Turning Disneyland into a winter wonderland takes more than pixie dust

Workers use a crane to hoist the top section of a giant Christmas tree into place as others decorate Disneyland's Main Street U.S.A. The overnight efforts requires dozens of extra workers and meticulous coordination.
Workers use a crane to hoist the top section of a giant Christmas tree into place as others decorate Disneyland’s Main Street U.S.A. The overnight efforts requires dozens of extra workers and meticulous coordination.
(Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times)

Harsh halogen lights bathed Disneyland’s Main Street U.S.A. in the dark early-morning hours as the backup beeps of aerial lifts and heavy-metal cranes mixed with the thundering sound of their revving diesel engines.

Horticultural workers in neon safety vests hustled to plant red and white blooms in a large flowerbed while a second crew directed a massive white crane to lower an 11-foot metal sleeve into a cement hole to support a 12-ton Christmas tree that was expected soon.

Looking more like the chaos of a disaster recovery effort than a jolly seasonal makeover, Monday morning marked the beginning of a four-day job to transform Disneyland into a holiday playground. But the annual project had, in fact, been meticulously planned for nearly 11 months to make the most of scant hours before park visitors burst through the entrance gates.


“We only get a certain amount of time to get into the park and do our work,” said Adam Schwerner, Disneyland’s director of horticulture and resort enhancements, as he watched a crane move the adorned Christmas tree into place. “We have to have perfection.”

The workers are driven by more than just a sense of pride. The holiday season has become one of the most popular — and profitable — times of the year for theme parks, although summer will always be tops.

Disneyland doesn’t release attendance figures but visitor numbers surge during the days that children are out of school for the winter holidays. Average wait times during the Christmas and New Year’s holidays jump as much as 75% over wait times for the rest of the year, according to data provided by, a website that offers subscribers planning tips and crowd predictions for major theme parks.

To grab as many holiday visitors as possible, parks go into promotional hyperdrive.

Universal Studios Hollywood has begun heavily advertising that the Wizarding World of Harry Potter area will feature a nightly snowfall for the first time, starting Nov. 17, and Hogwarts Castle will be lit up using projection mapping technology that throws images onto uneven surfaces.

Six Flags Magic Mountain and Knott’s Berry Farm also make it snow every night. And Magic Mountain is launching a holiday food festival on Nov. 17 plus two new Christmas-themed areas.

In addition to spurring attendance, the holiday season gives theme parks the chance to sell new holiday merchandise and elaborate food, including Knott’s Christmas Pizza — described as “a dish that deliciously combines the exquisite flavors of a holiday meal into one perfect bite” — topped with sliced turkey, stuffing, gravy and cranberry sauce.


Disneyland Resort offers seasonal churros and hand-pulled candy canes, which are so popular that demand must be managed with wristbands and special lines that alternate between Disneyland and Disney California Adventure.

“From Disney’s standpoint, it’s a time to put fat on the fat hog,” said Dennis Speigel, president of International Theme Park Services. “That is when they are going to build their attendance and their revenues.”

It was a four-day job to transform Disneyland into a holiday playground. But the annual project had, in fact, been meticulously planned for nearly 11 months.

Since Disneyland opened in 1955, it has overhauled its park each year for the holidays, a practice that has taken hold at theme parks across the country, he said. But the Anaheim park has a reputation for the most elaborate holiday displays.

“Disney is the godfather of the Christmas holiday experience in theme parks,” Speigel said.

Redecorating Disneyland is an expensive and labor-intensive task.

On most nights, Disneyland employs hundreds of workers to perform regular cleanup and repairs during overnight shifts. To convert the park to holiday mode, Disney puts dozens of extra employees to work, either by paying full-time staffers to work overtime or by extending part-time workers to full-time shifts for the four-day project.


The flickering faux candles on the Christmas tree and the types of flowers planted in the flowerbeds are decided nearly a year earlier. Work assignments are planned out on bar charts to ensure the crews don’t get in each other’s way.

To pull off the parkwide job, Disneyland workers concentrate on holiday-ifying one geographic section of the park at a time. On Monday morning, the eight-hour shift was centered on the town plaza, the entrance area of the park and Main Street U.S.A.

Midnight: Cathy Carson, the park decorator, and her team of 10 workers arrive to begin installing garlands and wreaths on windows, awnings and doors of buildings along Main Street. Stadium lights are installed around the town square. Carson began at Disneyland as a seasonal worker helping decorate during the holidays and has since moved her way up to overseeing the holiday makeover.

