Throughout the year, many thousands of cruisers pass through Orlando on their way to or from ships based in Port Canaveral, Port Everglades, Miami, Tampa, or Jacksonville. With so much to do in the area, a pre- or post-cruise stopover here will enhance your vacation -- especially during the festive holiday season.
Theme Park Celebrations
All the Orlando-area theme parks host a variety of Christmas spectaculars. "Grinchmas" is celebrated at Universal Studios' Islands of Adventure theme park (www.universalorlando.com), based on the beloved Dr. Seuss tale. And throughout the month of December, many of the original balloons and floats used in Macy's annual New York Thanksgiving Day parade are brought to Universal for a daily parade, complete with a festive tree lighting ceremony by Santa Claus.
At SeaWorld (www.SeaWorld.com), snow is falling on the waterfront as audiences thrill to a new production called "Believe," showcasing the park's 24 majestic killer whales with awe-inspiring choreography, an elaborate three-story set, original musical score, and panoramic LED screens. It's all part of SeaWorld's Christmas-themed "Makahiki Luau," with festive decorations and carolers.
At the Magic Kingdom (www.disneyworld.com), the Osborne Family Spectacle of Lights brings a show to Disney like no other, as snow falls and the Streets of America back-lot cityscape comes alive with millions of lights. Each evening there are two presentations of "Mickey's Very Merry Christmas Parade," holiday storytelling, live music, unique merchandise and appearances by Santa Goofy. The Magic Kingdom also has parades throughout the day and evening, with Disney characters like Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck dressed in holiday attire, marching to greet guests, and Santa Claus tossing candy to the kids. The most popular attraction in the Magic Kingdom right now is Captain Jack Sparrow and the amazing Pirates of the Caribbean show.
Epcot, magnificently decked out for the season, celebrates with characters, legends and lore from around the globe; and Disney's Animal Kingdom welcomes the holiday season with "Mickey's Jingle Jungle Parade" and a new thrill�Expedition Everest, a high-speed train.
Both adults and children will enjoy the two most popular dinner shows in town. “Christmas at Dolly Parton’s Dixie Stampede,” on I-4 between Disney World and Universal Studios, features top-notch riders, and singing and dancing performances with dramatic lighting, sound, and pyrotechnics. Everyone sits behind long banquet tables facing the arena and is served a four-course meal during the performance. Prices are $46.99 for adults, $19.99 for children 4-11; kids under four years are free as long as they sit on a parent’s lap and eat off their plate. For show times and reservations: www.dixiestampede.com or 407-238-4455.
Article continues below
The celebrations aren't limited to the theme parks -- local dinner theaters are also putting on special shows. Dolly Parton's Dixie Stampede has music, dance, and spellbinding animal performances; Medieval Times is a window in time for the "Knights of the Realm" show; Arabian Nights has more than 60 beautiful horses, special effects, and incredible stunts; and Pirates Dinner Adventure features pirates battling on the authentic replica of an 18th century Spanish galleon anchored in a 300,000-gallon indoor lagoon. All the dinner shows offer four or five course dinners served banquet style.
Old Town (www.old-town.com) is Central Florida's highest ranked free admission attraction. Located in Kissimmee, minutes from the parks, it has themed restaurants, abundant shopping, thrilling rides, motorcycle cruises, and live music. Try to visit on Friday for the Friday Nite Cruise classic car show that made Old Town famous. Featuring models from 1973-1987, there are more than 300 cars, hot rods, street rods, and even antiques from the year 1972 and older.
Dining Orlando offers hundreds of restaurants, and it is hard to choose. But for a break from fast food, delightful and delicious Houlihan's, with four locations in the area, is a winner. Inspired by fare from around the world, all dishes are made from scratch daily and always fresh. And the cozy ambience and tasteful decor is a welcome respite after maneuvering through the crowds all day. For a taste of the islands while in the Orlando area, Bahama Breeze Restaurants located on International Drive and Lake Buena Vista offer Bahamian, Calypso, Cuban, and Jamaican food in generous portions at reasonable prices. I found the menu a delightful change from high-priced touristy places without having to indulge in fast food.
A not-to-be-missed experience is the spectacular ice show at the 2.1 million square foot Gaylord Palms Resort on West Osceola Parkway in Kissimmee. Two million tons of ice are trucked in and sculpted into such breath-taking sights as a lighted ice bridge that crosses to a snowy landscape featuring a life-size nativity scene, a towering Christmas castle, three ice slides, and many more amazing displays. The temperature is kept at a constant nine degrees. Hooded parkas are provided at the entrance, but long pants and closed-toe shoes are required. Prices are $16.99 adults, $13.99 for seniors, and $7.99 for children. Parking is $7. The exhibit runs through January 02, 2006 daily from 10 a.m.-8:30 p.m.. www.gaylordpalms.com/ice.
