June 18, 2024

One of Our Favorite Disney Parties is Free!

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We've done dozens of special events at Walt Disney World and Disneyland over the last decade-plus. Halloween and Christmas parties more times than I can count, plus After Hours and After Dark Nites, and a

We’ve done dozens of special events at Walt Disney World and Disneyland over the last decade-plus. Halloween and Christmas parties more times than I can count, plus After Hours and After Dark Nites, and a variety of now-extinct offerings.

Back when we started attending, tickets to Mickey’s Halloween and Christmas parties were ~$30. We’ve continued going as prices are now 5 times that, as these events are our favorite times in the park. I don’t dare do the math on how much we’ve spent over the years on special events–some stupid amount, surely.

And yet, one of our favorite parties is free. Well, sort of. I’m referring to Moonlight Magic, the after hours party for Disney Vacation Club Members. This is “free” in the sense that tickets do not cost money and also since the event is not funded by our annual dues. But of course, joining DVC is a colossal barrier to entry. So this is like a free with purchase thing…but instead of getting free fries when you buy a Big Mac, it’s a free event once you spend ~$15k or more. Potato, potahto…am I right?!

For those who are unfamiliar with Moonlight Magic, it’s somewhat similar to Disney After Hours or Disneyland After Dark, the $100+ per night hard ticket events at Walt Disney World or Disneyland. If you’re not a DVC Member, you might consider the Disney After Hours event as an alternative.

Both are low-crowd “after hours” events that offer opportunities to experience attractions with minimal waits and enjoy unlimited food and refreshments. We’ve attended Moonlight Magic at every Walt Disney World park except Blizzard Beach (I don’t think they’ve ever done the event there…but I could be wrong) and usually have a blast. Oddly enough, our two most common parks for Moonlight Magic are Disney California Adventure and Typhoon Lagoon, each of which we’ve done several times.

For this post, we want to do a quasi-party recap on Moonlight Magic we recently attended at DCA (Baby Bricker’s first hard ticket event!), along with what makes this party so special and advice for making the most of it. It’s a bit of a grab bag–mostly trip report but also some tips & tricks…

Registration for Moonlight Magic at DCA was surprisingly simple, which I think was in large part because DVC didn’t really publicize it ahead of time. If I recall correctly, the website wasn’t updated with registration info until a few days before the event. Prior to that, Sarah had called and wasn’t able to find out when signup would go live.

The end result was that Moonlight Magic’s virtual queue for registration was speedy (it took me maybe 10 minutes), and the event actually didn’t fill up immediately. It was still fully booked same-day, but everyone who was in the virtual queue right when the event opened would’ve been able to get in. That’s a big deal, because it’s not always the case–especially with the events at Walt Disney World!

Tickets and parking vouchers were sent via snail mail and arrived fairly promptly. I’m surprised DVC goes this route, as there’s gotta be a more efficient digital option. Whatever, though, it works.

As for the night of Moonlight Magic itself, there’s usually a mix-in that starts a few hours prior to park closing. In this case, attendees could enter Disney California Adventure as early as 6 p.m. with the event officially starting at 9 p.m., which was also the time of park closing on this particular night.

Having been around the block with Moonlight Magic and other Disneyland Resort special events, we opted against showing up for the start of mix-in. What we’ve learned over the years is that, increasing, attendees at these events are now less likely to have admission (due to the rising cost of Annual Passes and regular park tickets), so they’re incentivized to show up right at the start of mix-in to maximize time in the park.

This has been happening with Halloween and other hard ticket events at Disneyland for a while, and the same is starting to occur at Walt Disney World. There are huge crowds outside the turnstiles for the start of mix-in because a smaller percentage of guests otherwise have admission. They’re using the parties as a substitute for normal park days–a way to get their Disney “fix.”

