It’s not beginning to look a lot like Christmas at theme parks. At least not like the park events of Christmases past.
As with nearly everything else this strange and unsettling year, the coronavirus pandemic has disrupted holiday events, which had become increasingly popular even at regional theme parks, where temperatures can dip low enough to freeze eggnog. Some parks, such as California’s Disneyland and Universal Studios Hollywood, have not been allowed to open (although the adjacent shopping, dining, and entertainment districts, Downtown Disney and Universal CityWalk, are welcoming visitors), while others have opted to remain closed.
A surprising number of parks, however, will be open to celebrate the holidays with twinkling-lights-filled special events. Some may not be as full-featured or grand-scale as previous years. But if you and your gang are tired of watching holiday movies at home and think that roller coasters and live caroling might help make your spirits bright, put down the remote and make tracks for these parks.
Be aware that because of limited capacity to accommodate social distancing, most parks require visitors to make reservations. It goes without saying in these tenuous times, but events may change with evolving conditions, so check with the parks for the latest details.
Holidays at Walt Disney World Resort in Florida
When: Daily through Dec. 30
Mickey isn’t hosting his Very Merry Christmas Party at the Magic Kingdom this year, but the park, like the rest of the vast resort, is decked out for the holidays. The Toy Soldiers are marching down Main Street, U.S.A. along with impromptu holiday-themed cavalcades elsewhere in the Magic Kingdom. Garland and other festive finery hang from the vines of the Jungle Cruise, which has undergone its annual makeover into the Jingle Cruise. To help maintain social distancing, Disney Word has suspended all fireworks and nighttime presentations; it’s not a show per se, but the iconic Cinderella Castle is springing to life each evening with ongoing displays of holiday-themed projections.
The International Festival of the Holidays, which includes the food, music, and traditions of different cultures, will return to Epcot from Nov. 27 to Dec. 30, minus the Candlelight Processional, a highlight of past events. Scaled-down holiday hoopla at Disney’s Hollywood Studios and Animal Kingdom will include periodic processions of characters dressed for the occasion.
An Old Time Christmas at Silver Dollar City in Missouri
When: Select dates through Dec. 30
One of the country’s most acclaimed theme park holiday events, An Old Time Christmas, is just as dazzling this year with its high-wattage display of more than 6.5 million lights; Rudolph’s Holly Jolly Christmas Light Parade featuring the classic stop-motion reindeer of TV fame; a towering, animated Christmas tree; and live music filling every corner of the 1880s-era city. What’s different this year is that the park nixed its Broadway-quality musical productions and is instead presenting more shows on outdoor stages.
“Silver Dollar City is in the hearts of many families, spanning generations,” says Lisa Rau, the park’s publicity director. “People long for traditions like An Old Time Christmas, especially in difficult times like this.”
Known for its food, Silver Dollar City is serving seasonal favorites such as apple dumplings and red-velvet funnel cakes. Visitors can also warm up with fresh-out-of-the-oven cinnamon bread served in the park’s new Rivertown area.
Holidays at Universal Orlando
According to Universal, not even The Grinch can steal the holidays this year, although the theme park resort’s events will be notably different. Instead of the mean one’s full-blown Grinchmas celebration, for example, The Grinch and his Who-liday buddies will be making socially distant appearances at Islands of Adventure. And in lieu of Universal’s Holiday Parade strolling past them at Universal Studios Florida, visitors will be able to stroll past Macy’s giant parade balloons that will be on display throughout the day. Floats featuring characters such as the Minions and Shrek that would have appeared in the parade will instead proceed through at impromptu times. Both parks will celebrate Christmas in The Wizarding World of Harry Potter with decked-out lands and special holiday-themed shows.
Holiday in the Park at select Six Flags parks
When: Dates vary by park
The coasters will be rolling, the Christmas lights will be glowing, and the hot chocolate will be flowing at Six Flags Great Adventure in New Jersey, Six Flags Over Texas, Six Flags Fiesta Texas, Six Flags St. Louis, Six Flags America in Maryland, Frontier City in Oklahoma and Six Flags Over Georgia for the park chain’s annual holiday events. You can really get into the spirits of the season on Nov. 14 and 15 when the New Jersey park kicks off its Holiday in the Park festival with Holiday Wine Fest. It will include tastings from local vineyards, food truck fare and crafts for sale. Walk-through events, dubbed Holiday in the Park Lights, will forego the coasters and other rides this year at Six Flags Great America in Illinois and Six Flags Discovery Kingdom in California.
