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SYFY WIRE Theme Park News

It still shines, but theme park holidays look different in 2020. Your guide to a socially-distanced park visit

By Carlye Wisel
Person standing in Diagon Alley

Christmastime is different this year for everyone, but plenty of theme and amusement parks nationwide are finding new ways to share the holiday spirit with safety in mind. From a charitable expanse filled with sparkling lights to real-life reindeer and Santa showcases, the holiday season is still filled with much magic.

Note: The COVID-19 pandemic has recently reached new heights, with spikes nationwide and new daily cases hitting a series of all-time highs. Most parks are using reservation systems and all have COVID-19 safety protocols in place, including social distancing and required mask usage. If you plan to attend, we highly recommend booking your visit and purchasing tickets in advance.

The Grinch at Universal Orlando Resort

Universal Orlando – Nov. 14 through Jan. 3

No, not even The Grinch is allowing Christmas 2020 to be canceled. Watch as he and Whoville’s famed residents bring yuletide glee to Seuss Landing at Universal’s Islands of Adventure as Universal Studios Florida’s Holiday Character Celebration brings familiar faces from the Minions, Despicable Me, Shrek, and Madagascar film franchises to a party aboard free-standing parade floats. (And yes, socially-distanced holiday pictures are welcome!)

There’s a holiday tribute store, treat trail, and tree hunt, but Christmas will also be returning to The Wizarding World of Harry Potter. Hogsmeade Village and Diagon Alley embrace the season with delightful, festive performances from the Frog Choir and Celestina Warbeck and the Banshees, and the return of beloved eats, including hot butterbeer. But, best of all — like with Halloween Horror Nights — Universal Orlando Resort has amended its most popular holiday offering into the all-new Universal’s Holiday Experience featuring Macy’s Balloons. They may not be parading through the streets of Universal Studios Florida as usual, but guests can still see the massive displays  — and an appearance from Santa Claus! — from a safe distance.

Give Kids The World Village in Kissimmee, Florida – Nov. 13 through Jan. 3

It’s not quite a theme park, but Night of a Million Lights has already become a must-see holiday destination. Located at Give Kids The World Village in Kissimmee, Florida, which operates as the headquarters for their charitable mission to provide all-expenses-paid vacations for critically ill children and their families, the compound has transformed itself into a literal winter wonderland. With corporate sponsors coming together to provide rousing displays of glimmering lights — 3 million of which were donated by Disney alone — the expanse offers over a mile of exploration and outdoor surprises with all proceeds benefiting Give Kids the World. If you’re still mourning the loss of Osborne Family Spectacle of Dancing Lights at Disney’s Hollywood Studios or simply hope to support a wonderful, worthy cause this winter, this is it.

Knott’s Berry Farm – Select dates Nov. 20 through Jan. 3

California theme parks may remain closed, but there are plenty of seasonal sights to see at Knott’s Taste of Merry Farm food festival this winter. Tasting cards, which double as advanced reservation entry fees, allow visitors to enjoy foodie Yuletide delights including gravy-slathered tater tots, spicy cranberry-pomegranate glazed wings, and fried “turkey dinner” bites, packed with stuffing and cranberries and dipped in gravy. The retail and dining experience sees the classic theme park draped in holiday decor with lights, garlands, and plenty of cheer to go around.

Tickets are already selling quickly, so be sure to snap them up before the holiday season kicks into high gear; if you find yourself out of luck, Knott’s is also offering full to-go Thanksgiving dinners for safely bringing the tastes of the holiday season back home.

Main Street USA with a Christmas tree at the end decorated for the holiday

Walt Disney World – Nov. 6 through Dec 30

No one does Christmas quite like Walt Disney World. While hallmark attractions of its holiday season — like Mickey’s Very Merry Christmas Party and EPCOT’s Candlelight Processional — have understandably been canceled for 2020, there are still plenty of festivities happening at the famed Florida theme park resort.

Cinderella Castle won’t have “dream lights” this year, but the alternative is almost more of a stunner — a rotating series of projected overlays that transform the castle into the ultimate display of seasonal glee. See princesses and characters at a distance with in-park processionals at all four parks, allowing guests to experience some of the most special parts of that separately ticketed Christmas Party, only included with admission. The amount of specialty food is riveting, too, and only enhanced by an amended EPCOT International Festival of the Holidays, featuring global delicacies honoring the holidays. 

Like many things, the holidays will be different this year, but there are still Toy Soldiers trotting down Main Street, U.S.A., Mickey and Minnie waving hello, and greetings from elves, gingerbread men, and Santa himself — just done a little differently than we’re used to.

Dollywood – Nov. 7 through Jan. 3

With 5 million lights and gorgeous illuminated displays, Dollywood’s Smoky Mountain Christmas channels the holiday cheer throughout its Tennessee-based amusement park. As lit displays and trees wow passersby, the festive decor, delicacies, and delights, including an all-new Heart of the Holidays show featuring Dolly’s latest Christmas tunes, bring plenty of yuletide joy.

Peek inside Santa’s cabin to spot him hard at work preparing for Christmastime or enjoy extra-special winter tidings as the sky above Dollywood glows with its new fireworks show, Merry & Bright!, performed in unison with beloved Christmas songs on Friday and Saturday evenings. There’s also live music throughout the park from Candlelight Carolers, Southern Gospel stylings of Kingdom Heirs, and Appalachian Christmas songs with the Smoky Mountain String Band. In total, over 40 holiday performances are offered daily throughout the season.

Lit trees in multiple colors at Hersheypark

Hersheypark – Nov. 13 through Jan. 3

With over 5 million lights — the most this chocolatey park has ever used — guests will find themselves immersed in a winter wonderland synced to holiday music, complete with up-close looks at reindeer, a Kissmas tree display, of course, plenty of hot chocolate. For those in search of a truly pandemic-friendly holiday celebration, Sweet Lights, offered just outside Hersheypark, features a drive-through bonanza of holiday cheer with over 600 lights displays. 

LEGOLAND, Florida and California

Christmastime at LEGOLAND Florida is naturally all about the plastic bricks. Enjoy sights of the season like a LEGO Santa, snowman, and reindeer-led sleigh, meet LEGO Santa and LEGO gingerbread man (at a distance!), and even enjoy a lights show synchronized with wintertime music on a 30-foot Christmas tree made of LEGOs on select dates Nov. 27 through Dec. 31. The Very Merry Mix-Up stage show provides live entertainment, while the park’s historic carousel offers a musical holiday spin.

Over on the West Coast, LEGOLAND California is not entirely open yet, but is still offering seasonal food and drink, live music, meet-and-greets, and that same Christmas tree as Florida with admission on select dates Nov. 20 through Jan. 10.

SeaWorld, Florida and Texas

At SeaWorld San Antonio, guests can take selfies with socially-distanced Sesame Street characters or enjoy Elmo’s Christmas Wish, a special holiday stage show, as part of SeaWorld’s Christmas Celebration. Guests can even book a Christmas dinner with Santa Claus and Mrs. Claus, enjoy caroling and Merry Mariachis performing holiday favorites, or simply take in decorations and lights throughout the park from Nov. 20 through Jan. 3.

At SeaWorld Orlando, visitors can meet Santa and Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, watch a Winter Wonderland on Ice show, or enjoy Christmas breakfast with Sesame Street characters. There’s also a special holiday food and beer tasting as well as a toast to the season with decor like Sea of Trees, which seemingly float atop water, from Nov. 14 through Dec. 31.

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