Orlando On the Calendar
If you've been to Orlando and its parks and enjoyed the top attractions at least once, consider a special trip around one of the many festivals and events, especially around the year-end holiday season, which is particular festive.
Candlelight Processional. Each holiday season between Thanksgiving and New Year's, a succession of celebrity narrators visit Disney to retell the story of Christmas before a full orchestra and large choir comprised of guest singers from local schools and churches. Presented at EPCOT's American Gardens Theatre, the show is truly a spectacle with singalong carols and a stirring performance of the Hallelujah Chorus from Handel's Messiah. A Candlelight lunch or dinner package includes a meal at one of EPCOT's pavilions as well as VIP early-access seating. World Showcase, America Gardens Theatre, EPCOT, Walt Disney World, Florida, 32830. 407/939–3463.
Christmas in The Wizarding World of Harry Potter. Already steeped in magic, Universal's dual Wizarding Worlds take on a winter veneer during the holidays; transformed with lights and festooned with Christmas decor and ornaments. In Universal Studios' Diagon Alley, buskers sing holiday songs at King's Cross Station, and Celestina Warbeck and the Banshees change up their set with holiday favorites. At Islands of Adventure, Hogsmeade takes on even more the look of a traditional English village, with Hogwarts Castle lit for the season and each shop decorated in a garland. In the evening the castle becomes a towering screen for The Magic of Christmas at Hogwarts, an elaborate special-effects projection show. Islands of Adventure, Universal Orlando Resort, Florida, 32819. 407/363–8000; www.universalorlando.com.
Grinchmas Who-liday Spectacular. The holiday season takes a curmudgeonly turn at Seuss Landing during Grinchmas, an Islands of Adventure stage show based on the Dr. Seuss classic How the Grinch Stole Christmas. An original Mannheim Steamroller musical score backs up a half-dozen songs by an energetic and colorful cast including the Grinch and the Whos from Whoville. Stick around and this festive “Whobiliation” and the Grinch (as well as several Whos) will be out to say hello and pose for souvenir snapshots. Islands of Adventure, Universal Orlando Resort, Florida, 32819.
Mickey's Jingle Bell, Jingle BAM!. Held at Disney’s Hollywood Studios, the park's buildings and rooftops come alive with scenes from Mickey’s Christmas Carol, Beauty and the Beast, Pluto’s Christmas Tree, and Tim Burton’s The Nightmare Before Christmas. The seasonal show also features scenes from animated Disney classics, special effects, holiday songs, a little snow, and fiery display of fireworks (hence, the BAM!). Disney's Hollywood Studios, Walt Disney World, Florida, 32830.
Mickey's Very Merry Christmas Party. Come here during scheduled evenings in November and December, and you’ll discover Mickey's Very Merry Christmas Party. On these evenings, the park's twinkling lights, fantasy architecture, and grand Cinderella Castle are made even more festive with a holiday parade, seasonal stage shows, fireworks, “snow” on Main Street, U.S.A., and platters of hot cocoa and cookies. It's the perfect setting for some wonderful photographs as well as lifelong memories. Since this is an evening event only, it's priced lower than a single day's park admission. Guests inside the park without the requisite Christmas Party wristband will be asked to exit, leaving the park clear for the guests arriving for the holiday event. Magic Kingdom, Walt Disney World, Florida, 32830.
Universal's Holiday Parade featuring Macy's. When Macy's NYC location has finished with its Thanksgiving Day balloons, several of them are shipped to the Sunshine State to be displayed in a festive recreation of the iconic parade, joining other inflatables specifically designed for this popular holiday season event. Minions, Shrek, and other Universal film characters are part of a fun-filled parade that includes incredibly detailed floats adorned with elaborate lighting displays, sound systems, and animation. The grand finale, of course, is Santa Claus. Universal Studios, International Drive, Orlando, Florida, 32819. www.universalorlando.com/web/en/us/things-to-do/events/holidays-at-universal.
Walt Disney World Marathon. Walt Disney World Marathon Weekend attracts nearly 50,000 athletes from around the globe who compete in several races over several days in January. The most popular race of all is Sunday's 26.2-mile marathon, which takes runners through four theme parks and the ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex. Saturday is reserved for the 13.1-mile half marathon (through the Magic Kingdom and EPCOT). Goofy's Race and a Half is a two-day (weekends), 39.3-mile race through four theme parks. A 10K race on Friday and a 5K race on Thursday complete the calendar. Other running events include the Princess Half-Marathon Weekend in February, Star Wars Rival Run Weekend in April, and the Wine & Dine Half-Marathon Weekend in November. Walt Disney World, Florida, 32830. www.rundisney.com.
