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 capture with the whirlwind of planning, shopping, cooking and end-of-year logistics. Sometimes 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 Christmas 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 more going strong from Nov. 16, 2019–Jan. 5, 2020. 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. All of the emails I received from Universal leading up to our recent stay touted specially decorated hotels to capture the spirit of the season.
We arrived at Universal’s Loews Portofino Bay Hotel and were greeted by a Christmas tree in the lobby that was so tall it barely fit under the lobby’s lighting fixtures.
There were pine boughs and wreaths in strategic places, as well as a smaller Christmas tree in the club lounge.
We checked in on Nov. 17, just a day after the official launch of the holiday season at Universal, so more decorations will likely appear as Thanksgiving, Hanukkah and Christmas approach.
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 included Universal Express passes along with early entry to The Wizarding World of Harry Potter at Universal Studios. Booking via the Amex Fine Hotels and Resorts program also gets you free daily breakfast, late check-out and a $100 food and beverage credit per stay.
Each Universal hotel will also offer a selection of free and paid events, like special holiday meals (breakfast, brunch or dinner buffets or prix fixe dinners) on Thanksgiving, Christmas Eve, Christmas Day and New Year’s Eve.
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 from 8:30 p.m. to midnight costs $160 per person for adults 21 and older, $110 for ages 10–20 and $35 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 New Year’s Eve Dessert Buffet (7 p.m. to midnight) at the Loews Royal Pacific Resort. You get a DJ, dancing, party favors, a Champagne toast and balloon drop along with some delicious desserts. Adults are $55 and kids 3–9 are $35; children under 3 are free.
While all of the hotels have slightly different free holiday offerings this season, each will have a Christmas tree lighting ceremony on Nov. 29 and Hannukah menorah lightings from Dec. 22–30.
Santa will host meet-and-greets at both Portofino Bay and Universal’s Endless Summer Resort on select nights of the season, while Santa’s elves will be available to greet guests at Universal’s Cabana Bay Beach Resort.
Look for other events like cookie decorating, 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.
The Universal theme parks had holiday in full effect, including faux storefronts that had been 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. This 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 our mid-November visit 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).
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 did a great job interacting with the crowd, and we saw 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 closed 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 10 nights in 2019, 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.” To get an idea of exactly what that means, check out this video from our friends at Undercover Tourist. The concert is free with your Universal Studios Florida admission. Unfortunately, concert days are blocked out for seasonal passholders.
Visit Harry Potter this Yule season
I’ll admit that I wanted to see a real holiday parade this year. But, there was another reason I wanted to visit Universal Orlando: 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. But 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
We started with a trip to Hogsmeade within Islands of Adventure, home to Universal’s newest ride: Hagrid’s Magical Creatures Motorbike Adventure. Wait times for that ride, even during this offseason, can be long — but not as long as when the attraction first opened when waits hit 11 hours. During our trip, the wait for this newest ride ranged from 110 minutes to about three hours, though I did talk to a few parkgoers that lucked out with just a 90-minute wait. (Hagrid’s roller coaster does not participate in Universal’s Express Pass program.)
No matter when you visit, it’s wintertime in Hogsmeade, but that feels extra-appropriate around the holidays.
But Universal has thrown in pine boughs, wreaths and twinkling lights to celebrate the season.
Here, we enjoyed seeing a special Christmas version of the Frog Choir show and a performance of the Triwizard Spirit Rally.
We then saw how a wand chooses its wizard at a show at Ollivanders in between rides on Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey and Flight of the Hippogriff, of course.
We even have found time to grab a Butterbeer at the Hog’s Head before staking out a spot for another show: The Magic of Christmas at Hogwarts Castle. This cool presentation unfolds several times between dusk and park closing. It 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 really was 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
On our second day, we entered Universal Studios and headed to “London” so we could enter Diagon Alley.
This themed area has also been 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.
Once we were wandering around Diagon Alley, we spent 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.
We made 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.
Both were fun but were during daylight hours, so we returned 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. The attendant at The High in the Sky Seuss Trolley Train Ride! didn’t bat an eye when my husband and I got in the queue. Frankly, there were more adults than kids in line around us.
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 Who 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.
Dine with The Grinch & Friends
If the free Grinch holiday show isn’t enough for your family, you can pay to eat breakfast with The Grinch — dressed as Santa — and other Seuss characters. Tickets include breakfast (things like green eggs and ham or pancakes) with one nonalcoholic drink at Circus McGurkus Cafe Stoo-pendous! at Universal’s Islands of Adventure.
The Grinch will also pose for photos (included) and spend time chatting with the little ones. Adult tickets cost $34.99 plus tax and kids ages 3–9 are $20.99 plus tax. Seatings are available on certain dates between Nov. 15 and Dec. 25, between 8 and 10 a.m. Reservations and theme park tickets are required.
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 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 onsite Universal hotels either within the Chase Travel portal or even 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 Amex.
We loved kicking off the holiday season at Universal Orlando. Going early in the season was terrific from a crowd-control perspective. There were very light crowds and, paired with the Universal Express Pass we received for staying at a “Premier” on-site hotel, we basically had no waits at the rides. (If you ever visit Universal during peak season and really hate waits, consider a Private VIP Tour. It’s pricey but gives you an expert guide, walk-on access to the rides, meals, backstage access, photos, valet parking and complimentary strollers.)
Would we 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 Santa meet-and-greets — 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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