10 local places designed to get you in the holiday spirit (despite COVID-19)

As the eventful year of 2020 slowly winds down to a welcome end, we are all searching for some sense of normalcy during this holiday season that will play out over the next several weeks.

And while reminiscing on family and friend traditions that seem impossible in these times may make it harder to keep the holiday spirit bright, there are plenty of venues and organizations working hard to provide experiences that you can enjoy with masks on and/or from a distance.

Here are a few enchanting light shows and other get-in-the-spirit options that can allow us to set aside the hardships of the year and feel a renewed holiday spirit, even if just for an hour. Click on each link to learn more information.
The Wonderland of Lights and Santa’s Village

Where: Hillsborough County Fairgrounds, 215 Sydney Washer Rd., Dover, FL, 33527.

When: November 26-December 27, open 6 p.m. to 9 or 10 p.m., depending on the day.

What: Each week on Mondays through Wednesdays, guests will have the chance to enjoy this mile-long, no-contact drive-through of sparkling festive lights and holiday displays. If you are looking for more to do, each Thursday through Sunday, in addition to the light show is Santa’s Village. New this year in the Village, enjoy the comedy sounds of Rulito’s Musical Comedy Extravaganza, Nerdy Noah’s Comedy Show, and Dennis Lee with Special Guest Stephanie Ann who will sing their way through Christmas weekend. The full festival lineup is available on their website.
In addition to the new entertainment acts, Santa’s Village also includes wagon rides, photos with Santa, camel rides, pony rides, a North Pole Express train, Santa’s swing, animals of Bethlehem free petting corral, the Wolf Pack Project, wolves of the world walkthrough, and a large variety of delectable food.
Cost: Monday-Wednesday, $15 per car: light tour only; Thursday-Sunday, $25 per car: light tour, Santa’s Village, and featured entertainment. Because the Wonderland of Lights is partnering with non-profit organizations OneBlood, The United Food Bank of Plant City, and The Humane Society of Tampa Bay, visitors can help a charitable cause and get discounted prices. Specific details on this are also available on their website. 

Winter Village

Where: Curtis Hixon Park in downtown Tampa.

When: Now through January 3, 2021.

What: Ice skating is open Mondays-Thursdays, 4 p.m. to 9 p.m.; Fridays, 4 p.m. to 10 p.m.; Saturdays, 10 a.m. to 10 p.m.; and Sundays, noon to 9 p.m.

Winter Village Choo Choo is open every Sunday beginning at 3:25 p.m..

Located right on the Tampa Riverwalk, you can be immersed in the holiday spirit with the beautiful city skyline views to all the dazzling lights and music. Tickets for the ice-skating rink should be purchased in advance, to guarantee entry. A limited number of guests will be allowed on the rink every 30 minutes for the safety of the guests.

After breaking a sweat skating, walk over to the Café at Winter Village to enjoy some refreshments. Icicles Craft Kitchen, Kahwa Coffee, and Whatever Pops will be available for guests. Additionally, there will be five boutiques from local small businesses to help you find unique gifts for everyone on your shopping list! The shops will include decorative goods, apparel, dog accessories, and more. 

Cost: Iceskating is $15 per person, including skate rental; Winter Village Choo Choo, roundtrip ticket $10; children under 2 are free. A short ride on the Curtis Hixon Park Choo Choo is free. Seating is first-come, first-served, and masks are required.

Holiday Extravaganza

Downtown Clearwater continues its annual holiday celebration with special jazz performances of Wanderlust in Station Square Park, outdoor holiday movie nights, flock-a-yard activities, an art walk, holiday lights, and displays designed for families. Most events are free, outdoors, and accessible to all. 

Where: Downtown Clearwater

When: Now through December 23.

Cost: Varies depending on the event.   

Busch Gardens Christmas Town

Where: 10165 McKinley Dr, Tampa, FL 33612.

When: Now through January 3, 2021, hours vary based on the day of the week.

Be sure to make your reservation online before heading over to Busch Garden’s Christmas Town. Reservations are required to ensure that social distancing is possible while you enjoy all the activities offered. 

You can spend all day at Busch Gardens with an ample amount of activities that come with your ticket. Revel in the millions of glistening lights and watch the new holiday fireworks. This year they will host the first-ever outdoor production of Christmas On Ice. Explore their website to see specific details on their holiday dining and shopping, all their shows and lights, photo-worthy meet and greets with Rudolph, Clarice at Winter Wonderland, and Santa. 

If you’re a thrill-seeker and are looking to enjoy all the rides Busch Garden has to offer, watch the lights and decorations from high above the park. For younger guests hop aboard the Holly Jolly Express.

Cost: Prices starting at $39.99 per person.

ZooTampa’s Christmas in the Wild

Where: 1101 W. Sligh Avenue Tampa, FL 33604.

When: select nights November 27-December 30.
Cost: $5 for members; $26.95 for non-members.

Buy your ticket in advance. It's a reservation-only event. If you visit on a Sunday, you’ll get the chance to take a picture with Safari Santa. If not, there are nine other featured events for this year’s Christmas in the Wild.

