Orlando's theme parks are going all-out with new holiday entertainment and returning favorites this year

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Seasonal stage shows at the Wizarding Worlds of Harry Potter
Seasonal stage shows at the Wizarding Worlds of Harry Potter photo courtesy of Universal Studios

The final fun-sized candy bars had barely been handed out on Halloween night when Orlando's theme parks began decking their halls, and even though Thanksgiving is still a week away, our area attractions are already celebrating Christmas. Unlike last year, when many of the traditional seasonal celebrations were scaled back due to social distancing, the parks are going all-out in 2021 with new entertainment and returning favorites. Here are some of the top holiday highlights to put on your wish list if you're planning on visiting Central Florida's big three resorts between now and Jan. 2, 2022.

Unlike last year, when many seasonal celebrations were scaled back due to social distancing, this year Orlando's theme parks are going all-out

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Walt Disney World

As usual, the Magic Kingdom is ground zero for Walt Disney World's holiday celebrations, with glowing garlands and a ginormous Christmas tree already gracing Main Street U.S.A. This year, the real action is over in Adventureland, where the annual "Jingle Cruise" seasonal overlay has been extended to the new show scenes added during the Jungle Cruise's recent renovation. The good news is that Disney is bringing back full-scale parades for the first time since the pandemic; the bad news is that you'll need to shell out for tickets to the Very Merriest After Hours party in order to enjoy Mickey's Once Upon a Christmastime Parade before Dec. 22, or to see Minnie's Wonderful Christmastime Fireworks Show.

Disney's Hollywood Studios is once again holding daily motorcades starring St. Nick, as well as nightly projection shows along Sunset Boulevard, and Animal Kingdom's entrancing artisan animal puppets have returned to Discovery Island. However, I'm most excited by the return of live entertainment to Epcot's International Festival of the Holidays. Not only is the Candlelight Processional back — complete with celebrity narrators and a fully vaccinated choir — but cultural performers have finally returned to World Showcase, including the Hanukkah storyteller and Chinese lion dancers.

Finally, if theme park admission isn't in your holiday budget, Disney Springs hosts a free Christmas tree stroll, complete with fake snow flurries on select nights. Better yet, take a hotel-crashing tour of the deluxe Disney hotels' seasonal decor, starting with the elaborate gingerbread houses in the Grand Floridian and Contemporary resorts.

Universal Orlando

In 2020, Universal Studios Florida smartly pivoted by turning their usual holiday parade into a safe walk-by display, but this year the full processional is back in action, including the iconic Macy's balloons inspired by New York's Thanksgiving Day Parade. Universal's Holiday Tribute Store is also returning, with a twist: Super-fans of Earl the Squirrel (USF's long-running Christmas decor Easter egg–turned–cult character) can have their caricature added to his "Wall of Fame" for $125; availability is limited. And you'll find that many of the food festival booths installed for Halloween Horror Nights have hung around to serve new holiday treats.

Over in Islands of Adventure, Grinchmas has taken over Seuss Landing, and the musical stage show has been shifted from its usual uncomfortable soundstage to the former Blue Man Group auditorium, providing a much more pleasant viewing experience. Of course, the Wizarding Worlds of Harry Potter in both parks are joining in the festivities with their usual seasonal stage shows, nighttime lighting displays on Hogwarts Castle and plenty of hot butterbeer.

The Loews-operated hotels at Universal Orlando are marking the holidays with everything from the return of Portofino Bay's paid Harbor Nights parties on the high end to tree and menorah-lighting ceremonies at the less pricey Endless Summer Resort. Locals can stay at that property right now for under $85 per night and get two days of park admission for the price of one; buy a Wendy's soft drink before Dec. 16 for the discount code.

click to enlarge Grinchmas at Islands of Adventure - PHOTO COURTESY OF UNIVERSAL STUDIOS
photo courtesy of Universal Studios
Grinchmas at Islands of Adventure

SeaWorld Orlando

Ice Breaker — the anticipated new roller-coaster at SeaWorld Orlando — isn't thawing out until spring, but the park has several new additions to warm up its winter lineup. The Holiday Reflections fountain and fireworks show has expanded into nightly performances; a new Elmo stage show joined the Christmas parade in Sesame Street Land; and a new Sounds of the Season concert series is taking over the Nautilus Theater. Old favorites like the Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer movie and meet-and-greet, the sparkling Sea of Trees display, and the Winter Wonderland ice skating show have all returned, and the holiday food booths around the park are offering two dozen new menu items.

Sadly, one long-running SeaWorld tradition will not continue this year. O Wondrous Night, a nativity pageant that was most notable for its menagerie of live animals, is not on the performance schedule. Perhaps it's for the best — have you ever tried to make a camel wear a face mask?

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