The Bracebridge Dinner at Yosemite: A Christmas Tradition at Yosemite National Park

The Bracebridge Dinner at The Majestic Yosemite Hotel (formerly the Ahwahnee) is a long-held Christmas tradition at Yosemite National Park. Each December, The Majestic Yosemite Hotel dining hall is transformed into a 17th century English manor where guests are invited to join Squire Bracebridge for a Christmas celebration. This 4-hour Yuletide celebration is a dazzling whirl of singing, acting, and pageantry which revolves around a 7-course feast. Obviously, I had been wanting to attend this venerable dinner pageant since I first heard about it two years ago. This year for Christmas instead of exchanging gifts, Ethan and I spent three days and nights in Yosemite and attended the Bracebridge Dinner at The Majestic Yosemite Hotel. If you are interested in attending or just want to find out more about this event, read on and we’ll tell you how to attend and share our experience of attending the Ye Olde Bracebridge Dinner at Yosemite.

Bracebridge Dinner at The Ahwahnee Yosemite National Park review of dinner

Some History, Information, and Tips on the Bracebridge Dinner

What is the Bracebridge Dinner?

The Bracebridge Dinner is a Yosemite tradition that began in 1927 as a Yuletide pageant to draw visitors to the park during the winter. Today’s celebrations still retain many of the elements of the original pageants from the 1920’s and 1930’s and include over 60 costumed professional singers and actors who sing and perform while a 7-course banquet dinner is served by The Majestic Yosemite Hotel’s culinary staff. The Majestic Yosemite Hotel’s great dining hall is decked out in elegant Christmas finery and sets a stage for this four-hour warm-hearted Christmas celebration filled with Christmas carols, Renaissance rituals, irreverent humor, and medieval entertainment. The Bracebridge Dinner is a much celebrated and revered holiday event with the Wall Street Journal noting in 2006: “Bracebridge is, without much doubt, the country’s, if not the world’s premier Christmas dinner.”

Origins of the Bracebridge Dinner?

The original pageant was written by Garnet Holme in 1927; however, the dinner celebration is based loosely on a series of stories from Washington Irving’s The Sketch Book of Geoffrey Crayon, Gent (1819-20). The Sketch Book is world famous for other tales such as “Rip Van Winkle” and “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow”, but the dinner would be based loosely on a series of five Christmas stories where Irving portrays idealized and nostalgic old English Christmas festivities occurring at an English manor owned by a Squire Bracebridge. These sketches were based on Irving’s own experiences enjoying Christmas at Aston Hall in Birmingham, England. Irving’s portrayl of these old-fashioned Christmas customs and rituals is credited with both influencing the revival of the Christmas holiday celebrations in the United States (yes, Christmas celebrations were out of favor at the time!) and the writing of Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol.

Where is the Bracebridge Dinner?

The Bracebridge Dinner is held annually in The Majestic Yosemite Hotel Dining Room. The Majestic Yosemite Hotel (formerly the Ahwahnee) is located in the Yosemite Valley within Yosemite National Park at the following address:  1 Ahwahnee Drive, Yosemite National Park, California 95389

Bracebridge Dinner at The Ahwahnee Yosemite National Park review of dinner

The Majestic Yosemite Hotel (formerly the Ahwahnee hotel)

Bracebridge Dinner at The Ahwahnee Yosemite National Park review of dinner

The Great Dining Hall of The Majestic Yosemite Hotel

When is the Bracebridge Dinner?

While traditionally done on Christmas Eve or Christmas Day, the dinner is now offered on several dates within the month of December. For instance in 2013, it was offered on seven different evenings (Dec. 13, 14, 16, 18, 20, 22, 24 and 25).

How Can I Attend?

Until recently, you could only attend the dinner if you were selected through a lottery system and tickets were extremely limited. Reservations are now taken on a first-come, first serve basis and the dinner is now held several times in December to accommodate more guests. While you may be able to get last-minute tickets to the Bracebridge Dinner, it is recommended that you make reservations at least a few months in advance to ensure you get tickets for your desired date. Tickets typically go on sale 8 or 9 months prior to each year’s performance. You can make phone reservations by calling +1 (801) 559-5000 or +1 (888) 413-8869 or book online by visiting the Bracebridge Dinner website

Bracebridge Dinner at The Ahwahnee Yosemite National Park review of dinner

Cost?

