Christmas at Universal Orlando: Shows, spectacles and parties to put on your holiday wish list
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Christmas magic. We all want to cherish it, but it isn’t always easy to do that when faced with the whirlwind of planning, shopping, cooking and end-of-year logistics. Sometimes the magic is easier to capture when you step out of your normal life for a minute and into somewhere different — somewhere like, say, Hogwarts.
If you thought Disney World cornered the market on theme park holiday magic, you’ve been missing out on what Universal Orlando has been up to around the holidays. It’s got theme parks and on-site hotels decked out in holiday finery, as well as a variety of concerts, shows, character breakfasts and Universal’s Holiday Tour going strong from Nov. 13, 2021–Jan. 2, 2022. There are some moments that even the Grinch himself will find sprinkled with a bit of Santa’s magic. Literally.
Universal’s hotels decorated for the holidays
Let’s start with where your Universal Orlando vacation may begin: an on-site hotel. You can expect whatever halls you’re staying in near the theme parks to be appropriately decked for the season.
When you arrive at Universal’s Loews Portofino Bay Hotel, for example, you’ll be greeted by a Christmas tree in the lobby that’s so tall it barely fits under the lobby’s lighting fixtures.
Look for pretty touches everywhere, like pine boughs and wreaths in strategic places, as well as a smaller Christmas tree in the club lounge.
Loews Portofino Bay just might be the best overall deal at Universal if you have a Platinum Card® from American Express. Staying at this property gets everyone in the room Universal Express passes along with early entry to The Wizarding World of Harry Potter at Universal Studios. Booking via the Amex Fine Hotels + Resorts program also gets you free daily breakfast, late check-out and a complimentary dinner for two people per room (excluding alcohol, taxes and gratuities) once during your stay.
Each Universal hotel will also offer a selection of free and paid events, like discounted special holiday meals (breakfast, brunch or dinner buffets or prix fixe dinners) on Thanksgiving, Christmas Eve, Christmas Day and New Year’s Eve. Look for strolling carolers, Hanukkah menorah and Christmas tree lighting ceremonies, kids’ holiday crafts and more. Among the Universal Orlando hotels to put on your radar for festive holiday fun are the Hard Rock Hotel, Loews Royal Pacific Resort, Loews Sapphire Falls Resort, Universal’s Cabana Bay Beach Resort, Universal’s Aventura Hotel and Universal’s Endless Summer Resort (both Surfside Inn and Suites and Dockside Inn and Suites).
If you’ve been looking for a fun way to spend New Year’s Eve, the hotels are also hosting parties — though some are quite pricey. For example, Portofino Bay’s New Year’s Eve Party on the Piazza (8:30 p.m. to midnight) costs $180 per person for adults 21 and older, $130 for ages 10–20 and $45 for kids 3–9; children under 3 are free. A DJ will kick off the evening and there will be dinner, drinks and dancing, plus a face painter, balloonist and a kids’ crafts and activities table.
Personally, I’d have my eye on the ROCK-In 2022! New Year’s Eve Lobby Party (6 p.m. to 1 a.m.) at the Hard Rock Hotel. It goes later than all of the other New Year’s Eve parties at Universal Orlando hotels, kids are welcome, and there’s a DJ, balloon artists, face painters and magic. Adults are $80 per person and kids 3-9 are $50; children under 3 are free.
If you’re staying at Universal’s Cabana Bay Beach Resort, your New Year’s Eve celebrations are on the house during a celebration just for guests in the hotel’s Bayliner Diner that’s complete with a live DJ, balloon artist and face painters. It runs from 8 p.m. to midnight. You can add on dinner at carving stations for an affordable price starting from 5 p.m. That costs $19.99 per adult or $10.99 for kids ages 3-9; children under 3 eat free.
Related: 5 things to know about the Loews Sapphire Falls Resort at Universal Orlando
While all of the hotels have slightly different free holiday offerings this season, most will have a Christmas tree lighting ceremony on Nov. 26 and Hanukkah menorah lightings from Nov. 28 to Dec. 6, 2021 (check individual hotels to see what’s on offer when).
There are no Santa meet-and-greets scheduled at the hotels for the 2021 season, sadly. But you never know where the jolly guy might turn up, right? Such is holiday magic.
