Planning a special trip during the Yule holidays? Be warned: Florida has so many celebrations this month that it may be difficult to choose where to go and what to do.
Florida’s theme parks put on extensive holiday celebrations that gladden the hearts of millions of visitors. Dozens of lighted boat parades brighten evenings on Florida waterways. Cities and resorts mount seasonal programs and holiday exhibits, including a few quirky ones.
You may even get a touch of winter in several locales as theme parks and cities create man-made snow flurries and snowbanks where kids can frolic.
The fun has already begun in some places, rising to a climax on Christmas and New Year’s Day.
Some words to the wise:
• At major attractions, some Christmas-themed events are separately ticketed, but most are included in regular admission. Many have multiple options, including advance purchase deals, multi-day and multi-park discounts, and packages that include lodging.
• While the holidays are always busy, the week before Christmas is not as crowded as the week after.
• Prices tend to rise and capacity to tighten the closer it is to the holidays.
Here’s a rundown on some major holiday happenings:
WALT DISNEY WORLD
Magic Kingdom: Mickey’s Very Merry Christmas Party, a separately ticketed after-hours evening event, entrances visitors with stage shows, parades, fireworks, costumed characters, complimentary cookies and hot cocoa. Guests also can enjoy all rides and experience snow flurries on Main Street. The party began last month; remaining dates are Dec. 1, 3, 5, 6, 8, 10, 12, 13, 15, 17, 19 and 20. Admission starts at $62; discounts are available with advance purchase.
Epcot: A Candlelight Processional combines seasonal music with reading of the Christmas Story by celebrity narrators accompanied by a choir and 50-piece orchestra. The Processional takes place three times nightly on select evenings through Dec. 30. Celebrity narrators include Gary Sinise, Ashley Judd, Whoopi Goldberg and Sigourney Weaver.
Disney’s Hollywood Studios: The Osborne Family Spectacle of Dancing Lights features millions of twinkling lights, animated displays and 3-D effects through Jan. 5.
BUSCH GARDENS TAMPA BAY
On 18 select evenings through Dec. 23, the theme park will once again transform itself into Christmas Town. The separately ticketed evening event debuted last year and features several new displays and shows:
Holiday Hills is a nostalgic town with a live brass band playing Christmas songs and Mrs. Claus cooking holiday fare. Christmas Tree Terrace has a 40-foot Christmas tree that comes alive every 15 minutes with dancing lights. Romantic flowers and white lights set the scene for a kiss in Mistletoe Memories.
Also new: Sesame Street Cookie Monster, Zoe and Big Bird help Elmo get his desires in a new show, Elmo’s Christmas Wish. Gloria, Alex, King Julien and the penguins go on a vacation in Madagascar Live! Operation: Christmas Vacation.
Back again are Santa’s House, Penguin Point and SnowWorld, which has been tripled in size and now has 15,000 square feet of snow to play in.
Christmas Town admission is $40-$50, $10 for children; discounts available for advance purchase.
The Grinch and Grinchmas return to Universal’s Islands of Adventure theme park Dec. 7-Jan 4 in a live show, Grinchmas Wholiday Spectacular. Guests will be able to meet the Grinch and the Whos daily.
Mannheim Steamroller also will be back, performing holiday music Dec. 7, 8, 14, 15, 21 and 22 at Universal Studios. Also at that park, Macy’s Holiday Parade will step off every evening starting Dec. 7 with some of the same balloons seen in the famous New York parade.
All Christmas events are included in regular park admission. www.UniversalOrlando.com/holidays.
Once again, guests can “board’’ the Polar Express to the North Pole on select dates through Dec. 31. The holiday classic comes to life in a simulator ride in the park’s Wild Arctic attraction.
Sesame Street characters are back this year in a new show that has Cookie Monster, Rosita, Grover and Zoe helping Elmo find his desire in Elmo’s Christmas Wish. Life-sized puppets and live animals tell the Christmas story in words and music in O Wondrous Night and ice skaters leap and twirl in Winter Wonderland on Ice, on an outdoor rink.
More than 100 decorated trees choreographed to holiday music will line the park’s center lake, which also is the site of SeaWorld’s evening finales featuring dancing fountains, lights and fireworks.
Christmas events are included in regular park admission. www.SeaWorldOrlando.com.
Every Saturday and Sunday in December, Legoland will celebrate the holidays with its third annual Christmas Bricktacular. Events at the Winter Haven park include building a 20-foot Lego Christmas tree, photo ops with a life-size Lego Santa Claus, scavenger hunt, a 30-foot Christmas tree made with 270,000 bricks, and decorating live Christmas trees. All events included in regular park admission. http://florida.legoland.com.
