It’s been said many times (and often by us!) that Orlando is the perfect place at Christmas. The theme parks provide a wealth of festive attractions that make them even more compelling than usual. But there is WAY more to The City Beautiful in December than just Disney and Co, and, for those visitors who like to enjoy the more offbeat and local attractions, we thought we’d highlight some of our favourite alternative options for soaking up the festive spirit.
They are well known to those who live here, but they may well be “secrets” for those who are relishing their first Christmas visit hereabouts, as most are certainly off the beaten tourist track. They are tailor-made for all visitors to enjoy this month, but they are also worth bookmarking for 2023 if you are just starting to plan for a Yuletide holiday next year.
With no further ado, here are our 12 bona fide places that offer that ‘Orlando like a local’ Christmas feeling:
Central Florida Zoo: This charming family-friendly zoological park and botanical gardens in the city of Sanford, just 45 miles north of the Magic Kingdom, has earned a justifiable reputation in recent years for its superbly eye-catching Holiday programme. Their Asian Lantern Festival is a truly spectacular display that literally lights up the Zoo in unique style, with a three-quarter-mile path studded with brilliant hand-made illuminated lantern displays made up of thousands of LED lights.
Wekiva Island: We’ve written about this wonderful little nature escape on the edge of Orlando before, for its picturesque location on the crystal-clear Wekiva River and its many paddling options. But, at Christmas, it adds its own original take on the season with a series of special events under their Winter Wonderland presentation, which includes a giant Christmas tree, snow flurries, seasonal décor and appearances by Santa and Mrs Claus.
Lake Eola: The heart of downtown Orlando takes on extra lustre at this time of year, highlighted by a 64ft tree that comes alive with synchronised lights and music five times each evening. There are also nightly “snowfalls” and Santa appearances at the Lake Eola House, a weekend Holiday Market, Christmas movies on the East Lawn (on Fridays) and a fully decorated trail around the lake to provide a wonderfully heart-warming environment.
Leu Gardens: Now in its third year, the Dazzling Nights spectacular at Leu Gardens is an extra ticket event on select nights, and offers another superb presentation of lights, sounds and interactive activities as the 50-acre venue is transformed into a stunning tableau of shimmering lights, shining forests, magical displays, music and beautiful sculptures. Offerings also include character meet-and-greets, a giant inflatable yeti playground for kids and a “snowstorm” in a 40ft snow globe!
Dezerland: This new car museum and activity centre on International Drive has charmed locals this year with an all-new festive programme. Called Christmas Nights in Lights, it involves a clever and immersive drive-through light show experience, with a synchronised soundtrack tuned directly to each car’s stereo system. The series of displays include more than 1.5 million “dancing” lights spread over almost a mile of specially-prepared track, with the drive taking around 30 minutes.
Lake Nona: Travel beyond the main tourist areas to this rapidly-developing suburb south of the airport and you discover “Oh, What Fun!”, a modern-day holiday festival with lots of style. The town centre is transformed into Peppermint Square, with live entertainment, Santa’s Cottage, arts, crafts and regular snowfalls to complete a very pretty Christmas picture.
Night of a Million Lights: The fabulous Give Kids The World village in Kissimmee created an astounding walk-through lighting experience during the pandemic while the resort that caters to children with life-threatening illnesses had to close. Now back in regular business, they have taken their Night of A Million Lights showcase to the Island H2O Water Park on Highway 192 for a new setting of illuminated splendour.
Mall at Millenia: When you need some Christmas shopping as well as a visit with Santa, the Mall at Millenia is the place to go. Here, in a splendid setting of North Pole extravagance, the Santa Photo Experience offers the essential photographic meet-and-greet with the Chief Elf, either as a pre-booked package or a do-it-yourself photo shoot (with a $10 donation to the Arnold Palmer Hospital for Children).
Celebration: The Disney-inspired town just south of Highway 192 in Kissimmee is very much Christmas Central in December, when Market Street is taken over by all the sights and sounds of the season. From “Now Snowing,” Celebration’s trademark snowy precipitation, to strolling carolers, a synthetic ice-skating rink, live entertainment, train rides and concert events, this is an all-action salute to winter’s wonders.
Winter Park: For that one-off event, the swanky suburb of Winter Park stages the annual Ye Olde Hometown Christmas Parade on the first weekend in December that draws a big local crowd. With more than 80 organisations taking part, including marching bands, local police and fire departments, city dignitaries and Mr and Mrs Claus, they all bring the best Yule style.
Winter Garden: By a similar token, our nearby neighbourhood stages a fabulous array of festivities, both at weekends and for the signature one-off Golf Cart Parade. Downtown Winter Garden is just ridiculously pretty in December, and it features some wonderful horse-drawn carriage tours along the brick-lined streets. There’s also a light show on City Hall, live music and a festive atmosphere second to none.
Stetson Mansion: We’re saving the most unusual and eye-catching venue for last, as this is something that is loaded with the X-factor. Stetson Mansion in the town of DeLand (55 minutes’ drive north of Orlando) is the former home of famous hat manufacturer and millionaire John B Stetson and it is open for guided tours year-round. But, from November to January, it is given a Yuletide makeover for the ages with some of the most elaborate and creative home Christmas decorating you will see. Tours must be booked in advance but, in our opinion, this is well worth making a special effort to see.
Have you tried any of our Orlando Christmas “secrets” in the past? Tell us about them on the friendly ATD forums, our Community Facebook page, on Twitter or Instagram.