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The thrills and chills of Halloween filter into Orlando’s holiday entertainments

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It feels like Orlando started its 2018 Halloween season in August at a dead sprint, vaulted right over Thanksgiving, and crashed straight into Christmas. So it's little surprise that the thrills and chills of fall have filtered into this year's holiday entertainment at our local theaters and theme parks. Here are couple of E-Ticket Yuletide offerings as exciting as any haunted house.

A Christmas Carol At Orlando Shakes

Charles Dickens' 1843 novella A Christmas Carol has evolved into the primary secular scripture of the Christmas season, serving as the source of seemingly infinite adaptations starring everyone from Alastair Sim to Scrooge McDuck. I may be an agnostic Jew, but even I have a soft spot for the story, especially the version staged for many years at Theater Downtown and the one currently presented around Central Florida by Phantasmagoria (of which, full disclosure, I'm a co-producer). I eagerly anticipated the return of Theater Downtown's show, which producers Fran and Frank Hilgenberg had planned to remount this season at Sanford's Theater West End before canceling because of health problems. Happily, Orlando Shakes has stepped into the breach with a brand-new adaptation of their own.

Since the plot holds no surprises, it's the subtleties of staging that separate one Christmas Carol from another, and Orlando Shakes' shares several elements with my aforementioned favorites. Much like Phantasmagoria's interpretation, there's a troupe of storytellers (in this case, an extended Victorian family) that trades off narration while embodying multiple characters using improvised props. And musical director Steve MacKinnon, a former mainstay at Theater Downtown, again smooths the story's transitions with traditional hymns sung by the harmonious cast.

However, Shakes' staging of this familiar tale does stand out for several unique features. Jim Helsinger's script sticks impressively close to Dickens' original text, including several obscure incidents (including the miners' and lighthouse keepers' celebrations) that are almost always omitted, but director Kristin Clippard keeps the action moving at a brisk clip, so it feels shorter than some abbreviated adaptations. This version also takes the "Ghost Story of Christmas" subtitle very seriously, amping up the Halloween Horror Nights-worthy spectral effects with Vandy Wood's creepy puppets, Britt Sandusky's seat-shaking sound effects, Bert Scott's puzzle box-like scenery and Kevin Griffin's cinematic lighting.

Ultimately, strip away the stagecraft and you still have a beloved story told by a superb cast. Steven Patterson injects some energetic vigor into Scrooge's vicious venality, Paul Bernardo is appropriately operatic as Marley's moaning shade, and Jim Sorensen is appealingly empathetic as Bob Cratchit, the crapped-upon clerk. Even Amanda Anne Dayton's Ghost of Christmas Past, usually a fairly colorless role, throws some sarcastic shade while sporting color-changing hair (courtesy of costumer Mel Barger). At times, the spectacle threatens to overpower the story's heart, but Laura Hodos' emotion as Mrs. Cratchit reacting to the fate of her son Tiny Tim (Sebastian Cranford) brings the object lesson home. God bless us every one, indeed.

SeaWorld's Christmas Celebration

I've often said I'd rather be anywhere than a theme park on Christmas, and this tourist season is already shaping up to be among the busiest ever. Walt Disney World added upcharges to its extra-cost Christmas parties, and Universal Orlando didn't bring snow to Harry Potter's Hogsmeade like it did in Hollywood. But SeaWorld seems to be pulling out all the stops for its seasonal celebration, which kicks off an ambitious "Best Year Ever" series of special events during every weekend of 2019.

Last Saturday I attended a media preview of this year's SeaWorld Orlando Christmas Celebration, which runs through Dec. 31, and exited impressed. The park's three primary holiday productions are back more or less unchanged, because, as entertainment director Jamie Johnson puts it, "We listen to our guests' feedback, and what they tell us is they love our shows every single year and want them to come back."

I personally pass on the performing marine mammals, but Winter Wonderland on Ice is a must-see if you miss the era of Bing Crosby and the Ice Capades. The lip-synced soundtrack may be cornier than a home-popped garland, but how often do you get to see professional skaters perform in person any more, much less with fireworks and fountains in the background?

Chef Hector Colón has amped up the offerings at the dozen-plus sampling booths around the park. Craft beers are overpriced, but savory snacks – foot-long corn dogs, meat-smothered totchos – are served in substantial portions; snag a $40 sampler lanyard for the best value, and save room for a decadent s'mores-stuffed waffle cone. Finally, don't overlook the little things to love about SeaWorld this season: the comical lighting ceremony for the Sea of Trees, Christmas jingles in the adorable Pets Ahoy show, or the decor that art director Felipe Rivera made from 10,000 recycled bottles. A low-stress Xmas inside a theme park probably isn't possible, but if you are intent on visiting an attraction during December, SeaWorld is probably your best bet.