A guide to holiday events at Disney, Universal, Busch Gardens and more theme parks

The enchanting holiday parade during Mickey's Very Merry Christmas Party at Magic Kingdom Park transforms Main Street, U.S.A. Santa Claus, gingerbread men, elves, reindeer, toy soldiers and other friends from the North Pole join Mickey Mouse and his pals. Anna, Elsa, Kristoff and Olaf from "Frozen" join in the fun. (Kent Phillips, photographer)
The enchanting holiday parade during Mickey's Very Merry Christmas Party at Magic Kingdom Park transforms Main Street, U.S.A. Santa Claus, gingerbread men, elves, reindeer, toy soldiers and other friends from the North Pole join Mickey Mouse and his pals. Anna, Elsa, Kristoff and Olaf from "Frozen" join in the fun. (Kent Phillips, photographer)
Published Feb. 22, 2018

Instead of shoveling snow, Christmas in Florida means celebrating the holiday season in shorts and T-shirts at theme parks and local attractions. Some parks even haul in "snow" for an authentic holiday vibe.

While the last two weeks of the year around Christmas and New Year's are by far the busiest at Florida's attractions, with elbow-to-elbow crowds, the days until then are all about mild weather and a noticeable dip in crowds.

And this year, parks have an astonishing rise in the wow factor, aimed at bringing the whole family, grandparents included, out to see lights, fireworks and kids having a blast.

Here's our guide to having a very merry Florida theme park Christmas.

Christmas Town

The dazzling lights and holiday decor of Christmas Town return to the Tampa theme park with ticket upgrades, new character meet-and-greets and more than a million lights. The holiday village set up in Gwazi park has a long stretch of vendors, carolers, holiday kitchens and the Jingle Bell Express train. Shows include Christmas on Ice at the Moroccan Palace, Christmas From the Heart at the Stanleyville Theater, Elmo's Christmas Wish in the Sesame Street Safari of Fun area and the jazzy Holiday Hills Band in Gwazi Plaza. Returning this year are classic characters Rudolph, Clarice, Yukon Cornelius and Bumble the Abominable Snow Monster from the 1964 stop-motion film Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer. And joining them is Sam the Snowman. Get photos with Santa Claus in his elaborate house made to look like a cozy toy-maker's office. The animal light displays around the park get an extra boost every year (the giant illuminated penguins are a favorite), but this year also brings some upgrades like Story Time Breakfast with Rudolph ($24.99 adults, $9.99 ages 9 and younger) and food and drink sampling lanyards ($34.99 and up) that get you small bites of five or 10 items in the Christmas Town Village. Select dates through Dec. 31. Included with park admission, which starts at $89.99.

Insider's tip

Don't miss the Christmas Time Tree Show tucked away in Jungala, with a 50-foot tree and a light show set to holiday tunes every 10 minutes.

Christmas in the Wizarding World

Christmas plays a big role in all seven Harry Potter books, so it's a long time coming for Universal to add Christmas in the Wizarding World festivities in Hogsmeade and Diagon Alley. Both areas in Universal Studios and Islands of Adventure are decked out. Trees are decorated with Hogwarts' house banners and wreaths hang in every shop in Diagon Alley. Pay attention to the garlands inspired by the shops they adorn, including the one with a swirl of pink ribbons like Hermione's Yule Ball dress atop Gladrags Wizardwear. The cherry on top of this magical sundae is the stunning light show projected on Hogwarts Castle. The eight-minute show features a John Williams score and homages to the Yule Ball, Weasley's Wizard Wheezes, the castle ghosts and the towering Christmas tree featured in the Great Hall.

Insider's tip

You don't need a front row view for the light show, so don't struggle too much, and if you wait for the second or third showing, crowds are lighter. Don't miss the piping-hot Butterbeer.

Grinchmas and Universal's Holiday Parade featuring Macy's

The Grinchmas show next to the Circus McGurkus Cafe in Islands of Adventure is back for new twists on Dr. Seuss's classic Christmas story. Come for the still-funny jokes from the mean green one and the people of Whoville as well as appearances by Max, the reindeer dog. Over at the Studios, Universal has done a major upgrade on its holiday parade with balloons based on the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade in New York City and glittering confetti and snowfalls. You'll see towering Minions and Macy's stars, floats inspired by Despicable Me, Madagascar and even giant donkey-dragon babies from Shrek. All Universal holiday events run daily through Jan. 6 and are included with park admission, which starts at $110.

Insider's tip

The best spot to watch the parade is next to the Revenge of the Mummy ride in front of the towering Christmas tree.

Flurry of Fun

At Hollywood Studios, see the Sunset Seasons Greetings light show and "snow" on the Hollywood Tower of Terror, now the Hollywood Toy Hotel. The Jingle Bell Jingle BAM fireworks and light show returns with scenes from Prep and Landing and beloved Disney classics. Through Dec. 31. Included with park admission, which starts at $107.

Insider's tip

Stand near the Grauman's Chinese Theater for the best views of Jingle Bell Jingle BAM. Up close isn't necessarily better because of all the special effects, but too far back you'll miss some projections.

