Craving some sunshine with your Santa this season? These 25 can't-miss ways to celebrate will fill up your holidays with festivals, tours, music and more ... all in classic Florida style.
Yes, Virginia, there is a town in Florida that’s named “Christmas.” And while this little town is not literally on the coast (it lies 25 miles east of Orlando), it wins on old-fashioned spirit and is worth the drive in from the beach to send out a letter from its famous post office with the postmark of yes, “Christmas, Florida.” (Check out neighboring Fort Christmas’s “Cracker Christmas” Festival on December 3-4, 2016).
Courtesy The Village of Baytowne Wharf
Nothing ignites the Christmas spirit like ice skating on the square, dazzling lights choreographed to holiday tunes, and tuba players parading through the village. That’s exactly what you’ll find within the happening village of Baytowne Wharf in Sandestin, Florida. Jolly old Saint Nick kicks off the winter fun with the lighting of the Christmas tree and a fireworks show over the lagoon. The merriment carries on through the month of December, with a host of holiday concerts (every Wednesday), a Holiday Lantern Parade (December 10th), and 12 Nights of Lights (at 6:00, 7:00, and 8:00 p.m. every Wednesday, Friday, and Saturday leading up to Christmas).
Courtesy The Gasparilla Inn & Club
The storied hotel declares that on its grounds, you can experience “Florida as it was meant to be…” And it seems that the inn celebrates the holidays as they were meant to be, too. In addition to decking its sunny halls with vibrant pink poinsettias, big red bows, and plenty of pine garland and lights, The Gasparilla Inn celebrates all 12 days of Christmas, sprinkling holiday festivities throughout, from gingerbread-house decorating to a movie night on the lawn with classic holiday flicks. Our favorite of the numerous seasonal traditions, though, is a tree lighting ceremony held on the inn’s spectacular front porch, complete with fresh-roasted chestnuts and eggnog.
Photo: Captiva Chapel by the Sea
We get all the warm-fuzzies just thinking about this sweet Christmas tradition. Only steps from the beach, the little white clapboard church known as the Chapel-by-the-Sea charms with its nostalgic simplicity no matter the season. But add hundreds of colorful lights twinkling overhead and the velvety voices of a host of merry carolers, and it’ll really give you the feels.
December 18, 2016, 6 pm
Courtesy Surfing Santas
What started out as a good-natured way to enjoy Cocoa Beach’s reputation as a surfing hotspot has turned into a big-hearted celebration with thousands of spectators that raises funds for two local charities: Grind for Life, which supports families dealing with a loved one with cancer, and the Florida Surf Museum. Picture it: On Christmas Eve morning, more than 300 costumed surfers will paddle out to play in the waves in Santa-themed dress. Join the crowds and celebrate the true spirit of giving. And the year-round gift of surf!
December 24, 2016, 8 am
Deremer Studios LLC
Inspired by Charles Dickens’s beloved A Christmas Carol, this event transforms downtown Fernandina into a classic English village, with costumed characters, themed entertainment and performances, visits from Saint Nick, and a variety of vendors. As part of the festivities, don’t miss the Amelia Island Bed and Breakfast Holiday Cookie Tour, which includes a free horse-drawn carriage to take you from inn to inn to sample sweets and take in festive holiday décor.
December 8-11, 2016.
Photo: apomares/Getty Images
- Get more details here: Fort Lauderdale’s Hallaca Factory
For many Americans, it just wouldn’t feel like Christmas without gingerbread houses and the 24-hour-marathon of A Christmas Story on TBS. For South Florida’s growing Venezuelan community, though, the hallmark of the holiday season is the hallaca. Much like corn tamales, the hallaca is made by spreading corn dough on a plantain leaf, then sprinkling it with a mix of stewed pork, beef, and chicken; raisins; and green olives. The hallacas are then tied with string into squares and boiled. While preparing them is often a family event, Fort Lauderdale’s Hallaca Factory brings a little piece of Venezuela to South Florida, selling pre-made hallacas and other typical holiday specialties, like pan de jamón (a sweet ham bread).
