Photo: The Osborne Family Spectacle of Dancing Lights at Disney's Hollywood Studios
By Amy Drew Thompson
We're no astronauts, but with all the festive goings-on at our world famous theme parks, it's our guess that you could see Orlando's dazzling holiday displays from space. These family events are epic, but locals will tell you there's a host of holiday happenings all around the City Beautiful worth checking out. Read on for 15 fabulous ways to capture the spirit of the season beyond Orlando's theme parks.
#1. Festival of Trees - Orlando Museum of Art (Nov. 12-22)
This extravagant annual event decks the halls of the Orlando Museum of Art with a forest of designer-decorated trees, magnificent wreaths and gingerbread masterpieces. A holiday craft boutique ensures you get your shopping season started with twinkly cheer. Get in the Jingle-Bell mood with entertainment, a special children's area and of course, the galleries of the museum are yours to enjoy, as well.
#2. Jingle Eve - Ivanhoe Village (Nov. 21)
A charming and walkable district, it's one of Orlando's best for shopping, dining, drinking and even recreating on picturesque Lake Ivanhoe, for which it is named. The 13th Annual Jingle Eve Holiday Open House kicks off at 5 p.m. and many honor its return with a sunset paddleboard ride - it's still Florida, after all! Dry-land amusements include the lighting of the Christmas tree and more than a dozen musical acts dotted about the neighborhood. For the little ones: Santa's Village, with two bounce houses, holiday crafts and pictures with Santa and the Missus. For the big: a beer tent and a Wine & Whiskey walk as you small-shop your way through myriad local merchant offerings. Ho, ho, ho!
#3. Small Business Saturday - (Nov. 28)
The malls and big-box retailers may beckon with early-bird specials and nationwide promotions, but its America's small businesses people that keep local economies moving while making it a pleasure to shop. Greater Orlando is home to a host of towns and neighborhoods where visitors can find special, local gifts that mean more and make memories. Visit the merchants of Celebration, College Park, Ivanhoe Village, Winter Haven, Winter Park and more and soak up the charm of Main Street while supporting its businesses.
#4. Breakfast With Santa at East End Market (Nov. 28; 8:30 & 1130 am)
Have you been to Orlando's vibrant East End Market? Rife with local food artisans and craftspeople, this beating heart of the Audubon Park neighborhood will be hosting a special breakfast with hot chocolate bar, story time with Santa, a live dance performance, gift-making and photo-ops. (8:30 am and 11 am seatings).
#5. Orlando Philharmonic, Home for the Holidays - Bob Carr Theater (Nov. 28)
Let our city's phenomenal orchestra fill your heart with the spirit of the season as they perform two shows packed end-to-end with holiday favorites alongside the Florida Opera Youth Chorus and a host of talented vocal artists.
#6. Run, Run, Rudolph!
Get the drop on those Christmas cookies and enjoy one of many holiday-season fun runs (or walks) with your loved ones! These organized events benefit all kinds of worthy organizations and allow for some beautiful, scenic runs around the Orlando metro. Some ideas:
Seniors First Turkey Trot 5k, Lake Eola - Nov. 26
Bellalago Jingle Bell 5k, Kissimmee - Dec. 12
Vanessa Welch Reindeer Run, Sea World - Dec. 12
#7. Orlando Philharmonic: Symphony & Storytime: Peter & The Wolf, Plaza Live Orlando (Nov. 14 and 16)
Introduce your little ones to a classic tale and timeless score as you meet Peter and all his friends - along with the flute, clarinet, oboe, bassoon and French horn. Charming narration and performance creates a culmination of the arts in which even the youngest audience members will delight. Pre-show fun includes a musician meet-and-greet, photo ops, an "instrument petting zoo" and more!