Epcot International Festival of the Holidays

Epcot's holiday celebration features daily musical performances, special holiday kitchens and the popular nightly Candlelight Processional with celebrities reading the Christmas story with a 50-piece orchestra and full choir. This weekend features The Little Mermaid's Jodi Benson and the rest of the month has Harry Potter's Warwick Davis, country star Trace Adkins, Neil Patrick Harris and more. Sample seasonal treats from places like the Cookie Nook, the Bavaria Holiday Kitchen and the new Shanghai Holiday Kitchen. Runs nightly through Dec. 30. Included with park admission, which starts at $107.

Insider's tip

Make your Epcot trip more interactive by buying a Chip & Dale's Christmas Tree Spree map ($6.99) for a scavenger hunt around World Showcase with holiday button rewards.

Every year since 1983, Magic Kingdom has hosted one of the most festive, over-the-top holiday celebrations, a separate ticket event. And while Disney's 25 hotels and Disney Springs have their own decorations and tree trails, the Magic Kingdom is the most festive. While you're winding your way through soap "snow" pumped from canisters along Main Street U.S.A., you'll see favorite characters dressed up for the holidays and indulge in free cookies, hot cocoa, eggnog and more treats at six locations around the park. With stage shows and the Holiday Wishes fireworks behind Cinderella's castle, crowds line Main Street and the castle's courtyard. But be sure to stay for the Once Upon a Christmastime parade, which features Mickey and Minnie dressed up for the holidays, a float of all the Disney princes and princesses, Frozen sisters Elsa and Anna in a horse-drawn sleigh and a troop of toy soldiers marching clickety-clack down the street. Runs select nights through Dec. 22. Tickets start at $89.

Insider's tip

This party officially starts at 7 p.m. but you can get in as early at 4 p.m. The best parade viewing spot is along Main Street, but plan to show up at least 40 minutes prior to get a curbside seat.

With indoor snow tubing and two-story ice slides, this year's display of elaborate ice sculptures set in the glamorous Gaylord Palms hotel is called ICE: Christmas Around the World. Chinese artisans have come to steamy Florida to create 2 million pounds of incredibly detailed ice sculptures. It's only 9 degrees in there, so wear gloves, a scarf and warm shoes, in addition to the heavy parkas they supply. There's also holiday-themed carnival games, hot cocoa, coffee and treats, a Cirque Dreams Unwrapped show and a new light show called Joyful featuring the resort's six-story Christmas tree and thousands of dangling lights. The new Sounds of the Season concert series features a capella performances, Orlando Gay Men's chorus and local groups. Open daily through Jan. 7. Tickets start at $28.99, $14.99 for children, with lots of add-ons. Hotel stays start at $240 and include tickets to ICE.

Insider's tip

Do the ice slides and snow tubing, even if you're a scared, never-even-seen-snow Floridian. You won't regret it.

The Christmas Bricktacular at Legoland in Winter Haven has giant Christmas trees, wreaths and characters made of Lego and Duplo bricks; scavenger hunts and Lego-building activities; meet-and-greets with Lego Santa and Lego Toy Soldier and the occasional flurry in a human-size snow globe. While the park usually closes at 5 p.m., there's an extra hour of shopping at dusk, when the huge Lego tree is lit. Weekends through Dec. 25. And for New Year's Dec. 26-30 there will be nightly fireworks and a dance party. On Dec. 31, the Kids' New Year's Eve will feature the drop of a giant Lego brick (similar to the Times Square ball) and a countdown to "midnight" at the kid-friendly hour of
8 p.m. Included with admission, $79.99 and up.

Insider's tip

Write a letter to Santa and drop it into the Lego mailbox before checking out the Lego reindeer and sleigh.

SeaWorld's Christmas Celebration has appearances by Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer and friends; a Christmas Market with artisan crafts, live entertainment, holiday treats and a model train village; an illuminated Sea of Trees lighting up the lake; Santa meet-and-greets; and the "O Wondrous Night" live nativity. There are also special Christmas shows by Elmo, the comic sea lions Clyde and Seamore, a Shamu Christmas Miracles show and the "Winter Wonderland on Ice" figure skating show. Select nights through Dec. 31. Included with admission, $79.99 and up.

Insider's tip

SeaWorld offers lanyards ($25-$40) to try five or 10 food and drink samples. The park has upped its game on these special treats such as waffle cone s'mores and a variety of stuffed doughnuts.

The Tampa zoo brings back Christmas in the Wild, with loads of lights, carolers dressed in Dickens era costumes and a new a 50-foot animated Christmas tree complete with 12,000 dancing lights, 2,000 ornaments and an eight-foot star. A new holiday-themed animal show and Santa is situated in a new whimsical elf village. Holiday dishes include braised short rib with smoked Gouda mac and cheese, s'mores bacon, a new holiday burger and a special beverage for kids, a frozen hot chocolate. Adults can indulge in a candy cane martini or hot toddies. Select nights through Dec. 30. Included with admission, or $24.95 after 4 p.m. on event days.

Insider's tip

Get there at 4 p.m. to see the zoo animals before the holiday lights go on at dusk. The line to visit Santa can be very long, so bring an extra adult and charged phones.