Carols are one of the most magical traditions of the holiday season – nothing says Christmas like a choir brightening the night with candles and song. And there are few better places to experience a choral celebration than at Epcot’s Candlelight Processional. This beloved tradition has been moving Epcot Guests since 1993, and it comes complete with 300 guest choir members from high schools and colleges across the East Coast, a Cast Member choir, a celebrity narrator, and a 50-piece orchestra.
Believe it or not, history of the Candlelight Processional goes back even further than 1993. Show producer Thomas Tryon tells us that “Walt wanted choirs singing on Disneyland’s Main Street at holiday time, and reached out to Dr. Charles Hirt at USC, who had brought in music groups for Disneyland’s opening ceremonies. That’s how the tradition started – and then in 1958 it became the Candlelight Processional, which is still celebrated on a select weekend over the holidays at Disneyland Resort. It was meant as a gift from Disney to the community.”
When Walt Disney World Resort opened, the Candlelight Processional was brought with it. In the early years the Processional took place on Main Street at Magic Kingdom, much like the Disneyland event. “I got to attend once,” says Thomas. “You could stand on Main Street and watch the choirs come down the parade route, holding their candles. In 1993 we moved to Epcot as part of the Holidays Around the World celebration, where we’re able to have a dedicated stage and offer more performances – three times a night from the day after Thanksgiving through December 30th every year.”
Tom explains, “The show format is based on the long tradition of lessons and carols – we use Christmas carols that help illuminate or tell the story of the Nativity. They’re all contemporary arrangements done especially for this show. And we add new music from year to year as well, so we have something new for returning Guests to hear.”
He adds, “One of the things that I enjoy most is making the show the finale to a day spent at Epcot. I love wandering around World Showcase and seeing how Christmas is celebrated in all these different countries, then enjoying dinner there. To finish with the show is just really special. Some of the carols are in German, Spanish and French, so it has a nice international feel that fits perfectly with Epcot.”
The celebrity narrators tell the Christmas story, an integral part of the show, and an impressive variety of stars have taken part. This year Steven Curtis Chapman is narrating now through Christmas Day, Blair Underwood will be narrating from December 26 through 28, and Amy Grant will be finishing the remaining dates. “It’s always special to me to watch the narrator at the end of the show – we give them a moment to wrap it up in their own words. They’re always touched,” says Thomas. “I know what it’s like as a singer to be part of that. It can be a bit overwhelming when you stand in the middle of it with the orchestra and choir. Many narrators get a little choked up. “
Thomas is a singer himself and we wondered whether he’s ever been tempted to take the stage for Candlelight Processional. He laughs, “As the producer, I sing in rehearsals, but I’ve never had the opportunity to sing in the show because I’m a little busy at that point. But I bet they’d let me – I have a little familiarity with the show!”
If you’d like to see this year’s Processional there’s still a little time – the show continues through December 30. And next year, the choirs will illuminate the winter evenings again.