Universal Orlando gets decked out for the holidays

Santa waves to the crowd at Universal's Holiday Parade featuring Macy's at Universal Studios Florida.
Santa waves to the crowd at Universal's Holiday Parade featuring Macy's at Universal Studios Florida. Photo Credit: Clifford Alejos
Holly V. Kapherr
Holly V. Kapherr

It's always been a dream of mine to hold the ropes of a balloon at the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade in New York.

I recently had an opportunity to talk to John Piper, vice president of Macy's Studios, which works with Universal Orlando to produce the annual Holiday Parade featuring Macy's at Universal Studios, so I just had to ask him: How do I get to do hold Snoopy's ropes on Thanksgiving Day?

His response: "You've gotta be a Macy's employee." Unfortunately, my workweek is all booked up, so at least for now, I'll have to be content to enjoy the parade from the sidelines.

The Holiday Parade featuring Macy's at Universal Studios brings a lot of that same Thanksgiving magic to the Florida theme park each year  although I still wasn't eligible to escort one of those oversize balloons down the parade route; this time, it was Universal employees who got to live my dream. Each year, the parade melds the imagination of Universal's creative department and characters park-goers and movie-watchers love with the grand pageantry of the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade.

I was fortunate to be able to experience the last technical rehearsal for the parade before it opened to the public on Nov. 17. It was so much fun, and it fully captures the pomp of the real thing without shivering in 19-degree temperatures. I loved watching King Julien's lemurs, characters from the film "Madagascar," dance down the street, followed by King Julien himself atop a tropical-themed float. The gigantic pineapple balloon that followed put the cherry on the upside-down cake.

Other Universal characters featured in the parade are the Minions, Gru and the girls from the "Despicable Me" films as well as Shrek and his pals (including the Gingerbread Man, with head and limbs intact).  Balloons include Donkey from "Shrek" and a Minion from "Despicable Me"  as well as a toy soldier and a gingerbread man. And of course, Santa Claus rides on the last parade float; at the end of the parade route, he recites a short poem that concludes with the lighting of a three-story Christmas tree at the corner of Universal Studios' two main thoroughfares.

But the holiday magic isn't limited to the parade. In fact, it can be found around every corner at Universal.

The Wizarding World of Harry Potter, which is now spread over both parks (Hogsmeade at Islands of Adventure, Diagon Alley at Universal Studios), is all decked out for Christmas, capturing the same magic of the film sets. Guests can grab a steaming hot, sweet butterbeer while they watch holiday-themed performances by Hogwarts students and the Frog Choir as well as concerts by singing group Celestina Warbuck and the Banshees.

We were able to catch two separate showings of the nighttime show, "The Magic of Christmas at Hogwarts Castle," which combines music, pyrotechnics and projection-mapping technology. I enjoyed the show, especially the soundtrack, which enhanced the choreographed lighting display. Projection-mapping never ceases to amaze me with how it can transform a structure in second. But I wished there were more fireworks; you can never have too many fireworks.

At Universal's Islands of Adventure park, Grinchmas, starring the pea-soup-green Dr. Seuss character and a whole cast of singing Whos, returns with a new set and enhanced interactive experiences between guests and the actors. Throughout the area of the park known as Seuss Landing, caroling groups of Whos stroll the streets, and there's a separately ticketed breakfast event at the Circus McGurkus cafe on select dates.

The set of Grinchmas, a live retelling of "How the Grinch Stole Christmas," is brand new, and features colors and costumes more inspired by the original 1966 storybook than previous years. The set also features the interior of the Grinch's lair for the first time, and the Grinch will walk among the audience for some memorable interaction with guests. At the press event, the Grinch took questions from reporters, answering our questions with hilarious riffs. I can only imagine how he'll roast audience members.

As in previous years, Universal Studios Mannheim Steamroller, the new age musical group that has become synonymous with the holidays, will appear at the Music Plaza Stage for six nights in December. Guests can attend the concerts free of charge, as admission is included with their park ticket.

Go to https://www.universalorlando.com/web/en/us/things-to-do/events/holidays-at-universal/index.html for more info on events planned throughout the holiday season.

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