December Visitors Should Push 2015 Total Past 100 Million
Not everyone dreams of a White Christmas. For some visitors, there’s no place like Florida for the holidays. And this season’s influx of tourists will likely drive the state’s total annual visitor count to a new record and exceed Gov. Rick Scott’s goal of 100 million.
Last year, the state welcomed nearly 98 million tourists. Statistics from VISIT FLORIDA, the state’s official tourism marketing arm, show that more than 79 million traveled to Florida during Jan.–Sept. 2015. With this year’s visitor counts averaging around 5.5 percent above 2014, reaching the 100-million-milestone in December appears certain.
This growth has fueled a surge in tourism-related employment. VISIT FLORIDA’s preliminary figures indicate nearly 1.2 million tourism jobs were generated from January through September this year, a jump of 4.9 percent over the same nine-month period in 2014. Visitor spending increased 8.2 percent during January through August from the same period a year earlier. This means 2014’s record totals of $82 billion in tourist spending and $4.9 billion in tax revenue will probably be eclipsed, too.
With all the unique holiday festivities planned around the state, there’s no shortage of attractions to help lure visitors and their dollars here in December. They range from dazzling, lighted historic districts, hotels and theme parks to ice carvings and a ballet. Plus, nine college football bowl games will bring several hundred thousand fans from all parts of the country to root on their favorites. According to Florida Citrus Sports, Orlando’s bowl games alone reap anywhere from $60 to $80 million in total local economic impact.
Here’s a sampling of Florida-style holiday entertainment:
- Bok Tower Gardens, Lake Wales. Through Jan. 3, events include Christmas carillon concerts, winter walking tours, Ford Model A car shows and holiday home tours of Pinewood Estate.
- Christmas Celebration of Lights, Ellie Schiller Homosassa Springs Wildlife State Park. This synchronized light-and-sound show runs nightly through Christmas Eve, Dec. 24, then returns for one final post-Christmas display Dec. 26.
- Christmas Light Canal Cruises, Punta Gorda. A 30-year tradition, visitors can enjoy nightly cruises through Dec. 31. Tours of residential canals where visitors are greeted with Christmas lights, displays and decorations gracing homes, boats, seawalls and docks.
- Festival of Lights, White Springs. More than 4 million lights decorate an award-winning display at Stephen Foster Folk Culture Center State Park. Also includes an antebellum museum, candy cane forest, gingerbread village and Santa’s runway. Runs through Dec. 31.
- Gingerbread House Extravaganza, Jacksonville. The Jacksonville Historical Society hosts this unique display of tasty treats through Dec. 23 to raise money for children’s programs. Entrants take out “building permits” for their highly creative constructions.
- John Ringling’s Circus Nutcracker, Sarasota. Performances at the Van Wezel Performing Arts Hall honor the history of John and Mable Ringling and Sarasota’s connection to the circus with the classic Nutcracker Ballet, Dec. 18-19.
- Key West Holiday Fest. Includes live holiday music, children’s games, free cookies and eggnog, and photos with Santa. Runs through Dec. 20.
- Light Up UCF, Orlando. Featuring the largest ice skating rink in town, this event at the University of Central Florida’s CFE arena continues through Jan. 3. Includes light shows, live entertainment, carnival rides and movies under the stars.
- Now Snowing Nightly, Celebration. “Snow” falls every hour on the hour from 6 to 9 p.m. along Main Street. Also includes carolers, carriage rides, an ice rink and photos with Santa. Runs through Dec. 31.
- Pensacola Winterfest. Through Dec. 23, enjoy snow, the polar express, an elf parade and the snowball derby.
- Santa’s Enchanted Forest, Miami. Billed as the world’s largest Christmas-themed amusement park, with thrill rides and booths. Held at Tropical Park through Jan. 4.
- Space Coast Lightfest, Melbourne. This drive-through light display draws more than 15,000 vehicles annually to Wickham Park. Runs through Jan. 1.
- St. Augustine Nights of Lights. Through Jan. 31, 3 million white lights illuminate the city to reflect its 450-year history and Spanish tradition of white window candles lit for the Christmas holidays.
Theme Park holiday events
- Busch Gardens (Christmas Town)
- EPCOT (Joyful! A Gospel Celebration of the Season, Holidays Around the World, Candlelight Processional)
- Hollywood Studios (Osbourne Family Spectacle of Dancing Lights)
- Magic Kingdom (Celebrate the Season, Mickey’s Once Upon a Christmastime Parade, Holiday Wishes, Mickey’s Very Merry Christmas Party)
- Legoland (Christmas Bricktacular)
- Sea World (Christmas Celebration)
- The Holy Land Experience
- Universal Studios & Islands of Adventure (Macy’s Holiday Parade, Grinchmas Who–liday Spectacular)
Theme Park hotels with holiday displays/events
- Disney’s Swan and Dolphin (world’s largest chocolate Santa display, giant Poinsettia Christmas tree, visits with Santa and Mrs. Claus)
- Disney’s BoardWalk Inn (Ginger’s Bread and Cookie Shop)
- Disney’s Contemporary Resort (“Frozen” gingerbread world)
- Disney’s Grand Floridian Resort & Spa (life-size gingerbread house)
- Disney’s Beach Club Resort (holiday carousel)
- Disney’s Yacht Club Resort (holiday village with miniature train)
- The Cabins at Disney’s Fort Wilderness Resort (sleigh ride through the woods)
- Gaylord Palms (ICE!)
College Football Bowl Games
- AutoNation Cure Bowl, Dec. 19, Orlando ― Georgia State vs. San Jose State
- Miami Beach Bowl, Dec. 21, Miami Beach ― USF vs. Western Kentucky
- Boca Raton Bowl, Dec. 22, Boca Raton ― Temple vs. Toledo
- Petersburg Bowl, Dec. 26, St. Petersburg ― Marshall vs. UConn
- Russell Athletic Bowl, Dec. 29, Orlando ― Baylor vs. North Carolina
- Capital One Orange Bowl (playoff semifinal), Dec. 31, Miami Gardens ― Clemson vs. Oklahoma
- Outback Bowl, Jan. 1, Tampa ― Northwestern vs. Tennessee
- Buffalo Wild Wings Citrus Bowl, Jan. 1, Orlando ― Florida vs. Michigan
- TaxSlayer Bowl, Jan. 2, Jacksonville ― Georgia vs. Penn State
Photo Credit: Top image of St. Augustine’s Nights of Lights by augustine.com.