We’re Magic Key/Annual Passholders, so there was no incentive for us to arrive at 6 o’clock on the dot. Photos on social media vindicated this decision, as they showed a colossal crowd taking up half the Esplanade. Baby Bricker (Megatron) is also a limiting factor, and we’ve found that she can do day or night in the parks, but not usually both. Given all of that, we opted to roll up just after 7 p.m., when there was absolutely no line whatsoever. We were in the park and received our snack vouchers and event maps in under 90 seconds.

Having also been around the block with the meal vouchers, we made an immediate beeline for Award Wieners. Now some of you, let’s call this group the clueless haters, might wonder why we opted to eat at a circa-2001 hot dog stand. It is because, and I cannot stress this enough, Award Wieners is actually good! It has been since 2018!!!

Suffice to say, there’s a reason Award Wieners makes our List of the 24 Best Restaurants at Disneyland. Right now, it’s home to the Pambazo Torta, which is a seasonal hot dog sandwich kinda thing that is absolutely next level. I don’t think this dish is for Lunar New Year, so it should be sticking around. It’s a top 5 counter service entree at DCA right now.

While a lot of other people have a lot of other complaints about Moonlight Magic, my only material one is the snack vouchers. These are given out in paper form and only one can be used per transaction, and only during Moonlight Magic. The paper cards create a sense of urgency and inefficiency, taking way too long to redeem and clogging up restaurant lines throughout the night. I would hazard a guess that the 10 longest lines in DCA during Moonlight Magic were all dining locations.

I don’t know why DVC still does it this way, as the exact same thing happened last year. Fortunately for us, we learned from our mistakes then, and ordered a lot of food early, and then saved our remaining credits until during the tail end of the night (strategically timed during World of Color) when we got Raspberry Cheesecake Shakes from Smokejumpers Grill. That milkshake is amazing, but I probably wouldn’t recommend drinking two of them back-to-back.

In addition to the snack vouchers, there are also free refreshments around the park during Moonlight Magic–just like After Hours events. We didn’t even bother with these this time as we got our fill at Award Wieners, but we’ve found that lines are always worst for these during the first hour of the event. After that, there’s seldom a wait.

After being thoroughly full, we used our remaining credits at Mortimer’s Market during the final hour of the event–but before the mass exodus–to stock up on the basics, like bread and pickles.

During the heart of Moonlight Magic, we focused exclusively on rare characters. Here’s a non-exhaustive list of who was out during the 2024 Moonlight Magic at Disney California Adventure:

  • Bolt
  • Roger Rabbit
  • Clarabelle Cow and Horace Horsecollar
  • Baloo, King Louie and Don Carnage from TailSpin
  • Monterey Jack and Fat Cat from Rescue Rangers
  • Buzz Lightyear and Jessie
  • Flik and Atta; Tuck and Roll
  • Country Bears
  • Chef Louie (Little Mermaid)
  • Hyacinth Hippo and Madame Upanova (Fantasia)
  • Very rare characters from Treasure Planet or Atlantis (?)

You can also enjoy an awkward ‘meet and greet’ with DVC executives, who are often out and about at Moonlight Magic. This is a nice touch to show they care, but it also makes for a golden opportunity to share your grievances about maintenance fees at the Fort Wilderness Cabins or, I dunno, why Angel from Lilo & Stitch is criminally underutilized.

Who knows, could save you from being forced to make a trip to the annual shareholders meeting and pressing Bob Iger on a very important question that everyone else is afraid to ask. (I kid, but I can only imagine the conversations at these meet & greets are as much an unmitigated train wreck as that Q&A, with DVC execs mostly just patiently smiling and nodding.)

We didn’t prioritize attractions during Moonlight Magic, but everything we saw was a walk-on or close to it–pretty comparable to what you’d encounter at Disney After Hours. I would hazard a guess that the attractions in Avengers Campus and Radiator Springs Racers did have appreciable wait times, but honestly, I didn’t pay attention when we passed those attractions. Even those still would’ve been a fraction of the times they’d be on a normal night. As is the case with the Christmas and Halloween Parties, we don’t do attractions during these special events.

