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Here’s EVERYTHING you need to know about the holidays at Florida theme parks

Woody and his “Toy Story” pals wave to Magic Kingdom guests during “Mickey’s Once Upon a Christmastime Parade.” Todd Anderson - Walt Disney World Resort
Woody and his “Toy Story” pals wave to Magic Kingdom guests during “Mickey’s Once Upon a Christmastime Parade.” Todd Anderson - Walt Disney World Resort

For the first time this year, Harry Potter will be part of Universal Orlando’s Christmas festivities, bringing a new and hugely popular setting to a holiday theme park celebration that is all about tradition.

At night, projection mapping and lighting will wrap Hogwarts castle with Christmas scenes inspired by the Harry Potter books. The Frog Choir and Celestina Warbeck and the Banshees will perform holiday music. The streets of Hogsmeade and Diagon Alley will get holiday decor.

For theme park fans, the holiday season may not be complete without Epcot’s Candlelight Processional or Mickey’s Very Merry Christmas Party. Those and other theme park traditions are a big deal: December is when all the parks pull out the colored lights, bake sweet treats and put on holiday-themed shows, parties and parades, and families with kids on school break crowd in through the gates.

For most parks, the week between Christmas and New Year’s Day is the busiest of the year, and holiday traditions figure heavily in ticket sales.

READ: Santa’s Enchanted Forest is returning soon — but there’s a spooky twist.

But theme park planners also know it’s important to update their attractions, so Universal isn’t the only company to add new holiday activities this year. Also for the first time, at Disney’s Hollywood Studios, Disney characters and seasonal scenes will be projected on the Tower of Terror and along Sunset Boulevard. SeaWorld and its sister park Busch Gardens are both adding a six-day Three Kings celebration.

All nine of Central Florida’s major parks — four Disney parks, two Universal parks, plus SeaWorld, Busch Gardens and Legoland — are dressing up for the holiday season. Most holiday activities are during regular hours and are included in admission. The major exception is Mickey’s Very Merry Christmas Party, which opens after regular park hours at Magic Kingdom and requires a separate admission ticket. One other exception is holiday-themed character meals, which cost extra and are offered by many parks.

Here’s a run-down of holiday activities at the parks.

Universal Orlando

Universal Grinchmas
Dr. Seuss’ “How the Grinch Stole Christmas” is brought to life in the live stage show, “Grinchmas Wholiday Spectacular,” as part of Universal Orlando’s holiday celebration. KEVIN KOLCZYNSKI UNIVERSAL ORLANDO

Universal’s two parks, Universal Studios and Islands of Adventure, are both getting new Harry Potter-themed Christmas activities, but Hogwarts Castle, in the original Wizarding World of Harry Potter, is the highlight. A spell has been cast on Hogwarts so that several times a night, scenes of its ghosts singing carols or students riding Quidditch broomsticks will appear on its facade.

Also at Islands of Adventures, The Frog Choir will sing songs like “I Cast a Spell On Father Christmas.” At Universal Studios, Celestina Warbeck and the Banshees will perform holiday music, including “My Baby Gave Me a Hippogriff for Christmas.” Holiday decor will grace both Hogsmeade and Diagon Alley, and holiday themed food will be available daily through Jan. 6.

  • Universal Studios: The annual parade has been rebranded as Universal’s Holiday Parade featuring Macy’s and will showcase new character balloons and floats, including characters from “Despicable Me,” “Madagascar” and “Shrek.” The park will also have live concerts by Manheim Steamroller every Saturday and Sunday through Dec. 17.
  • Islands of Adventure: The Grinch returns in the “Grinchmas Who-liday Spectacular,” a live retelling of Dr. Seuss’s holiday classic, along with the Whos from Who-ville. Also available for an extra fee: brunch with the Grinch.
  • In addition, Universal CityWalk will have a New Year’s Eve party with drink, dining and dancing.

Information: www.universalorlando.com

Disney World

  • Magic Kingdom: Mickey’s Very Merry Christmas Party is a separately ticketed event that starts at 7 p.m., after regular park hours. Running through Dec. 22, the party’s highlights include the Once Upon a Christmastime Parade, fireworks; a dance party at Club Tinsel; and “A Totally Tomorrowland Christmas,” an intergalactic musical revue; Mickey’s Most Merriest Celebration, a stage show; and Queen Elsa transforms Cinderella Castle into a shimmering ice palace after a performance by the characters from “Frozen” on the castle forecourt. Dates: Nov. 26-28 and Dec. 1, 3, 5, 7, 8, 10, 12, 14, 15, 17, 19, 21 and 22.

Free daytime events include Mickey’s Once Upon a Christmastime Parade through Dec. 31, and “Mickey’s Most Merriest Celebration” Dec. 23-31.

