Cool, But Not Too Cool: Top December To-Dos In Orlando

Stellar weather and seasonal spirit combine to make December an incredible time of year to enjoy Orlando - especially outside. At the theme parks - Disney, Universal, SeaWorld and the like - the incredible attractions are bolstered by holiday-specific programming. In 2018, Christmas in the Wizarding World of Harry Potter is still big news, where new music, sensational decor and a showstopping production on the face of Hogwarts Castle take center stage. Outside the parks, however, the beautiful weather beckons those with an interest in outdoor exploration. For that, we recommend a visit to the Nature Conservancy's Disney Wilderness Preserve, an 11,000-acre wonderland that's a model of conservation. Walk it's 2.5-mile trail (sometimes you won't see another soul on your journey) and spy native flora and fauna, then learn more about it in the interpretive center. It's a side of Disney few know about, let alone visit. Out in Clermont, the rolling hills of the Lakeridge Winery beckon not only with sweet bottles, but sweets themselves! It's Wine & Chocolate Festival features more than just the top-billed treats, though. Live music, arts and crafts and more make it a very family-friendly good time. 


East Orlando

This East Orlando favorite (and holiday pseudo-homecoming for locally based alumni) runs from November 16 through December 31 and in 2018 is in its 11th year of bringing holiday fun to the community. On tap this year: snow, incredible choreographed lights and lots of rides. Showing up and hanging out is free, and music-synchronized holiday light shows run hourly. The twinkly bulbs cover the entire façade of CFE Stadium. It's fun and festive, but most people come for the fun winter activities! Ice skating ($12), an Ice Slide ($6.50 unlimited) and several great rides ($4.25 apiece). Friday and Saturday nights throughout its run, Light Up UCF features free outdoor movies, each with a holiday theme. Bring your own chair or blanket and a thermos of cocoa. This year's schedule includes Elf, Miracle on 34th Street, The Santa Clause, A Christmas Story and more. Photo-ops with Santa start at $15 and you can skip the crush at the mall.

Recommended for Things to Do in December because: The Golden Knights put on a stellar winter carnival, but it's not just for co-eds. Families will love the low-cost and free, built-in December fun.

A.D.'s expert tip: This year's Light Up UCF features a holiday market on December 21. Get your shopping done while supporting local businesses!

Read more about Light Up UCF →

The quaint town of Celebration was essentially purpose-built for small-town charm and family fun and so it's no surprise that Now Snowing ranks among Central Florida's original and premier "snowing" events. Now Snowing offers a schedule filled with family-friendly holiday surprises and features an ice rink, Dickensian strolling carolers, community performers, photos with Santa, horse-drawn carriage rides, the Celebration Express train, and, perhaps most delightful to guests more accustomed to a subtropical Christmas: a nightly "snow" flurries at 6:00, 7:00, 8:00 and 9:00 p.m. Now Snowing runs November 24 through December 31.

Recommended for Things to Do in December because: While it may not be the snow the Northern expatriates are used to, Now Snowing ticks the Christmassy feeling up a notch with its flurries.

A.D.'s expert tip: Come early, grab a bite, explore the rest of Celebration Town Center or the charming town for which it is named.

Read more about Now Snowing →

On select nights, now through Dec. 21, the Magic Kingdom becomes a holiday haven as the halls are decked to the Disney nines and Cinderella's Castle comes alive with icy-glittering lights. This separate, ticketed event (prices start at $99) features live entertainment, spectacular fireworks and a holly-jolly holiday parade that only Walt Disney World could put together. See Mickey, Minnie and all their pals, dressed in their seasonal finest and whistle along to holiday tunes; folks of all ages are enchanted by the Magic Kingdom and all its cast members, from princesses to characters to the delightful march of the toy soldiers.

Read more about Mickey's Very Merry Christmas Party →


When the holiday season rolls around (this year, that's Nov. 16 through Jan. 6) the verdant landscaping of the Gaylord Palms is bedecked with glittering lights and inside its biosphere-like atrium about a zillion more of them blow the collective minds of the many guests and visitors who gather beneath its towering Christmas tree for nightly shows featuring the magnificent performers of Cirque Dreams. Folks looking for a "cooler" holiday vibe love attending ICE! This year, the sub-zero attraction, featuring incredible, whimsical solid-ice sculptures and ice slides will be themed on one of the most beloved holiday films of all time: "A Christmas Story!" Experience iconic scenes such as The Old Man's Major Award, Aunt Clara's pink nightmare and the ultimate triple-dog dare at the school's flagpole, all of it hand-carved from two million pounds of ice by artists imported from China's famed Harbin Festival. Also on tap in 2017: snow tubing, photo-ops with Santa and more!

Recommended for Things to Do in December because: Not nearly as pricey as the theme parks, but with lots of variety, CAGP offers snow, music, lights, and trees (even lots of real ones)!

A.D.'s expert tip: ICE! is FREEZING. A long, cozy coat is included with admission but layer up to for staying power to really take it in. Gloves and hats recommended!

Read more about Christmas at the Gaylord Palms →

The Orlando Ballet is the city's only resident professional ballet company and The Nutcracker, of course, is a ballet that tells the story of little Clara, her nutcracker, and their holiday adventures. This year's performances run on select days from December 7-16. Tickets start at $19 and go up from there. On December 8 and 15, the Nutcracker Family Show (a one-hour version; tickets start at $15) is suitable for your entire brood. You can sweeten the deal by adding a special Nutcracker Tea event (Dec. 15 only). A delicious assortment of sweet and savory treats will be on-hand, along with fun activities and demos. $50 for kids, $75 for adults. Fees benefit Orlando Ballet School.

Recommended for Things to Do in December because: It's a quintessential December performance, and while you're in town it's always nice to see what else the Dr. Phillips Center has to offer!

