Check the special events pages at the theme park websites to see if any themed weekends or smaller events are in the works. In addition, the events listings at Visit Orlando (www.visitorlando.com), “Orlando Weekly” (www.orlandoweekly.com), and the “Orlando Sentinel” (www.orlandosentinel.com) are comprehensive. You will also find a few listings at “Orlando” magazine (www.orlandomagazine.com).
Capital One Bowl. It used to be called the Citrus Bowl—can anyone keep track of the square-dancing corporate naming rights anymore? Held New Year’s Day at the Florida Citrus Bowl Stadium, it pits the second-ranked teams from the Big Ten and SEC conferences against one another. www.floridacitrussports.com.
ZORA! Festival. The folklorist and writer (1891–1960) was from Eatonville (a 30-min. drive north of Orlando), the country’s oldest incorporated African-American town. This weeklong event includes lectures and a 2-day public art fair. 407/647-3307; www.zorafestival.org.
Winter Park Bach Festival. This annual event at Rollins College began in 1935 and has evolved into one of the country’s better choral fests. Although it has stretched to include other composers and guest artists (Handel, P.D.Q. Bach), at least one concert is devoted to Johann. It takes place mid-February to early March, with scattered one-off guest performances throughout the year. 407/646-2182; www.bachfestivalflorida.org.
Silver Spurs Rodeo. Lest you doubt Central Florida is far removed from the American Deep South, it hosts the largest rodeo east of the Mississippi (with bareback broncs, racing barrel horses, rodeo clowns, and athletes drawn from the cowboy circuit) over 3 days in mid-February in an indoor arena off U.S. 192. 1875 Silver Spur Lane, Kissimmee. 407/677-6336; www.silverspursrodeo.com.
Mardi Gras at Universal Studios. On Saturday nights, Universal books major acts (Bonnie Raitt, Hall & Oates, LL Cool J) and mounts a parade complete with stilt-walkers, jazz bands, Louisiana-made floats, and bead tossing—although here, what it takes to win a set of beads is considerably less risqué than it is in the Big Easy. It’s included with admission. 407/224-2691; www.universalorlando.com/mardigras.
Epcot’s International Flower & Garden Festival. This spring event, which lasts from March to May, transforms Epcot with some 30 million flowers, 70 topiaries, a screened-in butterfly garden, presentations by noted horticulturalists, and a lineup of “Flower Power” concerts (Chubby Checker, Petula Clark). It’s free with standard entry. 407/934-7639; www.disneyworld.com.
Florida Film Festival. This respected event showcases films by Florida artists and has featured past appearances by the likes of Oliver Stone, William H. Macy, Christopher Walken, and Cary Elwes. 407/644-5625; www.floridafilmfestival.com.
Epcot’s International Flower & Garden Festival. See March for full listing, above.
Florida Music Festival. Some 250 bands over 4 days give exposure to up-and-coming musicians—at a pace of 50 per night, all over town. www.floridamusicfestival.com.
Orlando International Fringe Festival. This theatrical smorgasbord, the longest-running fringe fest in America, spends 14 days mounting some 100 newly written, experimental performances in Loch Haven Park. 407/648-0077; www.orlandofringe.org.
Epcot’s International Flower & Garden Festival. See March for full listing, above.
Gay Days. What started as a single day for gay and lesbian visitors has bloomed into a full week of some 40 events managed by a host of promoters. It’s said that attendance goes as high as 135,000, and it’s become one of the biggest annual events in Florida. Held around the first Saturday in June, Gay Days are a blowout party with group visits to Disney’s parks, an ongoing pool bash at Parliament House, concerts (En Vogue, LeAnn Rimes), and several dance events including an all-night, after-hours RipTide dance party at Typhoon Lagoon. Those are sold at www.onemightyweekend.com, and the overview is at www.gaydays.com.
Star Wars Weekends. Hollywood Studios’ major annual do, held over 3 weeks in late spring, sees actors from the franchise arrive for signings, parades, and Q&As. It’s not uncommon to catch Mark Hamill, Warwick Davis, or Ray Park. The finer points of the Lucas catechism are discussed, and much merchandise is traded at the Darth’s Mall market, held in a soundstage. A regular ticket gets you in. www.disneyworld.com/starwars.
Night of Joy. It’s actually a long-running pair of nights of outdoor Contemporary Christian concerts—eight or nine acts—spread throughout the Magic Kingdom, which stays open late just for the occasion. Rides run all night, and it’s separately ticketed. 877/648-3569; www.nightofjoy.com.
Rock the Universe. Universal’s festival of top-flight Christian rock bands who perform on stages around Universal Studios. Rides and performances continue past midnight, after regular patrons have gone home. It’s separately ticketed. www.rocktheuniverse.com.
