With dazzling holiday light displays from St. Augustine to the Keys, the biggest challenge for Floridians is choosing which way to see them. From a helicopter? From a horse-drawn wagon in a historic park? With a flute of champagne at the top of a lighthouse? Or dangling from a harness as you rocket through the treetops? All possible, though not in the same night. From boat parades to theme park extravaganzas, we've assembled holiday light highlights from around the state.
We zip you a merry Christmas
Like a little adrenaline with your Christmas lights? Florida Ecosafaris in Kissimmee decorates its nine-platform zipline course in holiday lights for a nighttime thrill ride each Saturday in December.
"You're stepping off of the platform into darkness, with a beautiful starry sky above and lights and decorations in the trees and on the ground below," said Matt Duda, director of sales and marketing. "The guides get people caroling along the way."
Tickets are $85 and riders must be 10 or older and weigh between 70 and 275 pounds. ((407) 957-9794; foreverflorida.com)
Bells will be ringing . . .
Draped in holiday lights, the carillon at Stephen Foster Folk Culture Center State Park evokes a glittering 200-foot Christmas tree. Even more charming is the music that rings out from its 97 bells during the park's Festival of Lights.
"When you hear those old bells play, it really reminds you of the power of the holiday," park manager Ben Faure said. "It's an elegant sound. It resonates through the whole park."
More than 4 million lights illuminate the grand old oaks and plantation-style museum of the park in White Springs, which honors the songwriter who made the Suwannee River famous. Driving through the gingerbread village and candy-cane forest is a must, as are a horse-drawn wagon ride and a visit to the park's craft square, where crafters and artisans demonstrate folk art from quilting to blacksmithing. The shopping area offers gift ideas you won't find in the mall, from pine-needle baskets to handmade pottery and jewelry.
The Festival of Lights runs from 7 to 9 p.m. Saturday through Dec. 31. A bonfire and marshmallow roast — along with hot chocolate and popcorn — are included in the $2 admission fee. ((386) 397-4331, floridastateparks.org)
Forget the flying reindeer: In Cedar Key, Santa Claus arrives by airboat, escorted by a giant clam. Clam farming is big business in this Gulf Coast village, which explains the origin of Santa Clam, but fresh seafood is just part of the draw. Potters, painters and sculptors also call the island home, and galleries selling their wares along streets lined with dolphin- and starfish-shaped Christmas lights are open into the evening beginning Monday through Dec. 13.
Don't miss a steaming bowl of clam chowder at Tony's: A two-time winner of the Great Chowder Cookoff in Rhode Island, the pudding-thick chowder is also available for shipping as a holiday gift. ((352) 543-0022; tonyschowder.com).
Santa arrives at the beachfront Cedar Key City Park on Dec. 11 as part of the town's lighted boat parade. For more information, go to cedarkey.org.
Five million lights and a purple cat
Jennings Osborne's neighbors complained when the holiday display at his Arkansas home reached 3 million lights. Little Rock's loss is Florida's gain, however, as the whole shebang was moved to Disney's Hollywood Studios in 1995.
At the Osborne Family Spectacle of Dancing Lights, Disney's Hollywood Studios isn't so much decorated as encrusted with holiday glitter. Among the miles of lights hides a purple cat figure — mistakenly brought along from the Osborne's Halloween decorations — that diehard fans search for each holiday season. The display is included in park admission and runs through Jan. 3 (except Wednesday).
Not to be outdone, the Magic Kingdom has its own light show: Its trademark castle gets an extreme makeover icicle-style, getting decked in 200,000 white lights each evening through Jan. 3. ((407) 939-6244, disneyparks.disney.go.com)
Nights of Lights in the old city
St. Augustine's streets, shops and historic inns get a frosting of twinkling lights at the annual Nights of Lights celebration, which continues through January with concerts, candlelight tours and art walks. Nights of Lights packs the calendar with daily events: On Dec. 5, re-enactors bring to life St. Augustine's mid 1700s British occupation, ending in the torchlit Night Watch Parade and a musket volley that rings in the season. If muskets don't figure into your dream holiday, try the Holiday Tour of Bed and Breakfast Inns on Dec. 11-12 or a candlelight tour of the 1883 Villa Zorayda on Dec. 18 and 27-30.
New to this year's Old City festivities is a 20-foot-high, 100-foot-long ice slide in the St. Augustine Amphitheatre's Winter Wonderland, also home to a skating rink, sleigh rides through decorated trails, s'more making and winter-themed games. (winterwonderlandflorida.com)
Visitors have two options when it comes to taking in the annual Regatta of Lights on Dec. 11: Stake out a waterfront spot along the Intracoastal or be part of the parade by booking a seat on a decorated fishing boat departing from the eatery Cap's on the Water.
For a bird's-eye view of Nights of Lights, hop on a helicopter (oldcityhelicopters.com) or climb 219 steps to the top of the St. Augustine Lighthouse, where full-moon programs on Dec. 21 and Jan. 19 include a champagne toast and hors d'oeuvres for $25. (getaway4florida.com/nights)
Holiday Knights at UCF
Now in its third year, Light Up UCF in Orlando has grown into a holiday extravaganza befitting the nation's second-largest university. Free music and light shows set Knights Plaza near the UCF Arena aglow every evening through Jan. 2. More than 75,000 lights flash in synchronized splendor with holiday tunes, while Christmas movies show on a two-story surround-sound screen and the UCF Marching Knights and other groups perform. Admission is free, but the outdoor ice skating rink, ice luge, Ferris wheel and carousel require tickets. Light Up UCF opens at 11 a.m. on weekends and 5 p.m. weekdays. (lightupUCF.com)
South Florida may never have a white Christmas, but spending a December evening yacht-watching at a waterfront park is some consolation. Hugh Taylor Birch State Park is the vantage point of choice for the Seminole Hard Rock Winterfest Boat Parade on Dec. 11, when 100 lighted boats, from megayachts to outrigger canoes, make their merry way down the Intracoastal through Fort Lauderdale. Homes and businesses along the parade route are decked out as well.
Reserve a seat in the grandstands ($21 adult, $16 child) or arrive early to save a spot at the southern end of the park near the seawall. Children's activities, games and demonstrations of Seminole culture, from arts and crafts to traditional dances, begin at 3:30 p.m.; the parade begins its journey from downtown at 6:30. Admission to the park (walk-in only, no cars) is $3. ((954) 564-4521; winterfestparade.com).
A jolly trolley Christmas
In early December, the owners of Sarasota's SRQ Trolley comb area neighborhoods for the best light displays before mapping out the route for their Holiday Tour of Lights. The trolley tour draws visitors who come back each year, said SRQ owner Priscilla Gratton.
"It's become a family tradition for some people," she said. "They bring hot chocolate and snacks to enjoy while they're riding around looking at the lights."
Holiday music plays during the 90-minute tours, which depart at 6:30 and 8:30 p.m. each night from Dec. 9-31 and cost $15. Holiday parties may rent out the entire trolley, so call in advance to ensure availability and reserve a seat. ((941) 538-1414; srqtrolley.com).
Freelance writer Alisson Clark is a journalism professor at the University of Florida.