For many families, it takes days (if not weeks) to put up and pack away a modest display of holiday lights, ornaments and wreaths.
But Disney isn’t like most families.
It deals in magic, and illusions necessitate making spectacular holiday transitions happen literally overnight, without leaving a trace of evidence about how the transformation occurred.
When the very last guests depart the Magic Kingdom from the Halloween-themed party late on Oct. 31, an orchestrated symphony of trucks, trailers and teams of Disney castmembers will not only strip the park of any and all remnants of Halloween but also transform the park into a winter wonderland.
And much like Cinderella only had until midnight before her coach would turn back into a pumpkin, this team only has until the sun rises and the next day’s guests walk through the turnstiles to make this transformation a finished reality.
How they pull off this feat is part Disney magic, part precision-grade logistics.
Tucked away behind Fantasyland and the flying Dumbo ride, just beyond the back gate of Walt Disney World, is a spot most guests have never seen. It’s where you’ll find an unassuming warehouse where Disney Christmas magic is born.
In a warehouse that could very easily be overlooked, you’ll find massive Christmas trees, oversized bows, ornaments and thousands of snowflakes being prepared for their moments in the Florida sun.
Welcome to Disney World’s “Holiday Services” — a generic-sounding department that underplays, if not camouflages, the special work done here.
If you’ve never seen it, know that the holiday season at Disney is a very unique time of year. Oversized trees and decorations fill every theme park, Disney Springs and the few dozen Disney resort hotels.
Fans come back year after year to see the displays watch for the slightest modifications. Even though the exact date this decorating will happen annually in the hotels is kept pretty quiet, two couples famously find a way to sit in the lobby of the Grand Floridian, sharing bottles of Champagne as they watch the tree assembly happen overnight.
A team of workers spends nearly a year preparing for the holiday.
“We’re thinking about Christmas on [Jan. 1]. We’re always thinking about Christmas,” said Michael Schoen, one of the lead planners on the Holiday Services team.
This brings us to 5 a.m. one day this summer when TPG was granted special access inside the warehouse that makes Disney’s season of merriment come to life. Yes, we were thinking about Dec. 25 in the middle of a summer heatwave, just as Disney does.
Despite the holidays being many months away on this June morning, workers filled the warehouse getting ready for the big reveal. And this was going to be even more special than normal, as the warehouse was coordinating with Disney Imagineers on the exact shades of so-called “ear-idescent” shimmer to coordinate with the colors for the park’s 50th-anniversary celebration.
Instead of hauling a few bins of decorations out of the attic as happens at homes across the country, assembling and installing the Christmas decorations at Disney World is a well-orchestrated plan that involves 90 trailers hauling nearly 2,000 pallets of decorations. Not surprisingly, the team has this down to a science.
In fact, a 45-foot-tall tree can be installed in a hotel lobby in less than two hours.
Clearly, Disney takes holiday cheer very seriously.
But not everything is just jolly. The logistics can be mindnumbing.
For instance, installing a tree in an atrium hotel lobby requires electric vehicles; nothing can be gas-powered. And you know that “beep, beep, beep” safety sound that construction equipment has when backing up? Well, imagine that happening in the atrium of the Grand Floridian while guests are sleeping in the $700 per night rooms above.
In short, it can’t.
That sound has to be shut off and extra safety measures need to be substituted.
And then there are the floors. You can’t just roll your installation vehicles onto the wood floors of the atrium for Disney’s Animal Kingdom Lodge, which is home to another of the massive, iconic trees.
From safety to guest comfort and protecting the parks and resorts, logistics large and small abound.
The parade of trailer trucks typically leaves the warehouse to transform the parks around 2 a.m. But for the month leading up to their journey, Disney staff have to map out the route and identify any obstacles.
It’s nearly 5 miles from the warehouse to Animal Kingdom. Stop signs, yield signs and other barriers need to be removed. Crews check the caravan route to make sure there isn’t unexpected construction or prepare cranes to lift items over too-small gates and into place.
And that’s all assuming a random hurricane doesn’t make its way through central Florida — after all, the Halloween decor goes up in August.
Paired with all that equipment is a team of workers who skillfully snap — not screw — items into place to save time. In the Magic Kingdom alone, up to 140 workers gather on Halloween night for the overnight transformation to all things Christmas.
“It looks like ants all working over the park,” said Ed Miles, who has spent 43 years helping create Disney Christmas magic.
And there are surprising, secret ways that Disney makes this happen quickly. For instance, the park trees need to be secured deep into the ground for safety reasons.
“From the day we put it in, until the day we take them down, it’s hurricane season,” Schoen noted.
That means resting the tree in a 6-foot-deep concrete vault. But building that each season isn’t practical. Nor would you want it open during the rest of the year. So, somewhere in each park there sits a concrete hole for the tree, covered with a manhole and a pile of dirt.
Most guests don’t have a clue.
But it’s not just the park trees that are massive and require serious safety precautions. For those keeping track, the Christmas tree inside the Contemporary Resort is the largest at 65 feet.
Of course, Christmas goes beyond trees. There are rows and rows of tiny snowmen, angels, snowflakes, ornaments, garland, gnomes and other decorations to scatter throughout the parks and hotels.
Much of this is custom-made for Disney.
“Nothing off the shelf is going to work for us,” Schoen said.
The parks need durable, not consumer-grade, items. So they use marine fabric or go to automotive suppliers for their parts.
Pressed for more details about where items are sourced, the Disney crew says that some things are best left up to a little magic.
And what do these Disney Christmas planners do in their spare time? Decorate their own homes, of course.
Schoen, an electrician by trade, used to live in New York state and would put 85,000 lights on his home. He’d start the second week of October.
After six years of apartment living in Florida, he now owns a house and is ready to deck it out for the holidays.
“This year, I’m going nuts,” he said. “I’m so excited to get lights back on a house.”
As for Disney World itself, on Oct. 31, as you sleep soundly in your bed long after the trick-or-treaters have finished their rounds of candy collecting, the Disney cast members who run the Holiday Warehouse will be up and working through their biggest night of the year.
All the decorations, neatly packed away in that unassuming warehouse, will be hauled, connected, installed and straightened just right … ready to usher in the holiday season as only Disney can do.