Laura and Lee's 2003 December Disney Vacation

December 7-13, 2003
Part 3

Wednesday, December 10 - Yuletide Fantasy Tour, Epcot, Magic Kingdom

This was the day of our Yuletide Fantasy Backstage Tour! The weather forecast was calling for some rain, though not until close to noon, so we took poncho (for me) and rain jacket (for Lee). We had breakfast at the Boardwalk Bakery and walked through Epcot. Unfortunately at this point my pedometer started acting funky...I reset it when we went in the International Gateway, since I wanted to see how far it was to the front of Epcot, but when we got up there it read .12 miles. I know it's a LOT farther than that!!! And by the time we got up there it had started to rain lightly - three hours earlier than predicted. Hmph.

Camilla and David
Camilla and David
There were *40* people on our tour - it's quite popular. They put us on the same bus but split us into two groups when we got off - our guides were Camilla and David.

After a brief orientation we went into Epcot - fortunately by then (because we'd all pulled out our ponchos, of course!) it had stopped raining. We got a few more showers, but all when we were inside or on the bus, and it was actually sunny most of the rest of the time.

Anyway...they quickly took us backstage near The Living Seas where we boarded a bus that took us around to Germany, where we went into World Showcase. We got all the usual admonitions NOT to take any photographs backstage or onstage where there was work going on - like pressure washing or landscaping.

Lee and I were in Camilla's group - in Germany she told us that many of our holiday traditions originated in Germany - like the Christmas tree. German settlers brought the tradition with them to America though it wasn't popularized until the Victorian era when Prince Albert had a Christmas tree put up for his family each year. A picture of the royal family around their tree was printed in an American magazine, and suddenly it was the fashionable thing to do - *everyone* had to have Christmas trees. :-) Martin Luther is credited with being the first to have the idea of lighting the tree - while walking home on a winter night he saw stars glistening through the tree branches, and tried to duplicate the effect by using candles. That was probably responsible for burning an awful lot of houses down over the years...

Unlike our custom of putting our Christmas tree up before Christmas, the original tradition was for the parents to decorate the tree on Christmas Eve, and the children weren't allowed to see it until Christmas morning. Trees were originally decorated with fruit and nuts and ribbons - as well as the gifts, which were hung on the tree. No Nintendo sets in those days. :-)

It wasn't until the late 1800s that glass ornaments originated - also in Germany. For years glass apprentices, taking a break from making small beads, had engaged in competitions where they tried to blow the largest glass bubble. Some of these bubbles were painted on the inside with metallic paint and hung inside the shop, where they reflected the light from candles or lamps and provided additional illumination. They were quite heavy, though. In the late 1800s a process for producing lightweight glass was perfected, and someone had the brilliant idea of taking these glass spheres and using them to decorate Christmas trees. And then of course they started to make other shapes as the Christmas pickle.

I'd seen the pickle-shaped ornaments for sale before, but didn't know the significance until Camilla told us. I still don't know why they chose a *pickle*, but the way it works is that because the pickle is green, like the tree, it's hard to see. So the parents hide it somewhere in the tree, and the first child to find it gets an extra gift.

Germany is also the home of St. Nicholas - one of the many figures from whom we get our Santa Claus. St. Nicholas was actually born in Turkey, though. I don't know how he ended up being the gift-giving figure in Germany. I'm sure a Google search would tell me, though. :-)

From Germany we walked to Italy. In Italy the Christmas celebration focuses more on the Nativity and the Christ Child. The Nativity scene originated with St. Francis of Assisi, though as I recall his were originally re-enacted with live participants.

In America, we borrowed bits and pieces from many different holiday traditions, like the Christmas tree and the Nativity scene. Though we were the ones to popularize the use of lights in trees, particularly electric lights starting in the 1880s. Putting up a community Christmas tree also first gained popularity here. And Alabama was the first state to declare Christmas a holiday.

Poinsettias, though widely used in the U.S. are originally from Mexico where they are known as the Christmas Flower. A man named Dr. Joel Poinsett, who was the ambassador to Mexico in 1829, brought them back to his home state of South Carolina and started giving them away to friends and family - and obviously their popularity grew!

*** Did you know that poinsettias are NOT poisonous? Eating the leaves will probably make you sick, but it won't kill you - or your pets. And that's assuming you can manage to take more than one bite - the taste is described as incredibly bitter.

