What to expect at Enchant Christmas in Florida
They had me at "Christmas market." When I heard about the Enchant Christmas attraction coming to Tropicana Field in St. Petersburg, Florida, this December (it's also at two other locations in the U.S.: Seattle and Washington, D.C.), I had flashbacks to a cozy winter spent in Germany, when my favorite activity was glugging gluhwein at the atmospheric outdoor Christmas markets that take over city squares in the lead-up to the holidays.
On the Saturday before Christmas, I decided to check out Florida's version with my family, including my son, 3, and daughter, 2. Here's how it was.
What is Enchant Christmas?
The event dubs itself as the largest Christmas maze and market in the world. It's a themed spectacle of more than 2 million twinkling lights, a Christmas market, ice-skating trail (on real ice!), food hall and maze staged at three locations across the U.S. that include Tropicana Field in St. Pete, Florida, Nationals Park in Washington, D.C. and T-Mobile Park in Seattle (Nationals Park is the only outdoor location). Local food and gift vendors are emphasized at each location.
The event runs through Dec. 29 at all three locations and ticket pricing varies depending on the date you go. It gets more expensive closer to Christmas and whether you upgrade to VIP access. The latter comes with free ice-skating rentals and a buffet meal in a special lounge area, but rink access is otherwise included with admission if you bring your own skates.
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Kids 3 and under get free entry to Enchant Christmas and there are discounted prices for youth, seniors and military. When you book your tickets online (which offers the best value -- the events usually sell out, so getting tickets at the door isn't an option), you can select add-ons for skate rentals, for which there are discounts for kids.
You have to select an hourlong arrival window when booking online (it's all about controlling traffic flow) but you can then stay until the event closes for the night. Though we hardly made it that late.
Before attending, I'd heard from friends who'd already been that Enchant Christmas gets quite crowded. They suggested it was worth upgrading to VIP access for the family (expect it to nearly triple your overall admission price).
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The red carpet treatment started right when we entered Tropicana Field, with a separate VIP entrance where we were welcomed through with the stroller. My kids were probably as excited about the little paper bracelets put on their wrists as they were to meet Santa. The main benefits of VIP access are shorter lines at the ice-skating trail, free ice-skate rentals and a complimentary buffet to enjoy in a private lounge during your visit.
I had another hot (cold?) tip from a friend who'd already been to Enchant Christmas, who told me that if we wanted to see Santa Claus we should head his way first. We arrived during the first entrance window of the evening, and by the time we got to the Santa line, a friendly elf told us to expect to wait 45 minutes. She added that it would only get longer as the evening wore on. At the kind elf's suggestion, my husband and I took turns holding down the fort in line and heading out to explore all the light stimulation with the kids so they wouldn't get too stir crazy waiting.
Mrs. Claus is there to greet visitors outside of Santa's domain, which is a nice private area within a globe of twinkling lights where you can pose without the gaze of all the other people waiting in line and hurrying you along with their impatient glares.
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I was thrilled that we were allowed to take photos with our own cameras, too, so I didn't have to shell out for the photos taking by the pros. ("It makes the wait to see Santa a little more palatable," the elf had quipped). Professional photos start at $25 for the cheapest package and can be purchased on a memory card on-site or downloaded later at your leisure online.
My kids didn't really know what to make of Santa, who was a very friendly and funny version of himself, although not quite as portly as we expected (he must be laying off the eggnog this season). And I didn't feel like I'd wasted any money on my boy's and girl's surly frowns, either, since I took my own free phone photos of the spectacle.
The backdrop was really cute -- a crescent moon on which Santa is sitting, with a galaxy of stars all around. And I loved that we weren't rushed at all -- we spent several minutes trying to make the kids engage with the bearded one before giving up and getting some family shots we'll probably love even more than if we'd all been beaming a mega-watt, "Cheese!"
With Santa Claus checked off the bucket list, we made for the event's stroller valet, which is complimentary for everyone. It makes it easy to ditch your wheels for a while without someone walking off with your Baby Zen YoYo as a holiday gift to themselves.
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A maze of lights
The holiday maze is one area where strollers aren't allowed to enter, either. (Wheelchairs are, of course, fine.) If you want to get lost inside of the maze, it's required to leave all strollers behind. I noticed a lot of parents with baby slings and the like but even with a small baby, I would have wanted my stroller along, too, just for a break. The stroller valet makes that all the more of a no-brainer. Enchant Christmas sprawls across a large area, and there's much walking around and waiting in line.
