The Complete Rundown of Central Florida's Annual Events
Central Florida not only claims the accolade for being the best theme park destination in the world, but can also lay claim to being located right in the heart of some of the most fabulous year-round events and festivals, which can multiply the entertainment value of any trip to the Sunshine State tenfold.
From rodeos to film festivals, Easter to Halloween, there is very often something happening over and above all the multitude of regular attractions in and around Orlando. Many of these events are unique to Florida, and therefore well worth adding to your holiday plan. A few are even worth making a beeline for in their own right. Add the annual Sun 'n' Fun Air Festival in Lakeland, brilliant for plane buffs, the Walt Disney Marathon, now a major yearly event for keen runners, and Universal's Halloween Horror Nights programme, throughout October, to the holiday itinerary. Christmas is another wonderful time to be in Orlando and around the parks, although there is the drawback of crowds being at their highest from Christmas Eve to 4th January. During this period parks often reach their capacity and can stop allowing entry to new arrivals by mid-morning, particularly at Disney's Magic Kingdom.
PRO SPOT: HOLIDAY CELEBRATION CROWDS AT THE THEME PARKS
- Throughout the Christmas period we advise you to arrive at the parks by 9am to ensure entry.
- The Christmas and New Year season is celebrated in a big way at all the main theme parks. The special parades, fireworks and general festivity are breathtaking and in turn the parks prove to be an extremely popular Christmas destination, so much so they extend their hours to facilitate the crowds. If you are keen to sample Christmas a la Disney, but aren't so keen on the large Christmas crowds then visiting throughout November and the first three weeks of December is a good compromise. The Christmas decorations begin to go up as early October and all the festivities will already be in full swing.
- If you are planning to visit the parks but wish to avoid the crowds it is also worth noting that the week of Thanksgiving is also another particularly busy period. Thanksgiving always falls on the fourth Thursday of November.
For those that love to enjoy the local colour on their holidays, here is our complete rundown of Central Florida's annual events, festivals and other hidden Floridian gems. To add something different to your visit to the region we definitely recommend you use this guide as your reference.
Event: Blue Spring Manatee Festival
Description: Beautiful Blue Spring State Park is home to the wonderful manatee. Special celebrations are staged around their migrations, with craft shows, park tours and interpretive programmes.
When: 22nd and 23rd January 2011. Although the festival only takes place for one weekend, we recommend seeing the manatees any time of the year.
Location: Orange City, Blue Spring Manatee Festival, Inc.
Event: Mount Dora Arts Festival
When: 5th and 6th February
Description: If you're an art aficionado, a culture fiend or just love frequenting festivals then Mount Dora Arts Festival is the perfect way to spend your day. Exhibiting near to three hundred international artist's work, this is the largest arts festival in the Sunshine State. Showcasing an abundance of fine art pieces, festival goers can expect to find watercolour, acrylic and oil paintings, sculptures and photography. Guests have the opportunity to purchase the art work on show and speak to many of the artists that are among the crowds. Over 300,000 possible buyers make their way to Mount Dora to enhance their art collection. With food prepared especially for the event, music entertainment from local musicians and the idyllic view of Lake Dora forming the backdrop, Mount Dora is a culturally enriching and beautiful experience to add depth to your Florida travels.
Location: Mount Dora Centre for the Arts, 138 East Fifth Avenue, Mount Dora, FL 32757
Details: For more detailed information on any of the events taking place in Mount Dora please keep an eye on the Mount Dora Area Chamber of Commerce website.
Event: Florida State Fair
Description: The 107 year old twelve day fair, just outside of Tampa, pays homage to those most recognised in Florida's agriculture and equestrian industry. At the Florida State Fair you can expect to be wowed from start to finish with shows and performances of every variety. From dance and theatre performances, magic and circus acts, arts and crafts, to typical fairground rides and petting zoos. There most certainly is something here for everyone and draws nearly half a million people annually. This is a real Florida showcase.
