Seasonal and Holiday Events

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.

The year-end holiday season is particularly festive. Decorations go up and events begin around Thanksgiving and continue through early January. It pays to book a trip during the first few weeks of December, when there's a lull between Thanksgiving and Christmas crowds.

Winter

Candlelight Processional. Each holiday season between Thanksgiving and New Year's, a succession of celebrity narrators visit Disney to re-tell 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 spectacular with sing-along carols and a stirring performance of the Hallelujah Chorus from Handel's Messiah. The performance is free with admission (although you'll wait in a very, very long line)—or you can opt for the Candelight lunch or dinner package, which includes a meal at one of Epcot's pavilions as well as VIP early-access seating. Prices change often; call in advance. World Showcase, America Gardens Theatre, Epcot, Walt Disney World, Florida, 32830. 407/939–3463.

Grinchmas Wholiday 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. The stage show is only part of it. Stick around and this festive “Whobiliation” and the Grinch (as well as several Whos) will be out on curving Seussian streets to say hello and pose for souvenir snapshots. Islands of Adventure, Universal Orlando Resort, Florida, 32819.

Mickey's Jingle Jungle Parade. During the year Disney's Animal Kingdom rocks with the Jammin' Jungle Parade, but during the holidays the parade is transformed into Mickey's Jingle Jungle Parade. While you can expect to see the “Fab Five” (Mickey, Minnie, Donald, Goofy, and Pluto) in their safari/holiday regalia, during the 15-minute rolling extravaganza, you'll also see Goofy in a Santa Claus outfit and floats featuring humongous presents and packages as well as many characters from The Jungle Book. Perhaps most impressive are the larger-than-life human-powered "animals" that first dazzled audiences on Broadway in The Lion King—animals that seem to have a mind of their own and often interact with park guests. Discovery Island, Animal Kingdom, Walt Disney World, Florida, 32830.

Mickey's Very Merry Christmas Party. Disney's Magic Kingdom is just that: magic. Come here during scheduled evenings in November and December, and you’ll discover Mickey's Very Merry Christmas Party spreads even more holiday cheer. On these evenings, add to the park's twinkling lights, fantasy architecture, and grandeur of Cinderella Castle a holiday parade, seasonal stage shows, fireworks, “snow” on Main Street, U.S.A., and platters of hot cocoa and cookies, and you've set the stage for some wonderful photographs as well as lifelong memories. And it's priced lower than a single day's park admission. Magic Kingdom, Walt Disney World, Florida, 32830.

Osborne Family Spectacle of Dancing Lights. At Disney's Hollywood Studios, you can see the long-running holiday-time Osborne Family Spectacle of Dancing Lights from mid-November through early January— although even when you see it you won't believe your eyes. As a soundtrack of holiday music plays, more than five million colorful lights pulse in time, “snow” falls over the Streets of America, and Santa and his reindeer, angels, and toy soldiers add to the well-named spectacle. Now here's your Christmas present: the show is free with admission. Streets of America, Disney's Hollywood Studios, Walt Disney World, Florida, 32830.

The Polar Express Experience. Between mid-November and early January, SeaWorld's Wild Arctic attraction is transformed into The Polar Express Experience. Instead of a multisensory ride over the Arctic, you'll soar through and above classic scenes from the film based on the Caldecott-medal-winning book The Polar Express. SeaWorld's Christmas Celebration lineup also includes shows starring sea lions, otters, Shamu, and even the Sesame Street gang. SeaWorld, Florida, 32821.

Walt Disney World Marathon. Each January at least 40,000 athletes from around the globe lace up their running shoes during the Walt Disney World Marathon weekend. Donald, Mickey, and Goofy challenge racers to a half marathon, a full marathon, or both. Go the distance and you'll run through all four Walt Disney World theme parks, starting at Epcot, continuing on to the Magic Kingdom, Disney's Animal Kingdom, and then Disney's Hollywood Studios before heading back to the finish line at Epcot. There is also a 5K family fun run, a relay, kids' races, and a Health and Fitness Expo at ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex. In 2014, race officials added a 10K and the aptly named Dopey Challenge, in which participants run a 5K, 10K, half marathon, and marathon, totaling 48.6 miles. Walt Disney World, Florida, 32830. www.rundisney.com.

Spring

Mardi Gras at Universal Studios. During Mardi Gras at Universal Studios (select evenings between February and April), the spirit of New Orleans comes to Orlando. In addition to colorful floats, stilt walkers, New Orleans–style food and drinks, Zydeco bands, and the distribution of nearly two million beads, there is a full calendar of concerts with groups like Heart, Styx, the B52s, Kelly Clarkson, and Olivia Newton John. Best of all, all of it—the parades, shows, and performances—is free with park admission. Universal Studios, Universal Orlando Resort, Florida, 32819. https://www.universalorlando.com/Events/Mardi-Gras/.

Winter Park Sidewalk Art Festival. One of Central Florida's most pleasant and anticipated events, 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. In 2014, Sunshine Artist magazine ranked this number five in the nation in their list of Fine Art and Design Shows. Taking place 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.

Summer

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, 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 Orlando isn't Cinderella Castle, it's the “Rainbow Fountain” at downtown's Lake Eola, which was built in 1957 and refurbished in 2011. 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 the 4th of July, the main event is a free celebration that begins in the afternoon with games, food, and live entertainment. Encircling the picturesque lake is a one-mile promenade that gives everyone a perfect vantage point to watch fireworks burst high above Lake Eola Park. Lake Eola Park, Downtown Orlando, Orlando, Florida, 32801.

A Sci-Fi 4th of July. Launched in 2013, the Disney-planned community of Celebration teamed up with MegaCon (the renowned comic book, fantasy, gaming, and sci-fi convention) to create the Sci-Fi 4th of July; a festival-themed costume contest tied to a science fiction theme. The community celebration also features live music, games, and fireworks. Celebration, Florida.

Gay Days Orlando. In early June, Gay Days Orlando brings more than 150,000 members of the gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgendered 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. Gay Days also includes DJ parties, pool parties, music, and events throughout the metro area. Orlando, Florida. 407/896–8431; www.gaydays.com.

Fall

Epcot International Food & Wine Festival. 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.38 Special. 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. Much more intense than your average haunted house, this extremely popular event incorporates all of the special effects and movie make-up skills you'd expect from one of the leaders in the horror genre. Each evening, the streets of Universal Studios are transformed into chill-inducing haunted houses and 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 less than the price of regular park admission. Universal Studios, Universal Orlando Resort, Florida, 32819. www.halloweenhorrornights.com. Select nights Sep.–Oct..

Macy's Holiday Parade. If you’re in New York, you can experience Macy's famous parade just once a year. Come to Universal Studios during the holidays and you can take in an abridged version of the parade every day of your visit. Featuring Macy's floats and balloons shipped to Orlando following the Big Apple event, the Universal Studios version features marching bands from across America, a Christmas tree lighting ceremony, and shines a spotlight on Barney, the Blues Brothers, and other Universal celebs. Universal Studios, Universal Orlando Resort, Florida, 32819. www.universalorlando.com.

Mickey's Not-So-Scary Halloween Party. As a marked contrast to the Universal's 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.

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