2 a.m.: Luis Gomez, a horticulture manager who studied landscape architecture at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo, starts his shift. His crew of 14 workers begin to replace the Halloween-inspired marigolds, mums and celosia flowers in the town square with 300 red poinsettias, 600 white cyclamens and 80 white azaleas. Gomez watches to make sure the blooms are spaced an equal distance apart and face out toward the park visitors.

The design of the town square flowerbed — azaleas in the middle, surrounded by poinsettias with a ring of cyclamens on the outside — was created back in February to give Disneyland’s nursery supplier time to grow the hundreds of flowers needed.

A worker rushes to get new topiary and Christmas flowers planted as others decorate Main Street U.S.A.
(Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times)

3:05 a.m.: Carson’s team members wear rock-climbing harnesses and strap themselves into motorized aerial lifts that shuttle up and down the street. Wearing headlamps, they stretch garland across the building fronts and hang wreaths over each window and onto lampposts. “The most challenging part is coordinating everybody,” she said.

4:30 a.m.: At the center of the square, a forklift sets up an 11-foot metal sleeve — resembling a long stretch of pipe — into a cement hole next to an underground electrical box. The sleeve protrudes from the hole about 5 feet. It will hold the trunk of the nearly 12-ton Christmas tree. During the rest of the year, the hole is covered with turf and encircled with stanchions.

Workers use a crane to hoist the lower section of a giant Christmas tree into place as others decorate Disneyland's Main Street U.S.A.
(Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times)

4:45 a.m.: A 100-ton crane, rolling on 12 massive tires, makes its way up Main Street, hoisting the bottom section of the Christmas tree from its extended metal arm. Yellow signs with the words “North,” “South,” “East,” and “West” are taped to the branches so the crews know how to align the tree on the base.

Over the past few weeks, Carson and her crew have decorated the tree in a warehouse, adding 3,500 lights, 1,500 ornaments and 200 candles with flickering flame lights. This year, the decorating team decided to remove about a third of the branches to “make it look more real and not like a big cone,” she said. It is the biggest of 120 Christmas trees that will go up in the park and its three hotels.

6:09 a.m.: A smaller, 50-ton crane hoists the top section of the Christmas tree, constructed of steel branches and trunk and plastic needles. Workers in helmets and headlamps climb among the branches to secure the two sections together. Carson watches from the ground to make sure the two sections are lined up correctly. “This is when they can mess up my tree,” Carson said.


6:25 a.m.: The green, red, white and gold lights on the tree are turned on for the first time. Carson circles the tree to see if any lights are burned out or broken.

6:40 a.m.: Near the entrance gates, the horticulture crew has finished replacing hundreds of marigolds with 600 red poinsettias around the flower display that creates the image of Mickey Mouse. “When the sun comes up, it will look even more vibrant,” Gomez said as he surveys the display that has become a popular spot for family photos.

If the marigolds and other plants that are uprooted are still healthy, they can be replanted in another area of the park. If not, the flowers are recycled and used to make compost.

A worker fastens garland to a storefront awning overnight on Main Street U.S.A.
A worker fastens garland to a storefront awning overnight on Main Street U.S.A.
(Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times)

6:45 a.m.: Josh D’Amaro, president of the Disneyland Resort, climbs into an aerial lift that raises him to the tree’s top. A second lift carries two workers and the starburst light that will adorn the top of the tree, and a third carries a camera crew. For several minutes, the workers struggle to plug in the wires that will connect power to the starburst.

7:13 a.m.: The starburst ornament begins to glow and smaller lights start to twinkle. At the base of the tree, Carson and other workers move oversize gift boxes to cover the trunk and the electrical box at the bottom. The lifts and cranes begin to roll down Main Street to a backstage area. Maintenance crews wash down the sidewalk and streets with hoses.


7:55 a.m.: Visitors line up at the entrance gates.

8:35 a.m.: The gates open and people rush past the Christmas tree as a few members of the early-morning work crews linger in the square. Families pose for pictures in front of the tree, but others hurry to be first to their favorite ride. “Dad, it’s a Christmas tree. Look at it,” exclaims a boy, barely pausing before rushing away with his family.

In the pre-dawn hours, a worker looks over freshly laid flowers while others put up holiday decorations at the Disneyland Railroad Station at Disneyland in Anaheim, Calif.
(Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times)

To read more about the travel and tourism industries, follow @hugomartin on Twitter.