We’re abnormal in that regard (and so many), but we’d prefer to focus on the unique aspects of these special events, doing things we can’t in a normal day at DCA. We come at this from the perspective of people who have done every ride more times than we can count and really have no sense of urgency about attractions anymore.

Special entertainment, rare characters, and really even differing ambiance are going to take priority for us at any special event. Your mileage may vary depending upon how much you care about experiencing attractions. This is a big part of what makes Moonlight Magic is a more appealing event to us than Disney After Hours (even setting aside the obvious cost upside of $0 vs. $100+), as the former has a ton of rare characters and other random stuff.

Another reason why we focused on rare characters during Moonlight Magic is because the lines were short. The longest wait we had was for Bolt at the beginning of the event, and even that pup was under 15 minutes. Honestly, I was shocked by the <10 minute wait times for characters–many of whom haven’t met at the domestic parks in a long time. And this was with hearty interactions with a lot of guests, rather than trying to quickly churn through people to keep the line moving.

We ended up doing a dozen meet & greets, which easily beat what we accomplish at Mickey’s Halloween or Christmas Party. Granted, those also have unique entertainment–and that’s our focus at those–but judging by average wait times at the respective events, this was better for characters.

Character-wise, Moonlight Magic was also much better than the Disneyland Half Marathon just a couple of weeks earlier. Sarah wondered why way more effort was put into a free party than a paid race–my best guesses are that it comes down to different teams and different priorities. RunDisney races sell out instantly, so there’s not much incentive to improve. The feedback loop from the ‘market’ is that the races are already excellent.

Moonlight Magic serves a different demographic, and it exists to keep member satisfaction high. But also, and perhaps more importantly, it’s a marketing vehicle for Disney Vacation Club. Every time a photo or video of a rare character at the event goes viral on social media, they probably sell X contracts to Aulani.

Silly as it might seem, there’s ROI in these events and less complacency as a result. They don’t always get it right, but they try their best. And our experiences with Moonlight Magic in the last few years bear this out. Minus the terrible snack voucher system, the parties are pretty fantastic.   

While we enjoyed meeting rare characters before and “collecting” photos with them before, it’s so much more fun now with Megatron. They go wild for her in a way that they just seldom showed enthusiasm for us before. It seems like they want to spend more time with us now, whereas before we always felt a pressure (probably in our own heads) to quickly interact, get a photo, and move on.

And at least for me, it’s so much less awkward to meet face characters now. It’s like we have an excuse, for lack of a better term, to be mingling with them. To each their own, and I’m not saying other Disney Adults without kids should feel uncomfortable–that was just how I felt. The above characters from Treasure Planet or Atlantis (or maybe both movies!) were especially fantastic, ad libbing about exploring and going on adventures with her.

If they see Megatron–and sometimes they don’t because she looks like a gigantic sack attached to the front of us when it’s chilly–the fur characters love to ham it up. Since they obviously cannot talk, this is done via pantomime. Not to make myself sound like a total moron, but I am awful at this. I can barely communicate with actual humans verbally, and now I have to learn a new non-verbal language?!

As with most things, Sarah is much better. She just rolls with the punches, interpreting the cue and then saying whatever. It works especially well with the random characters that have looser integrity rules and more latitude as a result.

Enter the Country Bears, who were back at Disneyland after a bit of a hiatus (about a year?). Their triumphant return also marked the debut of Romeo McGrowl (pictured above on the prowl, in the form of found footage from his upcoming survival horror film).

The Country Bears are the characters we have always had consistently great interactions with. It’s low stakes/low demand, we love the characters, and they have freedom to be fun. That held true on this particular evening, and the exchange culminated with, out of nowhere, Sarah saying, “Wendell, you’re asking if you’re the father?! No, of course not!” Hilarity and em-bear-assment ensued.

For her part, Megatron was…uh…present? Over the course of her young life, she has already met a couple dozen different characters (including Mickey & Friends multiple times) and been awake for a grand total of two of those experiences.

