Citrus Bowl. Now stickered by the Overton’s marine supply company—can anyone keep track of the square-dancing corporate naming rights anymore? Held New Year’s Day at the Florida Citrus Bowl Stadium (Camping World Stadium), it pits the second-ranked teams from the Big Ten and SEC conferences against one another. www.floridacitrussports.com.
Walt Disney World Marathon. The route goes through all four theme parks, or just do the Half, which hits Epcot and the Magic Kingdom. Close to 80,000 runners come for at least one of the five events. Other half-marathon events pop up over the rest of the year. First week of January. There is also a Princess Half-Marathon in February. www.disneyworld.com.
ZORA! Festival. The folklorist and writer Zora Neale Hurston (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 an art fair. www.zorafestival.org.
Epcot International Festival of the Arts. The newest and least focused of Epcot’s four major annual festivals is about performance, visual art, and food. In addition to Broadway-style performances and kiosks selling gourmet mini-dishes throughout World Showcase, on many days there are free talks or short workshops with artists who share their disciplines. Mid-January to late February. www.disneyworld.com; 407/939-3378.
Rock the Universe. Universal’s festival of top-flight Christian rock bands, which perform on stages inside Universal Studios park. Rides and performances continue past midnight, after regular patrons go home. It’s separately ticketed. Late January. www.rocktheuniverse.com.
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. www.bachfestivalflorida.org; 407/646-2182.
Silver Spurs Rodeo. A century ago Central Florida was a cattle center, and it still hosts the largest rodeo east of the Mississippi (with bareback broncs, barrel racing horses, rodeo clowns, and athletes drawn from the cowboy circuit) over 3 days on the third weekend in February in an indoor arena off U.S. 192. Its 2021 event was held in June, but it’s usually held in February. 1875 Silver Spur Lane, Kissimmee. www.silverspursrodeo.com; 321/697-3495.
Mardi Gras at Universal Studios. On Saturday nights in the spring, Universal books major acts (Bonnie Raitt, Hall & Oates, LL Cool J, Diana Ross, Ne-Yo) and mounts a family-friendly 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. www.universalorlando.com/mardigras; 407/224-2691.
Spring Training for Major League Baseball teams. Mid-February through March.
Epcot’s International Flower & Garden Festival. This spring event, which lasts about 75 days from March through 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 (in the past: Chubby Checker, the Pointer Sisters). It’s free with standard entry. www.disneyworld.com/flowerandgarden; 407/934-7639.
Epcot’s International Flower & Garden Festival. See March for full listing, above.
Florida Film Festival. This respected event showcases films by Florida artists and has featured past appearances by the likes of Ellen Burstyn, Christopher Walken, and Sissy Spacek. It’s an Oscar-qualifying festival for shorts. www.floridafilmfestival.com; 407/629-1088.
Orlando International Fringe Festival. This theatrical smorgasbord, the longest-running fringe fest in America, spends 14 days mounting some 950 performances of more than 140 newly written, experimental shows. It’s held mostly downtown in Loch Haven Park. www.orlandofringe.org; 407/648-0077.
Epcot’s International Flower & Garden Festival. See March for full listing, above.
Gay Days. What started in 1991 as a single day for party-minded 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 150,000. Gay Days are a blowout party with group visits to the city’s parks (wearing red shirts as a gentle reminder of visibility, which is also done the first weekend in June for the parks’ unofficial Red Shirt Days), concerts (En Vogue, LeAnn Rimes), a marketplace, several dance events, and more than a dozen pool parties. June at the host hotel (in 2021, that was Margaritaville Resort Orlando). www.gaydays.com.
Epcot 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, and tastings by at least 100 wineries. In short, it’s a sensation. A few of the more extravagant events are charged, but most are free. The festival, which tends to be more crowded on weekends, lasts more than 3 solid months from mid-July to mid-November; hotly awaited details are posted by Disney in the summer. www.disneyworld.com/foodandwine; 407/939-3378.
Mickey’s Not-So-Scary Halloween Party/ Boo Bash. The best of the Magic Kingdom’s separately ticketed evening events, this one mounts a special parade with a 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, and crowds are shoulder-to-shoulder. Before the pandemic, this event happened on scattered evenings from mid-August through the end of October. As of press time, there has been no announcement of its return, but for 2021, Disney mounted a less intricate, 3-hour substitute, After Hours Boo Bash. Target audience: people who like lollipops. www.disneyworld.com/halloweenparty; 407/934-7639.
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 seven or eight big, well-made, walk-through haunted houses that are created from scratch each year. It’s separately ticketed from daytime park visits, when the houses are closed. The mayhem lasts into the wee hours. Wimps need not apply; children are discouraged by the absence of kids’ ticket prices. 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 and Howl-O-Scream. 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 a show starring Count von Count from Sesame Street. Target audience: people who have a naptime. It’s included in admission. Its adult-oriented nighttime event, Howl-O-Scream (haunted houses, scare zones, coaster riding in the dark), happens over about 25 nights starting in mid-September and is separately ticketed. http://seaworld.com/orlando/events.
Orlando Film Festival. Like all festivals worth their salt, this one presents dozens of mostly mainstream and independent films in advance of their wider release dates, plus cool events like workshops on writing and pitching. It lasts about a week in October or early November, screening at various downtown venues. In 2020, it went entirely virtual; check to see if it’s happening in person when you visit. www.orlandofilmfest.com; 407/217-1390.
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 with ice slides kids love, keeps it all chilled to 9 F (–13 C), and issues winter coats to visitors. Add synchronized light shows and you’ve got an event that charges $30+ adults, $18+ kids—and sells out into the first week of January. http://christmas.gaylordhotels.com/ice; 407/586-0000.
Mickey’s Very Merry Christmas Party. This crowded night, which before the pandemic occurred on various nights starting 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. During the pandemic, the MVMCP was replaced with Disney Very Merriest After Hours, a separately ticketed event that gave access to about 20 attractions. It's only a 4-hour event, so probably not worth the ticket price, which is about what a full day at the park would cost. 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. www.disneyworld.com/christmasparty; 407/934-7639.
Epcot International Festival of the Holidays. This 1-month event features 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 (regular names include Whoopi Goldberg, Gary Sinise, Edward James Olmos, 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/holidays.
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 its NYC Thanksgiving parade is over. That’s included in the ticket price. As of press time, there has been no announcement of its return. www.universalorlando.com.
Cheez-It Bowl. A team from the ACC (including Notre Dame) battles a Big 12 team, usually a few days before New Year’s and always at the Camping World Stadium, once called the Citrus Bowl. First played in 1990, the game has had many faces, including the Camping World Bowl, Champs Sports Bowl, Carquest Bowl, Tangerine Bowl, Russell Athletic Bowl, and its very first sponsor, that of the doomed videocassette dealer Blockbuster. www.cheezitbowl.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 throws its EVE bash with outdoor dance floor and light shows; the Disney parks stay open until the wee hours and may have live DJs; 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.