Signs of the holidays are all around us: Houses glitter with twinkling lights, mailboxes are stuffed with seasons greetings and pine trees laden with ornaments have filled airports, shopping malls and hotels around the world.
I can’t say garlands of tinsel or carols on the radio have ever filled me with much joy. I’m more of a fa-la-la-leave-the-country type of person when it comes to the winter holidays. But this year, I had the opportunity to join Santa’s little helpers (by that I mean The Walt Disney World Holiday Services team) as they assembled one of the most impressive holiday displays on Earth over the space of a single night.
Few destinations do the holidays quite like Disney resorts and theme parks, which are known for transforming from everyday cartoon dreamlands into Christmas-time fantasias. One of the most famous holiday displays appears each year at Disney’s Grand Floridian Resort & Spa — known by many as the fanciest (and most expensive) resort at Disney World. Its grand atrium lobby has more than enough space to accommodate a multistory Christmas tree, with elegant interior balconies practically demanding to be bedecked in holiday swag.
And so I wondered — would understanding the method behind the magic help put me in the holiday spirit? Or would seeing the hard hats, aerial work platforms and carts of pre-assembled decorations finally confirm me as a bonafide Scrooge?
‘Twas the night before Christmas (decorations)
It wasn’t even Thanksgiving, but already, vivid pink poinsettia filled the flower boxes and a life-size gingerbread house hewn from 600 pounds of powdered sugar and 35 pounds of spices was causing a frenzy in the lobby. From within, a sweet shop was doling out heaps of holiday treats, while parents took photos of their children in front of the gigantic baked good.
I dutifully waited in line to purchase a dark chocolate-dipped gingerbread shingle from the aforementioned gingerbread house that, my colleague assured me, was a key ingredient in my effort to conjure holiday cheer.
Standing around a cookie cottage with squealing children isn’t exactly my idea of joy, but I was going to give this experiment my all.
With my haul of sweets, including a bag of peppermint bark and gingerbread Mickey ears dipped in icing, I bought a personal bottle of bubbly and changed into a red buffalo plaid button-down — the most festive thing in my closet.
It was 11 p.m. and well past my bedtime when the evening’s decoration transformation activities started getting underway.
Disney doesn’t publicly reveal when it will install its holiday decorations (we may have received a tip from an inside elf), but it’s a massive and carefully orchestrated affair that happens when the parks are closed and most guests have nestled all snug in their hotel beds as visions of sugar plums — or, more likely, famous Disney characters — danced in their heads.
A silent night
By the time I got down to the lobby, Debbie Winters and her friends were already gathered to watch the Grand Floridian’s holiday transformation. Since 2018, they’ve gathered in the hotel’s lobby to watch the Holiday Services team in action — save for when the pandemic, of course, interrupted the annual tradition.
Though her last name might conjure chilly images, Winters is anything but frosty. She and her friends warmly welcomed me into their group that night, regaling me with tales of past years at the Grand Floridian, and sharing their insights into the magic of the holidays at Disney — not to mention a glass of Champagne.
Winters, who is president of Mickey’s Fanatics (a club for people who love Disney), gave me a rundown of the evening’s agenda which, for them, would include changing into festive Disney pajamas and sipping cups full of bubbles while watching the magic unfold. The reward for their holiday-themed all-nighter?
“Our goal is to catch the magic and be the first to have our photo taken in front of the tree in our [pajamas],” Winters had told me earlier in an e-mail.
As we chatted, Disney’s Holiday Services team descended upon the resort with their hard hats and high-visibility safety vests. While semi-trucks filled with decor were unloaded into the lobby, and furniture was hauled out of the way, the Holiday Services team gave me a different kind of overview of what I would witness that evening. Wreaths and swags of garland would be hung around the tiered lobby atrium, while a 40-foot-tall Christmas tree would be assembled in four distinct sections from the top down using a complicated system of cables and a chain hoist pulley. After a section is complete, with all its branches inserted, the tree is lifted higher to allow for the next section to be installed.
The team works quickly and quietly, and the alarm signals on the heavy machinery are usually disabled to decrease the likelihood that a guest will be roused from their bed to see what’s the matter.
A different, but no less impressive kind of magic than Sorcerer Mickey bringing a broom to life.
Winters and her friends weren’t the only people who planned to spend the night watching the team conjure Christmas in a matter of hours, but most people eventually drifted off to bed (or fell asleep in the lobby’s Edwardian-style chairs and sofas).
The Holiday Services team decorates 780 locations at 41 different properties around the world, including Disney Cruise Line ships. So finding out the date they’ll be at the Grand Floridian each year (sometime between Halloween and Thanksgiving) can be tricky if you don’t have connections.