  • Disney’s Hollywood Studios: “Jingle Bell, Jingle BAM!” a projection and fireworks show in which characters try and get Santa Claus back to the North Pole by Christmas Eve, returns nightly through Dec. 31. For an extra charge, the show offers a dessert party. A new show, Sunset Seasons Greetings, features projections of Disney characters sharing Christmas stories and seasonal scenes on the Hollywood Tower Hotel — aka the Twilight Zone Tower of Terror. At the Hyperion Theater, Olaf joins “For the First Time in Forever: A Frozen SingAlong Celebration” with all-new songs from Disney’s new animated short “Olaf’s Frozen Adventure.” There are also holiday-themed character lunches and dinners for an extra charge.
  • Epcot: the Epcot International Festival of the Holidays, running through Dec. 30, has 15 holiday kitchens offering holiday food; a new game, Chip & Dale’s Christmas Tree Spree; a musical celebration of Hanukkah; “JOYFUL! A Gospel Celebration of the Season” and Canadian Holiday Voyageurs.

The Candlelight Processional, a retelling of the Christmas story by a celebrity narrator accompanied by a 50-piece orchestra and a mass choir, runs three times a night Nov. 24-Dec. 30. Candlelight dinner packages are also available at an extra cost.

  • Animal Kingdom: While no special activities are planned, this park’s transition into night hours over the last year and a half opened opportunities for dramatic after-dark holiday lighting, including Tree of Life transformations, an animal-themed holiday tree and decor on Kilimanjaro Safaris, Kali River Rapids and Expedition Everest.
  • The pastry teams at Walt Disney World Resort created some of the most stunning gingerbread and chocolate displays and has them at various properties. Catch the amazing handmade creations at Epcot, Animal Kingdom, Epcot, Disney Springs, Grand Floridian Resort & Spa, Yacht & Beach Club Resorts and Disney’s Contemporary Resort, .
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Life-size holiday gingerbread house (with over 10,000 pieces of gingerbread) in the hotel lobby of Disney's Grand Floridian.

Information: www.disneyworld.com

SeaWorld

SeaWorld Clyde & Seamore
“Clyde & Seamore’s Countdown to Christmas,” a comedy with otters, a walrus and an elf, is part of SeaWorld’s holiday celebration. JASON COLLIER - SEAWORLD ORLANDO

SeaWorld will have back-to-back holiday celebrations this year. Christmas Celebration runs on select dates from Nov. 23 to Dec. 31, with a New Year’s Eve party Dec. 31, then Three Kings Day Jan. 1-6.

New this year are dinner with Rudolph and the telling of his tale (extra charge). Also new, guests will encounter Santa Claus — and certain animals — at the top of the Wild Arctic attraction. Returning features including the “Shamu Christmas Miracles” show; “Clyde & Seamore’s Countdown to Christmas,” a comedy show; “O Wondrous Night,” a live nativity and telling of the Christmas story; Rudolph’s ChristmasTown, with story-book vignettes and characters; Sesame Street’s “Elmo’s Christmas Wish,” a musical celebration; and the Winter Wonderland on Ice skating extravaganza.

Three Kings Day will feature Latin cuisine; the Three Kings Parade (with camels); and an extended showing of “O Wondrous Night.”

Information: https://seaworld.com/orlando/

Busch Gardens

Busch Gardens Jingle Bell Express

The park’s Christmas Town celebration includes several performances — Christmas on Ice, Carol of the Bells light show, the Christian gospel show “Christmas from the Heart” and the Holiday Hills Brass Band; a meet-and-greet with Santa; the Jingle Bell Express; and Rudolph’s Winter Wonderland. On New Year’s Eve, Christmas Town will remain open until 1 a.m. Party dates are Nov. 19-25 and Dec. 1-2, 8-10, 15-17, and 22-31.

The Three Kings Celebration, on Jan. 1-6, will tell the story of the Three Wise Men, with food and live entertainment.

Information: ChristmasTown.com.

Legoland

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A giant Christmas tree made of Lego bricks is part of Legoland’s Christmas Bricktacular celebration. CHIP LITHERLAND - LEGOLAND FLORIDA

Legoland’s Christmas Bricktacular highlights — naturally — Christmas icons built of Lego bricks. Bricktacular runs for 15 weekend days in December. It will feature a tree lighting ceremony, meet-and-greets with Lego Santa and Lego Toy Soldier, story-telling by Mrs. Claus, Christmas songs performed by the Lego Brickettes, a giant Lego mosaic that visitors can help create, and those Lego creations, including a life-size Santa, sleigh and reindeer.

Dates are Dec. 2-3, 9-10, 16-17 and 23-25.

In addition, the park will hold a Kids’ New Year’s Party Dec. 26-31 with fireworks, a dance party, and some activities held over from Christmas Bricktacular.

Information: www.legoland.com/florida/

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