Disney has Mickey’s Very Merry Christmas Party, Candlelight Processional, and International Festival of the Holidays; Universal has Grinchmas and the Holiday Parade featuring Macy’s; and SeaWorld has the superb SeaWorld’s Christmas Celebration, but there are plenty of opportunities to get into the spirit of the season without going into a theme park. Because sometimes you want a bit of low-stress with your eggnog, and that’s where Orlando’s spectacular holiday lights events come in. Here’s where to find them:
Christmas in Orlando’s version of “small town America” begins at the end of November with Light Up Winter Garden, featuring vendors, special shopping opportunities, children’s activities and a lovely, home-spun ceremony during which the city’s outdoor holiday lights turn on, kicking off a month of celebration.
One of the best ways to view the lights is on a 15-minute holiday carriage ride, where the clip-clop of horse’s hooves add to the Dickens-worthy atmosphere. Carriage rides are offered on December 8, 15, and 22, from 5pm-9.30pm. Or, take a 30-minute, old-fashioned hay ride with Santa December 8 from 6pm-9pm. And, because Santa loves you, it’s free!
Holiday Movies features a showing of The Polar Express from 6pm-8.30pm on December 15. Carolers dressed in their finest Dickens-wear start the evening off right, and the movie begins at 6.30pm. You don’t need tickets to attend the free events, but do bring a blanket, because this one is “under the stars”.
But you’re mainly looking for twinkling lights, right? Winter Garden residents decorate their homes in elaborate style, not only to impress the neighbours, but also to impress the judges. On December 18 and 19, the De-Light-Ful Decorations competition takes place, and if you’d like to join in the fun, judging begins at 5.30pm. There’s $100 in prize money involved, so you know it’s going to be good!
CELEBRATION: This Disney-created community just off Highway 192 is well-known for its Now Snowing events at Christmas, with “ice skating,” carriage, sleigh and train rides, live music and “snow” along the main street. Make time for a drive around town, too, where residents put up elaborate decorations, some so extensive they’re an attraction in their own right.
UNIVERSITY OF CENTRAL FLORIDA: Yes, it’s a college campus, but also yes, it’s got a spectacular light show. Starting at 7pm and running every hour until closing, the campus hosts a Holiday Light Show just outside the campus’s CFE Arena. Have your photo taken with Santa, go ice skating on Orlando’s largest outdoor rink, take a carriage ride, stroll along Light Up Lane, watch a Holiday Film Festival movie, and enjoy four winter-themed rides. The event and parking are free, while ice skating, photos with Santa and all rides have a modest charge ($4.25-$15).
If you’re not visiting during December or your travel dates miss some of these festive opportunities, mark your calendar for next year. Christmas in Orlando is the gift that keeps on giving, and with a wealth of holiday light displays, you may even find inspiration for decorating once you’re home again!
LAKE NONA: A bit further out, but worth the drive for the Lake Nona Holiday Festival at Lake Nona Town Center, just off Highway 417, with a skating rink, live entertainment, Christmas trees, holiday foods and drinks, meetings with Santa, and the occasional “snow fall,” Florida style. Mail a letter to Santa, indulge in mulled wine and roasted chestnuts, listen to carolers, or visit during a themed weekend night, with suitably festive movies (How the Grinch Stole Christmas on 8 December; Home Alone on 14 December; The Polar Express on 21 December; and Frozen on 28 December). Like Celebration, the homes here are heavily decorated, making a drive through town well worthwhile.
Orlando Hotels and Resorts: Nearly all of the hotels and resorts around the main tourist area will decorate for Christmas, with the stand-out being Gaylord Palms. Drive by and see the magnificent lights on the hotel itself, or make a day of it with the paid-for events of ICE!, snow tubing and games, and photos with Santa, or the free events of Cirque Dreams Unwrapped stage show and Sounds of the Season Concert Series.
Walt Disney World: The Contemporary, Grand Floridian, Boardwalk and Yacht and Beach Club resorts all decorate to the nines, and Disney Springs features an elaborate Christmas Trail lined with elaborately decorated, Disney-themed trees. All of these options are worth seeking out, and best of all, they’re free.
Rosen Shingle Creek Resort: What started with one tree sponsored by a local non-profit organisation has evolved to include 23 trees decorated by charity groups, each dedicated to helping raise money to benefit children (and animals!) in the community. The trees are displayed throughout Rosen Shingle Creek’s public areas, and anyone is welcome to drop by and see them for free.
A humorous Twas the Night Before Christmas gingerbread and chocolate house is also on display, and it makes a terrific photo op after you’ve browsed the Christmas trees. Want to try something utterly hilarious while contributing to an extremely worthy cause? Head over to the CCI Dog Kissing Booth and cuddle up to a furry friend. For a $10 donation you can give these sweet pups a kiss, and the funds raised make it possible for Canine Companions for Independence to provide assistance dogs to those in need, for free. Talk about a Christmas gift that truly keeps on giving…!
Orlando is full of festive fun during the Christmas season, some of it for a cost, and some for free. After you’ve hit the parks, why not seek out a little something extra without taxing your wallet? The relaxed atmosphere you’ll find may create some of your best holiday memories.
Join us on Attraction Tickets Direct’s discussion forums for more about December’s holiday offerings around Orlando.