Florida goes festive: Christmas in the sunshine at Universal Studios Orlando is an extravaganza

The sight of six men unloading a huge Christmas tree in the blistering Orlando sun is surreal.

This 47ft monster will stand proud in the piazza at Loews Portofino Bay Hotel, one of Universal Studios’ six Orlando hotels. This year, the theme park giant has pulled out all the festive stops.

More than 80 Christmas trees, draped with 2,000 ft of garlands, have sprung up across the hotels. At the wonderfully retro Cabana Bay Beach Resort, there’s enough shiny silver tinsel to entangle Santa’s entire workforce, and over the speakers, Eartha Kitt croons Santa Baby. While at the Hard Rock Hotel, the trees are jazzed up with miniature musical instruments.

Jazzed up: Christmas comes early at Universal Studios Orlando

Jazzed up: Christmas comes early at Universal Studios Orlando

The Christmas celebrations at Universal Studios Florida and its sister park, Islands of Adventure, started on November 17. And it’s hard not to feel festive as I watch the revamped parade, officially known as Universal’s Holiday Parade featuring Macy’s.

Work on this particular extravaganza started years ago – well before it was unveiled for the first time last Christmas – and this year, it will take place every day until January 6. 

There are 16 enormous character balloons, including a Christmas jumperwearing Minion and a giant gingerbread man.

Above the Macy's Christmas Parade, balloons are controlled by an army of rope-holders

Above the Macy’s Christmas Parade, balloons are controlled by an army of rope-holders

Watching staff keep the balloons in place is like admiring an orchestra. Each balloon has its own army of rope-holders. In front of the group, but walking backwards, is the leader, who uses subtle hand gestures to indicate when a particular rope should be tightened or loosened.

Equally spectacular are the floats. On one of the 15 self-driving vehicles, I spot an animatronic Minion making a snow angel. The penguins from Madagascar dance atop the next, and later, King Julien, the chief lemur from the same film, floats past, waving regally at me through the snow flurries (artificial, of course) from a throne of Christmas presents.

For millions of Muggles (J .K. Rowling’s term for non-magic folk), the highlight of the celebrations is the festive makeover of the Wizarding World of Harry Potter. I wouldn’t know the difference between a bowtruckle and a boggart, but I can’t help tapping my feet when Celestina Warbeck And The Banshees take to the stage in Diagon Alley to belt out My Baby Gave Me A Hippogriff For Christmas.

Glitzy: Orlando's version of Hogwarts lit-up for its festive makeover as part of the Wizarding World of Harry Potter at Islands of Adventure

Glitzy: Orlando’s version of Hogwarts lit-up for its festive makeover as part of the Wizarding World of Harry Potter at Islands of Adventure

Over at Islands of Adventure – connected to Universal Studios Florida by the Hogwarts Express – Hogsmeade’s Frog Choir, accompanied by their famous croaking counterparts, is wonderfully weird and a hit with younger visitors.

In the Wizarding World of Harry Potter, the Christmas wreath outside Diagon Alley’s Owl Post is made with owl feathers, and staff are serving steaming hot versions of Butterbeer, the young wizard’s favourite tipple.

At the replica of London King’s Cross, home of Platform 9 ¾, the trolleys are piled with gifts.

But it’s not all about Harry. At nearby Seuss Landing, there are daily performances of Grinchmas Who-liday Spectacular, and you can join the Grinch himself for a festive breakfast.

Who-liday Spectacular: Join the Grinch himself for a festive breakfast

Who-liday Spectacular: Join the Grinch himself for a festive breakfast

Still, the piece de resistance is the Magic of Christmas at Hogwarts Castle, a light show projected on to the walls of Harry’s school. During the seven-minute extravaganza, witches on broomsticks fly around the castle, lanterns flicker, owls flit about and, at one point, I spot Hermione spinning across a ballroom. The finale is a vast fireworks display.

There’s plenty for adults, too. At Universal’s boutique-style Aventura Hotel there will be festive feasts on Christmas Day and New Year’s Eve in the beautiful Urban Pantry restaurant. On December 31, revellers heading to Universal CityWalk will be able to ring in the New Year on the world’s largest outdoor dance floor.

On my final night, I escape the theme park bubble by heading to downtown Orlando. For some reason, most of the bars have closed early. One that’s open is Frosty’s Christmastime Lounge.

The piece de resistance is the Magic of Christmas light show at Hogwarts Castle

The piece de resistance is the Magic of Christmas light show at Hogwarts Castle

This Christmas-themed bar is open all year round. Flurries of snow explode from the ceiling (even in summer); the loo doors are painted to resemble chimneys; Christmas songs blast from the speakers and the venue is crammed with festive knick-knacks, including an animatronic Santa and vintage sleigh. I admit defeat. 

By the time I board my flight home, I feel as though I’ve eaten 12 turkey dinners. I tell my other half that I never want to clap eyes on a bauble again. 

But when I see my neighbour’s door decorated with the same threadbare plastic wreath she’s used for the past ten years, I think wistfully of Orlando’s dancing Minions, 50ft Christmas trees and fake snow. 

TRAVEL FACTS 

Virgin Holidays (virginholidays.com, 0344 557 3859) offers seven nights at Universal Orlando, from £949pp based on two adults travelling. Includes room-only accommodation at Universal Sapphire Falls, return flights from Gatwick to Orlando, a 3-Park Explorer Ticket and car hire.

 

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