Mardi Gras at Universal Studios. One of the year's most popular events, Mardi Gras at Universal Studios is held on select evenings between February and April and brings the spirit of New Orleans to Orlando in a family-friendly festival. In addition to colorful floats, stilt walkers, New Orleans–style food and drinks, zydeco bands, and the distribution of nearly 2 million beads, there is a full calendar of concerts with performers like The Roots, Diana Ross, REO Speedwagon, Kool & The Gang, the B52s, and Kelly Clarkson. Best of all, all of it is free with park admission. Universal Studios, Universal Orlando Resort, Florida, 32819. www.universalorlando.com/Events/Mardi-Gras.
Winter Park Sidewalk Art Festival. Far from the theme parks, this highly popular low-key community event captures the hearts of locals. Since 1960, the juried Winter Park Sidewalk Art Festival has found posh Park Avenue and oak-shaded Central Park filled with paintings, sculptures, and myriad works of art displayed by more than 225 artists and exhibitors. Consistently ranked among the nation's best arts festivals, when it's held during the third weekend of March, an estimated 350,000 visitors peruse this outdoor gallery, enhanced by food vendors, art workshops for children and adults, and the upscale shops of peaceful Park Avenue. If you're in the neighborhood, this art festival is a must. Park Ave. and Central Park, Winter Park, Florida, 32789. www.wpsaf.org.
City of Kissimmee July 4th Celebration. Starting at 5 pm on the shores of Kissimmee's Lake Tohopekaliga (aka Lake Toho), the city makes the most of the Fourth of July and its Lakefront Park with live music by artists you would recognize, entertainment, food, and children's events and activities. Just after 9 pm, the sky explodes with thunderous and colorful fireworks that rattle this still slow-paced cattle community on the doorstep of Disney. Kissimmee, Florida.
Fireworks at the Fountain. The focal point of downtown Orlando is the Rainbow Fountain at Lake Eola, a nod to the city's origins as "The City Beautiful." The fountain is so beloved by residents that it's used as part of Orlando's official logo. On all other nights of the year, the fountain is illuminated with a choreographed six-minute show set to music, with the colors and songs changing with the season. But on July 4, the main event is a free celebration that begins in the afternoon with games, food, and live entertainment. Encircling the picturesque lake is a 1-mile promenade that, just after 9 pm, gives everyone a perfect vantage point to watch fireworks burst high above Lake Eola Park. Lake Eola Park, Downtown Orlando, Orlando, Florida, 32801. www.cityoforlando.net/fireworks.
Gay Days Orlando. In early June, Gay Days Orlando brings more than 150,000 members of the LGBTQ community to Orlando, primarily arriving to visit theme parks—although Disney makes a point to say they don't "officially sponsor or promote" the event. Started in 1991 as a single day when participants wore red shoes as an identifier, it gathered steam and is now the largest such gathering in the world. The weeklong Gay Days celebration includes DJ parties, pool parties, music, and events at multiple theme parks, resort hotels, and locations throughout the metro area. Orlando, Florida. 407/896–8431; www.gaydays.com.
Epcot International Food & Wine Festival. A must for foodies, for six weeks (late September through mid-November) the EPCOT International Food & Wine Festival transforms the park into a food-and-wine wonderland with tasting seminars, culinary demonstrations, and a constant stream of celebrity chefs. Dine around the world at international marketplaces selling tasty bites, or splurge on wine schools and signature dinner events. Adding to the epicurean event is the Eat to the Beat concert series, featuring popular hit makers such as The Commodores, Pointer Sisters, Christopher Cross, and Squeeze. World Showcase, EPCOT, Walt Disney World, Florida, 32830. https://disneyworld.disney.go.com/events-tours/epcot/epcot-international-food-and-wine-festival.
Halloween Horror Nights. This extremely popular event incorporates all the special effects and movie make-up skills you'd expect from one of the leaders in the horror genre. Each evening, Universal Studios opens about a dozen chill-inducing haunted houses as well as scare zones populated by characters from your worst nightmares. A new theme is introduced each year, but, at heart, this terror-rific event has a simple purpose: to attract teens and young adults who can't get enough of its heart-pounding horrors. Admission for this after-park-hours event is separate but less than the price of regular park admission. Universal Studios, Universal Orlando Resort, Florida, 32819. www.halloweenhorrornights.com. Select nights Sep.–Oct..
Mickey's Not-So-Scary Halloween Party. As a marked contrast to Universal's super-intense Halloween Horror Nights, at Disney's Magic Kingdom kids in costumes own the streets during their quest for treats (no tricks!) at Mickey's Not-So-Scary Halloween Party. The gently spooky celebration takes place on scheduled evenings throughout September and October. Party tickets are priced below regular park admission, and it's easier to meet the characters and avoid ride queues. Magic Kingdom, Walt Disney World, Florida, 32830.