When: 10th - 21st February 2011
Location: 4800 Highway 301 North Tampa, FL
Event: Silver Spurs Rodeo
Description: There is no better way to experience true western American history than to witness the region's largest professional rodeo. The Professional Rodeo Cowboy Association has teamed up with cancer research to raise funds for Florida Hospital and will be donating a portion of Friday night's takings to the cause. The programme has been titled ' Tough Enough to Wear Pink' and asks guests and performers to dress in pink. If you want to participate in this programme make sure to book your tickets for the Friday. After the rodeo visitors can enjoy fairground rides and activities for the whole family to enjoy.
When: 18th - 21st February. A three day festival, usually in mid-February and the third weekend in October.
Location: Silver Spurs Arena, 1875 Silver Spur Lane, Kissimmee, FL 34744 (just off the eastern end of Highway 192)
Event: Bands, Brew and BBQ at SeaWorld Orlando and Busch Gardens Tampa Bay
Description: Bands Brew and BBQ combines the best music, food and drink of the south, giving guests the southern hospitality it's famed for. Feast on mountains of tasty barbecued food, quench your thirst with a brew at the beer gardens and rock the night away with an impressive line up of country and rock acts. All the rides and attractions are in full swing throughout the duration of the night, so guests are also able to enjoy the thrills the parks are best known for. The event's location is split between the two sister-theme parks, Busch Gardens and SeaWorld - both parks make a great setting for the night.
Bands, Brew and BBQ at SeaWorld, Orlando: 12th, 19th, 26th February and 5th March
Location : SeaWorld Orlando is located on Central Florida Parkway between International Drive and Sea Harbor Drive.
Bands, Brew and BBQ at Busch Gardens, Tampa Bay: 13th, 20th, 27th February and 6th March
Location: Busch Gardens, Tampa Bay, Florida
Event: Universal Studios Orlando Mardi Gras
When: Each Saturday and select nights between 12th February and 23rd April
Description: A carnival style parade dances through the streets of Universal Orlando with all the fun and frolics you would expect to see at a carnival. Sky scraping stilt walkers and energetic dancers dressed in flamboyant costumes follow beautifully decorated floats. Entertainers throw the signature Mardi Gras beads into the crowds and guests eagerly catch as many as possible. Universal Orlando transforms into the state that's got soul at the French Quarter, with live bands from New Orleans and some authentic soul food. Performances from the likes of Aretha Franklin and Sheryl Crow wowed party goers last year, for 2011 the headliners are just as grand, with a line up that includes Ne-Yo, The B-52's and Sean Kingston. Be sure to make your way to the stage before the final parade of the evening to secure a good a position for the concert.
Event: Daytona 500 at Daytona International Speedway
When: 20th February
Description: There's not a racing fan in Florida that would miss the Daytona 500 race. The first race took place in 1959 and has since been dubbed 'The Great American Race,' habitually being home to a sell out crowd and possibly one of the most watched races in the world. This is NASCAR'S most important race and by far the richest, paying out prize money more than $18 million. The sheer atmosphere of this event is buzzing and worth experiencing, even for those that aren't major racing fans.
Location: Daytona International Speedway BLVD, Daytona Beach, Florida
Event: Baseball Spring Training
When: Training takes place on various dates during March. Check the Training Itinerary below.
Description: Major League baseball team Atlanta Braves train for their approaching season at Disney's ESPN Wide World of Sports baseball quadraplex and opens up the grounds for fans to watch. Players take the time to talk to their fans and hand out their autographs. This experience gives fans the opportunity to see a side of the players they wouldn't usually and gain an insight into how professional baseball players train and practice for their competitive games. Whilst being an overwhelming opportunity for any baseball or sports fan, this is also great entertainment for the whole family to enjoy.