Look for other events like kids’ crafts and activities, strolling carolers and additional live music performances. Each hotel will also offer free cookies and beverages in their lobbies at certain times throughout the season.
Christmas at Universal Studios Florida
Universal Orlando has a great setup that makes it easy to explore three adjacent complexes: Universal Studios (ticket required), Islands of Adventure (ticket required) and CityWalk (no ticket required). The ease of walking from one spot to the next is key to making the most of your holiday trip to Universal. There’s also a boat that connects several of the Universal hotels to the parks and shopping/dining areas.
Related: How to get the most out of one day at Universal Orlando
The Universal Orlando theme parks spring into full holiday mode, including faux storefronts that are decorated for the holidays.
Universal’s Holiday Parade featuring Macy’s
Universal Studios hosts Universal’s Holiday Parade featuring Macy’s. While I lived in the NYC area for nearly 20 years, I never got to see the Thanksgiving Day Parade in person. Universal’s parade was my chance to see a mini version and it did not disappoint. The parade features characters from “Minions,” “Shrek” and “Madagascar.”
Crowd levels were low during my mid-November visit back in 2019, but I still wanted a front-row seat at the parade. I made a blunder, though, and miscalculated how long it would take us to walk from Islands of Adventure to Universal Studios. (We should have taken the Hogwarts Express from Hogsmeade to King’s Cross since we had Park-to-Park tickets). It’s something to keep in mind if you plan to go to this year’s event.
During my visit, we arrived at the parade route with just 15 minutes to spare before showtime and all the benches were taken. However, there were still plenty of curb spots ready and waiting. We sat on the curb in front of Shrek 4-D and across from Despicable Me Minion Mayhem which was a great spot, early in the route. Annual passholders have a special first-come, first-served viewing area in front of Mel’s Drive-In, right near where the parade starts.
The street performers do a great job interacting with the crowd, and you’ll likely spot several of them out during the day at Universal Studios doing meet-and-greets and stopping for photos with kids and families. And, of course, Santa closes out the parade with his wise eyes and big smile.
Make a point to see the parade — even if you’re not traveling with kids. My husband and I enjoyed it and it helped jump-start the holiday season for us.
Mannheim Steamroller in concert
The second big seasonal event at Universal Studios is a series of concerts by Mannheim Steamroller. The band will play on four nights in early December 2021 (Dec. 4, 5 and 11, 12) at the Music Plaza Stage, so check the schedule if it’s important to you to see the show. According to Universal, Mannheim Steamroller is “the best-selling holiday artist of all time.” You’ve surely heard their music on the radio or at a party during the holiday season. But to get an idea of exactly what “best-selling holiday artist of all time” means, check out this video from our friends at Undercover Tourist. The concert is free with your Universal Studios Florida admission.
Visit Harry Potter this Yule season
There’s yet another reason to visit Universal Orlando for the holiday season: Christmas in The Wizarding World of Harry Potter. Walking through J. K. Rowling’s magical world is cool enough, but to do it when it’s decked out for the holidays? Next level.
For those uninitiated in all things Potter, The Wizarding World of Harry Potter at Universal is located in both Universal Studios and Islands of Adventure. You either need a Park-to-Park ticket to visit both sections in the same day, or you need two single-park tickets to visit each place on different days. Really, you probably want Park-to-Park tickets as that is the only way to ride the Hogwarts Express train, which is a fantastic experience.
Hogsmeade dressed for the winter
Start with a trip to Hogsmeade within Islands of Adventure, home to two of Universal’s newest rides: Hagrid’s Magical Creatures Motorbike Adventure and Jurassic World VelociCoaster. Wait times for those rides, even during the offseason, can be long — but not as long as when the attraction first opened, when waits hit 11 hours.
No matter when you visit, it’s wintertime in Hogsmeade, but that feels extra-appropriate around the holidays.
Universal throws in pine boughs, wreaths and twinkling lights at every turn to make the season all the merrier.
Take time to see a special Christmas version of the Frog Choir show and listen to hits by Celestina Warbeck and the Banshees while sipping a hot butterbeer.