Florida is home to many fantastic holiday boat parades, but this is the granddaddy of them all. With one million spectators, Winterfest is the largest one-day live audience event in the state. More than 3,000 boats decked out in lights cruise a 12-mile parade route along the New River, into the Intracoastal Waterway, and north to Lake Santa Barbara in Pompano Beach. Want to sail in the self-proclaimed "Greatest Show on H20?" Parade application fees start at only $35. Ho Ho Ahoy!
December 10, 2016
Photo courtesy of The Beaches of Fort Myers & Sanibel/fortmyers-sanibel.com
We can’t think of a better time to ooh and ahh over the grounds where good pals Thomas Edison and Henry Ford once took time from their busy schedules to whisk off on vacation with their families than the holidays. Step back into an old-fashioned Florida Christmas celebration while admiring the decked-out historic buildings, huge banyan trees, tropical and botanical gardens at the legendary Edison and Ford family homes.
November 25 – January 1 (Closed November 24 and December 25)
Photo: Mexican American Council, Inc.
Each year, the Mexican American Council hosts a series of traditional Mexican Christmas parades, called “Las Posadas.” The Spanish word for “inn,” the “posada” recalls the journey of the Virgin Mary and Joseph as they searched for a place to give birth to Jesus in Bethlehem. The parades, which occur nightly in the nine days leading up to Christmas, involve crowds of townspeople following a young couple dressed as Mary and Joseph through town, singing carols and asking for entry to shops, homes, and restaurants. As in the Bible, Mary, Joseph (plus their band of carolers) are turned down again and again, until at last, they are welcomed in for a celebration at a predetermined venue, where they enjoy traditional food and drink, plus a piñata or two for the little ones.
Photo: Courtesy Deck the Chairs
This north Florida town lights up its beach in a fun and very coastal way by decking out a group of iconic red American Red Cross Life Saving Corps. lifeguard stands in lights and decorations for the month of December, and puts the fun on exhibit right in downtown. Sponsored by local businesses, the lighted exhibit also raises money for the area’s Volunteer Lifeguards.
November 25, 2016 - January 1, 2017
Courtesy Key West Holiday Fest
Leave it to easygoing, party-throwing Key West to concoct a holiday fest that’s a little saltier than the rest. The Key West Bight Marina, known to most as the island’s Historic Seaport, plays jolly host to several spirited events in the weeks leading up to Christmas, and every last one of them has a distinctly Keys touch – from the lobster trap tree perched on the Harbor Walk to the lighted boat parade sponsored by Schooner Wharf Bar & Galley, a beloved dive and veritable island establishment. And for the landlubbers, there’s the Holiday Historic Inn Tour, which delivers revelers via trolley to five decked-out island inns for festive treats. The inn tours run two nights, December 8 and 16; tickets can be purchased by calling 305/296-4959. The other Key West Holiday Fest events are free.
Courtesy Key West Holiday Fest
Sip on cider and munch on festive cookies in Key West’s famed Mallory Square before heading out on a merry-and-bright tour of the island’s best Christmas lights. And the best, most holiday-spirit-inducing part of the hour-long tour? The sleigh you’ll be riding in: a light-bedecked, nostalgia-inducing trolley. Oh, and the holiday-light glasses you’re given upon boarding. The tours run most weekends in December.
All other dreidels, spin aside: A 1,600-pound, shell-encrusted dreidel at the heart of Miami Beach takes the potato-cake for the most festive, coastal dreidel we’ve ever seen. And the only thing more impressive than the four-sided top is the beautiful menorah, bedecked in more than 35,000 shells, standing tall beside it. Each year, Miami residents gather around the menorah for Hanukkah’s eight nights of candle lightings, which are accompanied by traditional jelly doughnuts and latkes for the younger set.
December 24, 2016 - January 1, 2017
Courtesy Santa's Enchanted Forest
If ole Saint Nick decided to relocate the North Pole to warmer weather, he may deem the world’s largest holiday theme park a fitting spot. With a delightfully kitschy blend of more than 100 carnival attractions, from rollercoasters to a petting zoo, and light-decked holiday displays, including South Florida’s tallest Christmas tree, Santa’s Enchanted Forest is your favorite childhood fair infused with an over-the-top dose of Christmas spirit.
