A theme park Christmas: Busch Gardens, Universal, Disney and more get festive for the holidays
The first few weeks in December are just about the best times to visit Florida's many theme parks to enjoy the holiday lights, shows and Christmas characters.
The weather is mild and the crowds are much lighter than, say, the week of Christmas, when tourists and relatives flock to the Sunshine State.
Even though you won't have to worry about snow flurries or icy roads, the parks are still cheerfully bedecked for the holidays.
We checked out attractions around Tampa Bay and beyond that offer holiday festivities, from Lowry Park Zoo and Busch Gardens to Walt Disney World and Universal Studios.
Here's what to expect if you go.
Christmas Town at Busch Gardens
An enchanting holiday village set in an Africa-themed theme park doesn't seem like it would make much sense. But Busch Gardens' Christmas Town in Tampa is simply stunning.
The best way to experience Christmas Town is after the sun goes down. Around 6 p.m. Friday through Sunday, more than a million lights start twinkling. New this year is Rudolph's Winter Wonderland, where guests can meet characters and play holiday games while scenes from the Christmas classic come to life in Celestial Crossing.
Runs Fridays through Sundays, and will be nightly starting Dec. 19 through Jan. 1, with the park staying open until 10 p.m. All holiday attractions are included with admission, starting at $82.99. buschgardenstampa.com.
Holiday happenings at Walt Disney World
Christmas at Walt Disney World is amped up this year thanks to technology, adding a whole new gee-wiz layer of drones and lasers and ice castles to the world's biggest tourist attraction.
Disney Springs has doubled in size and added a twice-nightly holiday drone show and a Christmas tree trail.
Magic Kingdom is festively dressed for the holidays, but there's also a separate ticket event called Mickey's Very Merry Christmas Party on select nights ($86-$99).
Hollywood Studios has a new 15-minute laser and fireworks show, Jingle Bell, Jingle BAM! projected on the Chinese Theater.
Last, but certainly not least, Epcot has added five new marketplaces to taste the holidays around the globe. The annual Candlelight Processional has celebrities reading the story of Christmas along with caroling.
Park admissions start at $97, except Magic Kingdom, $105-$124, $99-$118 ages 3-9 (price based by season). Waltdisneyworld.com.
Sharon Kennedy Wynne, Times Staff Writer
Gaylord Palms ICE
This Florida girl couldn't wrap her mind around Gaylord Palms Resort's annual ICE exhibit boasting a chilly 9 degrees - until I experienced it.
This year, the hotel in Kissimmee turned its ICE artisans over to the Peanuts gang with A Charlie Brown Christmas theme. The beloved story unfolds in an interactive maze of 2 million pounds of ice sculptures.
Outside the wintry wonderland is Alpine Rush snow tubing ($19.99) and Snow Throw, a carnival-style game where you can chuck real snowballs at targets ($9.99). Combo tickets and all-day passes are available for the add-ons.
Free activities include A Christmas Wish, a six-minute light show that fills up the resort's atrium with classic holiday music and visual effects. And Cirque Dreams Unwrapped is full of glittery jugglers, aerialists and a Mad Hatter-esque ringleader.
Runs daily through Jan. 1. Tickets start at $28.99, $26.99 seniors, $14.99 kids 4-12, children under 3 are free. Parking is $20.
Christmas at Universal Orlando
After his successful heart enlargement, the Grinch is the king of Christmas around Universal Orlando's Islands of Adventure, and Universal Studios has a mini version of the maxi balloons from the Macy's parade.
For fans of the mean green one, the Grinch does meet-and-greets at the Seuss Landing bookshop during scheduled times. The Grinch and the Whos seen in the annual theatrical retelling of How the Grinch Stole Christmas, the Grinchmas Who-liday Spectacular, which runs daily.
Over at the Studios, the Christmas cheer doesn't stop at the famous arches regally bedecked with garlands and bulbs. Nightly the streets of Universal Studios turn into a scaled-down version of the famous Thanksgiving parade in New York City. The Macy's Holiday Parade at Universal features some of the massive and iconic balloons and floats seen on 34th Street in Manhattan.
Universal Orlando holiday attractions at run through Jan. 1. Events are included with admission starting at $110 for a single park, $160 for a one-day park-to-park ticket for adults, $155 for children 9 and under. universalorlando.com.
Christmas in the Wild at Lowry Park Zoo
Lowry Park Zoo smells good this time of year - and that's not something you should take for granted. For Christmas in the Wild, the zoo's after-hours holiday event, dozens of fresh Christmas trees are both beautifully lit and a nice break for your nose.
Get there around 4 p.m. to enjoy seeing the animals in the daylight, as few are easily visible after sunset. A Christmas animal show is fun for the little kids who aren't so thrilled by standing in the long line to sit on Santa's lap (photos available for a price).
The light displays throughout the park are gorgeous and acrobats and other performers (giant ice princess on stilts for $1,000, Alex) are delightful. The Reindeer Run - situated on the slope into Safari Africa - was a particular treat for the eyes.
The event runs 4 p.m. to 10 p.m. on Friday and Saturday and daily Dec. 16-23 and Dec. 26-30. Admission is $22.95 or free with zoo membership. After 4 p.m., admission is $21.95. 2 and younger free.
Ellen E. Clarke, Times Staff Writer
Contact Chelsea Tatham at [email protected] Follow @chelseatatham.