Attending the Bracebridge Dinner is an expensive treat and typically a once in a lifetime splurge for most guests (although this is a yearly tradition for a small number of guests). The final price is dependent on a few different factors. Most people purchase a “Bracebridge Package” and rates vary by choice of lodging and number of nights. The Bracebridge Package includes you choice of lodging at Yosemite National Park (The Majestic Yosemite Hotel, Yosemite Valley Lodge, or Big Trees Lodge), two tickets to the dinner, shuttle service to the dinner, and a portrait sitting.  Prices in 2013 for 2 people for the Bracebridge Package with 1 night lodging ranged from $975 to $1,269 and for two nights of lodging from $1,124 to $1,712. To save money you can buy the dinner–only tickets ($389 per person in 2013) and then try booking a room elsewhere (such as outside Yosemite Park) or hope for discounted hotel rates in the park closer to your visit (there were vacancies at both The Majestic Yosemite Hotel and Big Trees Lodge during our stay). However, to be safe, you should probably book lodging at least a few weeks before your visit.

Getting to the Bracebridge Dinner?

You can read our Yosemite Valley post for advice on how to get to the Yosemite National Park. If you are staying at The Majestic Yosemite Hotel you only need to walk downstairs. If you are staying at the Yosemite Valley Lodge or Big Tress Lodge, a free shuttle will be provided if you purchase the Bracebridge Dinner Package and you should check in advance for shuttle times. Note that the Yosemite Valley Lodge is a 5-minute drive from The Majestic Yosemite Hotel while the Wawona Hotel is a 45 to 60 minute drive from The Majestic Yosemite Hotel . If you plan to stay elsewhere, you’ll need to drive yourself. Free self parking and valet parking are available in front of The Majestic Yosemite Hotel.

How to Dress for the Bracebridge Dinner at Yosemite?

Formal dress is requested. This generally means a tuxedo or dark suit for men and an evening gown or comparable for women. Now based on our visit, approximately 1/3 of men wore a tuxedo, 1/2 wore a dark suit, and about 1/6 of men were wearing a sports jacket and dress pants. For women, most were wearing nice dresses although many would not necessarily be considered an evening gown. A number of women were also in tailored suits and nice blouse and skirt combinations. So to be comfortable, you’ll definitely want to dress up, but if you don’t happen to have a tuxedo or evening gown, your nicest party attire will likely be acceptable. Note that the mean age of the diners here is fairly high so dress tends to be fairly conservative. Also while the performers will all be in costumes, guests are asked to refrain from wearing costumes to the dinner.

Bracebridge Dinner at The Ahwahnee Yosemite National Park review of dinner

Other Tips for Attending the Bracebridge Dinner?

  • Be sure to pick up your tickets at one of the many Registration times at The Majestic Yosemite Hotel prior to your scheduled dinner. If you would like to pre-order wine (strongly recommended if you wish to have wine with your dinner) or have special menu requests, you can do this when you pick up your tickets prior to the dinner.
  •  It is strongly recommended that children under 10 years of age do not attend. Given that most children (and perhaps many adults!) can not sit quietly for 4 hours, this makes good sense. There was one couple with a baby at a nearby table and the man was carrying the baby around most of the evening to keep the baby from crying and this was distracting at times.
  • Check the Yosemite and The Majestic Yosemite Hotel calendars for other holiday events. If you are interested in learning more about The Majestic Yosemite Hotel we strongly recommend the 1-hour ranger-led Historic Hotel Tour (call ahead, reservations needed). If you want to learn more about the Bracebridge Dinner, there are 30-minute History of Bracebridge Dinner talks (December only, no reservations needed). Also if you can, you should make time for the free evening concerts at The Majestic Yosemite Hotel in which Bracebridge Dinner cast members sing and perform.

    Bracebridge Dinner at The Ahwahnee Yosemite National Park review of dinner

    Ethan and our wonderful Historic Ahwahnee Tour guide

  • Try to arrive a couple of hours prior to the Bracebridge Dinner to register, get your photograph taken (the line can be up to an hour long and the earlier you come the shorter the line), and enjoy champagne and caroling in the Great Lounge.
  • Seating at each table is decided on a first-come, first-serve basis so try to get in line as soon as the dinner line forms (typically 15 to 30 minutes prior to the performance) to ensure a good view of the center aisle and Squire Bracebridge’s banquet table.
  • Electronic devices and cameras are not allowed to be used during the performance. So unfortunately this means you can’t take photos, but it prevents a lot of potentially annoying distractions during the performance. If you have devices on you, make sure they are turned off and stowed away in your purse or pockets during the performance. You are welcome to take photos prior to entering the Dining Hall and after the performance.

