How Disneyland decorates the resort for the holidays each year

The Disneyland Resort’s holiday season kicks off Friday, Nov. 11, so Resort Enhancement Area Manager Dawn Pipal-Keehne and her team of 60 cast members are busy this week transforming the parks.

This year is Pipal-Keehne’s 25th decorating the Anaheim parks (she and her team also decorate Aulani, A Disney Report & Spa in Hawaii). Among their seasonal duties are assembling the 60-foot-tall Christmas tree on Main Street at Disneyland and the 50-foot-tall holiday tree on Buena Vista Street inside Disney California Adventure. For Cars Land, her resort enhancement team collaborated with Pixar to transform the area and two attractions, Luigi’s Joy to the Whirl and Mater’s Jingle Jamboree, for the holidays.

“We had the great opportunity of working with the Pixar team and they’re very specific,” says Pipal-Keehne. “They’re very willing to work with us because it brings to life that dimensional piece you see on the screen.”

Though decorations come down in January, the planning process for the holidays starts in February.

“There is a devoted team called holiday services within the enhancement group,” she says. “Literally, that’s what they do all year long. They’re rehabbing garlands and trees. Fixing the lights and changing the ornaments. … It’s a yearlong process.”

“A Christmas Fantasy” parade is performed daily at Disneyland Park during the holiday season, which runs this year from Nov. 11 through Jan. 8. (Photo by Joshua Sudock, Disneyland Resort)

Sleeping Beauty’s Winter Castle is decorated with holiday lights and tinsel. (Photo by Joshua Sudock, Disneyland Resort)

The “Believe … In Holiday Magic” fireworks explodes behind Sleeping Beauty Castle in a nighttime spectacular capped off with snowfall in several areas of the Disneyland park including Main Street, U.S.A (Photo by Joshua Sudock, Disneyland Resort)

A 50-foot-tall Christmas tree stands in Disney California Adventure’s Buena Vista Street. (Photo by Christian Thompson, Disneyland Resort)

The “Believe … In Holiday Magic” fireworks explodes behind Sleeping Beauty Castle in a nighttime spectacular capped off with snowfall in several areas of the Disneyland park including Main Street, U.S.A (Photo by Joshua Sudock, Disneyland Resort)

“World of Color – Season of Light” returns to Paradise Bay during the holiday season at Disney California Adventure Park. (Photo by Joshua Sudock, Disneyland Resort)

At Cars Land in Disney California Adventure Park, the whimsical “Snowcar” greets guests on the road to Radiator Springs. (Photo by Christian Thompson, Disneyland Resort)



Since Pipal-Keehne is familiar with the resort’s holiday transformation, we asked her about what’s it like behind the scenes, how to recreate the Disney decorating magic at home, and where guests can take the best holiday pictures this year. This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.

Q. What are you most excited about this year’s décor at the parks?

A. We’re ramped up to be 100 percent. Whereas even last year we had a reduced package because of the time, I’m excited because we have 100 percent of all the décor going back into the resort — and that’s Downtown Disney, it’s DCA, it’s the hotels. We’re at 100 percent capacity so I’m really excited. Everything looks fresh and new and super shiny. So that’s what I’m most excited about is bringing that whole package to our guests this year.

Q. How many cast members does it take to transform the parks? 

A. We have 60 cast members [on the enhancement team] and not all of that is for holiday. The broad swath of what we do: We also maintain all the props and set décor for the window displays and in all of the attractions. We do tables, chairs, awnings, umbrellas, shade control. Holiday is just a piece of that.

The window display artists will bring seasonality to all of the windows in the resort. So it’s not just Christmas, it’s seasonal. It’s winter and it’s Christmas. Then we go into spring with our Easter celebrations and then we have summer with red, white and blue nods and then we have fall with Halloween. So there’s constant changes throughout the year.

The Haunted Mansion and Small World are performed by the entertainment division. So we don’t have a part in those two attraction overlays but everything exterior, everything in the lands, all that supporting material, that’s us.

Q. How long does it take to decorate the Disneyland resort? 

A. I think we’re doing our job if people are assuming we do it overnight because that’s what we want it to look like. But in reality, it’s about three to four weeks. So we have our Halloween installation. And even before Halloween comes out, we start going in with crews to put in Christmas lighting in trees throughout the resort. But you wouldn’t know it because we don’t turn them on. … The reality of it is that come November 1st, then we’re coming in and then we’re installing those big, iconic pieces of Christmas décor. Main Street. Buena Vista. Cars Land is transitioning. Then we get our iconic trees in. We had done Buena Vista last week and we’re doing Main Street this week. Then we’re doing hotels and Downtown Disney next week. When it’s all said and done, it’s about four weeks. But again, we try to navigate it secretly to help us out. So our guests feel like there is a transformation overnight.

Q. How can guests recreate the Disney holiday magic at home?

A. It all comes down to subtleties. That’s what makes Disney different is our attention to detail. For instance, if you have a Christmas tree, how does that tree actually grow? How do the branches look? How should it be fluffed? You don’t want to grab the tree out of a box and just stick lights on it. What we do here, is fluff the pine foliage in a way that the tree would grow. So here at the resort, we use different types of foliage for different areas … So it’s not just sticking an ornament on the tree, it’s how do you treat each branch? How do you treat each ornament?

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Q. Speaking of ornaments, any tips? 

A. Hang your larger ornaments on the bottom [of the tree]. As it progresses to the top, you go smaller in scale – also, in depth. Don’t just put your ornaments on the outside of the tree. It tends to look like a cone. To give it depth, bury ornaments towards the core of your tree and then work your way up and out. You may not necessarily see them so the ones you want to put closer to the inside of the tree are your more generic ornaments. So, if you don’t see it you don’t mind. Whatever color scheme you’re going with, find some generic ornaments that match and bury them inside. Then you start creating these layers.

Q. Where should guests go for this year’s picture perfect moment? 

A. On Main Street, midway between the castle and the tree. So either way you turn during “Believe…” [the nighttime spectacular]  during the snow moment, that’s the perfect spot. Halfway between the castle and Christmas tree point — and the lighting is fantastic. That’s a good picture. That would be my moment. You can see the snow and the lighting, the projection mapping on the buildings. It’s all pretty incredible.

Q. What about at Disney California Adventure?

A. Buena Vista is a great spot, facing Carthay Circle Lounge. But if you’re really into Cars Land, that’s a great spot too. So it’s what you enjoy. Both of those are incredible spots.


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