Take thousands of twinkling lights, add a one-on-one with Rudolph and his friends in a Winter Wonderland, tell Santa Claus what’s on your wish list, throw in a generous helping of yuletide treats and live entertainment and you’ve got Christmas Town at Busch Gardens, one of Florida’s premier experiences for the festive season.
It has only been around for seven years, but the Christmas Town annual holiday event at Busch Gardens in Tampa has certainly grown up and come into its own in that short time. That means more to enjoy, and it also means bigger crowds. Here’s our definitive guide to getting the most out of your visit.
1) Do the rides during the day.The park runs on a normal schedule for most of the day, at 4pm the festivities begin, and you’ll want to get a jump on the crowds by being among the first into Christmas Town Village. This is where you’ll find special holiday gifts, food and beverage offerings at cute chalet-style ‘cabins’. Wait times can be long, so make sure you’re in the queue before you’re overly hungry!
PRO TIPS: Start your day at the back of the park and work your way forward so that you’re in the Village area (between Zagora Café and Garden Gate Café, where the new Iron Gwazi roller coaster is going up) when it opens. This will also get you on SheiKra and Tigress early, before their queues get too long. Then, walk off those holiday treats with a stroll through the holiday light displays once the sun goes down, and take in the special shows. If you haven’t done them already, make Cheetah Hunt, Cobra’s Curse and Montu your grand finale at the end of the day.
2) Catch a cheery show!Trees wrapped in colourful lights and strung with glowing ornaments create glorious tunnels of yuletide twinkle as you walk through each land, and they’re a show unto themselves, especially when you reach the Luminosity Lane musical tunnel along a special pathway to the right of the Skyway near Jungala (have your camera or phone ready; you’re going to want selfies here!). But live performances are the real highlight, and you’ll want to see as many as you can.
Make sure the indoor Christmas On Ice show is on your must-see list, and enjoy a wintery backdrop with spectacular ice-skating feats set to seasonal music. Christmas From The Heart, inside the Stanleyville Theater, features contemporary Christian gospel music; Dragon Fire Grill features The Most Wonderful Time, with traditional Christmas songs; Three Kings Journey in Bird Gardens tells the tale of the three wise men and their travels to Bethlehem; and outdoor Carol of the Bells sets a giant Christmas tree’s lights dancing to joyful tunes. Visiting with young children? Don’t miss Elmo’s Christmas Wish, a delightful show in which Sesame Street’s Elmo discovers what he really wants for Christmas, with the help of his friends.
PRO TIPS: The shows are popular, so the standard advice of “arrive early” definitely applies. Be sure to check out the show guide when you arrive at the park, and have a plan for viewing the ones that appeal to you most. It can be difficult fitting them all in, especially if you visit Santa and Rudolph.
3) Meet the Season’s special stars!No Christmas event would be complete without the Jolly Old Elf himself, and Santa’s House Presented by Coca-Cola is the place to meet him (get there early; he’s popular!). Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer, Bumble and Clarice welcome guests at Rudolph’s Winter Wonderland in Pantopia Theater. You can also meet Sesame Street characters at Holiday Breakfast with Elmo & Friends, an additional-cost event.
PRO TIPS: Meet-and-greets run through 31 December, so plan accordingly!
4) Give Yourself A Christmas Gift!Along with food and beverage kiosks, the Village also has a smattering of gift outlets, including a jaunty selection of nutcrackers. More extensive shopping can be found at Santa’s Christmas Workshop in Morocco’s Marrakesh Market.
PRO TIP: Don’t forget about the free gifts! There are lovely seasonal photo ops all across the park, including fairy princesses, a giant snowman, elves on boxes, decorated trees and even penguins.
5) Indulge in a tasty treat!There are those who believe Christmas calories don’t count, nor do those you take in when you’re on holiday, and we’re inclined to agree even if our waistlines say otherwise. Either way, you’ve got to have hot cocoa, a hot toddy, spicy Beer Cheese Soup, and a cookie, doughnut, or bread pudding (our suggestion? Go for one of each!). Savoury offerings also include Loaded Mash Potatoes (topped with your choices of short ribs, turkey in gravy, Impossible chili, bacon crumbles, cheese, and more); Chicken and Waffle or Waffle Cristo (ham and cheese) sandwiches; Turkey Burger or Mac-and-cheese sliders; and pulled pork hash. The sweet offerings are vast, as are the alcoholic and non-alcoholic hot and cold seasonal drinks. Sample several with the purchase of a Five-item ($24.99) or Ten-item 9$39.99) sampling lanyard. You can use one for the whole family, or get one for each person in your group, and, depending on your choices, they do represent real value for money.
PRO TIP: If whipped cream is offered as a topping for your hot drink, take it. This is no time for modest refusals. Your mental well-being will thank you!
6) Warm up your vocal cords!What would the holiday season be without a few good Christmas carols? And what better place for a special sing-along than on the Sing-Along Train? It’s free, of course, and a seriously merry way to get from one side of the park to the other. Or, treat yourself to a round-trip, jingle-belling all the way.
PRO TIP: Sing. Just do it. No-one will judge you, and your inner child will be glad you did!
7) Avoid the crush on Christmas Eve and Day!No, we’re not suggesting you hunker down in your accommodation for two of the busiest days on Orlando’s calendar if you really have your heart set on being in a theme park. Instead, make Busch Gardens your park of choice on either of those two days (ideally, Christmas Day). Most of the locals will be home with family, and the lure of a certain “magical” place is strong on the most festive days of the year. That’s good news for visitors to Busch Gardens, and while the park will still be ultra-busy, it won’t feel packed in like Spam in a can. You’ll get all the wonderful holiday vibes without the less-wonderful crush of humanity.
PRO TIPS: The park opens at 10am both days, and closes at 8pm on Christmas Eve and 10pm on Christmas Day. Longer hours on Christmas Day means you don’t have to start the drive extra early; you’ll still get a full day of it if you arrive by 10 or 11am. That said, crowds will be markedly lighter before noon.
Christmas Town runs nightly from 16 November through 6 January and is included with your Busch Gardens Tampa theme park admission, which you can purchase here. Do what we do and make it a festive annual tradition!