Florida Travel

Tropical holiday celebrations

More than 70 boat parades will be staged around the state this year, but the largest is the Seminole Hard Rock WInterfest Boat Parade in Fort Lauderdale.
More than 70 boat parades will be staged around the state this year, but the largest is the Seminole Hard Rock WInterfest Boat Parade in Fort Lauderdale. MIAMI HERALD

In a few weeks, holiday lights will sparkle on houses and Christmas trees, special performances will fill holiday schedules, and shoppers will crowd stores seeking gifts.

The holiday season will be marked by events and exhibits across the state. But along with Nativity scenes, lighted trees and other predictable manifestations of the yule season will be holiday celebrations that are tropical traditions, some of them unique to Florida.

▪ Boat parades. Holiday parades of decorated boats are a popular feature in many states, but none more so than in Florida, with its 2,000-plus-mile shoreline and many lakes. At last count, more than 70 such parades will be staged this year. Biggest of all is the Seminole Hard Rock Winterfest parade in Fort Lauderdale Dec. 13, in which more than 200 boats participate.

Large or small, boat parades are held in every part of the state in December on all manner of waterways, For a list of parades and their sites and dates, go to www.floridabywater.com.

▪ Christmas of the past. At least three places this year will demonstrate how Christmas was celebrated in 19th century Florida.

Christmas in the Country: On Dec. 6, the Florida State Fairgrounds in Tampa will present an Old Fashioned Holiday featuring how early Florida settlers celebrated Chrismas. Interpreters dressed in period costumes will be at each site, historic structures will be festooned with simple decorations of the past, and there will be craft and ornament making demonstrations. www.crackercountry.org.

Cracker Christmas: On Dec. 6 and 7, Fort Christmas Historical Park in the town of Christmas (between Orlando and Titusville) will showcase a Cracker Christmas with pioneer demonstrations, crafts such as blacksmithing, basket weaving and lace making, a cow camp, and a large crafts show with 150 vendors. www.nbbd.com.

Victorian Christmas Stroll: Every year, the Henry B. Plant Museum in Tampa decorates its rooms as they might have appeared at Christmas time in Victorian homes. Decorated trees are placed in 14 exhibit rooms of the museum, which occupies the former Tampa Bay Hotel, built in 1891. Antique ornaments hang from the branches, gaily wrapped gifts and toys nestle under the trees and one tree is lit with Edison light bulbs. Guests can join in carol singing, and complimentary spiced cider and cookies are served every day. The displays are on view Dec. 1-23. http://plantmuseum.com/victorian-christmas-stroll.

▪ To the North Pole. Florida has its own North Pole Express, a train ride inspired by the animated movie The Polar Express, operated every December by the Florida Rail Museum out of the town of Parrish, near the southeastern end of Tampa Bay. This year, the train will run on Dec. 4, 5, 6, 7, 11, 12, 13, 14, 18, 19, 20, 21 and 22. Passengers spend almost two hours at the “North Pole,’’ where a number of activities await guests. Among them: Visit with Santa Claus, lighted North Pole, Christmas tree, toy tent, arts and crafts, campfires and model railroad display. Fare is $24-$59 adults, $20-$52 children 1-11, depending on date and class of passage. www.frrm.org.

▪ Christmas postmark. If you want to have your holiday cards postmarked “Christmas,’’ this is the place to mail them. Every December, the post office in this settlement 20 miles east of Orlando on Highway 50 stamps thousands of cards with the holiday postmark. Christmas is also the site of Fort Christmas, built in 1837 during the Seminole wars. Today it is a historical park with a full-sized replica of the original fort, pioneer demonstrations, a sugar cane mill and a Cracker Christmas (see above). http://goflorida.about.com/od/orlandocentralflorida/a/christmas.htm.

▪ Nights of lights. Chosen by National Geographic as one of the top places in the world to view holiday lights, St. Augustine has more than three million white lights throughout the city during the holiday season, illuminating the historic district, the Bridge of Lions, the historic Hotel Ponce de Leon, Lightner Museum and other locales. A number of events are associated with the display, which runs from Nov. 22 through Feb. 1. www.nightsoflights.com.

▪ Capitol oddities. During last year’s holiday season, the Capitol building in Tallahassee mounted some very unusual displays in the rotunda. Along with typical Nativity scenes were one from the Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster and another that was a Festivus pole made of beer cans. A proposed display from the Satanic Temple last year was rejected as being “grossly offensive,’’ but the group has applied again this year.

Applications for this year’s displays are still pending and no dates have yet been set for their display. Information may be available closer to the holidays on www.myflorida.com.

▪ Tree of sand. Christmas trees are usually real fir or pine trees, decorated with shiny ornaments and colored lights. But over the years, inventive folks have made their own trees out of such materials as wood, metal, paper, and even Lego bricks.

West Palm Beach will have a tree like no other: A 35-foot-high holiday tree made entirely of sand — more than 600 tons of it. The Sandi Tree, as it is known, will have real colored lights and present a nightly laser show. It will grace the West Palm Beach waterfront Dec. 5-29. Also on the site will be four 25-ton sand sculptures and a mini-golf course. http://wpb.org/sand-and-sea-sun/contact/.

▪ Hotel displays. Once again, the Gaylord Palms Hotel in Orlando has its annual ICE! display made of two million pounds of ice. This year, the theme is “The Nutcracker,” with scenes of such characters as the sugar plum fairy and mouse king. The space, kept at a chilly 9 degrees, will have a Nativity scene, ice sculptures and four ice slides. Admission is $29.99 adults, $16.99 children 4-12. The attraction, which was scheduled to open Saturday, will run through Jan. 4. www.christmasatgaylordpalms.com.

The Swan Hotel in Orlando again will mount a room made entirely of chocolate, including a chocolate Santa, Christmas tree, toy train and fireplace. New this year is a seven-foot chocolate nutcracker. Dates Nov. 28-29, Dec. 4-7, Dec. 11-14, and Dec. 18-21. www.santasfavoriteresort.com.

An entire pirate ship made of gingerbread comes to the Ritz Carlton Hotel on Amelia Island Nov. 26-Dec. 29. The S.S. Amelia, 17 feet long and 12 feet high, is made of more than 600 gingerbread pieces. Its cannons and cannonballs are made of chocolate. www.ritzcarlton.com/en/properties/ameliaisland.

▪ Ball drops. Copying New York City’s annual crystal ball drop on New Year’s Eve, a number of Florida cities have created their own ball drops — but what what they drop as the old year wanes is very different. Key West stages four different ball drops, lowering a pirate wench from the mast of a tall ship, a drag queen ensconced in an outsized high-heel shoe, a huge Key lime wedge into a equally huge margarita glass, and a outsized conch shell. www.flakeys.com.

Panama City Beach will have two beach-ball drops this year, an 800-pound glowing beach ball at midnight and a kid-friendly drop at 8 p.m., consisting of fireworks and more than 10,000 inflatable beach balls released onto Pier Park Drive.

Elsewhere in Florida, objects dropped have included an 18-foot pelican in Pensacola, a outsized pineapple in Sarasota, a 200-foot tangerine in Brooksville and a 35-foot orange in Miami.