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With Harry Potter's Christmas, Universal Orlando proves holidays are big business

The new eight-minute Christmas at Hogwarts Castle show at Universal's Islands of Adventure will run nightly, starting Nov. 18. It uses projection imaging to create images such as students on brooms appearing to enchant snowmen, or fill the sky with bright lights. [JIM DAMASKE | Times]
Published Nov. 17, 2017

ORLANDO — Christmas has finally come to Hogwarts at Universal Orlando in a new holiday attraction opening Saturday. In addition, Universal Studios has completely upsized its holiday parade with more Macy's balloons, stunning floats and snowy effects before Santa and his new sleigh enter for a finale.

Things are getting flashier and glitzier — and just more — at virtually every major Florida attraction this Christmas. For Florida residents, that means extra sleigh bells and whistles between now and mid-December, a chance to beat the crowds that will mob the parks come Christmas week.

And we have the horrors of Halloween to thank for it.

Fresh off the hit Halloween Horror Nights at Universal, creative director Michael Aiello left zombies behind to don an itchy maroon sweater with a big white R, just like the one Ron Weasley's mother knitted. He unveiled what his team came up with at Thursday's holiday media preview event. This was a long time coming, he said, bringing Christmas and Harry Potter together.

The supersizing of holiday events are a natural progression, he said.

"Look at Halloween, how it has grown and grown every year," said Aiello, who has helmed Halloween Horror Nights since 2013. "Obviously this is a good way to drive business to us. But from a creative standpoint, it was really time for us to change our game. We've been doing a lot of the same stuff for the past several years, so now was time to do something different."

The promise of warm butterbeer, a Frog Choir singing carols and a magical light show projected onto Hogwarts Castle nightly followed by fireworks will likely bring an extra 500,000 visitors to Universal this Christmas season, estimated theme park expert Dennis Speigel, president of the trade group International Theme Park Services.

"They know it's working for Halloween and here's an opportunity to capitalize on the holidays like Disney has," Speigel said.

Elaborate haunted houses have become a bloody bank of profits for Florida theme parks, with crowds for Halloween-themed special events now dwarfing the spring break hordes.

Theme parks don't release attendance or sales figures, but analysts estimate more than 600,000 visitors were drawn to Universal's many haunted houses, and that Busch Gardens saw some 300,0000 people line up for gory scare zones at Howl-O-Scream.

The Christmas explosion is a fairly recent trend at other parks compared to Disney's holiday cheer.

When Disneyland first opened in 1955, it had an old-fashioned Christmas festival from November through the first week of January. The holiday pizzazz continues at all Disney parks today.

In 1983, Walt Disney World created a separate ticket event called Mickey's Very Merry Christmas Party at the Magic Kingdom that promised lighter crowds while guests gobbled treats and watched special parades and fireworks. This year, many nights in December will sell out, despite the event's $95-$109 ticket price.

Even with Disney's success, it wasn't until 2000 that Universal added Grinchmas to Islands of Adventure, the year after the Orlando theme park opened. It coincided with the then-new Ron Howard film Dr. Seuss' How the Grinch Stole Christmas starring Jim Carrey.

And just as the Grinch's heart grew three sizes in one day, Universal started piling on. It added a holiday parade that since 2001 has used a select group of balloons, floats and costumes from the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade in New York, shipped to Orlando on Black Friday.

This year, the new parade downgrades the balloons to a supporting role for what they call Universal's Holiday Parade Featuring Macy's. It uses character balloons inspired by the Macy's parade, but there are also 13 new balloons, some nightmarishly large, like the Gingerbread Man from Shrek. Fifteen new floats feature the likes of Minions, Shrek and Madagascar's cast and Santa Claus. Grinchmas Days are coming back to Islands of Adventure starting Dec. 2 bringing the residents of Whoville.

Over at Busch Gardens, the lights go on at Christmas Town starting Sunday. Visitors will find millions of lights, meet and greets with characters from Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer and pictures at Santa's House. For the first time, the park will also add a Three Kings Celebration Jan. 1-6 with Latin traditions and live entertainment honoring the three wise men.

The initial investment of at least $2 million in lights and decorations can cause delay for some parks to up the Christmas ante, Speigel said. Plus, there is the added labor of breaking down all the Halloween decorations quickly to turn them from horror to holly within a few weeks.

Speigel's company created the design and set up for the Holiday in the Park event that started in the 1990s at Six Flags Over Texas. He advised that it was an easy sell for families.

"Let me tell you what it's all about. It's a guilt trip," he said. "If you as parents don't bring your children out to have this wonderful holiday experience, you're bad parents. That's tongue-in-cheek, but that really was the underlying thinking."

And yes, he said, it does work.

"We found not too many days into the program it did bring out the family as a unit. It did bring out Grandma and Grandpa who may not be as inclined to come to the theme park. But to see the grandkids have a good time, to taste and to smell and experience the caroling, the hot chocolate, the chestnuts. They came."

Contact Sharon Kennedy Wynne at swynne@tampabay.com. Follow @SharonKWn.

If you go

Busch Gardens: Christmas Town is open 10 a.m.-10 p.m. Sunday through Nov. 25 and select nights through Dec. 31. The new Three Kings Celebration with Latin traditions runs from 10 a.m.-8 p.m. Jan. 1-6. Both are included with admission. $99, $79 ages 3-9, 2 and younger free. (888) 800-5447. buschgardens.com.

Mickey's Very Merry Christmas Party: Disney's after-hours Christmas celebration is a separate ticket of $89-$109, $84-$104 children. Open from 7 p.m.-midnight on select nights through Dec. 22. Magic Kingdom. (407) 934-7639. disneyworld.disney.go.com.

Universal Orlando: The newly revamped parade is located in Universal Studios, as are concerts on select nights by Mannheim Steamroller. Grinchmas and the Hogwarts Castle show are located in Islands of Adventure. Each park has decorated Harry Potter lands. The parade and Hogwarts show run nightly through Jan. 6. Included with admission. One-park admission starts at $110. Park-to-park tickets start at $165. Kids get a $5 discount. 1-800-837-2273. universalorlando.com.

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