Florida’s attractions have once again upped the eye-popping spectacle of parades, fireworks and Christmas decorations. Being surrounded by thousands of lights and falling “snow” makes for a great family photo.
But here’s the real trick: Don’t go anywhere near these places the week of Christmas or the week after. It is by far the busiest time of the year. Disney has even closed the gates and declared itself “at capacity” many times during Christmas week, not letting anyone in until people start to leave.
That’s why Floridians have the perk of proximity to check out the holiday foods, concerts, parades and lights when crowds are more scarce in early December. Here’s our guide to what you will find.
Busch Gardens Christmas Town
This is the seventh year that Busch Gardens has transformed into a nighttime holiday wonderland filled with lights, elaborate trees, caroling and lots of goodies to eat.
Christmas Town is included with admission every night this year, not just on weekends in the first slower weeks.
There’s a new holiday show at the Dragon Fire Grill called Christmas Is … featuring contemporary seasonal music. Returning shows include Christmas on Ice, Elmo’s Christmas Wish, the Holiday Hills Band, Carol of the Bells light show and the Christmas Town Sing-A-Long Train. There’s also a new brunch with Santa where adults can get mimosas or “build your own Blood Mary” upgrades.
Get photos in the twinkling light tunnel leading into Stanleyville, among gorgeous trees lining the walkways and with all your favorite characters from Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer. The line for Rudolph and Co. tends to be long so plan your time or consider the $24.99 priority access ticket.
The Christmas Town Village with snowmen greeting guests in the Gwazi pathway has merchandise and holiday treats. For the adults, there are winter whiskey and wine tasting and food offerings such as mini doughnuts, chicken and waffles, frozen eggnog and sweet potato s’mores.
$104, 2 and younger free. Save $15 if you order online. (813) 884-4386. buschgardens.com.
Walt Disney World
Disney World is already the world’s most-visited tourist attraction, but during the holidays the crush of humanity can be enough to turn off your good tidings. That’s why they have started early with special shows, decked halls and diet-busting treats.
The Magic Kingdom hauled out the holly on Nov. 8 (yes, just a week after Halloween) for a sold-out start of Mickey’s Very Merry Christmas Party. The separate ticket Christmas party runs select evenings through Dec. 21. You’ll find free treats like cookies, eggnog and cider at stations around the park. This year, people in search of nut- or allergen-free treats can find them at all stations, not just the special ones in years past, which makes it easier on families of mixed needs.
Anna and Elsa from Frozen turn the castle into an icy beauty and a great fireworks show ends the night. Mickey’s Once Upon a Christmastime Parade is a fun procession that features holiday-themed floats with life-size toy soldiers that actually march. And they even pipe in smells including cookies, gingerbread and Christmas trees at different times of the parade. That’s attention to detail, folks. And it will “snow,” down Main Street U.S.A., making a great photo opportunity.
Over at Epcot, the holiday has a more exotic flavor with the International Festival of the Holidays through Dec. 30. Kiosks will dish out delicious small plates of food like a French chocolate Christmas log and a potato knish for the Hanukkah spirit. Each evening, the park presents the Candlelight Processional, with celebrity narrators telling the Christmas story with a choir and orchestra. Two fan favorites are Neil Patrick Harris (Monday through Dec. 6) and Whoopi Goldberg (Dec. 7-9) who always give their readings a little extra flair. The nightly “Illuminations” fireworks show has extra oomph for the holidays. This could be your last time seeing this spectacular display. It’s ending next summer.
Disney’s Hollywood Studios is calling its holiday party a Flurry of Fun, running through Jan. 6. The new Toy Story Land, which opened in the spring, has Woody and Buzz and other characters dressed up for Christmas, and holiday music plays on the rides.
The park will bring back Sunset Seasons Greetings, which debuted last year. The Hollywood Tower Hotel may not seem like a Christmas site, but the Twilight Zone Tower of Terror ride is lit up on Sunset Boulevard with holiday-themed projections on its facade. And the park’s Chinese Theater serves as the backdrop for Jingle Bell, Jingle Bam, a pyrotechnics show that can almost be too much to take in with its projections, music, video, lasers and fireworks.
$102-$122, $96-$116 ages 3-9, 2 and younger free. disneyworld.disney.go.com.
Universal Orlando Resort
Last year, Universal stepped up its holiday game with a more elaborate holiday parade featuring Macy’s balloons and an amazing digital projection show on Hogwarts Castle with ghosts, wizards and scenes from the movies. The parade and Hogwarts show are returning. A new stage show at the Islands of Adventure’s Grinchmas celebration features townies from Whoville wandering around Seussville singing carols and annoying the Grinch with their happiness. The stage show, which follows the book’s plot, happens several times a day. $115 and up. universalorlando.com.
The park that might be on a comeback, SeaWorld brings a Sea of Trees with dazzling images of 100 trees, including a glistening centerpiece towering 70 feet above the water. There’s also a meet and greet with Santa Claus, a live Nativity, Sesame Street Christmas stage show, Winter Wonderland on Ice and Rudolph and friends meet and greet. The park has more than 3 million sparkling lights during the festive Christmas event, held mostly on weekends through the end of December. $79.99 and up. seaworld.com.
You’ll see some very merry Lego builds on weekends through the end of December. This year, festivities expand with Holly Jolly Jubilee, a new family-friendly show on the park’s City Stage. The interactive show will have guests singing along. $74.99 and up. legoland.com/florida.com.
The zoo’s Christmas in the Wild returns with more surprises. Guests can enjoy carolers dressed in Dickens-era costumes and story time with Mrs. Claus, plus thousands of twinkling lights, holiday treats and refreshments and wildlife at night. A 50-foot animated Christmas tree has 12,000 dancing lights, 2,000 ornaments and an eight-foot star. There’s also a holiday-themed animal show featuring famous animal ambassadors. Guests can visit Santa in his workshop and check out Holiday Hoedown, Polar Paradise and Candy Cane Lane. Select nights through Dec. 30. $34.95, $25.95 ages 3-11, 2 and younger free; or $24.95 after 4 p.m. on event days. (813) 935-8552. zootampa.org.