Unlike Walt Disney World, Disneyland Resort parks sat empty throughout the holiday season last year. But now, the gates are open and the holiday ride overlays are back—and they’re worth the cost of admission alone. If you’re a summer vacation-only visitor, you’re missing out because Disneyland actually changes several of its iconic rides just for the holidays. The track and ride vehicles stay the same, but the story and scenes are different. Disney World has some cute holiday overlays, too, such as Jingle Cruise instead of Jungle Cruise, but Disneyland really cranks that makeover magic up to an 11, and the ones at Disneyland Park are scented.
Yes, scented. From The Nightmare Before Christmas takeover of Haunted Mansion to a festival of holidays at “it’s a small world,” you have to make time for these seasonal attractions and their bonus yuletide aromatherapy. Plus, Disney California Adventure Park gives Cars Land a seasonal twist for the holidays, and this year we even heard a Hanukkah tie-in. Here are the can’t-miss holiday attractions (some with no height requirements and standard wheelchair accessibility) you have to ride this year.
Haunted Mansion Holiday
“What’s this? What’s this?” It’s more than 400 pounds of powdered sugar and gingerbread dough. For the past 20 years, Disneyland’s Haunted Mansion has magically turned into the world of Tim Burton’s The Nightmare Before Christmas from Halloween time through the new year. Madame Leota and grim-grinning ghosts go into storage for Jack Skellington, Oogie Boogie, and other infamous citizens of Halloween Town to make a seasonal appearance.
The ride is almost unrecognizable as every nook and cranny of the mansion is covered in all things TNBC. And that includes the mansion’s Grand Hall filled with Pepper’s Ghost ghosts. The hall’s feast is turned into a massive holiday spread complete with a giant gingerbread house and as soon as your car hits the scene, a waft of warm, sugary cookies hits you. It’s not a fake Glade plug-ins smell either, because the gingerbread house is real.
Like other larger-than-life gingerbread installations throughout Disney Parks, this structure is completely edible–sans air pistons and rotary actuators. The 13-foot, creepy-yet-festive house is produced by two teams, Disneyland Resort Central Bakery and Entertainment Technical Services, and it takes hundreds of hours to build, decorate (with more than one pound of glitter), and add a couple of hidden Mickeys.
If you’re craving gingerbread after this ride, head over to Disney’s Grand Californian Hotel & Spa where the spicy-sweet smell of gingerbread will hit you again as soon as you step foot inside the lobby. For the holidays, the resort features a life-sized gingerbread Craftsman-style bungalow to match the design of the Grand Californian. And it has a cookie store complete with boozy, cookie shot glasses. Go early because the Mickey gingerbread cookies (which are shaped half-mouse, half-human but somehow look adorable) have a diehard cult following and sell out fast.
“it’s a small world” Holiday
For less creepy and more merry, head over to Fantasyland for the holiday overlay of “it’s a small world.” If you only do one ride at Christmas, it has to be this one. Why? Because it’s so stinking cute. After holiday shopping madness, managing family boundaries, remembering to move the Elf on the Shelf, and other seasonal emotional labor, this ride is a much-needed hug.
It’s still a celebration of cultures as told through vintage mid-mod dolls, but for the holidays it’s all about how different countries and different parts of the world celebrate winter holidays. And, as highly effective and persistent as the earworm that is the “It’s a Small World,” “Jingle Bells,” and “Deck the Halls” song mashup, the most powerful storytelling tool used is smell. When your boat travels through Europe, you smell fresh pine and peppermint. As you move through South America, you get warm cinnamon. And in Asia and the South Seas, you smell cherry blossoms and coconut. It helps create the illusion of travel, but it also gives you a taste of the foods that define the holidays around the world.
And if you’re craving something sweet after all those smells, head straight to the Mint Julep Bar in New Orleans Square for a bag of fresh, hot peppermint Mickey beignets. For all things cinnamon, hit up Rancho del Zocalo Restaurante (this writer’s all-time favorite theme park quick-service spot) in Frontierland for Mexican hot chocolate, cinnamon crisps with a honey-vanilla caramel dip, or the super-creamy cinnamon horchata.
Luigi’s Joy to the Whirl
Over across the esplanade, Disney California Adventure brings the merry, too. And though this park’s ride overlays aren’t scented, they are incredibly unique. Especially Cars Land. The 12-acre land is typically themed around the Pixar franchise with an Americana Route 66 vibe. But for the holidays, things get a little weird and junky—it’s awesome. Everything is decorated for the holidays, but it’s all auto-inspired and from the POV of the sentient cars.
“It’s all about the perspective of the residents in this land,” said Disney Imagineer David Caranci. “‘What would a car do?’ When cars decorate, they don’t decorate the way humans would decorate. You have to think like a car, and that’s why you see things like hubcaps, crescent wrenches, and air filters in the décor of Radiator Springs.”
The design details are everywhere and that includes the soundtrack for Luigi’s Joy to the Whirl. The holiday overlay for Luigi’s Rollickin’ Roadsters is packed with Christmas-meets-Car-Talk puns in the ride’s seasonal sing-a-long song lyrics such as “good tires we bring to you and your kin” and a “Happy New Gear.” If you love dad jokes, this one’s for you.
Mater’s Jingle Jamboree
Junkyard, but make it festive. Mater, the lovable tow truck sidekick, has his own attraction in Cars Land and for the holidays it transforms into Mater’s Jingle Jamboree complete with a Christmas tree that’s actually a pile of retread tires and a spark plug star. Word of caution: Save the sweet treats for after this ride as it packs a punch. And you’ll want all your senses on high alert to catch the seasonal tunes playing in the background. There’s “Christmas in Radiator Springs,” “Radiator Rockin’ Holiday” and “The Gifts of the Mater” which changes “dreidel, dreidel, dreidel” to “tractor, tractor, tractor.” It’s a Hanukkah nod fans are happy to see, and while there are Jewish performers and singers in the park for the holidays, it’s the first time a holiday ride overlay has featured a Jewish tune.
Theme park Instagrammer Michael Does Disney and his husband Matthew Does Disney love the inclusion. “We got to experience it when we were at Disney California Adventure in November and it made us so, so happy!” he said. “Although we both absolutely love Christmas (and the entire holiday season), it’s always nice to see our own holiday and religion represented. At times in the past, we’ve felt a bit left out during our winter holiday.”
Seasonal overlays end January 9th. However, that’s not the end of Disneyland’s holiday celebration. Disney California Adventure Park goes big for Lunar New Year with a special parade, Asian food festival, and performances and crafts that celebrate Chinese, Vietnamese, and Korean holiday traditions. Ring in the Year of the Tiger with (of course they did) Tigger from January 21st to February 13th, 2022.