A.D.'s expert tip: On December 23, fans with wee ones can check out the Nutcracker Family Show, a one-hour program designed with the little ones in mind. Pair it with the Nutcracker Tea, which offers up treats and photo-ops. (Note: these are separate tickets.)

Read more about Orlando Ballet's Nutcracker & Nutcracker Family Series →

This is Florida, where sports is revered and scurvy is unheard of, the latter thanks to our state's marvelously juicy citrus industry. At this annual fete, traditionally held between the Camping World Bowl and Citrus Bowl games, high school marching bands from around the state (along with college bands from the participating teams) make downtown Orlando come alive with rhythm and music. Other performers entertain the spectators and of course, signature parade floats made of all kinds of citrus fruit are a delight for a variety of senses. Curbside seating for the event is free and available from 6 am forward on parade day. Reserve seating ($30-40) is available via the Florida Citrus Sports website. This year's parade will take place on December 29, 2018.

Recommended for Things to Do in December because: Free, colorful and wholly seasonal (in Orlando, anyway) the Florida Citrus Parade helps those from colder climes understand why Floridians like their version of December!

A.D.'s expert tip: Come early and enjoy the color and spectacle on December 29, then hit up Lake Eola Park and any number of amazing eateries and bars all within walking distance of the parade route.

Read more about Florida Citrus Parade →

Is this the ocean or the forest? Well, neither, really, but between the park's oceanic residents and the 115 sparkling pines that make up the Sea of Trees, this holiday experience is a little bit of both. All the usual fun â€" rides, aquarium exhibits, animals and more â€" is on tap, along with special seasonal programming that includes Shamu's Christmas, where holiday music and killer whales meet, Clyde & Seamore's Countdown to Christmas comical sea lion and otter show, Winter Wonderland on Ice - a skating spectacular. And that's just the tip of the iceberg. Speaking of which, your family can meet Santa himself as you ride to the top of the world to meet an Arctic resident most beloved! Enjoy pics with St. Nick and animal encounters, as well.

Recommended for Things to Do in December because: SeaWorld's Christmas Celebration is run on select nights from November 17 through December 31, 2017, and is included with park admission.

A.D.'s expert tip: Ridden Infinity Falls yet? Now's your chance to check out SeaWorld's newest thrill, a top-of-the-line rapids experience with the world's tallest drop of its kind.

Read more about SeaWorld's Christmas Celebration →

Fifty thousand gallons of wine come out of Lakeridge each year - it's Florida's largest - and locals visit and revisit all the time. Not just when friends and family come to town, but because the winery hosts an abundance of family-friendly festivals and free live music events all year long with food, crafts, even fun photo-ops. That said, even if you don't happen to make it during one of their larger shindigs (in December, that's the Wine & Chocolate festival!), Lakeridge runs free tours and tastings all day long, every day of the week, every 20 minutes or so. You'll start off with a short film about the vineyard's history, then move on for a stellar view of the vines and wrap it up in the tasting room. The whole thing takes about 45 minutes. And of course, you can your favorite by the bottle - or the case - before you head out.

Recommended for Things to Do in December because: December 7-9 brings with it Lakeridge's "Wine & Chocolate" themed event featuring live music, local artists and crafters, food, beer and complimentary wine tasting! Cheers!

A.D.'s expert tip: Check the Lakeridge Winery website for it's year-round calendar of events the entire family can enjoy.

Read more about Lakeridge Winery & Vineyards →

Most people are well aware of the land Disney uses for its massive theme park and resort operations, but did you know that years ago, Disney set aside 11,000+ of Central Florida wilderness to ensure its preservation? Its core was once a working cattle ranch, totaling 8,500 acres, that had been slated for development in the '90s. As the property sits at the northernmost part of the Everglades watershed, this would have been catastrophic, so the company stepped in, saved the land and helped restore it, acquiring several thousand additional acres of wilderness not long after. Non-native plants were eliminated and the area has become a model for conservation. The property is home to more than a thousand species of flora and fauna and a 2.5-mile trail allows visitors to explore, learn, and experience natural Central Florida, making for a lovely, serene break from the frenetic pace and scenery at the parks. Special note: Trails here are open but limited due to high water in some places due to Hurricane Irma. Call for more information.

Recommended for Things to Do in December because: 'Tis the season for the holidays, but also for stellar dry, sunny and even cool days. It's a beautiful place to hike!

A.D.'s expert tip: Summer hikes are lovely if you can take the heat in the sun (and bugs in the shade) but fall and winter season walks are really where it's at.

Read more about The Nature Conservancy's Disney Wilderness Preserve →

If ever you've been curious about hitting up this quarterly event in beautiful and historic downtown DeLand, December's the time. Why? Holiday shopping - and an excuse to spend a little more on unique, one-of-a-kind finds from vendors that include artists and boutiques, vintage shops and purveyors of all kinds of goodies from foodstuffs to health and body products and beyond. What else do they have going on? Try great food, live music and a setting that can't be beat. Feel free to peruse the quaint downtown, as well, or pop into Persimmon Hollow Brewing for a cold pint of Florida craft brew. Support small business with a quick road trip just beyond the metro.

Recommended for Things to Do in December because: Shop local and check out a Central Florida town that may be new to you. Loads of charm. Lots to do. Great for gifts!

A.D.'s expert tip: Don't miss it! The Winter Installment of this great shop-local market will be held on Sunday, December 2 from 11 am - 5 pm.

Read more about DeLand Indie Market at Artisan Alley →


Meet A.D. Thompson

Amy Drew has spent nearly three decades as a professional writer and roughly half her life as a Floridian. The words, she has found, come easier with bare feet and rum.

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