Of course there are other non-Christmas holiday celebrations here as well, and Camilla talked a little bit about Hanukkah and Kwanzaa - there are exhibits on these two inside the American Adventure.

Shiminawa Knot
Shiminawa Knot
In Japan they celebrate the New Year...and in preparation for it, they clean house. Once they are spick and span, they hang a Shiminawa, a special knot made out of rope, and blessed by a priest, over the door to show that the household is ready for the new year. Instead of Santa Claus, their jolly fat guy is named Hotai, and he carries a linen sack full of gifts for the children - or coal for the naughty. Sounds familiar, huh?

From Japan we went to Morocco. It has a rather interesting history - it was originally inhabited by the Berbers, then the Arabs, then the Spaniards, and was colonized by the French (remember Casablanca?). It is a Muslim country, where their winter celebration is Ramadan. During the month of Ramadan they fast during the day and feast at night. Hmmm...I guess that's one way to avoid gaining that average of 7 pounds during the holidays! :-)

Then it was back on the bus (which had pulled up behind the Morocco pavilion) and off to Animal Kingdom Lodge. Along the way Camilla told us the Norse legend of mistletoe - how the god Baldur was slain by the trickster god Loki using a mistletoe dart. The use of mistletoe was considered a pagan ritual by the early Christian church and it was banned, but that was largely ignored.

Animal Kingdom Lodge Christmas
Animal Kingdom Lodge Christmas Tree
Also on the way to AKL David and Camilla told us how (these days) the holiday decorations for each resort are planned even before the resort is built. That way during the construction they can make sure that there is power to railings to light the garlands, and power and supports on the floor for the big Christmas trees, etc. Wilderness Lodge was the first resort done that way - for the older resorts they have had to make do with what they have.

In Animal Kingdom Lodge we talked about "modified authenticity" and "storybook realism" - we thought those were great Disney terms. :-) In decorating for the holidays, they try to use materials that fit the theme of the resort, but still have a decorative flair. Some examples of this at AKL are the ribbons made of batik cloth and the tribal masks and animal carvings that are used as tree ornaments.

Back to the bus where we did some holiday naming Santa's reindeer. And we learned that Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer was actually created by the Montgomery Wards company, though it was the Gene Autry song that really popularized him, as well as the animated TV show.

Our image of Santa Claus as the bearded jolly fat man in the red suit really came from the poem "A Visit From St. Nicholas" by Clement Clark Moore. Artist Thomas Nast painted a number of pictures (supposedly inspired by Moore's description) that are fairly close to the image we think of as Santa Claus. (For a very interesting history of Santa Claus, see the Urban Legends Reference page:

*** Did you know that Moore's 7th reindeer is named Donder and not Donner, as popularized by the Rudolph song and TV show?

Magic Kingdom Christmas Tree
Magic Kingdom Christmas Tree
Our next stop was backstage at the Magic Kingdom. Along the way we learned about the big Christmas trees in the theme parks. Originally Disney used three live trees for each park tree (to get something 70' tall), but now they use artificial trees that come apart in 5 sections. The decorations are left in place each year, thereby making it that much easier to magically decorate the parks overnight.

We entered the Magic Kingdom near the hub and walked up Main Street, noting the decorations in each of the shop windows. All are holiday themed but decorated in a way that you can tell what the shop sells. Camilla told us a story about the garlands that are hung across Main Street...some years ago when they designed a new parade they measured the tallest float and hung the garlands higher than the float...but they forgot that one of the floats had a person on top, and he had to duck under all the garlands during the holiday season. :-)

Grand Floridian Christmas Tree
New Grand Floridian Christmas Tree
Back to the bus and off to the Grand Floridian. Camilla and David told us that the GF has all new decorations this year - including a brand new tree. It's not quite as massive as the old one, but the main difference is that it uses the new LED lights. These use MUCH less electricity (90%!) than the incandescent bulbs do, making it possible to plug the tree into a standard lamp outlet that's already on the floor! The GF was built BEFORE they started incorporating holiday decorations into their designs, and in past years they've had to block part of the lobby off to disguise the power cables running to the tree.