Epcot’s International Food & Wine Festival. The World Showcase makes amends with the countries it ignores by installing temporary booths selling tapas-size servings of foods and wines from many nations. That’s supplemented with chef demonstrations, seminars, “Eat to the Beat” concerts by known acts (Hanson, the Go-Gos), and tastings by at least 100 wineries. A few of the more extravagant events are charged, but most are free. The festival lasts from late September to mid-November and the hotly awaited details are posted by Disney in the summer. 407/939-3378; www.disneyworld.com/foodandwine.
Mickey’s Not-So-Scary Halloween Party. The best of the Magic Kingdom’s separately ticketed evening events, this one mounts a special parade with fiendishly catchy theme song, a few special shows, a fireworks display that surpasses the usual one, and stations where you can pick up free candy. Kids even show up in costume, although it’s not required. The event happens on scattered evenings from mid-September through the end of October. Unfortunately, it's so oversold that you will barely be able to move. Halloween sells out early. Target audience: people who like lollipops. 407/934-7639; www.disneyworld.com.
Halloween Horror Nights. Unquestionably Universal’s biggest event, HHN is the equivalent of a whole new theme park that’s designed for a year but only lasts a month. After dark, the Studios are overtaken by grotesque “scareactors” who terrorize crowds with chain saws, gross-out shows, and eight big, walk-through haunted houses that are made from scratch each year. The mayhem lasts into the wee hours. Wimps need not apply; children are discouraged by the absence of kids’ ticket prices. A bawdy revue based on the Bill and Ted movie characters skewers the year in pop culture and draws enthusiastic crowds of tipsy young people. On top of all this, most rides remain open. HHN has legions of fans. Target audience: people who like to poop themselves in fright. (Busch Gardens’ Howl-o-Scream event’s scariness is somewhere between Universal’s and Disney’s.) www.halloweenhorrornights.com.
SeaWorld’s Halloween Spooktacular. SeaWorld throws a sweet, toddler-approved weekend Halloween event of its own, with trick-or-treating (kids dress up), a few encounters with sea fairies and bubbles, and show starring Count von Count from “Sesame Street.” Target audience: people who have a naptime. It’s included in admission.
Orlando Film Festival. Like all festivals worth their salt, this one presents mostly mainstream and independent films in advance of their wider release dates. It lasts only a few days in mid-October or early November, screening at various downtown venues. 407/843-0801; www.orlandofilmfest.com.
ICE! It debuted in 2003 at the Gaylord Palms hotel and has quickly become a holiday perennial. The hotel brings in nearly 2 million pounds of ice, sculpts it into a walk-through city, keeps it chilled to 9[dg]F, and issues winter coats to visitors. Add synchronized light shows and you’ve got an event that charges $29 for entry—and sells out. 407/586-0000; www.gaylordpalms.com.
The Osborne Family Spectacle of Dancing Lights. No, not Ozzy and Sharon, but Jennings, Paul, Mitzi, and Breezy (I swear I’m not making this up), whose preposterously overdone Christmas display at their Little Rock house was deemed so vulgar that neighbors went to the Arkansas Supreme Court to shut it down. Enter Disney’s Hollywood Studios. Every 15 minutes, it twitters and “dances” to Christmas carols, all as foam “snow” gently wafts from above. It lasts until the first week of January.
Mickey’s Very Merry Christmas Party. This crowded night, which occurs on various nights starting even before Thanksgiving, is probably Disney’s most popular special annual event. It requires a separate ticket from regular admission. What you get is a tree-lighting ceremony, a few special holiday-themed shows, a special fireworks display (very green and red), an appearance by Santa Claus, a special parade, and huge crowds. Meanwhile, Disney’s warehouse for holiday decorations (it exists) empties out and its hotels deck the halls: The Grand Floridian erects a life-size house made of gingerbread. 407/934-7639; www.disneyworld.com.
Holidays Around the World at Epcot. This one features a holiday customs of many nations and a host of costumed storytellers, but its real showpiece is the daily, 40-minute candlelight processional, a retelling of the Christmas Nativity story by a celebrity narrator (recent names have included Sigourney Weaver, Whoopi Goldberg, Trace Adkins, and Neil Patrick Harris) accompanied by a 50-piece orchestra and a full Mass choir. The processional is a WDW tradition going back to its earliest days—Cary Grant did it! www.disneyworld.com.
Grinchmas & The Macy’s Holiday Parade. Usual holiday traditions include a musical version of “How the Grinch Stole Christmas” and daily parades by Macy’s, which brings some balloons and floats to Universal when Thanksgiving is over. That’s included in the ticket price. www.universalorlando.com.
Russell Athletic Bowl. An ACC team battles a Big Ten team, usually a few days before New Year’s and always at the Florida Citrus Bowl Stadium. www.russellathleticbowl.com.
New Year's Eve. Yahoo.com reports that Orlando regularly makes its list of top five most-searched New Year’s Eve destinations. There’s no shortage of places to party. At the parks: CityWalk lures top acts such as Cyndi Lauper. Three Disney parks, minus Animal Kingdom, stay open until the wee hours. SeaWorld brings in big-band music or jazz, plus fireworks.
Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.