After perhaps another Butterbeer (or something less sweet) at the Hog’s Head, consider staking out a spot for yet another show: The Magic of Christmas at Hogwarts Castle. This cool presentation unfolds several times between dusk and park closing and features projections, lights and lasers on the castle. You’ll see hologram-like spirits and owls, snow, dancing lights, scenes with your favorite characters, holiday scenery and more, all choreographed to the musical themes you’ve come to love from each movie. It’s really magical; the type of experience that makes the little hairs on the back of your neck stand up.
Did Universal use technology to pull off this amazing show or could it have been magic? I say magic.
London and Diagon Alley
Enter Universal Studios and head to “London” so you can enter Diagon Alley.
This themed area is also transformed for the holidays with festive décor and twinkling lights.
The entrance to Diagon Alley is built in such a way that you really feel as if you’re entering another world.
While wandering around Diagon Alley, it’s pretty entertaining to spend time looking in the shops and watching kids with wands work some pretty cool magic.
You can purchase interactive or noninteractive wands at the theme parks or online in advance of your trip. I recommend buying the interactive one so you can “cast spells” and interact with magical experiences in both Hogsmeade and Diagon Alley. There are some especially fun spells to “cast” in Knockturn Alley.
Make a point to see two shows here: The Tales of the Beedle the Bard puppetry performance and a holiday version of Celestina Warbeck and the Banshees.
If you’re visiting during the daytime, be sure to return at dusk to see all the lights turn on and get the complete holiday vibe from Harry Potter’s London.
Season’s greetings at Islands of Adventure
There are also plenty of holiday events taking place at Islands of Adventure.
Are your kids Dr. Seuss fans? Then a visit to Seuss Landing is in order. It has a bunch of kid-friendly rides that also welcome adults. Don’t be surprised if you see more adults than kids in The High in the Sky Seuss Trolley Train Ride – in fact, it’s an all-ages favorite.
The holidays shine in Seuss Landing, especially if you can catch one of The Grinchmas Who-liday Spectacular shows.
The Grinch stars in the show — a retelling of “How the Grinch Stole Christmas!” — with music by Mannheim Steamroller. You can catch a performance several times a day. Do yourself a favor, though, and go to a show after dusk. Seuss Landing probably has the most Christmas decorations of any land throughout both Universal theme parks and it just sparkles at night — adding a bit more razzle-dazzle to showtime.
Use points to visit Universal Orlando
No matter what day of the year you visit, Universal Orlando tickets are not cheap — and neither are the on-site hotels, such as Loews Portofino Bay. However, you can earn and use points to make the trip more affordable. First, unlike at Disney, you can use points from Chase Ultimate Rewards to cover the cost of your theme park tickets. Those with a Chase Sapphire Reserve can redeem points at 1.5 cents each toward Universal tickets within the Chase Travel portal.
You can also book on-site Universal hotels either within the Chase Travel portal or the Citi ThankYou travel portal.
If you book your stay at Portofino Bay via the Amex FHR program to get the breakfast, food and beverage credit, etc. then you can earn 5x Membership Rewards points per dollar by booking and paying via Amex Travel with your Platinum Card from American Express.
We loved kicking off the holiday season at Universal Orlando in 2019 and expect it to be an equally good time this year. Going early in the season was terrific from a crowd-control perspective. There were very light crowds and – due to the Universal Express Pass we received for staying at a “Premier” on-site hotel – we basically had no waits at the rides.
If you visit Universal during peak season and really hate waits, consider booking Universal’s Holiday Tour, offered during select dates starting Nov. 21, 2021. It’s pricey – starting at $69.99 per person in addition to park admission – but gives you an expert guide, reserved viewing area seating for the parade, an after-hours showing of “The Magic of Christmas at Hogwarts Castle,” a chance to meet the Grinch at a hot cocoa bar, a meet-and-greet with Santa and more treats and surprises.
Would I visit Universal around the holidays again? Yes, but I think I’d go a bit later in the season in order to enjoy some of the events — like the big tree lighting ceremonies and holiday kids crafts and fun — that are scheduled as the holidays approach. The holidays at Universal kick into high gear with the tree lighting ceremonies after Thanksgiving.
Featured image courtesy of Universal Orlando.
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