Location: The Baseball Quadraplex at Disney's Wide World of Sports
Event: Epcot International Flower & Garden Festival
When: 2nd March - 15th May
Description: Epcot looks good at the best of times, but the spring sees it in full bloom – for an international flower festival that is part of the regular daily admission. There are spectacular flower displays and topiaries throughout the park, plus special activities and play areas for children and seminars and lectures for keen gardeners. Extra entertainment includes a big-name concert series at the American Gardens Theatre, with special guests performing three times a day. For anyone with green fingers, this is a major treat.
Location: Walt Disney World's Epcot
Event: ESPN The Weekend
When: 3rd - 6th March
Description: The TV Channel dedicated entirely to sports comes to Disney's Hollywood Studios to present the biggest athletes, the most thrilling sporting and the most celebrated ESPN personalities to the ever important American sports fans. The Weekend offers an amazing sporting spectacle and has provided the opportunity to see performances from the much loved Harlem Globetrotters and other dance and sport combinations, an Interactive Sports Zone where both guests and stars show off their sporting skills, live audience with ESPN commentators and many more once in a lifetime experiences. Lovers of sport should definitely head to Disney's Hollywood Studios for this sports packed weekend. Have your autograph books handy for this one, you never know which sporting star you might brush shoulders with.
Location: Disney's Hollywood Studios Theme Park
Event: Florida Strawberry Festival
When: 3rd - 13th March
Description: This is one of Florida's most unusual and fun events. This country fair is centred round local agriculture, livestock, fine arts and crafts, with a carnivalesque celebration. By incorporating social events and youth developmental programmes into the festival, a great sense of community spirit is evoked, reminiscent of a time when local fairs and festivities brought communities together through their harvest. The Florida Strawberry Festival keeps alive the historical legacy of the Florida Strawberry by celebrating with parades of dazzling floats, marching bands and showcases top music artists. Guests get involved in all kinds of wonderfully crazy competitions, many that horticulturalists will find a fun challenge.
Location: Plant City, Florida.
Event: Daytona Beach Bike Week
When: 4 - 13th March
Description: This ten day motorcycle event and rally is one of the world's largest rallies with approximately 500,000 guests heading over to Daytona Beach for the biking festivities. Amidst concerts, parades and loads of street side entertainment, guests can take part in all the motorbike challenges and contests a motorcycle enthusiast could wish for. If you take a trip to Bike Week, The Loop, a scenic motorbike ride through the beautiful Floridian landscapes is a must see. This thrilling event celebrates all things two wheeled and mechanical and is definitely not to be missed by bikers anywhere.
Location: Daytona International Speedway, US92 east of I-95.
Event: Side Walk Arts Festival
When: 18th, 19th and 20th March9am–5pm Fri-Sat, 9am-5pm Sun.
Description: The Side Walk Arts Festival is one of the most prestigious fine arts festival located in Winter Park, the chic suburb just north of Orlando. The festival celebrates with three days of art, food, music and children’s events. At the festival you can expect to see a variety of art forms, from digital art, phohotography and media, sculptures, jewellery and leather to more typical watercolour paintings and drawings. Creations are influenced by geographical regions both near and far, carefully selected by the organisation's arts committee. Amidst all the art on show, performing artists, both amateur and professional, wow the crowds with outstanding performances and interactive and entertaining workshops keep children entertained throughout the day. The Side Walk Arts Festival is a wonderful celebration that demonstrates that art is alive in the community. This is an event that will definitely amaze those that appreciate art and creativity.
Location: Winter Park, Florida
Event: St Patricks Day at Raglan Road Irish Pub
When: 17th March
This major Irish shindig is commonly marked by parties and other festivities in the US, and Orlando is no exception. If you happen to be in Florida for Paddy's day there is no need to skip the celebration. Downtown Disney's Pleasure Island boasts a number of Irish themed bars and restaurants and celebrates immensely. Pleasure Island becomes tinged with the Emerald Isle for the night, expect live music and lots of partying. Head to Raglan Road, the new Irish style pub and restaurant in Downtown Disney for a great Irish dinner amidst the St Patrick festivities.
