November 2011: Vacations and Christmas share a lot of emotions: Joy, wonder, and a sense of togetherness. Both reek of “family time,” and they create the kind of memories that stick with kids forever. From a cold-hearted business perspective, Christmas is also an ideal marketing theme for Orlando-area attractions, and families rarely leave disappointed.
The two weeks over Christmas, however, are the year’s busiest in Central Florida, and the ride lines become harder to stomach than Scrooge’s gruel. December weekends can also be busy as Floridians tap into the theme park festivities. On the flip side, December weekdays prior to the holidays host fairly thin crowds.
Must-see Orlando Christmas events
These are the ones you come to Orlando to take in – the ones found nowhere else.
Osborne Family Spectacle of Dancing Lights, Disney’s Hollywood Studios
Every town has one or two houses that give off enough Christmas light to land a plane, but Disney takes it to the next level on the New York streets of Hollywood Studios. The buildings have so many lights that the architecture behind the decorations disappears altogether. And once the sheer number of miniature bulbs takes your breath, Disney ramps up the music and makes the lights flash and run like a Yuletide disco. And then it snows. (It’s soap bubbles.) The downside? For the rest of your life, even the brightest local holiday display will “not be as good as Disney, though.”
Epcot Candlelight Processional
The vast number of singers – Disney imports some from local high schools to back its existing talent – round out a show that combines a telling of the Biblical story with standard holiday songs that fit the passage. Celebrity guests tell the Christmas tale, and they run from “I can’t believe John Stamos is 20 feet away” to “Who the heck is that?” Compared to the Hollywood Studios light show, Epcot’s Candlelight Processional offers tradition rather than tinsel. Important note: Epcot saves the best seats for guests who buy a meal/show package. Non-dinner guests should arrive early for one of three nightly shows and plan to stand in a long line. The last show of the evening generally gives you the best shot at a decent seat and/or shorter wait time.
Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade, Universal Studios
You didn’t make it to New York City, but Universal transports you there, albeit with 80-degree weather and sunshine. Leftover Macy’s floats travel down a fake New York Street followed by the man himself, Santa Claus. At Islands of Adventure, a smaller celebration attracts a dedicated fan base of visitors who love Dr. Seuss’ Grinch.
Should-see Orlando Christmas events
You might not travel 1,000 miles to enjoy the following events, but consider a visit if you’re in the neighborhood.
Magic Kingdom at Walt Disney World
No park decorates for Christmas like the Magic Kingdom. Cinderella’s Castle has lights and huge trees tower over Main Street, USA, the most heavily decorated section. Some rides are re-themed for the holidays (the Country Bears sing carols in years where Disney makes that transition), parades have a holiday theme, and special plays – notably one in Tomorrowland – recreate Christmas.
Mickey’s Very Merry Christmas Party
Disney’s Magic Kingdom, by itself, is fully decked out for Christmas, but separate evening parties on selected nights – for an additional admission fee – jump to the heart of Christmas with carolers, hot chocolate, and the Christmas-themed parade that plays on many televisions Christmas Day, courtesy of ABC, a subsidiary of the Walt Disney Company. After dark, it snows on Main Street. The “snow” might really be little soap bubbles, but on days when the Central Florida weather bottoms out at a brisk 50 degrees, it feels like winter, at least to this transplanted Pennsylvanian. Mickey’s Very Merry Christmas Party feels like a sappy holiday movie – there’s at least one each year – but in a good way. The Party would fall under “must see” Christmas attractions except some of the rides and decorations can be enjoyed with a daily admission ticket to the Magic Kingdom. Tickets start at $52 for adults with an advanced online purchase and run to $63, plus tax. The party occurs only after regular park closing on 19 nights from Nov. 8 to Dec. 18, 2010.
ICE!, Gaylord Palms Resort
One of Orlando’s mega-resorts goes a bit further than the others to celebrate the holidays, and it has added a Shrek theme for 2011. The Gaylord Palms, located a short distance due east of Walt Disney World, creates a once-per-year attraction made entirely of ice. They drop the temperature to about 9 degrees, loan coats to paying guests, and carve two million pounds of ice into a nativity scene, castles, slides, and more. While bizarrely cool, the artistry involved also fascinates – the work of 40 ice sculpture specialists (yeah, such a thing exists) shipped in from Harbin, China. Other areas feature snow and winter games. Tickets vary in price but are in the $24 range for adults, less for children and seniors.
Worth seeing Orlando Christmas events
Sea World’s Christmas Experience
Sea World takes on a holiday theme, as do all Orlando theme parks, by tinkering with existing shows and decorating out the whazoo. Ocean-themed blue-and-green wreaths, balls, and bric-a-brac offer a unique take on the holidays. Visitors who loved The Polar Express movie also get to experience it when Sea World changes an existing ride, Wild Arctic. The ride is a motion simulator, meaning a movie plays in the front of an auditorium-style car that moves in sync with the action.
Epcot Holidays Around the World
Epcot’s World Showcase focuses on celebrations held in each of the host countries. While many traditions have a familiar theme, the subtle variations can be fascinating. Santa’s non-U.S. counterpart appears in each country (except Morocco) to explain his homeland’s unique take on the holiday.
Holy Land Experience
This stand-alone theme park has a Christian premise, as does Christmas, so pairing the two is a no-brainer. For most of the year, the park generally has an Easter theme (celebrating the resurrection) rather than a Christmas theme (celebrating the birth), but it’s appropriately adjusted for the season.
This Disney-created town just east of the resort has snow every night (the fake soap-bubble kind) and a Christmas theme. It’s good for shopping and enjoying the Christmas spirit, though it doesn’t have the pizzazz of the parks. Still, it’s free, which forgives a lot.
In a small town about a half hour from the tourist areas, it’s Christmas all year, and a decorated tree sits off to the side of Colonial Drive. There’s not much here, though a small museum at Fort Christmas displays local crafts and memorabilia, and many Floridians save their Christmas cards and mail them here so the post office stamp says “Christmas.” Still, the town’s name is “Christmas,” and for that alone it warrants a mention here.
And everything else
Like towns throughout the U.S., Orlando hosts ballet presentations of The Nutcracker, tree-lighting ceremonies in downtowns, holiday plays, concerts, and more. The Orlando Sentinel keeps a running record of local events. Visitors from other countries may enjoy some of these local traditions for the same reason Americans enjoy the different Santa Clauses in Epcot’s World Showcase.