I'm ordinarily among those grumbling about Christmas calendar creep, but this season I dove head-first into the holidays with an early December Very Merrytime Disney Cruise. To many, the idea of seven days at sea with ugly sweater–clad mice must sound like the seventh level of hell. But from Dickens-esque caroling and storytime with Mrs. Claus to gingerbread house–building lessons and an endless loop of White Christmas on every stateroom TV, Disney's holiday-themed cruises represented Mickey's brand at its marvelously mawkish, manipulative, eye-moistening best.
Of course, the sticker price on a Disney holiday cruise could make Scrooge McDuck cry uncle; ditto the Walt Disney World parks, which now increase the prices of single-day passes on peak days and block out days around the holidays for all but their priciest Platinum passholders. If you can afford a Christmas visit to the Magic Kingdom, Disney has invented new ways to extract additional dollars, exemplified by the $650 per day they are now asking for rental of a private "Kingdom Cabana" in Tomorrowland. Clustered outside Space Mountain like a futuristic favela, the eight-person tents come equipped with IKEA-esque furnishings and cell phone chargers. Perks like mouse ears, ice cream bars and reserved fireworks viewing are thrown in, but you could book a night in a monorail resort instead and have cash left over.
Fortunately, this year there's one spectacular seasonal Disney attraction that you don't need to spend a dime to see. After two decades of drawing crowds to Disney's Hollywood Studios, the Osborne Family Spectacle of Dancing Lights was retired, with much of the park facing the wrecking ball for Star Wars Land. With a similar holiday display at Epcot also long since ended, twinkle light–loving guests were left without anything to ooh and ahh at. So in steps the newly completed Disney Springs, which is celebrating its first Christmas as the ex-Downtown Disney with free entertainment certain to entice those suffering from Osborne withdrawal.
Since its late November debut, the Starbright Holidays drone show has been drawing hordes of visitors to Disney Springs' usually underpopulated West Side. Developed in cooperation with Intel and directed by Michael Roddy, this gorgeous production uses a swarm of 300 volleyball-sized drones to create constellations of colored lights in the air above the shopping center's waterfront. Like flickering fairies, the computer-controlled mini-copters form a spinning Christmas tree and the dove of peace, eliciting collective gasps as they sparkle in sync with a subtly Disneyfied soundtrack of classic carols.
My only critique of Starbright Holidays is that, at barely five minutes long, it's more of a tech demo than a fully developed performance, and several additional sequences seen during rehearsals are absent from the finished product. As entertaining as this experiment is, I can't see it displacing traditional fireworks until issues of battery life and GPS reliability are resolved. Similarly, DHS's awkwardly named Jingle Bell, Jingle BAM! spectacle pared back the pyrotechnics, instead focusing on large-scale video mapping (Disney's best aside from Magic Kingdom's new Once Upon a Time castle display), along with laser lights and faux snow. It's a well-intended effort, but no digital effect can deliver the primitive punch of an old-fashioned explosive projectile.
The drone show, which runs nightly through Jan. 8 at 7 p.m. and 8:30 p.m., has breathed new life into Disney Springs' least updated area, normally best known as home to the aging DisneyQuest arcade, which only remains in operation because a deal for an NBA attraction stalled. Be prepared for the I-4 exit ramp into the complex's new parking garages to back up in the evenings (aim for the surface lot behind Cirque du Soleil if possible), and expect to find masses mobbing the walkway behind Bongos Cuban Cafe angling for an ideal view. If you cherish elbow room, stay toward the House of Blues end of the canal, or consider visiting the Saratoga Springs hotel and watching the Starbright Holidays from across the waterway.
However, if you are willing to brave the Christmas crowds, stick around afterward and explore the recently completed Town Center district. The former bus stop turned shopping strip, which resembles a charmless outlet mall by day, now becomes almost enchanting after dusk thanks to the addition of holiday lights and window decor. If you can confine your shopping to the window variety, an evening at Disney Springs is one of the best free holiday gifts to be found at Walt Disney World.