Location: Downtown Disney, West Side
Event: Lakeland Sun 'n' Fun
When: 29th March - 3rd April
Description: Lakeland Fun n' Sun is an annual aviation spectacular packed with all things concerned with aviation. The festival is brimming with aviation enthusiasts and those that work within the industry. There are various activities throughout the day that educate and thrill. Guests can take a visit to the Florida Air museum, admire vintage planes, enjoy an acrobatic show and watch the exhilarating military jet aerial demonstration by the 'Blue Angels'. Lakeland Fun n' Sun offers new and inventive ways to exhibit the wonders of flight.
Location: Medulla Drive, Lakeland Florida
Event: St George's Day at The George and Dragon pub
When: 23rd April
Description: If you want to celebrate England's saint's day in Orlando in complete English style, The George and Dragon pub is the perfect place to pay homage to St George. The George and Dragon serves up a wonderful selection of traditional English food, the menu includes full English breakfasts, lunches and dinners of Bangers and Mash, roast dinners served with all the typical trimmings and condiments, steak and kidney pies and sausage and chips. This is also the pub to head to if you want to watch any live Football or Rugby surrounded by the British pub atmosphere.
Location: International Drive, Orlando, Fl
Event: Star Wars Weekends
When: This event takes place on weekends during May and June. Keep checking ATD's News Blog for confirmed dates.
Description: Star Wars Weekends at Disney’s Hollywood Studios, complete with its breath taking Star Tours ride, is the home to some real Jedi fun and games. The Star Wars Weekend is an annual convention where fans, stars from the films and Disney characters come together to share their love for this immense creation. Characters from the Star Wars films conduct behind the scenes talks, this year Ashley Ecklestein, the voice of Ashoka Tano in Star Wars: Attack of the Clones, will lead a talk titled Clone Wars, Behind the Force. This is the place to rub shoulders with some of the Star Wars characters hanging about the Hollywood Studios park and get as many photographs and autographs as possible. If this wasn't enough to spoil Star Wars fans, Jedi Training and Star Wars Parades are all part of the fun packed weekend.
Location: Disney's Hollywood Studios
Event: Independence Day
When: 4th July
Description: This huge national holiday is celebrated throughout the country. The main theme parks stage special fireworks and other big set extravaganzas. The biggest, brightest and best Independence Day celebrations take place at SeaWorld, Universal and Disney's Magic Kingdom. However, if you prefer to celebrate with less crowds, watch out for big annual special events at Lake Eola (downtown Orlando), Lakefront Park (Kissimmee), the suburb of Winter Park and the charming town of Mount Dora.
Event: Epcot’s International Food & Wine Festival
When: 30th September - 13th November
Epcot’s second big annual festival takes place in the autumn and sees the World Showcase area dedicated to an amazing array of gastronomic delights. All the international pavilions cook up a storm of foods and drinks from around the world. For a small fee, regular park goers can enjoy the taste of Italy, Mexico, France or Canada, eating their way round the world. Those who enjoy the odd tipple or three are especially well catered for! Free rock ‘n roll concert series, Eat to the Beat, are held daily throughout the duration of the festival at the American Gardens Theatre located at the top of World Showcase.
Location: Disney's Epcot
- Halloween Horror Nights at Universal Orlando
- Mickey's Not So Scary Halloween at Disney's Magic Kingdom
Description: In America Halloween is a season in its own right and the major theme parks endorse the holiday just as elaborately, featuring displays and attractions that surpass imaginations and scare beyond belief. Halloween Horror Nights at Universal Studios is an immensely popular event and the park really goes to town with a positively blood-curdling series of special evenings. Guests book way in advance to celebrate their Halloween at this park. Disney serves up their own family friendly Halloween celebration, Mickey’s Not So Scary Halloween Party, where all guests are encouraged to dress up and show off their Halloween spirit.
Halloween Horror Nights at Universal Orlando
When: Starts late September (on select nights and all weekends) and continues through to the first couple of days in November. The 30th and 31st October sell out quickly.
