Central Florida not only earns 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 multiply the entertainment value of any trip to the Sunshine State tenfold.
From rodeos to film festivals, manatees to strawberries, there is almost always something happening over and above 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, such as the Silver Spurs Rodeo, are even worth making a beeline for in their own right.
Blue Springs Manatee Festival
Beautiful Blue Springs State Park is one of the winter homes to the gentle manatee and special viewings are staged around their arrival, including the Blue Springs Manatee Festival. With over 100 arts and crafts booths, live music, children’s activities, small animal encounters, manatee viewing and interpretive programmes, it’s a great way to learn more about this shy ‘sea cow’ (so called for their underwater grazing habits).
- When: Late January.
- Location: Orange City, off of I-4 and US-17 near Blue Springs State Park.
Although the festival only takes place for one weekend, we recommend seeing the manatees any time of the year.
Mount Dora Arts Festival
Image Source: Kimdokhac Flickr
If you're an art aficionado or just enjoy strolling around ‘small town America’, the popular Mount Dora Arts Festival is the perfect way to spend your day. This juried show features oil, acrylic and watercolour paintings, clay works, sculptures and photography, accompanied by live music, food and a lovely lakeside setting.
- When: First weekend in February.
- Location: Mount Dora Centre for the Arts, 138 East Fifth Avenue, Mount Dora.
Make a day of it by taking a boat ride from the Lakeside Inn around pretty Lake Dora and the Dora Canal.
Florida State Fair
Image Source: Ricymar Photography
This 12-day fair just outside of Tampa is a little slice of Americana, with live entertainment, a historical village, crafts, concessions stands, livestock and agricultural exhibits and, of course, a massive rides and games midway. But the real highlights are the livestock competitions, and there are few things cuter than watching children proudly displaying the pigs, bunnies or calves they’ve so carefully raised. It’s a taste of ‘American pioneer days’ at their very best.
- When: Early through mid-February
- Location: Tampa, just off of Highway 301 North
Want the time-honoured ‘State Fair’ culinary experience? Munch on a corn dog with mustard while you tour the livestock exhibits. Not sure what a corn dog is? It’s a hot dog encased in corn bread, deep fried and served up on a wooden skewer. Try it!
Silver Spurs Rodeo
Image Source: Rusty Clark Flickr
There is no better way to experience American cowboy history than to “yee-haw” it up at the region's largest professional rodeo. From Bull Riding to Barrel Racing, Roping, Bronc Riding and Steer Wrestling, this is the real deal with all the inherent danger and excitement. There is even a Rodeo Queen, and no genuine rodeo would be complete without Muttin’ Bustin’, where little buckaroos compete to see who can stay on the back of an adult sheep for 8 seconds. Have cameras at the ready; it’s hilarious!
- When: There are two 3-day rodeos each year, one in late-February and one in early June.
- Location: Osceola Heritage Park/Silver Spurs Arena, just off of Highway 192 in Kissimmee
Rodeo competitions can kick up a lot of dust. If you’re sensitive, find a seat further up in the stands, away from the main floor.
Daytona 500 at Daytona International Speedway
The first Daytona 500 race took place in 1959 and today NASCAR fans from all over the world flock to Daytona each year to experience ‘The Great American Race’. The atmosphere is super-charged, the sound is immense and the crowds are huge. It all adds up to serious sporting fun, even if you’re not a rabid race fan. Just being there is a thrill!
- When: Late February
- Location: Daytona International Speedway off of I-4 in Daytona Beach
Visit the Daytona International Speedway on a non-race day and you can take a guided track tour, including the infamous banked curve of Turn 4, the Drivers Meeting Room and Victory Lane.
Atlanta Braves Spring Training
Major League baseball team Atlanta Braves train for the upcoming season at the ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex, and 9,500-seat Champion Stadium opens up its stands for fans to come and watch. All sporting events in the U.S. are family-friendly, making Spring Training a terrific chance to see a game and get up close to the players. Tickets are required, but if you catch a ball that has been hit into the stands, you get to keep it!
- When: Late February through late March.
- Location: ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex, just off of Osceola Parkway in Walt Disney World.
Bring a baseball and a permanent marker or pen with you to Spring Training. Players often give out autographs before or after a game.
Florida Strawberry Festival
One of Florida's most unusual events, this country fair is centred around local agriculture, livestock, arts and crafts, pig races and home baked goodies, with carnival midway rides and games to keep things lively. Homemaker Competitions are a big deal at county fairs, with pies, cakes, jams and jellies, quilting, beading and other domestic endeavours judged and awarded ribbons, and the display tent is one of the fair’s most popular attractions. Parades, live entertainment by headliner bands, and strawberries every way imaginable (and some you probably never imagined) round out the offerings at this fabulous—and uniquely American—event.
- When: The last week in February through the first week in March.
- Location: Plant City, just off of I-4 east of Tampa.
County Fairs are an annual American tradition, and many rural children belong to a 4-H Club, which stress responsibility and good citizenship. Take some time to talk to them about the animals they have raised and entered into the livestock competitions. You may just make a new friend!
Daytona Beach Bike Week
Image source: DeusXFlorida Flickr
This 10-day motorcycle rally is one of the world's largest, with approximately 500,000 guests heading to Daytona Beach for the festivities. Amidst concerts, parades, local and national vendors and loads of street entertainment, guests can enjoy all the motorcycle challenges and contests a bike enthusiast could wish for. Many of the events require a motorcycle, as you would expect, but if you’re a biker or biker-wannabe, the collection of cycles on display makes it a spectator sport worth visiting.
