In the Sunshine State, a white Christmas is almost pure fantasy. Rather, to get into the holiday spirit, your best bets are the extravagant light displays. From the Orlando to Miami, Pensacola to Tampa, here are our picks for the best places that brighten up the winter holiday season.
Night of Lights, St. Augustine
Florida’s most extravagant light display is easily Nights of Lights in St. Augustine, the nation’s oldest city. Starting around mid-November and lasting through the end of January, this event takes over much of the old town district, lighting up the Bridge of Lions and the Plaza de la Constitucion. Millions more lights adorn the archways of the Spanish architecture, park palm trees and more.
Many shops, bars and restaurants stay open late, making for a lovely evening of sipping, strolling and getting in the holiday spirit. Best of all, it’s free, and the city even offers a complimentary park-and-ride shuttle service on Saturdays and other select nights.
Dickens on Centre Festival, Amelia Island
This is the seventh year that Amelia Island has put on a holiday lights show, transforming their historic downtown into a twinkling English village. The most unique seasonal offering at this barrier island near the Florida-Georgia border is the Dickens Enchanted Village: Parties of up to six can cozy up in a ‘snow globe’ for a winter-themed dining experience, catered by Luxe Picnics by Les.
The festivities kick off December 3, lasting through December 12; snow globe picnics are available only Dec. 10, 11 and 12.
Downtown Mount Dora
Mount Dora, once a winter community for hunters, anglers and boaters, is now perhaps best known for its antique stores, tea room and walkable charm. Come the last weekend in November, Mount Dora puts on a winter lights festival bigger than one would expect for this still-small town.
The highlights are the done-up Donnelly Park, in the heart of downtown, and the Donnelly House, just across from the street. Find Mount Dora 30 miles north of Orlando; it’s also about an hour’s drive north of Kissimmee, where Walt Disney World Resort is located.
Mickey’s Very Merry Christmas Party in Kissimmee
Say the word ‘Disney’ and you know it’s not going to be cheap. The holiday lights party at the Magic Kingdom is no exception. Tickets get you after-dark entry into the park, plus access to all the seasonal lights and explosion of decorations.
You also gain fast-track access on rides, plus a parade and fireworks. Disney packs in the extras, from characters in Christmas attire to seasonal-themed treats, gifts and photo ops. Note that the event starts in early November and ends just a few days before Christmas.
Festival of Lights, Stephen Foster Folk Culture Center
First you have to know that Stephen Foster Folk Culture Center in White Springs is a state park—one that is practically synonymous with the Suwannee River. The focus here is more about the majestic live oaks strung up with lights, as well as the craft and food vendors. This one starts early, at 5 p.m., and lasts until 8:30.
Park rangers recommend arriving early as the lineup of cars can be up to a mile or two long. Admission is $4 and includes hot chocolate and popcorn. The festival starts in mid-December and ends the day before Christmas.
Florida Botanical Gardens, Largo
The 100-acre Florida Botanical Gardens just outside Tampa asks a suggested donation of $10 for its event that includes colored lights strung throughout the grounds, from the trees to the fountains. You’ll also find lit-up figures of flamingoes, parrots, gators and much more, making it a veritable menagerie of colorful, exotic animals. The event begins just after Thanksgiving and runs until just after New Year’s Day.
Santa’s Enchanted Forest, Miami
This Miami event, held at Tropical Park, is more like a Christmas-themed carnival, offering event-goers more than 100 rides—including roller coasters, carousels, bumper cars, a circus train and more. Live shows include acrobats, magic and a freestyle motorcycle show. So what’s it all got to do with Christmas? There are lights everywhere, from oversized toy soldiers to a line-up of ‘singing’ Christmas trees. It all lasts from early November until January 2.
Scenic Highway 30A
The Panhandle’s Scenic Highway 30A connects a handful of beach towns, from Seaside to Alys Beach, all of which string up lights in the town centers. Choose to make a drive of it, or stop at each of these new urbanism centers for a walk around the square. Rosemary Beach is especially romantic, with all the live oaks around the fountain wrapped in lights. Stay for a glass of wine and a bite to eat at Restaurant Paradis or Pescado Seafood Grill and Rooftop Bar.
Edison and Ford Winter Estates, Fort Myers
Henry Ford and Thomas Edison began wintering in Fort Myers back in 1885. Today, their combined 21 acres of waterfront property come most alive in winter when holiday lights brighten up the homes, porches, tree-lined paths and more. Typically, the estates close daily at 5:30. In November, just after Thanksgiving, 5:30 pm is the start time of this event, which lasts until 9; holiday lights run through January 2.
This family-themed festival takes over downtown Pensacola from mid-November and ends on Christmas Eve. Beyond the lights, the biggest attractions are the themes, which include Polar Express, the Grinch Tour, Cajun Christmas and the Scrooge Tour. Most of these events, including the Grinch Tour and the Cajun Christmas, include a ride on a trolley to see the lights.