• Boat parades: More than 74 boat parades brighten Florida evenings this season. Biggest is the Seminole Hard Rock Winterfest Boat Parade in Fort Lauderdale, where more than 200 lighted boats will parade on a 12-mile route Dec. 14 before an estimated million spectators. www.winterfestparade.com. For information on other boat parades: www.floridabywater.com/component/content/article/1647-boat-parades
• St. Augustine: Selected by National Geographic in 2011 and 2012 as one of the 10 best holiday lighting displays in the world, this city’s Night of Lights features millions of tiny white lights outlining the cityscape — in trees, by roadways, on bridges and buildings. Night of Lights, which runs through Feb. 2, also features festivals, home tours, regattas and free admission to the historic Colonial Quarter through Jan. 4. www.floridashistoriccoast.com/nights/.
• Jacksonville: Winterfest, which runs on select dates through Jan. 12, features an outdoor ice rink, evening snowfalls, an alpine slide, Santa’s Workshop and other attractions. It is held at Jacksonville Landing. www.jaxwinterfest.com. Admission is $9, ice skate rental is $3.
• Tampa: An oldtime holiday is recreated during the Henry B. Plant Museum’s 32nd annual Victorian Christmas Stroll Dec. 1-23. Each of the 14 exhibit rooms has a tree trimmed in 19th century themes and antique accessories. A special display, Toys Then and Now, showcases both antique and modern toys. Guests can join carolers in the evening. Admission is $13 adult, $11 seniors, $7 children 4-18; admission is discounted on Dec. 2, 3, 9 and 10. www.visittampabay.com.
• Gaylord Palms, Orlando: This resort mounts its ICE! attraction again this year — more than two million pounds of ice sculptures, an ice castle, ice slides and other ice creations, all hand-carved by ice sculptors from Harbin, China, home of the International Ice and Snow Festival. Theme this year is Frosty the Snowman, and a new feature is an ice-carving zone where visitors can watch an ice sculptor at work. Visitors are supplied parkas as they enter the attraction, which is kept at a temperature of 9 degrees Fahrenheit. Admission starts at $16.99. www.gaylordpalms.com.
• Ritz Carlton Amelia Island: A huge gingerbread creation is in the resort’s lobby through Dec. 28. It’s the S.S. Amelia, a pirate ship 17 feet long and 12 feet high, put together by eight pastry chefs. Figures made of chocolate decorate the ship, among them a cannon, pirates, a treasure chest and a pet alligator. www.ritzcarlton.com/ameliaisland.
• Swan and Dolphin Hotels, Disney World: In the lobby of the Swan Hotel, visitors will find a living room setting that’s made entirely of chocolate, 1,200 pounds of the stuff. There’s a chocolate Santa seated next to a chocolate fireplace with a chocolate Christmas tree, chocolate gift packages, a chocolate toy train set and — new this year — a life-size Nutcracker toy soldier. The display runs through Dec. 31. www.swandolphin.com.
NEW YEAR’S EVE
All theme parks have special programs and fireworks on New Year’s Eve, and many cities will mount fireworks displays. But the quirkiest celebrations are Florida’s parodies of the celebrated ball drop at New York City’s Times Square.
Key West, for example, stages not one but four ball drops on New Year’s Eve. On Duval Street, a six-foot high-heel shoe descends carrying a lavishly gowned drag queen. Further along the street, a huge man-made conch shell, symbol of the Florida Keys, is lowered to the roof of Sloppy Joe’s Bar as an outsized clock counts down. At Key West’s Historic Seaport, a pirate wench descends from the top of a tall ship’s mast as cannons boom. And Ocean Key Resort at Mallory Square plans to drop a huge replica of a key lime wedge into a larger-than-life margarita glass.
Other odd ball drops in Florida include an 18-foot pelican in Pensacola, a pineapple in Sarasota, an 800-pound beach ball in Panama City Beach, a 35-foot orange in Miami and a 200-pound tangerine in Brooksville.
Florida hosts several major college bowl games during the holidays, as well as parades, golf and tennis tournaments and other related events. Bowl games include:
• Russell Athletic Bowl, Orlando, Dec. 28.
• Gator Bowl, Jacksonville, Jan. 1.
• Capital One Bowl, Orlando, Jan. 1.
• Outback Bowl, Tampa, Jan. 1.
• Orange Bowl, Miami, Jan. 3.