Mickey's Not So Scary Halloween at Disney's Magic Kingdom
When: Held on select nights, beginning in mid September till the end of October. Dates will be released in summer. The 30th and 31st October sell out quickly.
- Spooktacular at SeaWorld
- Howl-O-Scream at Busch Gardens
SeaWorld has yet another family-friendly Halloween celebration titled Spooktacular. This particular celebration is geared towards the younger crowds and those young at heart. Guests can sing, dance and enjoy family-friendly crafts with fanciful undersea characters. Busch Gardens is also host to a Halloween part, titled Howl-O-Scream. Unlike SeaWorld's Spooktacular, this event is less family friendly and far more fabulously scary.
Spooktacular at SeaWorld
When: Spooktacular will begin in october, held on the 9th, 10th, 16th, 17th, 23rd, 29th and then continues through to the 31st October. Spooktacular is included with your park admission.
Howl-O-Scream at Busch Gardens
When: Entry to Howl-O-Scream is not included in general park admission. Dates are to be confirmed for 2011, keep checking here for updates.
Halloween is big business in the U.S. and the theme parks take full advantage of the passion for all things scary and not so scary. The best Halloween events are highlighted on our Halloween in Orlando page.
When: 13th and 16th October
Description: Biktoberfest is the companion weekend to Bike Week (see March). This Daytona Beach festival draws more than 10,000 bike enthusiasts, so it should either be avoided or embraced, depending on your enthusiasm for motorbikes.
Details: See March's listings above for more information on this event.
Event: Silver Spurs Rodeo
Description: A three-day fest, usually in mid-February and third weekend in October, a twice-yearly celebration of an original American sport, this is held at the new Osceola Heritage Park in Kissimmee and features some top quality events, plus associated crafts and activities.
Details: See February's listings above for more detailed information on this event.
Event: 4th Annual Family Fall Festival - Week of the Family
When: The last Saturday in October. Dates TBC.
Description: This festival celebrates all things family and is the perfect festival to spend quality time with the family and great fun for the children. The event aims to strengthen the community by making the family stronger and does this by throwing together an abundance of entertainment for families to come and enjoy together. The Family Fall Festival is packed with all kinds of activities, a children’s costume parade, hay rides, pumpkin patches and art workshops, as well as spoiling its guests with free snow cones, hotdogs, cotton candy and popcorn.
For more detailed information on this event keep checking here.
Description: The week of Thanksgiving sparks a big holiday rush on the theme parks, although the parks will extend their opening hours during such a holiday, if you wish to avoid the crowds refrain from visiting between the 22nd - 30th November. If you are able to arrive the week after the main Thanksgiving weekend you will benefit from a really quiet period at all the theme parks and much shorter queues. Beware that park hours may also be shorter. During this period you will find a lot of Christmas elements getting under way (notably in Walt Disney World), but without the big crowds they draw from mid-December onwards.
When: 24th November (the fourth Thursday in November)
Event: Light Up Mount Dora
When: 26th November (always the saturday after Thanksgiving)
Description: The annual switch-on of more than 2 million Christmas lights throughout the town of Mount Dora welcomes the season in high-wattage style. The celebration begins at 5pm and finishes at 9pm - the switch on is at 6.30pm.
Location: Donnelly Park, Mount Dora, Fl
Orlando’s crowds increase this time of year, festive elements pop up virtually everywhere you turn, with special parades, parties and magical celebrations. Asides from the major theme parks, the most notable elements of Christmas can be found in Mount Dora during the holiday season. This charming rural county really knows how to put on a party and celebrates with the Christmas Walk, the 51st Annual Christmas Parade and the Lighted Boat Parade.
Details: For more detailed information on any of the events taking place in Mount Dora please keep an eye on the Mount Dora Area Chamber of Commerce website.
The crowds at the major theme parks are just as overwhelming as the wonderful winter wonderlands they create for the Christmas holidays and are well worth the experiencing. To learn about all the Christmas events, celebrations and key attractions read our guide dedicated entirely to Christmas at the parks.