How do I find out more information about the Bracebridge Dinner at Yosemite?

For information about the Bracebridge Dinner, you can check out the Bracebridge Dinner website or the Bracebridge website page on the Yosemite National Park website. You can also call (801) 559-4884 (reservations and information), The Majestic Yosemite Hotel Concierge Desk at (209) 372-1426 or the toll-free Yosemite reservations line +1 (888) 413-8869. 

For more general information about visiting Yosemite National Park, check out the wonderful Yosemite National Park website managed by the National Park Service. Also check out Aramark’s (official contractor for Yosemite) Yosemite website here which provides details about lodging options and offered tours. You might want to read our other Yosemite articles on planning a day in Yosemite Valley and exploring the Southern end of the park.

Our Experience Attending the Bracebridge Dinner at Yosemite

Pre-Dinner Concert

In addition to the Bracebridge Dinners, members of the cast also perform in shorter musical and theatrical performances at The Majestic Yosemite Hotel in between Bracebridge dinners. All guests of The Majestic Yosemite Hotel, as well as those attending the Bracebridge Dinner, are invited to these public evening performances and no tickets are needed. You should just show up a bit early to get a good seat in the lounge with performances lasting about 2 hours. We attended a concert of musical theatre selections and it was very nice. Even our untrained ears could tell that many of the performers were professionally trained. We felt like this was a good warm-up for the Bracebridge Dinner the following evening.

Getting Ready for the Bracebridge Dinner

After spending the morning and afternoon exploring the ancient giant sequoia trees of Mariposa Grove and learning about the history of the settlers in the park at Yosemite Pioneer History Center, we headed back to our room at the Big Trees Lodge (then the Wawona Hotel) to get ready. We booked the Bracebridge Package and chose the Big Trees Lodge as it is the most historic hotel at Yosemite National Park and it seemed like a good mid-level choice between the more expensive The Majestic Yosemite Hotel and more rustic Yosemite Valley Lodge. However, it should be pointed out that the Wawona is a good 45 to 60 minutes from the attractions in the Yosemite Valley so be prepared to drive back and forth as there are not regular shuttles in the winter. The setting does offer the chance to experience a very peaceful area of the park and for that we were very content.

Wawona Hotel decorated for Christmas

Big Tress Lodge (then the Wawona Hotel) decorated for the holidays

I wore a silk dress I had owned for many years, formal but not really an evening gown. I had actually rented a floor-length evening gown from Rent the Runway that was supposed to have been delivered the day before; however, due to some complications regarding the UPS address of the hotel and the fact that UPS does not deliver to the hotel on weekends, I did not get the beautiful Nicole Miller dresses I had ordered. However, I got a full refund from Rent the Runway and my back-up choice ended up working out well. Ethan owned neither a tux or dark suit, so he had rented a tuxedo for the weekend. It was fun getting all dressed up. After we finished getting ready, a free scheduled shuttle came to pick us up at 3:00pm to take us to the Bracebridge Dinner.

Bracebridge Dinner at The Ahwahnee Yosemite National Park review of dinner

Portrait Sitting & Christmas Carols

We arrived at The Majestic Yosemite Hotel a little after 4:00pm, checked our coats, and got in line for the portrait sitting. Each year, guests of the Bracebridge Dinner have the option of sitting for Christmas photographs, and a few photo prints are included in the price of the Bracebridge package. The only downside is that it takes several weeks until you actually receive the photos in the mail—but we really loved the photos taken by Nancy Robbins. They made excellent belated Christmas photos for family and friends.

Bracebridge Dinner Christmas Ahwahnee hotel

Our Bracebridge Christmas dinner photo

Then we went into the Great Lounge—which is a large public area of The Majestic Yosemite Hotel—which had a cash bar set up and two men were playing pianos. Around 5:00pm, they started playing Christmas carols and a booklet of the lyrics was circulated and guests were invited to sing along. We sat next to one of the giant fireplaces for about 45 minutes singing until people started to line up to go into the dining hall for the Bracebridge Dinner.

