Now what on earth could make Orlando – already No. 1 on the travel bucket lists of the young and young-at-heart – even more appealing? Why, sugar plums and lights and everything nice, that’s what! Come the holiday season, the City Beautiful bathes itself in a level of twinkle that easily rivals Tinkerbell herself. And it’s not contained to the theme parks, either. Behold a roster of holiday attractions (some even free!) to put on your hit list for Orlando.
Holiday Lights Bike Tour (Dec. 14; 7-10 p.m.)
Six years ago, this two-wheeling event – a cheery, seasonal ride through the quiet, twinkly streets of the Audubon Park Garden District – began with 11 riders. It was the brainchild of the owners of the Bikes, Beans & Bordeaux café.
“We were looking for a way to get out in our community to celebrate the season and bring people together,” says Darrell Cunningham, one half of said partnership.
The other is his wife Jen. Both are avid cyclists.
“Our cafe is located right in the middle of several great neighborhoods that really celebrate with some spectacular lights,” says Darrell.
Twinkle, twinkle: Each year, participants deck their bikes as extravagantly as their halls — Photo courtesy of Bikes, Beans & Bordeaux
Last year, the trek had grown to more than 100, everyone "from kids being pulled by their parents to people riding pedal-powered four-wheel bikes.” The glittery spirit proved infectious, as well.
“Over half the riders decorated their bikes with lights, tinsel and other fun things,” he notes.
Even Santa showed up at the post-ride festivities at the café.
“Rumor has it he will be this year, too!” Cunningham reports.
The Cunninghams are Central Florida natives, eager to show visitors another side of the city.
“Many people just think of the attractions when they think of Orlando. But there are so many cool, organically grown areas like Audubon Park Garden District, Lake Ivanhoe and College Park that have so much to offer,” he says. “A majority of the businesses are locally owned: numerous small restaurants, clothing stores, locally-made jewelry stores, card shops, salons - along with Leu Gardens, which is an amazing place to go and relax.”
This year’s ride is expected to be even bigger. Bikes, Beans & Bordeaux has partnered with the Audubon Park Garden District main-street program to help coordinate the event. Residents have been encouraged to light up their homes even more extravagantly (There are prizes at stake!), and a police escort will keep riders safe as they cruise the area, stopping along the way for a few impromptu carols. Live music awaits the riders once back at the restaurant.
“It would be great to have visitors come out for the ride – or even the celebration afterwards if they don’t have bikes,” adds Darrell.
Great to note: Many Orlando bike shops offer reasonable rentals. They are a great way to explore the city, particularly when the weather’s cool!
And in a city where entertainment costs can add up fast, the Holiday Lights Bike Ride is a free event, one that encourages giving back to the community in the spirit of the season.
“We’re just asking that each rider bring an unwrapped toy for our toy drive, all of which will be donated to Parramore Kidz Zone.”
Important to note: Helmets and front and rear lights are mandatory.
The Osborne Family Spectacle of Dancing Lights
This is the biggie, of course. Times Square meets the North Pole times a zillion at Disney's Hollywood Studios. The Osborne Family Lights began as a local tradition in small-town Arkansas, one that grew each year until Disney World became its permanent home in 1995. Now you can see it from space.
Innumerable lights encase the buildings and storefronts like glittering gift wrap, flashing to cheerful holiday music in perfect synchronicity. And the Disney park's new Glow with the Show Ears are programmed to light up during the Osborne show – along with other light-infused shows around Walt Disney World – as well.
Another bonus: the Osborne Lights are included with the price of Hollywood Studios admission. The show is running nightly, now through Jan. 5, 2014.
"Lumen"osity: The Osborne Family Spectacle is the grandfather of them all — Photo courtesy of Gene Duncan/Disney
Light Up UCF
The main campus of the University of Central Florida, located in East Orlando, brings holiday magic to the masses every year with Light Up UCF! “50 Nights of Music, Lights and Ice” marks the event’s sixth season. Its signature light show features millions of tiny twinkling strobes that carpet the area around the 10,000-seat CFE Arena.
