Disneyland Resort’s holiday season kicks off Friday, November 11, so Resort Improvement Area Manager Dawn Pipal-Keehne and her team of 60 cast members are busy transforming the parks this week.
This year is Pipal-Keehne’s 25th year decorating 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 Christmas tree on Buena Vista Street inside Disney California Adventure. For Cars Land, its resort improvement team worked 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 wonderful opportunity to work with the Pixar team and they are very specific,” explains Pipal-Keehne. “They’re very willing to work with us because it brings this dimensional piece that you see on screen to life.”
Although the decorations drop in January, the vacation planning process begins in February.
“There’s a dedicated team called Vacation Services within the Improvement Group,” she says. “Literally, that’s what they do all year round. They rehabilitate garlands and trees. Fix the lights and change the ornaments. … It’s a year-long process.
Since Pipal-Keehne knows the resort’s vacation transformation, we asked him what it’s like behind the scenes, how to recreate the magic of Disney decor at home, and where guests can take the best vacation photos this year. This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.
Q. What are you most excited about this year’s decor at the parks?
A. We are up to 100%. While even last year we had a reduced package due to the weather, I’m thrilled because 100% of all the decor is going back to the resort – and that’s Downtown Disney, that’s DCA, that’s the hotels . We’re at 100% 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 this whole package to our guests this year.
Q. How many players does it take to transform the parks?
A. We have 60 actors [on the enhancement team] and all this is not for the holidays. The wide range of what we do: We also maintain all props and decors for window displays and at all attractions. We make tables, chairs, awnings, umbrellas, shade control. Vacations are only part of that.
The window artists will bring seasonality to all the windows of the station. So it’s not just Christmas, it’s seasonal. It’s winter and it’s Christmas. Then we enter spring with our Easter celebrations, then we have summer with red, white and blue nods, then we have fall with Halloween. So there are constant changes throughout the year.
The Haunted Mansion and Small World are performed by the entertainment division. So we don’t have a role in those two overlays of attraction, but whatever is outward, whatever is inland, whatever support material is us.
Q. How long does it take to decorate the Disneyland resort?
A. I think we’re doing our job if people assume we’re doing 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 setup. And even before the Halloween release, we’re starting to come in with crews to put the Christmas lights on the resort trees. But you wouldn’t know because we don’t enable them. … The reality is that on November 1, we come in and we put up these big, iconic pieces of Christmas decor. Main Street. Buena Vista. Cars Land is in transition. Next, we install our signature trees. We did Buena Vista last week and we are doing Main Street this week. Then we do hotels and Downtown Disney next week. When all is said and done, it’s about four weeks. But again, we try to navigate secretly to help us. Thus, our clients feel like there is an overnight transformation.
Q. How can guests recreate the magic of a Disney vacation at home?
A. It all comes down to subtleties. That’s what makes Disney different, it’s our attention to detail. For example, if you have a Christmas tree, how does that tree actually grow? What do the branches look like? How should it be inflated? You don’t want to take the tree out of a box and just stick lights on it. What we are doing here is ruffling the foliage of the pine so that the tree will grow. So here at the station, we use different types of foliage for different areas… So it’s not just about sticking a decoration on the tree, it’s how do you treat each branch? How do you treat each ornament?
Q. Speaking of ornaments, any tips?
A. Hang your largest ornaments on the bottom [of the tree]. As it progresses upwards, you reduce the 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 the ornaments towards the heart of your tree, then climb up and out. You may not necessarily see them, so the ones you want to place closer to the inside of the tree are your most generic ornaments. So if you don’t see it, don’t mind. Whatever color palette you choose, find generic ornaments that match and bury them inside. Then you start creating these layers.
Q. Where should guests go for the perfect time this year?
A. On Main Street, halfway between the castle and the tree. So either way, you’re shooting during “Believe…” [the nighttime spectacular] during snow time this is the perfect spot. Halfway between the castle and the tip of the Christmas tree – and the lighting is fantastic. It’s a good picture. This would be my moment. You can see snow and lighting, projection mapping on buildings. It’s all pretty amazing.
Q. What about Disney California Adventure?
A. Buena Vista is a great spot, across from the Carthay Circle Lounge. But if you really like Cars Land, it’s also a great place. So that’s what you enjoy. They are two amazing places.