The holiday season is in full swing at Universal Orlando Resort, where the travel destination has kicked off a series of festive offerings designed with those who really love Christmas in mind. As other Central Florida theme parks, like Walt Disney World Resort, continue to raise prices, the holiday season at Universal remains "included with your theme park ticket or annual pass," a perk that has holiday travelers ho-ho-ho-ing their way over to the Florida resort destination to see how much Christmas cheer their money can buy.
I'm one of those travelers — a journalist who covers theme parks, a Walt Disney World annual pass holder and a serial attender of Mickey's Very Merry Christmas Party, Disney's annual holiday after-hours ticketed event that runs park goers just under $200 per person on average. In recent years, Universal Orlando has grown in popularity with my family, so I visited the two theme parks on property, Universal Studios and Universal's Islands of Adventure, to check out the resort's holiday offerings.
In short, I loved experiencing the holidays at Universal and not just because of the amount of Christmas you get for the price of a park ticket, which is about $130 on average (more if you choose the two-park ticket option). The holiday offerings in both theme parks were pure fun and definitely got me into the Christmas spirit, even on an 80-degree night in early November.
For a family who wants to feel festive but spend their travel budget on more than just park entry fees, the holidays at Universal are a pretty jolly bet. Here are the things I liked best about the experience, all of which come included in the day's park admission.
The on-stage retelling of Dr. Seuss' How the Grinch Stole Christmas
Every Who down in Who-ville appears on stage in this stage version of the Christmas classic How the Grinch Stole Christmas, and so does the mean one himself, Mr. Grinch. The musical production takes place at Universal's Islands of Adventure and has everything from musical numbers to a live pup playing the role of the Grinch's antler-wearing dog, Max.
The costumes are bright and colorful, the Whos are joyful and the holiday decorations are vibrant and fun. And, the music used in the show was recorded by holiday icons Mannheim Steamroller, giving the show an extra layer of Christmassy familiarity.
As a child of the ’80s who grew up watching the old-school Grinch cartoon and a mom who read the book over oh-so-many holiday seasons, it was fun to see the same story told in a very different way.
A Macy's-quality holiday parade, complete with giant balloons
If you're choosing between a trip to New York City or Orlando this holiday season, I can't tell you which is better, but I can tell you ... it's much warmer in the Sunshine State. And, at Universal Studios, there's even a Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade-quality parade held nightly. Complete with gigantic balloons (and balloon handlers in fantastic uniforms), Universal's Holiday Parade featuring Macy's runs nightly and features all the parade bells and whistles, from marching bands to floats.
During the parade, characters like Shrek, King Julian and Despicable Me's Minions move through the streets, balloons roll by and performers interact with the crowd while they dance. The floats, which include everything from the Penguins of Madagascar to Santa Claus himself, are beautiful. There's also a Florida favorite — artificial snowflakes — falling in the New York and Hollywood areas of the park along the parade route.
Pro tip: It's worth lining up early to grab parade seating in the New York section of the park, near attractions like Revenge of the Mummy and Race Through New York Starring Jimmy Fallon. As the parade closes, Santa himself lights the Christmas tree located in the Central Park area.
The beautiful holiday projection show, displayed on Hogwarts Castle
Universal is well-known for its devotion to the Harry Potter franchise. With Diagon Alley in Universal Studios, Hogsmeade in Islands of Adventure and the Hogwarts Express transporting park goers between both lands, it's normal to see robe-clad Potter enthusiasts throughout both parks.
But even the Wizarding World of Harry Potter gets a holiday overlay at Christmastime: At different times throughout the day, there are holiday music performances in both lands (including a frog choir) and nightly, a holiday projection show is displayed at Islands of Adventure on the sides of Hogwarts Castle.
Pro tips: To watch the nightly projection show, The Magic of Christmas at Hogwarts Castle, grab a hot Butterbeer to sip throughout the show. The show repeats several times, so try watching it once from the ground and once while riding Flight of the Hippogriff, a family-friendly coaster that boasts incredible castle views.
The Christmassy character meet-and-greets
Always a sucker for a photo with an obscure character, the holiday season at Universal did not disappoint. The Grinch himself is available to pose for pics and having met him myself, I can attest to the fact that he is very ... grinchy. His jokes were on point, his snark was unparalleled and he called upon my husband to pose for a "belly-to-belly" photo, which we, of course, obliged. Who can say no to a furry green Grinch?
Even more obscure is Earl the Squirrel, a Universal Orlando icon based on a real squirrel who cut the lights on an 80-foot Christmas tree inside the park. Since then, Earl's been a holiday legend, even getting his own section of the Holiday Tribute Store (Universal's ever-changing, highly-themed gift shop) inside Universal Studios for the past few years. This year, Earl is out and about as a character guests can meet, and he is both adorable and ... desperate for nuts. In my time with the zany squirrel, he asked me more than once if I'd brought him any nuts to eat (I hadn't), so maybe take him some if you visit.
To make meeting these holiday characters simple, use the Universal app: A mobile queue can be joined for meeting the Grinch — allowing your family to experience other parts of the parks while you wait in a virtual line — and meet-and-greet times for Earl the Squirrel are also posted in the app.
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