Early November through first week of January
Sure, many people head south for the winter to avoid the snow, but along the Gulf of Mexico, a day spent playing in the fluffy white stuff is a rare treat – especially when it’s still 80 degrees outside in December! At Snowfest, 1,200 blocks of ice are put through a chipper to create 100 tons of powdery snow, perfect for snowball fights, snow angel-making, and even tobogganing. And as the website cheekily reminds its warm weather-accustomed visitors, “Snow is cold. Be sure to bring mittens or gloves, hats and perhaps even boots.“
December 3, 2016
Courtesy Historic Spanish Point
Situated on Little Sarasota Bay in Osprey, Florida, this merry-and-bright 30-acre Old Florida gem bedazzled in miniature white lights embodies the true magic of the “holly days.” Meander down lighted pathways, underneath a mangrove arbor and through some of the largest gardens on the Gulf Coast, to discover a charming chapel, historic pioneer homes, festive tunes and enough Christmas cheer to last the whole season long.
November 25 and every Thursday and Friday in December, 2016
Courtesy Visit Pensacola, Inc.
Think a cup of hot chocolate, gingerbread cookies, dancing reindeer, trolley bells, and twinkling lights underneath falling snow. The Winterfest Performance Tour features 16 performances along a 60-minute trolley theatre trip through historic downtown Pensacola. Relive your favorite holiday memories along the ride, with appearances from Elvis, the Grinch, the Polar Express, and the Living Nativity. The performance tours kick off November 25th and run select dates through December.
Leave it to the nation's oldest city to do the holidays right... and bright! The Saturday before Thanksgiving, a Light-Up Celebration in the historic town’s Plaza de la Constitucion includes the city’s tree lighting and kicks off the illumination of the entire city in three million white lights. The Nights of Lights also includes a Luminary Night on the first Wednesday in December at the historic St. Augustine Lighthouse: the Keeper’s House is decorated in Victorian-style holiday décor, and the paths and grounds are lit up with thousands of luminaries.
November 19, 2016 - January 31, 2017
Courtesy Captiva Holiday Village
A trail of luminaries lights the way between shops, business, and galleries, for a sweet, two-day stroll to kick off the holiday season, complete with a tree-lighting ceremony, visits from Santa, music, and a live nativity scene. The stroll lights up Sanibel on the night of December 2, and then makes its way over to Captiva for a continuation of the bright festivities on December 3.
December 2-3, 2016
If you closed your eyes and imagined the most idyllic Christmas on the coast—a small-town square oozing with the warm and fuzzy kind of charm, twinkling lights, and Christmas cheer, Seaside would be that picture-perfect image come to life before your eyes. With an event calendar chock-full of fun—the Nutcracker Ballet, a local farmers market, movie nights, and concerts—the charming little town is as merry as little towns come.
The holiday season kicks off with Turn on the Town, a family-fun affair featuring a parade, amphitheater party, Christmas lights, carols, and of course, Santa Claus. In the center of the main square, a 24-foot tree makes its shining debut, standing tall and bright and beckoning all to come take in the splendor of the season.
November 19 - December 31, 2016
Want your Christmas lights fix? Head to this little community in Palm Beach Gardens to gawk at displays of more than 350,000 lights. It’s considered the biggest non-commercial display in the state of Florida. Just leave lots of time... chances are you're going to be among many, many like-minded holiday-light fans.
Courtesy Visit Tampa Bay
Housed in the former Tampa Bay Hotel, this ornate museum completely transforms its historic halls into a wonderful winter exhibit. The extravagantly adorned hotel, built by Henry B. Plant (famed for bringing the railroad to Tampa in 1890), encapsulates you in the Gilded Age and takes you back in time to an authentic Victorian-style Christmas experience. The exhibit includes 14 rooms filled with trimmed trees, joyous carolers, spiced cider, and stockings hung by the chimneys with care.
December 1-23, 2016
Courtesy City of West Palm Beach
This is how you do Christmas, beach-style. The world’s only giant holiday tree, named “Sandi,” of course, is sculpted from 600 tons of sand and perched on the West Palm Beach Waterfront. The delightful anchor of West Palm Beach’s “Holiday in Paradise” season, the 35-foot tree is illuminated with nightly music and light shows, beginning with the Holiday Tree Lighting on December 1. Only in Florida!
December 1, 2016 – January 1, 2017