As a result, we have a lot of pictures with characters pretending to sleep (see above; that’s intentional–not Sarah blinking midphoto) or doing the “shhh” signal. Someday I hope Megatron will look back at these rare character photos fondly, show her friends and boast, “that’s me–the potato sack looking thing on the front of my mom!” It may not be great, but at least it exists–beats the (supposed) photo of me, Dreamfinder and Figment that my parents can’t find.

After a fantastic first visit for Christmas, Megatron’s days at Disneyland have been fairly uneventful. We always walk from the parking structure, and by the time we arrive at the Downtown Disney security checkpoint, she’s usually asleep. Pretty much the entirety of this party was after her bedtime (but she’s asleep ~10 minutes after being worn, regardless, so long as motion is maintained), so sleep was the story of her night.

There are a lot of characters on the above list that I haven’t seen before at Walt Disney World or Disneyland, ever. Literally half the list! In particular, meeting the characters from TailSpin and Rescue Rangers was a childhood dream come true.

There was a Cast Member behind us in line for Monterey Jack and Fat Cat, who said that he should go home because he had to work early but just couldn’t because this was a “once in a lifetime opportunity.” He was absolutely right.

The level of enthusiasm from our fellow millennials for a lot of these characters was through the roof. I’ve begged for an After Hours/After Dark Disney Afternoon Nite for years, and they came soclose this year…with Disney Channel Nite. Unfortunately, that’s so close but so far away–a whole generation away.

All of that stuff is aimed at “kids” (people ~10 years younger than me). I just don’t get it. Millennials have families and, if not, a ton of disposable income. We are in our peak earning years and are eager to waste it on this type of thing. C’mon Disney, take our money. But I digress. 

As awesome as the Disney Afternoon characters were, the highlight of Moonlight Magic was seeing Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs gathered around outside Carthay Circle Restaurant. They were playing, dancing and interacting with guests. This was pure Disney magic, and a truly brilliant touch (the movie premiered in 1937 at Carthay Circle Theatre in Los Angeles).

To my knowledge, this had never been done before. Probably because that’s a lot of performers concentrated in one spot, but perhaps just because no one had ever thought of it. Regardless, I literally got goosebumps as we saw the characters in the distance and approached. Such a magical little thing, and a great nod to the past. It very much made the park entrance area feel like Walt Disney’s California adventure.

I know we’re sometimes critical of Disney Vacation Club and there were a rocky few years for members, but there have also been massive strides. This entire event, and little magical moments like this in particular, remind me that the DVC team truly does “get” Disney. Huge to kudos to all involved in bringing this and other Moonlight Magic events to life.

Ultimately, Moonlight Magic at Disney California Adventure was a ton of fun. Aside from the Star View Station Lounge at Disneyland and Imagination Lounge in EPCOT, this is definitely our favorite Disney Vacation Club member perk. We schedule around these events every year because we love them so much–I really hope we’re able to do the Disney’s Hollywood Studios event at the end of summer!

While I wouldn’t recommend booking a flight to Florida or California just for one of these parties, I would pre-plan a trip during a certain time of year to coincide with one of the Moonlight Magic events. They’re a ton of fun, and some of our favorite parties of the year for good reason. (Only “some of” because the Halloween and Christmas parties probably beat them most of the time for us.) If Disney After Hours or Disneyland After Dark events are something you’d otherwise do, then Moonlight Magic is arguably better.

If you’re thinking about joining DVC, be sure to read our Ultimate Guide to Disney Vacation Club. This covers the pros & cons, resale v. direct, how much money you’ll save, and other important things to know before taking the plunge. If you still can’t decide whether membership is right for you, “try before you buy” with the recommendations in How to Save BIG on Deluxe Disney Accommodations Renting DVC Points.

YOUR THOUGHTS

Have you attended one of the Moonlight Magic events at Disneyland or Walt Disney World? What did you think of the experience? Did you manage to meet lots or rare characters? Would you recommend the event to others? Any questions or thoughts about anything in this party report? Hearing your feedback about your experiences is both interesting to us and helpful to other readers, so please share your thoughts or questions below in the comments!

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