There's a fun scavenger hunt element to the themed maze, called, "The Great Search," which follows the story of a wily elf who has set Santa's reindeer free. Of course, Dasher, Dancer, Prancer and the rest of them can all be found by dedicated kids wandering through the maze's various entrances with their little scratch-off checklist papers in hand. But even if you and yours aren't up for the hunt, like we weren't, it's a sparkling, dizzying, dazzling place to wander and get lost while forcing your kids to pose for photos with endless Instagrammable backdrops.
More than 2 million lights are said to make up Enchant Christmas' entire installation, and the highlights for our family were a towering Christmas tree over 80 feet high, a giant sparkling Rudolph and a trash can (my son is currently really into trash cans, but that's another story). Part of the maze sits alongside the ice-skating trail, and is a fun place to watch Floridians try to find their footing on the most unfamiliar and blooper-prone of surfaces.
The ice-skating trail is a fun loop that can get pretty crowded. So, if skating is something you want to do, try to arrive as soon as Enchant Christmas opens and head straight to the trail (we made it a priority right after Santa). You have to stand in line twice -- once to sign an electronic waiver and another time to pick up the skates. It's a good idea just to sign the waiver right when you arrive at Enchant Christmas regardless of when you plan to skate, as you'll be given a different paper bracelet that shows you've done it and can later head right to the skate rental desk when you're ready to ride.
I'm not known for my ice-skating prowess, but I found the rental skates at Enchant Christmas (big, bulky plastic things with adjustable buckles) surprisingly easy to squeeze into and remain upright on. There are also special toddler skates with double blades that are even easier to use for little ones, apparently, but I opted to save that for next year when my kids are a little bit older.
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The trail got quite crowded, and a friend I was with who wanted to hold onto the rails the entire way round sometimes had to ask spectators to stop leaning on them for a minute so she could safely pass by.
The VIP dinner
By the time 6:30 p.m. rolled around -- ice skating, maze and Santa sit checked off our list -- Enchant Christmas was getting downright crowded. So, we were ready to take the escalators up to the VIP area to enjoy the included buffet dinner. The VIP lounge was a very pleasant setting with great views of all the action below from balconies and pretty tabletops with festive centerpieces.
There were high chairs for kids and crayons and coloring sheets, too, but most of the little ones around us were busy posing in giant lighted chairs and couches and crooning along to the Christmas songs. Do note that there's not a kids menu, per say, at the buffet, but things like loaded mashed potatoes and pasta are right up their alley.
The VIP buffet exceeded my expectations, with a carving station with turkey breast, a pastry-encrusted salmon dish, Italian soup and some delicious and healthy kale and quinoa salads. There was a separate dessert bar where a lady in a Santa hat was serving soft-serve ice cream with all the toppings and gingerbread pudding and cute cake slices were on offer, too. Alcohol was available for purchase at the bar and lemonade, ice tea, water and coffee and tea were free.
Enchant Christmas' main food hall had some delicious-looking options, too -- things like tacos and flatbread wraps from popular Tampa-area restaurants and other vendors selling typical carnival eats like nachos, turkey drumsticks, pizza and the like.
There was plenty of seating at picnic tables in an open area at the end of the food stalls and I saw a few people standing around chatting, hot toddies in hand, which reminded me of the German Christmas market vibe (sans falling snow, but there were, indeed, brats). Food prices are pretty steep (think: carved sandwich for $16, grilled cheese for $13) and beer, wine and cocktail prices started around $10.
The Christmas market
I got pretty excited when I saw the Christmas market area, too, a warren of little shops within wooden stalls that looked a lot like the German ones I remember. People were selling wooden toys for kids, hand-knit stockings (there was a lady sitting there knitting), cool jewelry and the like and it looked like a good place to knock off some holiday shopping if I'd been feeling compelled (I prefer to wait till Christmas Eve to panic).
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There was even a stall with a French flag selling some of my very favorite European cheeses, but I'd already shopped for my holiday cheese plate at Trader Joe's, so we just circled in close for a whiff, gazed longingly and moved on.
Wandering characters -- like an angel with wings made of sheets of music, and strolling carolers -- add to the festive vibe. And I don't think my kids could have had more fun if they tried.
In the end, less than three hours after we'd arrived, we all decided Enchant Christmas was a success, that we'd done all there was to do, and that it was time to get the little sugarplums home for bed. People were still pouring into the event when we walked out to our car around 7 p.m. and I was glad we'd schlepped along the double stroller, as the kids were way too beat to walk.
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For an all-in-one Christmas vibe in a single stop under the Florida sun, it's hard to find more holiday magic under one roof (and for less than it costs to visit the theme parks) than here. Enchant Christmas will set you back some cash -- especially if you get the VIP passes (or don't, but splurge on cocktails in fun light-up bulb glasses dinner for the whole family here). But kids are pretty much guaranteed to have a blast. Beeline it to Santa and skating, then spend the rest of your time strolling among the lights.