Staying at the Gaylord Palms Hotel is an adventure in itself, as the 4.5-acre, glass-covered atrium is themed to the Florida destinations of Key West, St. Augustine and the Everglades. And one of the more popular dining choices is Sunset Sam’s Fish Camp, with its 60-foot sailboat, where real salt air is piped in for additional atmosphere while watching the nightly sunset show.
Medieval Times is an experience in time travel back to the 11th Century, where armor-clad Knights of the Realm riding magnificent Andalusia horses engage in a colorful tournament, lances splintering against shields of steel, broad swords sparking, with a champion eventually emerging, all while legions of serving wenches in period costumes deliver a four-course meal in pewter bowls. It's all medieval-style, which means no silverware but plenty of napkins. Adults $48.95; $32.95 ages 12 and under. 1-888-WE-JOUST for reservations and show time or www.medievaltimes.com.
Hotel rooms are decorated in the style of the themed section where they are located. Ours was in Key West, where Ernest Hemingway would have felt right at home, with overhead bamboo fans and a rustic balcony overlooking swaying palms and rippling streams. Also on the premises is the Old Hickory Steakhouse, Villa de Flora Mediterranean Market, scores of trendy boutiques, and a world-renowned Canyon Ranch Spa Club. Gaylord Palms is definitely an upscale hotel, but rates start at $199 per night for two, and sometimes there are specials. Phone 407-586-0000 for reservations or visit the web site at www.gaylordhotels.com.
If you're searching for a quiet hotel away from the noise and traffic inside the thee park resorts, the Radisson World Gate at 3011 Maingate Lane is the perfect getaway. Less than a mile from the parks, it has free onsite parking (quite a savings), complimentary shuttle service, and ticket sales to avoid the long lines at the parks. There are two heated pools and nice restaurants where kids under five eat free. Rates start at $79, plus two free cocktails when you book online www.worldgateresort.com. The beautiful Reunion Resort & Club is an exclusive 2,300-acre private resort in southwest Orlando next to Disney's town of Celebration and only six miles from Walt Disney World. Its many amenities include a spectacular multi-acre water park, a full-service spa, fitness center, tennis, and dining. And golfers will forever rave after playing any or all of the three signature courses designed by legends Tom Watson, Arnold Palmer, and Jack Nicklaus. Prices vary by season, and accommodations range from one-bedroom villas all the way up to an eight-bedroom home. For rates and other information visit www.Reunionresort.com.
Another great hotel is the Hyatt Regency at Orlando International Airport. Quiet, comfortable, with all-important 24-hour room service, the Hyatt is a traveler’s delight. Located in the main lobby of the airport, the elevator doors open right next to security check-in. And there is a bonus for cruise passengers who sometimes find themselves stuck in the airport for hours between flights: For $89 a whole family can enjoy a room, the use of the hotel gym and heated roof-top pool. In addition, the Orlando International Airport is now a mecca for shoppers with a nice variety of specialty shops. Phone 407-825-1234 for hotel reservations or www.hyatt.com.
Shopping For shopping, be sure to take time for the fantastic Mall at Millennia, featuring Neiman Marcus, Bloomingdales, Macy’s, and 150 luxury and specialty stores, all lavishly decorated for the holidays. For directions and hours call 407-363-3555 or www.mallatmillenia.com.
For maps, coupon books, and a complete schedule of events, visit the Orlando web site www.orlandoinfo.com.
I had a fabulous time exploring Orlando beyond the theme parks and feel that post and pre-cruise visits are truly worth the time and mileage between the Florida cruise terminals: Port Canaveral, 55 miles; Tampa 84 miles; Fort Lauderdale 200; and Miami 235.
Transportation Transportation for cruisers flying in and out of Orlando is easy. Most of the larger hotels offer free transportation to the theme parks, and taxi and limousine service can be arranged by hotels' guest services. Otherwise, Thrifty Car Rental (1-800-847-4389) offers a special discount to Florida travelers. LYNX is the public transportation system offering stops at area attractions and hotels; adults pay $1.75 and students and seniors pay 75 cents. The LYNX hotline is 407-841-2279. Daily I-Ride Trolley rides (1-800-243-7483) are available from 8 a.m. to 10:30 p.m. Tickets for single fares are $1, or for senior citizens, 25 cents. Children under 12 ride free with a paying adult.
The weather in the Orlando area is one of the biggest attractions during the holiday season, when temperatures average in the low to mid-80s, but can reach 90 degrees and above. However, temperatures at night can drop, so be prepared to layer clothing.