By Susan and Simon Veness
With so many seasonal events to choose from in Central Florida, one location stands out for offering the most extensive holiday experience, and that’s Busch Gardens Tampa’s Christmas Town. Celebration Village and Snow World are at the heart of this evening extravaganza, but the entire park is decorated in its finery, providing hours of entertainment.
It starts the moment you walk through the turnstiles. Archways trimmed in red, gold, and purple lights beckon you further along, until you reach the inner plaza where row after row of garland sparkles with the same moody, mystic lighting. Palm tree trunks are lit in red, and lights from Santa’s Workshop spill into the courtyard. It’s an atmosphere of peaceful delight, punctuated by a gentle snowfall that brings squeals of excitement from children and contented smiles from adults.
The centre of the action is to the left of the entry plaza at Snow World and Celebration Village, but we decided to take a stroll to the right for the first showing of Carol of the Bells just outside the Crown Colony restaurant. And that’s when it dawned on us this was much more than a decorated entry and a few special shows; the landscape along the walkway—dubbed Ice Wonderway for the event—was ablaze in wintery blue and white, with seemingly every tree covered in lights sympathetic to the attraction in that area of the park, the seasonal Angels of Peace Ice Show.
Moving into Jungle Jubilee, home of Cheetah Hunt, this thematic sympathy with the surroundings once again played out (and indeed, it was the pattern park-wide), with yellows and oranges lighting up sconces trimmed in spiky dried grasses and a central tree mimicking the spotted coats of two lit-up cheetahs nestled in the landscaping.
We watched Carol of the Bells, a dancing lights show with Crown Colony and its landscaping as the canvas, set to the music of its namesake song by Trans-Siberian Orchestra, with the screams of riders making that first launch out of Cheetah Hunt and the festive whistle of the Christmas Town Sing-A-Long Train in the background. We then backtracked for the first showing of Angels of Peace: A Christmas Journey On Ice, an inspiring dance-on-ice with a stage full of skating ‘angels’ interpreting modern renditions of Christmas classics.
After the show we explored Ice Wonderway and the kid-friendly fun of Penguin Point, with games geared toward youngsters and an enclosure bustling with a handful of rather bemused penguins. Further along, a gleaming cascade of white lights lit up the area surrounding the Welcome To Santa’s House meet and greet, with handy pagers given to guests waiting to meet Saint Nick, allowing them to enjoy the charming North Pole atmosphere until their turn arrived.
Timbuktu—renamed Holiday Hills for the event—was decked out in retro finery, and it is here that the Mrs. Claus’ Family Feast takes place. We had already sprung for turkey pot pies at Crown Colony, so we posed by giant billboards of Santa drinking Coca-Cola, then moved on to Christmas Time Terrace and the high-tech Christmas Time Tree Show, similar to SeaWorld’s Sea of Trees nighttime spectacular but with an up-close view of the single 40-foot tree. Pin-point laser lights created a polka-dot effect against the palm trees as the strains of O Christmas Tree (in best Charlie Brown Christmas style) launched a five-minute high-energy progression of lights dancing to modern Christmas songs. If guests weren’t already in the spirit of things, they certainly were once this enthusiastic performance ended!
Next we came upon Mistletoe Memories, just to the right of the Stanleyville Falls flume ride, where kissing balls hung from brightly lit trees and couples gathered for the obvious photo opportunities. Further along a beautiful nativity (made from organic materials in keeping with the park’s nature theme) glowed with dozens of flickering candles, a reminder of the reason for the season. Nearby, the rock-n-roll style of Madagascar Live! Operation Christmas Vacation, nearly identical to the regular daytime show, had a holiday overlay with a few carols added to the interactive sing-along element of the show. But there was more fun just around the corner, where silly versions of holiday songs were playing and a pathway lined with “fuzzy” Christmas trees adorned Sesame Street’s A Very Furry Christmas. Here, Elmo and his friends gather for a pre-schooler-friendly song and dance show in which they learn the true meaning of Christmas.
Finally we reached Christmas Town Village and Celebration Village, a collection of holiday-themed cabins selling seasonal snacks, warming beverages, and festive merchandise, and home to the fun Jingle Bell Express train, just right for younger guests. Across the way was Snow World Presented by Coca-Cola, and this was where things got seriously wintery. Kiosks with snacks and beverages led to a tented area, where a blizzard of fun was in full swing. Guests of all ages were sliding down 8 snow slides on Christmas Town inner tubes, playing in a massive field of real snow, and throwing snowballs at Coke bottles. It was a flurry of happy activity, made better by the fact that it was cool, but not cold, so those visitors who were not taking target practice, rump-bumping down a slide or making snowmen could happily watch without feeling overly chilly.
We picked up a hot cocoa, which was surprisingly rich and creamy, and sat people-watching for a while, then ended our evening with the Hallelujah Showcase chorus in the Marrakesh Theater. After a year of hectic work schedules and the demands of everyday living, this was the perfect remedy for tired spirits. Busch Gardens’ size means it spreads its guests out well, and you never feel as if you’re fighting against the crowd, or rushed to capture a picture. It’s a slow, mellow pace, perfect for winding down before the joyous—if sometimes tumultuous—family gatherings of Christmas.
Christmas Town is a paid-for hard-ticket event, but it offers immense value for money. A handful of headline attractions are open and have little or no wait (walk-on SheikRa in the dark, anyone?), but the real pleasure here comes in decompressing amid acres of incredible light displays, 350 Christmas trees, 108,000 cubic feet of snow, and an genuine atmosphere of joyful anticipation.