All signs point to big Christmas crowds at Orlando-area theme parks' seasonal attractions

Santa and his sleigh at Jolly Creek's festival village
Santa and his sleigh at Jolly Creek's festival village Photo by Seth Kubersky

From Disneyland Paris to the Santa Cruz Boardwalk, amusement parks across the globe that had reopened are closing once again in the face of a new surge of COVID-19 cases. But here in laissez-faire Florida, our attractions are not only open for business, they've decked their halls with new holiday offerings. As a result, Orlando area theme parks were more packed over the Thanksgiving holiday week than they have been at any point since the pandemic began, and all indications point to even bigger Christmas crowds.

That's an encouraging sign for struggling tourism workers, especially after Disney and Universal confirmed in November that they're laying off thousands more employees. But it's equally worrying for those concerned that increasing attendance will inevitably equal easing precautions. Thanks to some media invites and my annual passes, I've checked out this year's seasonal offerings at the big theme parks — plus one attraction-adjacent event that's a bit off the beaten path — to let you know which ones are worth braving masses of masked merrymakers.

Christmas at the Magic Kingdom

Walt Disney World's original theme park is ordinarily host to Orlando's most popular holiday event, but with the cancellation of this year's Very Merry Christmas parties, the Kingdom feels much less magical this season. Main Street U.S.A. has been decorated to the hilt with its traditional towering tree and lamppost wreaths, and socially distanced cavalcades offer drive-by sightings of Santa Claus.

However, there's little sign of the season once you pass beyond the central hub, and static projections on Cinderella Castle with sporadic pyro makes an underwhelming substitute for full-blown fireworks shows. Much like Halloween, this year's Magic Kingdom Christmas celebration seems mostly to be about selling inexplicable specialty snacks, such as Cosmic Ray's spicy chicken sandwich with Santa Mickey's face burned into the bun like a savory Shroud of Turin. I'd suggest skipping it entirely, if it weren't for the return of the Dapper Dans. These a cappella icons are among the few Equity cast members currently employed at the resort, and Disney fans should show support for their resumed appearances, lest they leave again.

Holidays at Universal Orlando

Universal appeared even busier than Disney over the holiday week, with even the awful Fast & Furious ride wait times over two hours. I'll miss Islands of Adventure's Grinchmas musical, but my private photo session with the masked Grinch was even more entertaining, especially since my free reservation from meant minimal waiting in line.

Much like Universal Studios Florida's modified Halloween celebration, the park's traditional Christmas parade has been cleverly transformed into a walk-through past floats and Macy's balloons, ending with a socially distanced Santa meet-and-greet. USF's elaborate new Holiday Tribute Store is also worth exploring even if you aren't buying anything. And stick around on select nights for the revived Cinematic Celebration fountain show; unfortunately, you'll have to purchase a VIP holiday tour to see the Hogwarts light show this Christmas.

SeaWorld's Christmas Celebration

Unlike its competitors, SeaWorld Orlando's Christmas Celebration is crammed with live entertainment, including a new replacement for its traditional Nativity play. This self-consciously socially distanced satire (scripted by Jason Surrell of HHN's 1990s Bill & Ted shows) spices up Jesus' birth with snarky GenX pop-culture references and uncomfortably earthy choreography set to funky gospel tunes. There's a ton of talent on the stage, but the theology and taste level are tenuous to say the least; I for one am eager for the camels to come back in 2021.

The Christmas edition of the sea lion show, on the other hand, instantly had me smiling with holiday spirit. I'd also love to tell you how great the seasonal ice skating and Sesame Street shows were, but the former garnered undistanced crowds long before showtime, and the latter is staged in a cramped cul-de-sac with even less audience spacing, so I noped out of both. SeaWorld sports the same safety warnings as the other resorts and has plenty of acreage for elbow room, but I observed guests disobeying guidelines without consequence far more frequently than at Disney or Universal. Ultimately, I exited the park before redeeming all the credits on my holiday food sampler lanyard in search of safer pastures.

Jolly Creek at Boggy Creek Airboat

I didn't expect to be driving over the river and through the woods to south Kissimmee again so soon after Halloween, but the same folks behind Stream 'n' Scream have done an even better job with Jolly Creek, their first Christmas event. Sadly, there's no drive-thru light display, but there are plenty of twinkling LEDs in the charming festival village, which features an interactive Santa photo-op, along with a phalanx of hyperactive elves and a dancing Christmas tree (seriously!).

The headliner entertainment on the outdoor stage consists of former members from Disney's Grand Floridian Society Orchestra, long-serving swing musicians who were recalled to work in the parks earlier in the pandemic, only to be rewarded with forced retirement. Their jazzy holiday covers, performed four times each event night, should warm the heart. End your evening with a brisk moonlight airboat ride — keeping an eye out for alligators and flying reindeer — for the ultimate "only in Central Florida" winter celebration.

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