- When: Early March through mid-March.
- Location: Daytona International Speedway, US92 east of I-95.
Daytona Bike Week is one of the few annual events that is not recommended for visitors under the age of 18.
Winter Park Sidewalk Arts Festival
Image Source: Hji Flickr
The Sidewalk Arts Festival is a prestigious juried art festival located in Winter Park, the chic suburb just north of downtown Orlando. The 3-day event includes live music, food, a beer garden, children’s events and a variety of art, from sculptures, jewellery, clay, glass, pottery, wood and leather to digital arts, photography and printmaking, as well as paintings and drawings. Hands-on workshops encourage children to express their inner artist. There are several exceptional restaurants along the high street, many with outdoor seating perfect for people-watching.
- When: Late March.
- Location: Winter Park, just off of I-4.
Take a short stroll from the high street to Lake Osceola and enjoy a relaxing Scenic Boat Tour past grand estates and through the narrow canals of the Winter Park chain of Lakes. Bliss!
SUN 'n' FUN
Lakeland’s SUN ‘n FUN Fly-In event brings together over 200,000 aviation enthusiasts for six days of stunt flying, Many guests camp overnight, but day guests have just as much to enjoy with modern and vintage plane displays, spectacular acrobatics and precision flying demonstrations, plus the popular Showcase Fly-By procession of personal aircraft. Night shows, hot air balloon launches, seminars and lectures round out the offerings, with food and drink available.
- When: March or April. Dates vary yearly.
- Location: Lakeland, just off of I-4.
Purchase cheap folding chairs from Wal-Mart to make all-day viewing of the aerial shows more comfortable, then donate them to Goodwill or other charity-based organisations.
This huge national holiday is celebrated throughout the country with picnics, flag-waving and an enthusiastic showing of national pride. Magic Kingdom, Epcot, Hollywood Studios, Universal Studios and SeaWorld all have huge specially-themed fireworks displays, with equally massive visitor turn-out. But it’s easy to avoid the crowds, as nearly every town in America will have its own fireworks show. Our vote goes to Celebration, just off of Highway 192 in Kissimmee, for their all-day Fourth of July extravaganza, with live bands, games, children’s activities, great food and a gloriously festive atmosphere.
- When: 4th July.
- Location: Beyond the theme parks, major fireworks displays take place at Celebration (near Walt Disney World), Lake Eola (downtown Orlando), Lakefront Park (Kissimmee), the suburb of Winter Park, the charming town of Mount Dora and Sanford, north of Orlando.
Today is the day when you’ll want a small hand-held U.S. flag to wave! Find them at Wal-Mart, Target and most grocery stores.
Biketoberfest is the companion weekend to Bike Week (see March), drawing more than 10,000 visitors and bike enthusiasts to Daytona Beach, with live music, motorcycle rallies, charity cruises, rides (bike owners only), bike shows and nightlife.
- When: Mid-October.
- Location: Most Biketoberfest events take place in Daytona Beach. Professional motorcycle races take place at Daytona International Speedway.
Similar to Bike Week, Biketoberfest is best enjoyed by visitors ages 21 and up.
Silver Spurs Rodeo
Image Source: Inazakira Flickr
This twice-yearly celebration of an original American sport is held at the 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.
Christmas at Gaylord Palms, featuring ICE!
It doesn’t get any cooler than this! Actually, it doesn’t get any colder than this, as the ‘Florida fridge’ inside the Gaylord Palms resort is set to a chilly -12C/9F, filled with more than 2 million pounds of stunning themed ice sculptures, ice slides, snow-slide tubing, the Frostbite Factory (where you can watch the artists at work) and a magnificent carved-ice Nativity Scene. But don’t worry; parkas are included in the admission price and when you’ve had enough of the chill factor you’ll find hours more family fun in the warmer areas of the resort. Decorate gingerbread cookies, meet Shrek and his friends at a character breakfast, watch the Tree Lighting ceremony and various Christmas themed shows, take part in the Reindeer Scavenger Hunt or just sit and sip a hot cocoa. Naturally, Santa Claus is on hand to hear your Christmas wish list.
- When: Mid-November through early January.
- Location: Gaylord Palms Resort, just off of Osceola Parkway and I-4 in Kissimmee.
It may be warm outside, but ICE! Isn’t the place for flip-flops or sandals! You may also want to bring a pair of mittens or gloves to keep your hands warm while enjoying the ice sculptures.
Light Up Mount Dora
Image source: Jared Flickr
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.
- When: Last Saturday in November or first Saturday in December.
- Location: Mount Dora.
Christmas in Mount Dora
The most notable elements of Christmas outside the theme parks can be found in Mount Dora during the holiday season. This charming rural county celebrates with several events during the ‘holiday season’, including the Christmas Walk, an Annual Christmas Parade, Tree Lighting ceremony, a Christmas Walk street party, the Christmas Tour of Homes, the Lighted Boat Parade, the fabulous Christmas in the Park with Snow, and more.
- Details: For more detailed information on any of the events taking place in Mount Dora check out the Mount Dora Area Chamber of Commerce website.
Many small towns, including Mount Dora, participate in the Toys For Tots programme, collecting toys for needy children who would otherwise go without on Christmas morning. If you would like to make a donation, purchase a small gift (new, unwrapped toys only) and take it to the Mount Dora Fire Department collection point. It’s a great feeling, knowing you’re giving a deserving child a very happy Christmas!