There is an extra layer of magic to an Orlando vacation during the holidays—not to mention the fact that it is (usually) a bit warmer than other areas of the country. If you are traveling the week between Christmas and New Year’s you will be in for some crowds, but the good news is that most of the special holiday events start taking place as early as the first week of November, so you can travel at some lower crowd times and still take advantage of a lot of these activities. Here are my Top 10 Events to participate in during the Holiday Season in Orlando:
10. Downtown Disney
Downtown Disney is a great destination for holiday shopping. Disney’s Days of Christmas store is your one stop shop for ornaments, stockings, Christmas villages, and all of your Christmas décor needs. One of the best features is being able to have certain ornaments personalized to commemorate your vacation (no matter what time of year you visit)—just go early in your trip as they can have a backlog around the holidays. Other shops like World of Disney, Tren-D, the Lego Store, Basin and more will have you crossing everyone off of your Christmas list. But, wait . . . there’s more! Downtown Disney is decked out for the holidays and you might catch some live performances for the season. And, most importantly, Santa Claus is there for all of the nice little girls and boys to meet.
- Sea World’s Christmas Celebration
This one is somewhat of a sleeper hit that begins the week before Thanksgiving. Sea World is transformed into a Christmas Wonderland with floating trees of light, a Christmas Village, and photo opportunities all around the park. Featured offerings include a holiday themed Shamu show, the Polar Express, “The Greatest Story Never Told” (the animals’ version of the nativity with live animals at the end of the show), Elmo’s Christmas Surprise show, an ice skating show and a fireworks closing. The best thing about Sea World’s events is that they are included in your regular daily admission—and the park is open later into the evening for you to take advantage of the “normal” offerings and the holiday fun.
- Macy’s Parade & Grinchmas at Universal Orlando
If you can’t make it to New York on Thanksgiving Day—no worries! You can catch a miniature version of the Macy’s parade right in Universal Studios Orlando. Some of the actual balloons from the parade are sent to Universal to use in their version which begins in early December each year. Even before the parade the Studios have their Christmas decorations up, and they also feature some holiday themed shows in the park.
Over at Islands of Adventure a very fun “Grinchmas” is celebrated each year starting in early December. The “Who-liday Spectacular” is a live telling of the Grinch Who Stole Christmas with characters that mix and mingle with the crowd, you can meet the Grinch himself and even have breakfast with him! Like Universal Studios, Islands of Adventure begins to decorate even before the actual event, so you can enjoy the decorations in November.
- Walt Disney World Resort Tour
No one decorates for the holidays like Walt Disney World. The Christmas trees, garlands and edible displays are absolutely amazing in all of the resort hotels. The moderate and value resorts get into the spirit with décor themed special for them—an island Christmas at Caribbean Beach Resort, magnolias and hydrangeas in the tree at Port Orleans Riverside, a colorful Christmas at Art of Animation. The deluxe resorts really shine. Wilderness Lodge may be my favorite with the massive Christmas tree, the garlands and the “woodsy/log cabin” touches, but Animal Kingdom Lodge has a tree just as enormous. The Grand Floridian can’t be missed with its life-size Gingerbread House (stop by and buy some goodies while you are there), but the Beach Club is probably my favorite “edible” decoration with the gingerbread carousel with chocolate horses. The artistry at these resorts is amazing! I highly recommend taking at least half a day to resort hop and see all of the decorations—many offer PhotoPass photographers to take your photo with the decorations.
- A Sleigh Ride
At Fort Wilderness Campground a sleigh ride is offered. My family did this on our last holiday time vacation, and not only was it a lot of fun, but it was relaxing too. A horse pulls a sleigh (complete with sleigh bells) through the campground where you can see the elaborate decorations that are set up at many of the campsites by the guests staying there. There is an additional cost for the sleigh ride, and it is recommended to make reservations in advance.
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The ICE! event at Gaylord Palms is an annual activity, and each year it has a different theme. The Gaylord resort brings in artisans from an area of China near Siberia—they are experts at coloring and carving ice and the results are breathtaking. The temperature inside is a chilly 9 degrees, but that doesn’t take away from the fun. The best part—slides made of ice! This activity was fun for my entire family from age 3 to 11 to 15 and the grown-ups too! For a complete description see this article: http://www.disneydining.com/ice-gaylord-palms/
- Holidays Around the World at Epcot
This series of activities begins in Epcot just after Thanksgiving. Each year it changes slightly, but it always features storytellers in each country that relate a holiday story that is pertinent to their culture (my favorite is Norway). At the American Adventure you will learn about Hanukkah, Kwanzaa, and you can meet Santa & Mrs. Claus! There are some food and drink booths that are set up for Holidays Around the World (especially around Germany), and some usual food locations feature special holiday treats. Special shopping opportunities are also available during this time of year. My favorite unique souvenir/gift is still the beads made from recycled maps, but the hand-blown glass ornaments in Germany are a close second this time of year. Illuminations also has a special holiday “tag” at the end that makes it even more spectacular.
- Mickey’s Very Merry Christmas Party
This is probably one of the first Orlando events that kick off the season—beginning in early November, nearly days after the last Halloween party. The Christmas party requires a separate ticket, but I think it is well worth the price, at least once. The party begins at 7:00pm and the Magic Kingdom is beautifully decorated (at least on Main Street), capped off with the “icy” Cinderella Castle. My favorite parts of the party are Mickey’s Once Upon a Christmastime parade (similar to the Christmas Day parade you see on TV but without the “celebrity” performances) and the fireworks. Holiday Wishes is set to a beautiful Christmas soundtrack and features lots of great fireworks and effects on the Castle—I love them! Other party events include special character meet and greets, dance parties and stage shows. Don’t forget the complimentary hot cocoa and cookies, and the snow on Main Street!! While you are in the Magic Kingdom be sure to sail on the Jingle Cruise—the Jungle Cruise’s holiday makeover is a lot of fun (and you can do this any time of day, so you don’t have to attend a party).
- The Candlelight Processional
The Candlelight Processional at Epcot is such a moving and spectacular event. Beginning right after Thanksgiving and taking place in the American Gardens Theater, the performances are hosted by a celebrity narrator and accompanied by a mass choir, the Voices of Liberty and an orchestra. The narrator reads the Biblical passages of Jesus’s birth while the music complements the story. It is visually stunning and the music is beyond description—I highly recommend it. Although it takes place 3 times each night it is performed, seating can be difficult to secure. My family took advantage of the Candlelight Processional Dining Package to guarantee our seats. We had a fixed price lunch at a World Showcase restaurant and were given tickets to a specific show. The line was so long for those with guaranteed seats from the package I can’t imagine that very many got in from the stand-by line (and they were in line by noon for the 5pm show). If you don’t want to commit to the package or the lines, you can hear most of it from the courtyard around the American Adventure pavilion.
- The Osborne Family Spectacle of Dancing Lights
The little kid in me loves the Osborne Lights at Disney’s Hollywood Studios. They are beautiful, breathtaking and so much fun! I can’t help but smile and sing or hum along when they dance synchronized to the music—I could sit and watch them all night. It is just so festive—the music and all of the smiling faces around me really put me in the holiday mood. And, there is snow here too! The best part was watching my 3 year old’s face as the streets lit up and then the music came on so what is a little boy to do but dance?
What is your favorite Holiday Happening in Orlando?