We discovered that holiday decorations last 3-5 years, then have to be replaced. So every year they are re-doing the decorations for 2-3 resorts. The resort decorations have more details than park decorations - park decorations you see more as you pass by, whereas with resort decorations you live with them, and they get a closer look.

Our final stop was Holiday Services - "Everything in the World for the Holidays". ALL they do is decorations for the Christmas holiday season - other holidays are handled by Disney Decorating Services. They handle everything on the east coast - all the theme parks, resorts, restaurants, shops, and cruise ships, as well as the DVC resorts at Vero Beach and Hilton Head. There are 8-10 people who work there full time, and they have seasonal help in November and January to put up/take down all the decorations. It takes about three weeks to put everything up - they start about three weeks before Thanksgiving with the "less visible" stuff. They work at night, and can do 1-2 resorts per night. It takes 140 semi-trailer loads to decorate for the holiday season! Their current project is Expedition Everest - even though the ride is barely started they are already planning its holiday decorations!

Grand Floridian Gingerbread House
Grand Floridian Gingerbread House
The only things they *don't* do are the gingerbread/chocolate holiday displays - those are made by the chefs at the restaurants at the various resorts. There used to be quite a competition (it was even judged), and all the chefs tried to outdo each other, but now there's no competition and it's just up to whoever wants to participate. I know that we've noticed that we don't see as many of them as we used to.

We wandered through this *huge* warehouse - we saw where the decorations are stored on special racks stacked three levels high. And we saw all the bins and boxes full of decorations - thousands of different types of ornaments, boxes of lights, yards and yards of ribbon. And the greenery - there isn't just one kind - it might be Oregon Pine, or some kind of spruce or fir, depending on the theme. One interesting fact about the lights...they don't use really LONG strands of lights - instead they use shorter strands, like 35-50 lights per strand, and wrap one strand of lights around each branch. That way if a strand goes out, they only need to replace the lights on one branch.

All ornaments have had the hanger hot-glued to the ornament, and then they are all tightly wired onto the tree. This is done for safety reasons as well as to keep them secure during transport - and make them less likely to be stolen.

We went back into the work area but there wasn't a lot going on at the looked like they were working on some ToonTown wreaths, but maybe that is for next year.

From there we took the bus back to Epcot. Along the way we received a couple of gifts - a beaded Mickey-head ornament (not available in stores) and a limited edition Yuletide Fantasy pin.

Grand Floridian Foyer
Grand Floridian Foyer
The tour was interesting, but most of the places we visited were accessible to anyone, and were not "backstage". The information on holiday customs was more extensive than what you hear from the holiday storytellers in Epcot - but you can hear the basics from them. I would've liked a little more "insider information" on how they do what they an overview of just how you decorate the Magic Kingdom or things that can/have gone wrong or something like that. Even just some additional time to wander around the warehouse would have been nice.

The tour started at 9:00 and we didn't return to Epcot until about 1:00 - it was supposed to be a "three hour tour". :-) It didn't feel like they rushed us through any place we visited - we had quite a bit of time in the Grand Floridian and Animal Kingdom Lodge.

By then the weather had improved quite nicely and it was mostly sunny with some puffy clouds, though it was windy. We had lunch at the Mexican Cantina - there actually weren't too many people there and we got a nice spot right on the water. After lunch we saw Julenissen, the holiday storyteller in Norway - one of my favorites.

Lee and I split up then - he saw Off Kilter and headed back to the room to rest his cold, and I went to see more holiday storytellers - but there will be more on those later.

Glockenspiel in Germany Pavilion
Glockenspiel in Germany Pavilion
While I was waiting to see St. Nicholas in Germany I saw the Glockenspiel for the first time - in all these years I'd never seen it before, and it wasn't until recently that I even knew it existed!

I was able to catch a back-to-back American Vybe/Voices of Liberty set in the American Adventure. I heard Vybe perform True Colors for the first time this trip, and Voices did a new (to me) God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen/Sweet Little Jesus Boy medley, and The First Noel.

I went back to the room by way of Seashore Sweets for a scoop of butter pecan ice cream. :-) Lee was awake after his nap, and after a while we got warmer clothes and took the bus to the Magic Kingdom.

Mickey by Ellen Degeneres
Mickey by Ellen Degeneres
Near the entrance we stopped to take a look at the "75 Years of Mickey" statues - they've all been painted or designed by various celebrities. I thought this one, by Ellen Degeneres, was very cute. I also liked Davy Crockett Mickey by Fess Parker, and ice-skating Mickey by Paul Wylie.