Smoky Mountain Christmas at Dollywood in Tennessee
When: Select days through Jan. 3, 2021
Gazillions of lights (or more accurately, more than 5 million of them) illuminate nearly every building and tree throughout Dolly Parton’s lovely park in the foothills of the Smoky Mountains. And as you might expect, given that the entertainer is a musical legend, Dollywood features lots of holiday-themed shows and performances. The highlight is “Christmas in the Smokies,” a lavish production that is a tradition at the park. It is being presented indoors at Dolly Parton’s Celebrity Theater, although groups are being seated separately, and the audience capacity is reduced by about 50%.
“It is important for us to do as much as we can under social distancing guidelines,” says Pete Owens, VP of marketing and public relations. “Everybody needs a little light this Christmas. We are hoping we can uplift the season for our guests.”
Because its paths are too narrow to accommodate the floats and maintain social distancing, the park is foregoing its nighttime holiday parade this year. Instead it is presenting Merry & Bright, a synchronized fireworks show on weekends during the event.
Hersheypark Christmas Candylane in Pennsylvania
When: Select dates through Jan. 3, 2021
Hersheypark is promising that its midways will be awash in 5 million festive bulbs this year. You can check out actual reindeer, along with Santa Claus, at the event. And many of the park’s rides, including its new Candymonium hypercoaster, will be running. A separate-admission event, Hershey Sweet Lights, allows visitors to drive through a 2-mile trail of glowing, animated displays.
Taste of the Season at Carowinds in North Carolina and Kings Dominion in Virginia
North Carolina: Select dates Nov. 21 to Dec. 20
Virginia: Select dates Dec. 5-27
Instead of WinterFest, the holiday celebrations that Carowinds and Kings Dominion have been presenting, the parks will be offering more modest Taste of the Season events this year. The food-centric festivals will include a variety of sweet and savory items (shrimp and grits anyone?) served at outdoor locations along with holiday-themed entertainment and decor. Some of the parks’ rides will be operating.
Christmas Town at Busch Gardens Tampa Bay in Florida and Christmas Celebration at Busch Gardens Williamsburg in Virginia
Florida: Nov. 20 to Jan. 3, 2021
Virginia: Select dates through Jan. 3, 2021
The two Busch Gardens parks will be awash in colorful lights and trimmed trees, while carols will fill the air. Items served at the Williamsburg park will include a turkey dinner with all the fixings along with gingerbread funnel cake for a treat. At the Tampa park, fireworks will light the sky, and the annual ice skating production, “Christmas on Ice,” will move to an outdoor theater to allow for social distancing.
“There’s nothing like a train ride for Christmas,” says Neal Thurman, president of the Florida park. “Guests will enjoy the Holly Jolly Express as well as our returning shows, ‘Three Kings Journey’ and ‘Elmo’s Christmas Wish.’ ”
Rudolph, with his nose so bright, and Clarice will be on hand at Busch Gardens Tampa for physically distant photos.
Taste of Merry Farm at Knott’s Berry Farm in California
When: Select dates Nov. 20 to Jan. 3
The coasters and rides will not be operating, the event will not be as full-featured as past holiday presentations, and attendance capacity will be limited, but the Taste of Merry Farm will focus on one of Knott’s specialties: its dining. The park is promising more than 60 seasonal items, such as Fully Loaded Turkey Dinner Tater Tots, that visitors can sample by purchasing a tasting card.
Holidays at Legoland Florida and Legoland California
Florida: Select dates Nov. 27 to Dec. 31
California: Select dates Nov. 20 to Jan. 10, 2021
A sleigh with reindeer and a 30-foot-tall Christmas tree made out of Lego blocks will be on display at the Florida park, along with special shows, meet-ups (from a distance) with holiday characters and fireworks. As with other parks in the state, Legoland California won’t be offering its rides and attractions, but will feature holiday-themed outdoor dining and shopping as well as live music.
Christmas Celebration at SeaWorld Orlando in Florida, SeaWorld San Antonio in Texas and SeaWorld San Diego in California
Florida: Select dates Nov. 14 to Dec. 31
Texas: Select dates Nov. 20 to Jan. 3, 2021
California: Select dates through Jan. 4, 2021
All the parks will be adorned with lights and garland, will present holiday shows (some featuring sea lions and other performing animals) and will dish out seasonal food. SeaWorld Orlando will also welcome the ubiquitous Rudolph as well as a special effects movie starring Santa’s lead reindeer. Most of the coasters and rides will be available at the Florida park.