#8. Tree Lighting Celebration - Lake Eola Park (Dec. 4)
Have you seen our beautiful downtown? If not, you're in for a treat. Cosmopolitan Orlando is growing, diversifying, exploding with culture and things to do. Its glittering centerpiece is Lake Eola, with a park made for leisurely strolls, playground visits and paddling the iconic Swan Boats. Come Dec. 4, Mayor Buddy Dyer lights the 72-foot Christmas tree, holiday concerts and crafts beckon and an armada of unique local food trucks makes for festive "meals on wheels."
#9. Winter Park Christmas Parade, Park Avenue (Dec. 5)
Come one, come all for an annual event so cherished, it's been held on the first Saturday in December for more than 60 years! Santa and all your holiday favorites will be on-hand as the procession makes its way down Park Avenue - where innumerable bars, bistros and boutiques beckon, as well. Come hungry, too. The Central Park Main Stage hosts a Pancake Breakfast from 7:30 to 10:30 am.
#10. Cracker Christmas, Fort Christmas Historical Park (Dec. 5-6)
The North Pole gets most of the attention this time of year, but in Central Florida, you can actually visit Christmas. The town, that is. Its most famous attraction is the Fort Christmas Historical Park. Set amid the serenity of century-old moss-draped live oaks, visitors learn about Florida life in the 1800s as they tour a replica fort, eight actual pioneer homes, a sugar mill and more. Come the holidays, though, and Cracker Christmas brings with it craft vendors and pioneer demonstrations from blacksmithing to syrup making. Don't forget to hit the local post office - you can get your holiday cards postmarked from Christmas!
#11. Dr. Seuss' How The Grinch Stole Christmas, Dr. Phillips Center for the Performing Arts (Dec. 8-13)
A modern holiday classic comes to life in the beautiful, new Walt Disney Theater as Dr. Seuss' heart-impaired villain discovers there's more to Christmas than he ever thought possible. If you thought the music moved you watching the cartoon classic, just wait until you hear the Whos' glorious singing fill the air with magic. Your heart may grow three sizes.
#12. Holiday Movies at the Enzian Theater
Orlando's amazing art-house theater packs in exciting cinema year-round - and they definitely know how to mesh film and holiday festivity. This year's crop of movies includes "National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation," "Bad Santa" and - free in Winter Park's Central Park - "Home Alone." Check the website for a full schedule of films and events for all ages.
#13. The Nutcracker - Dr. Phillips Center for the Performing Arts (Dec. 17 - 23)
An always-enchanting holiday favorite moves gracefully across the stage in a full-length production accompanied by the Orlando Philharmonic Orchestra. Consider pairing this performance with pre- or post-show refreshments at any number of incredible downtown venues.
#14. Orlando Science Center - Holiday Science Month
Visit the Orlando Science Center throughout December when fun holiday programming populates its already-rich roster of educational offerings. At OSC's Winter Wonderland, holiday crafts, stories and hands-on snow-related experiments will add a spark of science to the season. Christmas classics including "Elf" and "The Muppets' Christmas Carol" will be on tap in OSC's Dr. Phillips CineDome and come New Year's Eve - they'll be turning the midnight ball-drop into a noontime balloon-drop, something even the littlest members of your group can stay awake for!
#15. Now Snowing! in Celebration - Nightly, Nov. 28 - Dec. 31
Santa, free concerts, ice skating and more turn the charming town of Celebration into a holiday haven, but nothing brings the vision together more than its nightly snowfall! Four flurries a night make it a white Christmas in Florida throughout December, complete with strolling carolers, horse-drawn carriage rides and more.
These must do events are just part of the many holiday events in Orlando happening now through New Year's Day. Contact one of our Official Travel Counselors to help plan holly jolly holiday traditions that will have your family singing "fa-la-la-la" all the way home.
Amy Drew Thompson has spent more than 20 years as a journalist and roughly two decades as a Floridian. A roller coaster enthusiast, she readily admits there is fun to be had amid the theme-park madness, but has found magic, as well, in the outer-lying reaches of Mickey's long shadow. She is a full-time freelancer, an editorial jack-of-all-trades and the Orlando Local Expert for USA Today's 10Best.com