Big get in 2013: Carson Williams – the electrical engineer-turned-Internet sensation whose myriad YouTube holiday lights displays parlayed into a Miller Lite commercial – is the show’s architect.
The first light show begins at each evening 6 pm and runs on the hour until closing. And by the way, it’s free – as is the nightly snowfall, also new this year.
Holiday family films – outside on a two-story screen – are scheduled throughout the season, as well. Ice skating, a Ferris wheel and photos with Santa are on tap, as well, though these will cost you a little. These events are running nightly, now through Jan. 5, 2014.
Much of Light Up UCF, like its glittery display and outdoor holiday film series, is free — Photo courtesy of Light Up UCF
EPCOT's Holidays Around the World
Welcome to a vast celebration for those of us who can’t be in Norway for the holidays. Or Morocco. Or Mexico. Or a host of other nations. EPCOT not only immerses its guests in an American Adventure that touches on Christmas, Hanukkah and Kwanzaa, but also its World Showcase morphs into an International Yuletide extravaganza.
The Candlelight Processional features a choir and orchestra and runs twice nightly through the holiday season — Photo courtesy of Kent Phillips/Disney
Celebrate fifteenth-century British traditions with Father Christmas and those of his French counterpart, Père Noël. Explore Asian New Year traditions in both China and Japan, and the festivities of Ramadan in Morocco. You will experience the traditions of many other cultures through music, food, costumed performers and more.
Holidays Around the World is included in regular EPCOT admission, as is “Joyful! A Gospel Celebration of the Season,” the lovely Candlelight Processional and a holiday-themed edition of Illuminations, EPCOT’s nightly fireworks display.
Dinner packages offering VIP seating and special access for the latter two are available, as well. Enjoy now through December 30, 2013.
ICE! Featuring Frosty the Snowman
Every year, the Gaylord Palms Resort & Convention Center hauls in truckloads of perfectly formulated ice and a team of 40 expert Chinese artisans to create a nine-degree attraction unlike any other in Orlando (with the possible exception of I-Drive’s Icebar). This year’s theme is the 1969 Rankin/Bass animated classic, a surefire way to delight multiple generations in one fell swoop.
Don an electric-blue coat – provided with admission – but be sure to bring some gloves so you can maximize your time inside the astonishing (if frigid) exhibit. Delight in the sculptures depicting your favorite characters, along with Santa and his reindeer and an astonishing, glittery Nativity.
At its center, three ice slides delight participants and spectators alike and make great photo-ops. Outside, cocoa and cupcakes help banish the chill. Photos with Santa and a Christmas-y shop are also on site. And for those less inclined to deep freeze, but no less spirited, the super-decked halls of the hotel’s atrium and its nightly Luminescence show (both free) are sure to warm the holiday heart. Catch it now through Jan. 5, 2013.
Two million lights and a 54-foot Christmas tree adorn the atrium at the Gaylord Palms — Photo courtesy of Gaylord Palms Resort & Conference Center
Both Cypress Grove Park (Dec. 9-13) and Moss Park (Dec. 19-23) will be adorned with thousands of twinkling lights amid their acres this season – and you can view it all from the comfort of your car.
At the Cypress Grove – a 1923 lakeside estate and popular setting for weddings – the display runs from 6:30-9:30 p.m. and costs just $2 per vehicle. Bring a toy for their Holiday Heroes Toy Drive, and spread even more seasonal cheer. Call 407-254-6770 for details.
New this year is Moss Park’s “Light Up The Wild!” (6-9 p.m. and $5 per vehicle). On Dec. 21, visit for Wild Santa Saturday from 1-9 p.m.
On tap: sledding, airboat rides, pics with Santa (and a baby gator), stocking-stuffer gift market, food trucks, hot cocoa and marshmallow roasting. Call 407-254-6840 for more information.