Christmas Orlando Theme Park Round-up: Disney World, Universal Studios, and SeaWorld 2010 holiday highlights

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Move over Halloween, Christmas has arrived in Orlando. This second November week brought theme park guests the first signs of decking the halls and trimming the trees as we enter the most magical time of year, with Walt Disney World, Universal Orlando, and SeaWorld offering nothing but the most festive cheer. Ready or not, Christmas is here!

With so much to see, I thought I’d offer a summary of all the sparkling lights and holiday celebrations to be found around Orlando’s theme parks this Christmas, pointing out a few personal favorites along the way:

Christmas at Walt Disney World

No one does Christmas better than Disney, kicking off their holiday season first on Nov. 8. All across the massive Walt Disney World Resort, from now through Jan. 3, 2011, Disney creates a wonderland filled with special shows, parades, decorations, and plenty of treats.

  • At the Magic Kingdom, Mickey’s Very Merry Christmas Party takes place on 19 select nights through Dec. 19. This after-hours, separately-ticketed event allows guests to enter the park as early as 4pm and stay through the night to enjoy the impressively long Mickey’s Once Upon A Christmastime Parade, a dazzling Cinderella Castle draped with 200,000 glistening white lights, and the “Holiday Wishes” fireworks show followed by a flurry of snowflakes along Main Street, U.S.A. with free, unlimited Christmas cookies and warm cups of cocoa in hand.

    But the highlight, for me, of Mickey’s Very Merry Christmas Party is was the chance for a few unique meet-and-greets, including a rare appearance by my favorite Disney character: Scrooge McDuck.

    Update: I’ve been told (see comments below) that Scrooge is not posing for photos this year due to the relocation of Donald Duck’s meet-and-greet to Frontierland. I’m not happy about it, but at least I’ll still be able to see him in the parade (I hope). And… at least I got my photo with him last year:

    The party takes place on Nov. 8, 11, 12, 16, 18, 19, 28, 30 and Dec. 2, 3, 5, 7, 9, 10, 12, 14, 16, 17 and 19. Day-of-party ticket pricing is $59.95 ($53.95 for ages 3-9). Advance tickets are available with $6 savings for most dates.

    Guests who skip the after-hours party can still enjoy the Castle Dream Lights with regular admission each evening (around 6:30pm – 6:45pm) through Jan. 3, 2011, with a special lighting ceremony taking place featuring Mickey Mouse, Cinderella and other favorite characters. It’s a special moment that must be witnessed at least once.

  • Disney’s Hollywood Studios is the home of the ultimate Christmas light display in the form of the “Spectacle of Dancing Lights” in which millions of brilliant bulbs blanket the backlot with dancing lights and animated displays synchronized to high-energy holiday tunes. It all started around 20 years ago when one man (Jennings Osborne) decided to create a display on his house in Arkansas. It grew and grew until it became so large that he could no longer keep up the display himself, instead transporting it to Walt Disney World in 1995 to be displayed year after year to thousands of guests. It’s a fun display that’s a treat to walk through at night and is included with park admission.
  • Epcot‘s Christmas celebrations are decidedly different than those found at all other Orlando theme parks. Utilizing its focus on countries around the world, Disney offers “Holidays Around the World” where storytellers share customs and lore from their heritage that includes not only Christmas but also Kwanzaa and Hanukkah. Many guests enjoy seeing the worldly variations of “Santa Claus” presented here.

    The nightly “IllumiNations: Reflections of Earth” fireworks show is displayed as always and adds a special Christmas time finale during the holiday season. Despite mixed reactions to their Epcot premiere last year, D’Vine Voices returns once again this year with “JOYFUL! A Gospel Celebration of the Season.” Once again not returning this year are the “Lights of Winter” archways of lights that once linked Future World to World Showcase, but reportedly broke beyond repair during last year’s installation.

    The biggest draw to Epcot for Christmas is the Candlelight Processional, which tells the story of Christmas through celebrity narrators, a mass choir and 50-piece live orchestra at America Gardens Theatre. This year’s celebrity lineup premieres on Nov. 26 with Isabella Rossellini, followed later by Whoopi Goldberg, Jodi Benson, and many others.

    All of Epcot’s Christmas entertainment is included with park admission.