Our first order of business was to see "Mickey's Philharmagic", a new 3-D movie that just opened this fall. The wait was posted as 25 minutes, but it took less than 10 before we were seated in the theater. The show was very cute, though it looked a little different since all of the characters were 3-D computer generated images rather than the traditional painted cels. But I still have trouble seeing most of the 3D effects - I think my eyes are too close together for the glasses to align the images properly.

We rode The Many Adventures of Winnie-the-Pooh with a short wait...but wow, it was a VERY noisy queue! This is much better than the version at Disneyland...for one thing, the hunny pots don't bounce along with Tigger at DL! We both walked out singing the "Heffalumps and Woozles" song. :-)

*** Did you know that heffalumps and woozles are very confusil?

Buzz Lightyear had a fairly short wait also...Stitch was shooting, and he didn't do very well...I didn't either, but I still beat him. :-) When we got off there was almost NO line for Buzz so we did it again...this time it was Lee against me, and I beat him handily - with the help of a couple of big targets in the first room. :-) It was sprinkling a bit then (it had showered while we were in Philharmagic), and we wondered if they would run SpectroMagic, but they did. We went to the Main Street Bakery and had a piece of coffeecake while waiting for the parade to pass by. Then Lee suggested that we just follow it up Main Street, and we eventually ended up at the hub, just to the right of the Partners statue. There's a stone bench all the way around - we spread out my poncho (since it was wet, though it had stopped raining), and waited about 35 minutes for Wishes to start. We thought that area would get quite crowded, but it didn't, and it was a wonderful place to see the show - we could see the castle with the fireworks exploding around it.

The castle itself is actually part of the show with lots of special lighting and projections on it, but we'd been unable to see any of that Monday night. We really had a wonderful spot this night, though!

We swam down Main Street with the other, and took the bus back to the Boardwalk - though actually we got off at the Swan and walked - it was probably a lot faster! We'd decided to try Spoodles for dinner if the wait wasn't too long - they told us 15 minutes, and it was actually less than that. Our pager was *very* insistent, though...rather than buzzing or vibrating it kept saying "Your table is ready. Please check in with the hostess immediately." It needed a mute button! :-)

Unfortunately we did not have a very good dining experience. Although we were seated fairly quickly, and the restaurant did not seem to be terribly busy (there were a number of empty tables), we sat there for close to 10 minutes before anyone came over to us...and then it was the floor manager, Tony, asking if we'd seen our waiter. We said no, and he very quickly went and got someone. Our server didn't seem too happy about it, but he was pleasant enough to us, though he was not very attentive.

We'd eaten here last December and remembered that there were a number of interesting things on the menu...but the menu must have changed because there wasn't much on it this time that appealed to us. I admit it, I'm a picky eater, and it seemed like almost everything had peppers in it or shellfish or beef or something else I don't care for. I finally ended up with the tomato, mozzarella, and basil pesto flatbread, which was ok...except that it was only barely warm when I got it, and not crispy at all. Lee ordered the oak-grilled pork loin chop which he said was good, though the broccoli that came with it was almost cold. The goat cheese polenta was hot and quite tasty, though. Partway through the meal Tony came over and said he hoped that the meal had been worth the, not exactly.

We decided not to get dessert there - instead we got a chocolate chip muffin and a chocolate chip cookie from the booth on the Boardwalk and took them back to our room. They were quite good, I'm happy to say. :-)

Mileage for the day: ~5.6 miles, 12,855 steps
Mileage on Yuletide Fantasy Tour: .85 miles

Woo hoo! of the day - Seeing Wishes from a prime viewing spot.

Disappointment of the day - Dinner at Spoodles

Pet peeve of the day - People who *don't* move all the way to the end of the row in theaters when asked to do so.

Other Links

Part 1
Part 2
Part 4
Part 5
Epcot's Holiday Storytellers
Tigger's Christmas Carols
Holidaze with Tigger and Stitch
Back to Laura and Lee's Vacation page

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Text and photographs copyright © 2003 by Laura Gilbreath. All rights reserved.

Laura Gilbreath lgil at lgil dot net
Last updated 12/31/03