I Visited Universal Orlando for the Holidays This Year — Here's How It Was Different
Socially distant selfies with Santa, new holiday experiences, and the same festive decor await guests at Universal Orlando this year.
Editor's Note: Those who choose to travel are strongly encouraged to check local government restrictions, rules, and safety measures related to COVID-19 and take personal comfort levels and health conditions into consideration before departure.
The holiday season officially kicked off at Universal Orlando on Nov. 14, so from now through Jan. 3, guests can admire festive decor, indulge in adorable seasonal treats, and even have a socially distanced meet and greet with Santa Claus. Universal Orlando’s two theme parks — Universal Studios Florida and Universal’s Islands of Adventure — have reimagined their yearly holiday celebrations to follow the enhanced health and safety procedures put in place earlier this year, and the parks have added new, exciting experiences, so guests can make the most of this festive season.
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Deb Buynak, vice president of entertainment at Universal Orlando Resort, told Travel + Leisure, “We have all-new experiences this year, including Universal’s Holiday Experience Featuring Macy’s Balloons, which gives guests the opportunity to get up-close with larger-than-life parade balloons and floats inspired by holiday staples and characters from popular animated films. Plus, Christmas in The Wizarding World of Harry Potter is full of beautiful decor, special holiday-themed performances, seasonal treats, and holiday eats.”
Some things haven’t changed, like the parks’ beautiful, festive decor that guests will find throughout the themed lands, but other offerings have been altered to give visitors a fun, new yet still familiar experience that adheres to the health and safety protocols. As Buynak mentioned, Universal’s Holiday Experience Featuring Macy’s Balloons is a new addition this year, replacing the traditional holiday parade with a walk-through experience where guests can see the huge balloons and floats up-close and take socially distant selfies with favorite characters and even Santa. The Holiday Tribute Store is another brand-new offering debuting this year at Universal Studios Florida. The immersive shop has four themed rooms packed with every Universal holiday item you can imagine, including adorable Christmas tree ornaments, themed T-shirts and home goods, and other seasonal keepsakes.
And guests can still enjoy character interactions throughout the parks, albeit from a safe distance. Over in Seuss Landing at Universal’s Islands of Adventure, guests can spot the Grinch (wearing his holiday best with a matching red mask, of course) as he tries to steal Christmas, interacting with the Whos from Whoville along the way. The Wizarding World of Harry Potter, which is already magical year-round, is especially extraordinary at this time of year, with charming decor lining the streets of Hogsmeade and Diagon Alley.
And what’s a day at the parks without fun, themed snacks? Chef Jason Glus, executive chef at Universal Orlando Resort, told T+L, “Our food and beverage has become an experience in and of itself throughout the destination, and this year’s holiday menu offerings are no exception. We have all of the holidays staples and created all-new uniquely themed options, like our hot chocolate bomb, where guests can enjoy next-level hot cocoa with an epic chocolate ornament that melts away and fills your cup with mini marshmallows. And we cannot forget about the highly anticipated and seasonal fan-favorite, the hot Butterbeer in The Wizarding World of Harry Potter that is only available during this time of the year.”
The hot chocolate bomb and hot Butterbeer aren’t the only holiday treats hitting menus across Universal Orlando’s theme parks this season. Inside the Holiday Tribute Store, guests will find a number of delicious seasonal snacks, including vegan reindeer brownies, chocolate peppermint mousse ornaments, cookie dough-stuffed cones decorated like Christmas trees, gingerbread whoopie pies, red velvet candy cane pops, festive confetti cake cupcakes, and my personal favorite, Earl’s Nutty Nog (served with or without alcohol), among many others. Other dining locations throughout the park have delightful seasonal options as well, like the Thanksgiving dinner crepes that are available at Central Park Crepes in Universal Studios Florida.
It doesn’t end there — there are two festive activity trails for parkgoers who want to fully immerse themselves in the holiday spirit this year. The Holiday Tree Hunt sends guests on a search for 16 holiday-themed trees throughout the theme parks and CityWalk — there is a charge to participate, but those who collect stamps from each stop will get a special Holiday Tree Hunt ornament at the end. If you have a sweet tooth (or just a passion for seasonal snacks), you’ll want to check out the Holiday Treat Trail, which highlights a number of special food and beverage items currently available at the resort. Guests who purchase all treats listed get a sweet surprise at the end, too.
Holiday-obsessed guests will want to take full advantage of the parks’ holiday experiences and enjoy an exclusive showing of “The Magic of Christmas at Hogwarts Castle” during Universal’s Holiday Tour. With so many brand-new offerings and reimagined experiences, there’s a lot to look forward to this holiday season at Universal Orlando.
I wasn't sure what to expect when I drove down to Orlando to experience Universal's holiday offerings for myself this year. I cover theme parks here at T+L, and even though I've written and read about all the latest updates from major theme park resorts, I hadn't been back to a park since the pandemic caused them to shut down in March. I'm well-versed in the new health and safety policies that Universal put into action this summer upon reopening — like required temperature screenings and face coverings, social distancing markers, and limited capacity across the parks, restaurants, attractions, and stores — but seeing them firsthand amidst the holiday festivities was enlightening. During my weekday visit, I enjoyed short wait times, even for popular Harry Potter attractions, and wandered around with plenty of space to maintain six feet between myself and other parkgoers. It was different, sure — nearly all aspects of our lives are different now — but it was magical nonetheless.
Elizabeth Rhodes is an associate digital editor at Travel + Leisure who loves all things theme parks. Follow her adventures on Instagram @elizabetheverywhere.