December is the Jekyll and Hyde of Orlando’s tourism calendar. From Cyber Monday until a week before Christmas, the attractions are decked out for the holidays and devoid of out-of-town visitors, which means the past three weeks have been the perfect time for locals to treat the theme parks like their own private playground. Then, like a plague of pasty locusts, the Northern horde descends, filling the Mouse and its competitors to capacity. Mickey’s accountants must expect this year’s holiday crowds to rebound after a couple of recession-dampened seasons, as evidenced by extended hours at the Magic Kingdom, which will be open to Disney hotel guests on Sunday night until an eye- watering 3 a.m.
No sane Orlandoan should set foot in an area attraction until next year, unless you love standing in endless lines with Croc-clad cattle. But if you live here long enough, inevitably an in-law or old college roommate arrives on vacation and insists that you celebrate your savior’s birth schlepping down Main Street U.S.A. Under those circumstances, your best survival strategy (short of dumping your dearly beloved at the monorail station to drink at a hotel bar) is to arrive at least half an hour before the park opens, collect as many FastPass front-of-the-line tickets for the e-ticket rides as you can (available for all ticket holders at automated kiosks throughout the park) and hide out on the Carousel of Progress or PeopleMover when your agoraphobia amps up.
For decades, the compensation Disney provided guests dealing with this density was an elaborate array of once-a-year entertainments. They still mostly present the same seasonally themed parades and fireworks, the Osborne Family light display at Hollywood Studios is as overwhelming as ever and the Epcot Candlelight Processional celebrity narrators (Brad Garrett, Edward James Olmos, Marlee Matlin) are as B-list as ever, too. But as Disney’s emphasis on extra-cost after-hours events like Mickey’s Very Merry Christmas Party, has increased, many favorite holiday freebies formerly offered to ordinary guests have faded away, from Epcot’s lovely Lights of Winter to the tree-lighting ceremonies.
Mickey’s Scrooge-like downsizing has opened a door for his competitors, which have ramped up their Yuletime enticements in recent years. SeaWorld’s Christmas Celebration has expanded to encompass special Shamu, Sesame Street and sea lion shows – along with ice capades, fireworks and falling snow – all included in the standard admission price. Just do yourself a favor and skip the poorly synchronized Polar Express simulator, or you run the risk of puking in the post-ride Santa’s lap. The Holy Land Experience (with its twinkle-light-covered parking lot visible from I-4) features scripture-inspired musicals and strolling carolers. Even Gatorland is advertising discount tickets with a white alligator under a trimmed tree.
But the most-improved award has to go to Universal’s holiday efforts, which have ex- panded exponentially in recent years. Its 8-year-old Macy’s Holiday Parade has more big balloons imported from the New York parade than ever before, and the Holiday Village set up between the Twister and Mummy attractions features candy and souvenir stands, tasty-looking food (bread-bowl soups and multiflavored tater tots), and a glass sculptor with the requisite fiery furnace. One unheralded addition this December is found in Richter’s restaurant, which recently received one of the region’s first Coca-Cola Freestyle soda machines. This state-of-the-art corn-syrup dispenser can mix more than 100 different drinks, from Orange Coke to Peach Fanta (tragically, Vanilla Barq’s is unavailable). The best part is that it costs the same as a regular soda, and it’s self-serve, so you can sample until you find your favorite blend.
Next door at Islands of Adventure, the signature Grinchmas show has received a major production-value upgrade. The musical retelling of Dr. Seuss’ How the Grinch Stole Christmas, formerly performed on an inadequate standing-room-only outdoor stage, has been granted new digs inside a climate-controlled 1,000-seat soundstage. I’m still not a fan of this 2007 adaptation, which combines a bombastic Mannheim Steamroller score, ghastly prosthetic Who schnozzes and extraneous characters lifted from the awful Jim Carrey film. But the new venue, which boasts new lighting and projection effects, makes for a much more comfortable viewing experience, and the cast (especially the basso Brit narrator) gamely give their all.
Finally, Universal has pulled from the piles of Potter cash that poured in all summer to supply a couple stocking stuffers. In the Wizarding World, the always-packed Dervish & Banges shop has expanded into an adjoining former stockroom, easing congestion among wand-seeking Muggles. More surprisingly, a long-shuttered attraction in the Jurassic Park area unexpectedly reopened in time to help absorb Christmas crowds. The Triceratops Discovery Trail (originally called Triceratops Encounter) was decommissioned nearly five years ago. Now guests can once again observe one of three “real life” dinosaurs up-close as “veterinarians” show off these breathing, bellowing animatronic beasts. The brief show won’t best Spider-Man or Forbidden Journey as anyone’s favorite attraction, but its resurrection has prompted the hiring of a handful of actors: In this labor market, that’s a true holiday miracle.