What to See and Do During the Holiday Season Across Central Florida
As a resident of metro-Orlando, I look forward to the holiday cheer expressed throughout the city’s distinctive neighborhoods, nearby resorts and theme parks. Thanksgiving Day traditionally kicks off the season’s festive events, all competing for my attention and monopolizing my weekends through New Year’s Day. I’m not complaining. I love every second of the holiday season in Central Florida, celebrated in all its glory from boat parades and theme park light shows to holiday home tours and ice sculptures. Here is my list of must-see Holiday Events in Metro Orlando starting with our family tradition, a visit to the annual ICE! Exhibit at Gaylord Palms.
This year’s theme for ICE! is The Polar Express and the event runs November 25, 2019 – January 5, 2020. Tickets get you admission for a self-guided tour of colorful, life-sized ice sculptures and five two-story ice slides.
I also recommend a trip to Deland, about 20 minutes north of Orlando to tour the historic Stetson Mansion all decked out for the holidays. The Stetson Mansion Christmas Spectacular Tours operate 3-5 times daily Nov 15 to Jan 15 at 10:30, 1:30, 3:15, 5:00 and sometimes at 7:00
Owners Michael Solari and JT Thompson open their doors year-round to the privately owned/occupied historical landmark, built in 1886 for Florida’s first snowbird, iconic hatmaker John B. Stetson. JT is the sole event designer for all the Christmas decorations you will see. He begins decorating in mid-September in a free-form process.
The Orlando Festival of Trees is another favorite holiday happening and a great source of Christmas tree decorating ideas. The annual event is a fundraiser for the Orlando Museum of Art and takes place over ten days in mid-November.
In addition to the designer trees, area pastry chefs showcase their talents with designer gingerbread creations.
The gingerbread houses are also for sale to raise funds for the Orlando Museum of Art and a source of inspiration for your own holiday baking projects.
A life-size gingerbread house is on display at The Grand Floridian, a resort on the property of Disney World. The gingerbread house is open to the public to view free of charge in the lobby. Throughout the season, The Grand Floridan hosts a variety of events centered around the giant gingerbread house.
The Grand Floridan’s giant Christmas tree is also a fabulous photo opp while there.
In south Orlando, the community of Lake Nona kicks off the holiday season with its second annual Oh What Fun! A Holiday Festival featuring a flurry of festive activities for the whole family.
From Friday, Nov. 29 to Sunday, Jan. 5, Lake Nona Town Center will transform into a true winter wonderland with one of Central Florida’s only outdoor, open-air skating rinks surrounded by Christmas trees, twinkly lights, a mailbox for letters to Santa and everything we love most about the holiday season.
Lake Nona’s Oh What Fun! A Holiday Festival will be open Thursdays through Fridays 4-10 p.m., Saturdays 11 a.m.-10 p.m. and Sundays 11 a.m.-9 p.m.
Each week is packed with activities including skating, classic holiday movies, jolly appearances from Santa Claus, strolling carolers, kid’s crafts and the occasional snow fall. Skate rentals begin at $10 per person. Meet Santa and get your holiday photos each Friday night from 6-9 p.m. Complimentary digital downloads will be available. Strolling carolers from the Merry Measures will lift your holiday spirits Thursday through Saturday evenings. On Sundays at noon, Boxi Park will host activities for kids including decorating gingerbread men and making their own snow globes and snowflakes.
Boxi Park will also be serving up classic holiday treats and festive food and drinks throughout the festival. Additional food and beverage options are available from Lake Nona Town Center restaurants including Chroma Modern Bar + Kitchen, Bosphorous Turkish Cuisine, and Park Pizza & Brewing Co. Complimentary parking for Oh What Fun! will be available in the five-story central parking structure. For more event information, please visit www.facebook.com/pg/learnlakenona/events/.
In Jacksonville, Fla., a 2-hour drive from Orlando, check out the city’s various eclectic neighborhoods packed with small-town charm for nonstop Christmas cheer and holiday spirit. The waterfront destination’s temperate winter weather also allows visitors to enjoy a variety of holiday traditions–sans chill– that light up the St. Johns River and its Atlantic coastline locales. Here is a list of must-see holiday events.
- Jax Illuminations Annual Holiday Light Show, November 20 – January 4: A magical night of navigating through a mile-long display of more than a million holiday lights that are perfectly synchronized to classic holiday tunes.
Deck The Chairs, November 23 – January 1: An annual lighted sculptural exhibit using 40 iconic chairs of The American Red Cross Life Saving Corps, complete with an upgraded light show and a packed lineup of weekend holiday programs in Downtown Jacksonville Beach.
- Jacksonville Light Boat Parade, November 30: Another local tradition of more than 30 years, the boat parade takes place along the St. Johns River and features a unique roundup of festively decorated vessels and a magical firework show that incorporates the Downtown Jacksonville skyline.
- Hemming Park Christmas Tree Lighting, December 4: New host to the city’s 33rdannual tree-lighting ceremony, the beloved local tradition features visual and live art, artisans and vendors, live music, food and drinks and the lighting of a 56-foot Christmas tree adorned with over 78,000 LED lights and 150 ornaments.
- Additional experiences to round out the weekend include: Go Tukn’ Ugly Sweater Pub Bar Crawl, Elf The Musical, Dave Koz & Friends Tour, Jacksonville Zoo and Gardens ZOOLights, First Coast Nutcracker, Beaches Polar Express and more!