One of the unique challenges of trying to create Christmastime overnight at the Grand Floridian is the lobby’s striking Italian marble floors inlaid with elegant designs, including Disney characters. To stay off Santa’s naughty list, the Holiday Services team first constructs a path of engineered flooring to make sure the marble emerges from the decorating frenzy unscathed.
By 12:30 a.m., the approximately 90-person team, which included skilled ironworkers and electricians, began to build the tree. It was not unlike watching synchronized swimmers move together — nothing at all like the kind of chaos you might find in a family living room, with tangled strings of lights and shattered ornaments littering the carpet like unfulfilled holiday wishes.
No, this was a regimented process with neat, ordered rows of branches, and labeled and wrapped A-frame dollies. With 700 feet of garland, 3,200 ornaments and 65,000 lights, it’s important that every bulb, bauble and bow has a predetermined destination.
Though beautiful, all the decor the Holiday Services team uses at its hotels, theme parks and other properties is designed to be incredibly safe and durable. It has to withstand Florida’s hurricanes, after all, and the equally destructive forces of young children yanking, pulling, grabbing and tearing … all in merry delight, of course.
Throughout the night, I flitted around the lobby, like Santa hopping from house to house, chatting with Disney team members and Winters and her friends, who remarked on the unique brand of magic we were watching unfold — what it was that inspired them to come back year after year to watch the Holiday Services crew build a tree in the middle of the night.
“It’s magical when it’s done,” said Mary Homko, one of Winters’ friends, “but to see how they do it … it’s amazing.”
Winters and her friends also remarked on how powerful it is to see all the people and work involved.
“We [get] to see every step, every detail, and see all the people who are behind the scenes, how much passion they put into their jobs,” Winters would add later during a phone call. “It kicks off our holiday season, gets us in the [holiday spirit and] brings back that joy of being a small child again.”
In the “wee small hours of the morning,” things stalled — the magic, which had been incredibly efficient so far, and so seamless you might mistake it for, well, actual elf magic, seems to disappear. Even North Pole elves need apprenticeships, if Mickey has taught us anything, and it seemed to be someone’s first time on the project. What should have taken 45 minutes took about two hours, because even though the team is racing to get the hotel decorated before the early birds wake for their morning forays into Disney World’s parks, safety is paramount.
At this point, I was wondering if I would have preferred the old-fashioned version of the holidays, where you go to bed at a reasonable hour, pretend not to hear your parents playing Santa downstairs and wake to find a heap of presents appear, miraculously (make that surprised face look genuine), beneath the tree.
I started nibbling on my $11 gingerbread roof shingle and sipping Champagne in an effort to keep the holiday spirit alive within me (but mostly, to stay awake).
Eventually, the issue was sorted, and the holiday team returned to their systematic branch installation, each bough carefully teased and fluffed to hide the wires and steel.
At nearly 6 a.m., and just before the earliest of dedicated park visitors would spring from their beds to trek into the parks to make some magic of their own, the tree was complete. It was a towering tribute to “The 12 Days of Christmas,” a veritable bounty of bows and birdcages, of swans a-swimming (or maybe those were geese a-laying) amidst illustrations of the carol’s famous gifts. I supposed that made this one giant pear tree.
Winters and her friends invited me to join them in their annual Christmas photo in front of the tree before we all dispersed for a few moments of sleep.
I woke a couple of hours later to watch a different kind of magic unfold across the hotel lobby: The sheer delight of guests waking from long winter naps to find the hotel transformed for the holidays in a flash.
‘Help me … I’m feeling’
What I saw and heard almost made my small heart grow three sizes that morning.
Guests gathered to admire the artistry of the Christmas decorations and to take photos with their families. Some, no doubt, are now on the front of holiday cards arriving in mailboxes around the world.
Though Disney might carefully guard its decorating plans, I’ll admit I’m among those who found the behind-the-scenes action to be truly spectacular. I was wowed by the synchronicity of the Holiday Services team, the immense planning, the sheer scale and scope of their job: To decorate a fully occupied hotel while all around them, not a creature stirred — well, not most of them — and to dash away like Prancer and Comet before morning.
Though I don’t think I’ll ever be a “yuletide-loving” holiday enthusiast, I certainly have a newfound appreciation for how much work goes into setting the stage for the holidays. What’s more, I was reminded how traditions, like the one Winters and her friends have established, can make you feel “toasty inside” even during the coldest times of the year.
Or hurricane season in Florida.
And though the holidays might mean more than decorations from a store, the incredible workmanship that emerges each year from a warehouse in Central Florida certainly helps to usher in the season.