  • Disney’s Animal Kingdom is light on holiday entertainment, offering Mickey’s Jingle Jungle Parade, a holiday version of the park’s standard parade, and Santa Goofy’s Holiday Village, featuring Christmas trees, crooning carolers and photo opportunities with Santa Goofy himself. If you don’t have time to take in all of Disney’s Christmas fun, this is the park to skip during the holidays, as you’ll find far more holiday happenings elsewhere.
  • Santa Claus is coming to town at Downtown Disney. While not a theme park, Downtown Disney still offers a chance to take in Disney’s Christmas excitement with a chance to meet the jolly old man from Nov. 19 through Dec. 24 at Santa’s Chalet. Santa is part of the “Festival of the Seasons,” during which school choirs and bands often perform at the dock stage. And, of course, Downtown Disney offers plenty of Christmas shopping opportunities.
  • Christmas at Universal Orlando

    If celebrating Christmas in November seems too soon for you, then turn to Universal Orlando for some appropriately-timed entertainment. Their holiday line-up begins on Dec. 4 and runs through Jan 1, 2011, offering guests unique shows at both its theme parks.

  • At Universal Studios Florida, the Macy’s Holiday Parade will fill the streets every evening with the same iconic balloons seen winding through New York City. The parade features colorful holiday characters, floats, balloons and a tree-lighting ceremony by Santa Claus. The floats aren’t as big as the ones you see on TV each year on Thanksgiving, but they’re still impressively large.

    And select guests even have the chance to become balloon handlers, chosen at random early in the day, usually around the Rip Ride Rockit roller coaster. There’s no way to guarantee you’ll get chosen to help guide these massive balloons through the streets, but if you’re in the right place at the right time, you might get the chance.

    On December 4, 11 and 18, the popular music group Mannheim Steamroller will play their memorable holiday music for guests on the Music Plaza stage. And new this year is a Holiday Village that will be filled with hand-blown glass ornaments, caramel apples, hot chocolate, roasted chestnuts and a cupcake decorating location.

  • At Universal’s Islands of Adventure, the popular Dr. Seuss book “How the Grinch Stole Christmas” is brought to life in Grinchmas, during which a live stage show is performed in Seuss Landing featuring The Grinch and The Whos from Whoville with an original recorded musical score by Mannheim Steamroller. A special character breakfast with The Grinch is also available who want more time with the green guy.
  • Christmas at SeaWorld Orlando

    For weekend holiday fun, SeaWorld Orlando is offering festivities Friday through Sunday nights, Nov. 26-Dec. 12, and nightly Dec. 17-Jan. 2.

    The park’s Wild Arctic attraction is once again transformed into The Polar Express Experience, featuring scenes from “The Polar Express” film with special lighting, scent, sound and motion effects. After this train ride to the North Pole, guests walk through a winter wonderland featuring animal encounters and Santa Claus himself.

    New this year at SeaWorld Orlando is the Sea of Trees, which includes 74 massive trees, each sparkling, lighted and choreographed to classic holiday tunes. Also new this year is The Christmas Market, located on the park’s Bayside Pathway, offering plenty of shopping for one-of-a-kind gifts and holiday dining opportunities.

    SeaWorld also offers a variety of Christmas time shows. “Winter Wonderland on Ice” features water fountains, fireworks and talented ice skaters. “Clyde and Seamore’s Countdown to Christmas” is a comedic show featuring sea lions, otters, and a jolly walrus or two. “A Sesame Street Christmas” stars familiar characters Abby Cadabby, Elmo, Big Bird and other Sesame Street friends, teaching the spirit of Christmas. “Shamu Christmas … Miracles” offers a holiday twist on the popular Shamu show.

    Ricky’s Picks

    Of the above, my favorite Christmas activities in Orlando are attending Mickey’s Very Merry Christmas Party (mainly to meet Scrooge McDuck), watching Cinderella Castle light up and sparkle, seeing the Spectacle of Dancing Lights at Disney’s Hollywood Studios, and watching (and possibly taking part in) Macy’s Holiday Parade at Universal Studios. These activities say Christmas the most to me.

    Of the new additions this year, I most look forward to seeing the Sea of Trees at SeaWorld, which sounds like a unique twist on the dancing lights phenomena, placing them on trees instead of buildings and facades. Staring at my own Christmas trees in my house is one of my favorite and most relaxing holiday activities, so I whole-heartedly welcome more Christmas trees to Orlando’s theme parks.

    Outside of these specific attractions, the overall feeling of the holiday season within the theme parks is extra special. Beyond the shows, Christmas entertainment pops up throughout the parks in the form of strolling singers and zany characters, who all contribute to that special feeling. While I personally have a tough time letting go of the exciting Halloween season (it’s the most wonderful time of year, for me!), it’s still easy to slip into the Christmas spirit when there are so many jolly activities happening around me.

    Each of Orlando’s biggest theme parks offers plenty of unique Christmas entertainment and cheer for 2010. Beyond countless decorations, guests find live stage shows and performances, parades, fireworks, and plenty of shopping that all combines to create the ultimate Christmas experience that’s sure to put a little holiday spirit into all who attend.

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