Stop at the Forest of Fantasy to watch as this forest of evergreens at the Manatee Circle light up in a spectacular light show every 15 minutes accompanied by the queen of ice and snow and her icing guards who call upon a giant snowstorm. Walk through a giant kaleidoscope and become engrossed inside by the lighting, sounds, and rotating animals, representing an overall message of “hope.” Celebrate the holiday’s Caribbean style with their roaming three-piece steel drum band or stroll along the Felices Dias Festivos to immerse yourself into the Latin culture. For younger guests, hop aboard the Safari truck with Santa and one of his reindeer. 

After a night of constant entertainment, wind down with some refreshments and shopping. Stop by the Twinkle Town Market, decorate cookies with Mrs. Claus, and check out all their holiday treats and drinks. Their options range from a classic hamburger to peppermint mousse and Candy Apple cocktails. There is plenty for everyone!

River of Lights Holiday Cruises (Pirate Water Taxi, Tampa)

Where: Departure Location at the Tampa Convention Center (Taxi Home Dock: Stop #7).

When: Select Dates in November and December, departing times; 6:20 p.m., 7:20 p.m., 8:20 p.m., and 9:20 p.m.

Cost: Adult, $25; Child, $20.

New this year, the River of Lights cruise will be aboard Captain Jack II accompanied by the Pirate Elf. Hop aboard and take in all of the lights along the shoreline as you float downtown. The Captains on the ship will lead you in a sing-a-long of Christmas carols as they amuse you with their narrations. 

Each cruise is 45-50 minutes and includes beer, wine, hard seltzer, soda, and bottled water for purchase onboard.

Holiday Lighted Boat Parade Cruise (Pirate Water Taxi, Tampa)

Where: Departure Location at the Tampa Convention Center (Taxi Home Dock: Stop #7).

When: December 19, Early Cruise: 6 p.m.-7:15 p.m. (heads north from Convention Center); Late Cruise: 7:30 p.m.–8:45 p.m. (heads south from Convention Center).

Cost: Adult, $49.95; Child, $39.95.

If you’re looking for a free option, you can stand anywhere along the Tampa Riverwalk to watch the festive boats move along the Hillsborough River. Otherwise, to be directly in the middle of the fun, purchase your ticket ahead of time online to secure your seat on the boat. Weave your way throughout downtown as you float by the vibrant city among decked out boats bursting with holiday spirit. Surrounded by beauty, you won’t know where to focus as your eyes take everything in.

Beer and wine will be available for guests to purchase onboard. With your seat, you will have the best possible views of the parade.

Sylvan Ramble Lights

Where: 4412 W Sylvan Ramble St. Tampa, FL 33609.

When: December 21-25 and Fridays and Saturdays in December; every 30 minutes from 7 p.m. to 8:30 p.m.
Cost: Free, donations encouraged (register and donate online).

Four years ago, this neighborhood started this tradition of putting on Halloween and Christmas lights throughout the holiday months. Park your car and watch 20 minutes of synchronized lights and music go off all around you. 

Each year the Sylvan Ramble lights raise money for a local nonprofit. In the past, they’ve raised money for The Florida Children’s Home and Kids and Canines. This year donations will go toward Clothes To Kids. This is a non-profit organization in Pinellas County. This charity provides a store for students who qualify to get free or reduced lunch, a week’s worth of clothing for free. 

Enjoy this show full of 200,000 individually controlled channels of lights, smoke effects, moving props, and fountains, and know all the money is going to a good cause.

St. Petersburg Oakdale Christmas House

Where: 2719 Oakdale Street South, St. Petersburg, FL, 33705.

When: November 27-January 3, 2021, 6 p.m. to 10 p.m.

Cost: Free.

Visit the Oakdale Christmas House as they host their 42nd year featuring half a million lights in their holiday display. This show has been named among the world’s best Christmas displays and has been the only one to make HGTV’s #1 and NBC’s Today show top three the same year. 

Free to the public, you’re able to just drive through this amazing light display, the Oakdale House promises major upgrades and additions with their 2020-2021 show. 

A Pirate’s Christmas by Tampa’s Pirate Ship

Where: Departs from Sparkman Wharf.

When: November 27 through December 30, select dates at 6, 7, 8, and 9 p.m.

Cost: Adult, $25; Child, $20.

For the first time ever, Tampa’s Pirate Ship, the Lost Pearl, will host A Pirate’s Christmas. This 45-minute cruise takes off from Sparkman Wharf and travels to Holiday Island seeing all the festive lights in-between. 

Once at Holiday Island, children will have the chance to drop off letters to Santa at Tampa’s only floating mailbox, ensuring the mail will be kept safe until it can be shipped off to the North Pole! Additionally, guests will be able to see Tampa’s largest floating Christmas tree all decked out with the holiday spirit. 

The voyage features Christmas carol sing-a-longs, swashbuckling games, temporary tattoos, and face painting. Each guest will also receive a $5 voucher to use at any of the various vendors located in Sparkman Wharf to relax after their long journey. 

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Read more articles by Lauren Wong.

Lauren Wong is a graduate of the University of Tampa with a degree in journalism who is freelancing while she looks for a full-time job. Originally from the Chicago area, she enjoys travel and aspires to be a travel photojournalist. During the summer of 2019, she worked for Premier Travel Media in Chicago and as a correspondent for Input Fort Wayne, another Issue Media group online magazine based in Indiana. She loves spending time outdoors camping, kayaking, and taking pictures.