a carefully prlanned procession of pickup trucks and aerial lifts paraded into the Magic Kingdom, ready to get down to business.
By 1:30 a.m., the first Halloween garlands came down. With just over seven hours to complete the transformation, there is no time to waste. The next few hours were a flurry of activity, with cast members simultaneously taking down every trace of Halloween and replacing it with Christmas cheer.
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In the first hour, aerial lifts removed bunting from high atop the shops along Main Street, U.S.A, cast members on ladders carefully unclipped fall garlands from their hang points and carts loaded with wrapped Christmas decor were placed all along Town Square, Main Street and the hub in front of Cinderella Castle.
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By 2:30 a.m., the majority of the Halloween decor had been taken down and carted out of the park and was already being replaced with embellished green garlands. At the same time, Disney’s horticulture team was removing the autumnal-colored plants and preparing garden beds to be planted with red and green vegetation.
At 3:00 a.m., the park went quiet as most cast members took a short break before powering through the rest of their work. Truthfully, this was the part where it was a little hard to keep our eyes open, too.
By 4 a.m., the horticulture team was hard at work adding new plants to the garden beds. The speed and accuracy with which they dug small holes in the dirt and filled those holes with flowers was astonishing.
It was also around this time that the park started to feel more holly and jolly as the wreaths were being unpacked and colorful lights began to illuminate the decor that had already been hung up.
At 6 a.m., with less than two hours to go before the first guests would enter the park, there was not a trace of Halloween left in the Magic Kingdom.
Wreaths and garlands were being hung and securely fastened, and the symphony of sounds and beeps from the trucks that had temporarily taken over the park were beginning to dissipate.
About an hour later, close to 7 a.m., the sun was starting to appear and the streets were practically cleared. Only a few cast members were still in the park, putting on the finishing touches. Shockingly — or maybe not, given Disney’s meticulous attention to detail — as guests lined up at the front gates, cast members were still sweeping up the final traces of the evening’s events.
It may look like chaos, but it’s a carefully choreographed production where not one single detail is left to chance. “Each night, our crew meets here at Holiday Services to get a map of where they are going and what they’ll be doing. It’s all laid out for them,” Disney Holiday Services lead designer and buyer Ed Miles told TPG.
It does take two full nights to completely install Magic Kingdom’s Christmas decor. The second night is reserved for finishing touches like the Main Street candle wreaths, the nutcrackers in Town Square and the park’s show-stopping 65-foot-tall Christmas tree.
Each year, the tree is transported in sections on trucks and installed piece-by-piece by crane the following night while guests are tucked snugly in their beds (with visions of sugar plums dancing in their heads, perhaps). It takes most of the night to install each piece of the tree, so this massive piece of decor gets its own dedicated install night due to the time and crane work involved.
Seeing Disney magic transform in person was a sight to behold, but this was only made possible in just a few hours because of the 364 other nights each year that Disney spends in anticipation of the big night.
Setting the stage
So, how exactly does Disney prepare 365 days a year for something that happens on this one night? Well, they have a full team and plenty of space for starters.
A few days before the big decor switchover, TPG toured one of the Holiday Services warehouses located just behind the Magic Kingdom with Miles while preparations for the decor flip were in full swing.
With just days to go before the ‘big day,’ it was surprisingly quiet in the warehouse during our visit. If you visited Holiday Services any other time of year, it would be all aflutter that time of day. In the week leading up to the holiday changeover, however, most Holiday Services cast members and support staff switch to the night shift, both to ready their bodies and the park for the big night.
“We make sure everything is ready ahead of time so when the night comes, they can just hang and fluff,” Miles said.
There is actually quite a lot that can be done inside the park beforehand, while guests remain none the wiser. “We check all the hang points [for the wreaths and garland] and all of the electrical wiring for the lights to be sure everything is secure,” Miles said.
Back at the warehouse, the Holiday Services team is loading semis, box trucks and flatbeds with decor. “The logistics is really incredible because we have to know exactly what equipment goes to each location and where we can park it,” Miles said. He also explained that because of the time constraints, every truck must be loaded according to how it will be unloaded.
Holiday is a 365-day event
Just as Santa and his elves toil all year to prepare for Christmas, Disney has a dedicated Holiday Services team that spends 365 days a year preparing to decorate the parks, hotels, cruise ships and beach resorts in Vero Beach and Hilton Head.
The Holiday Services team employs about 60 full-time cast members and even has its own version of Santa’s workshops in the form of three warehouses with a total of 175,000 square feet of storage space for more than 45,000 pieces of holiday decor.
When the team aren’t scurrying about the Magic Kingdom as we witnessed, they are inspecting, refurbishing and replacing every piece of decor to ensure it is show-ready. On any given day, you’ll find cast members making bows (they use chicken wire to help them hold their shape), testing strings of lights, painting ornaments, adding foliage to wreaths and finessing an all manner of tree-trimmings.
They are also working with teams from across the resort to create themed trees and decor for Disney’s various parks, hotels and the Disney Springs Christmas Tree Stroll to create a down-to-the-minute master plan for the overnight transformations.
In anticipation of the big night, all of the decor is carefully wrapped on numbered, color-coded carts and trees as high as 70 feet tall laid out in sections on flatbed trucks, all ready to be transported and installed at their designated locations.
Each cart has a map that details exactly where and how its contents should be installed, and every branch on every tree is lit and decorated so it is ready to be installed.
When it’s go time, everyone knows exactly where to go and what to do to totally transform Disney into a winter wonderland.
One of Mile’s favorite things to do the day after Magic Kingdom’s holiday transformation is complete is to stand on the Walt Disney World Railroad Main Street, U.S.A. train platform as the park opens for the day.
“I love watching what people gravitate toward and hearing them say, ‘Wow! This wasn’t here yesterday. It became Christmas overnight,'” Miles said. “The parents are amazed just as much as the kids are,” he added.
We couldn’t think of a better way to end our long night than by following in Miles’ footsteps, so after a night in the parks, we headed to the Magic Kingdom as the sun rose and climbed the steps to the top of the Main Street train platform to observe the merriment.
The amazement on the guests’ faces was no different than our own, even though we had seen it all happen right before our eyes. After experiencing it firsthand, we learned that the true magic of Disney isn’t Tinkerbell’s pixie dust or the beloved fairytales we grew up with; it’s the people who put every ounce of their pride, passion and hard work into making fantasy a reality.