Bracebridge Dinner at The Ahwahnee Yosemite National Park review of dinner

Bracebridge Dinner at The Ahwahnee Yosemite National Park review of dinner

newly made friends enjoying champagne in the Great Lounge

Bracebridge Dinner at The Ahwahnee Yosemite National Park review of dinner

singing along to Christmas carols

Seating

We handed over our dinner tickets and were then ushered to our table. Each of the 30 or so  round table-clothed tables (for some reason we had expected long banquet style medieval tables alongside each side) seated 8 to 10 guests.  Our table had 9 guests as we had three parties of two and one party of three. We were at table 14 which happened to be about three rows of tables from the front where the Bracebridge banquet table sits. However, we were alongside the wall instead of next to the center aisle and we would later learn that the best seats are either at the front or along the aisles as action goes on both in the front, along the aisles, and sometime at the very back. However, the music and voices carry quite well and we still got to see much of the action. TIP: While you can’t choose your table once you get into the dining hall, you do get to choose your seat and those who get into the dining hall first get to face the stage or aisle. So if you want to avoid having to crane your neck, get in line as soon as it begins to form.

Bracebridge Dinner at The Ahwahnee Yosemite National Park review of dinner

These guys bar the door to the Dining Hall prior to dinner time

Bracebridge Dinner at The Ahwahnee Yosemite National Park review of dinner

Dining hall decorated for holidays – notice Bracebridge stained glass pieces within the wreaths

 The Food

Our first dish was the “Relish” dish of baba ghanoush, olives, and flatbread and was quite good. The food overall was good and none of our dishes were bad, but a few were only OK. We both really enjoyed the Relish dish, Fish dish, Soup dish, and Beef dish. However, the salad, peacock (duck in this case), and pudding were just OK in my opinion. Ethan enjoyed some of these a bit more than me. Portions are fairly small but with seven courses you’ll likely leave full. We heard mixed reports of those who ordered the Vegetarian dishes (Vegan, Gluten-Free, and Vegetarian menus are available) with one person reporting they were good and one person finding some of these dishes to be quite bland and dry. Overall, we thought the food was pretty good although not quite as good as were expecting given how good the culinary staff is at The Majestic Yosemite Hotel. However, given that the food was cooked and served to over 300 people at one time, it was quite amazing! The food and beverage staff were great and the only real complaint was that towards the end of the meal several members of our table had to request tea or coffee a few times before it was finally provided.

Bracebridge Dinner at The Ahwahnee Yosemite National Park review of dinner

Bracebridge Dinner 2013 menu

The Performance

Bracebridge Dinner at The Ahwahnee Yosemite National Park review of dinner

The stained glass centerpiece above the Bracebridge banquet table.

Seating began at 6:00pm, but the actual performance begins after everyone is seated at 6:30pm. It begins with some chimes and then the hall becomes silent. Then voices, then singing, and finally a procession of performers. The performance begins! The 3 ½ hour visual feast includes all kinds of music, rituals, humor, and shenanigans (usually instigated by The Lord of Misrule [a.k.a. the jester]). Part old-fashioned Christmas celebration, part irrelevant good-natured antics, it was an enjoyable performance. Many of the performers are professionals who work in the San Francisco Bay area, including members of the San Francisco Opera. The performance is punctuated by each course and while the actors continue to sit at Squire Bracebridge’s banquet table up front in character, the performance pauses as food is delivered. While much of the performance is scripted and remains the same across all the evening performances, some audience participation and improvisation does occur.

Towards the end of the evening there is a toast of wassail (hot mulled cider) in the dining hall and then the evening slowly begins to fade to an end. Even though we had been sitting for almost 4 hours, I was a bit sad when all the performers processed out of the hall and the lights came back on. However, I will note that a few people near us were clearly tired or restless a couple of hours into the dinner, so I think people should carefully consider if they are actually interested in a 4-hour Renaissance-themed Christmas dinner pageant before investing so much money. It is clearly not for everyone.

Bracebridge Dinner at The Ahwahnee Yosemite National Park review of dinner

Bracebridge Dinner at The Ahwahnee Yosemite National Park review of dinner

Ethan and one of the cast members

I took a couple quick photographs on the way out (none are allowed during the performance). Many of the performers were standing outside the dining hall as you exit. You have the opportunity to briefly talk to them and shake their hands. We collected our coats and then hurried out into the cold winter night to meet our shuttle. We excitedly compared notes on our shuttle ride with the other couple staying at The Majestic Yosemite Hotel. We were happy but very tired when we arrived back at the hotel.

Was it worth it? It was an expensive evening to be sure and likely a once in a lifetime experience for us. This was our Christmas celebration for the year in the place of exchanging any gifts, and we both felt like being part of this historic and festive dinner pageant was well worth it. I can’t imagine there are many Christmas celebrations that could top this one.

Bracebridge Dinner at The Ahwahnee Yosemite National Park review of dinner

Have you been to the Bracebridge Dinner at Yosemite? Want to attend? We’d love to hear your thoughts.