SeaWorld Christmas Celebration 2018 Review

I’ve said it before, and I will say it again, no theme park does Christmas better than SeaWorld! From the food to shows to lights, SeaWorld Christmas is a spectacular event. With so much to see and do, you’ll want to experience it multiple nights in order to make sure you create memories that will last for a lifetime. Although I’ve attended Christmas Celebration in the past, it is so magical that I just love experiencing it again and again. Perhaps you are like me in that you attend as many theme park and resort events at possible at Christmas, but if you can only select one for you and your friends/family, then I highly suggest SeaWorld Christmas Celebration!

Before we get into the shows (which are largely unchanged from previous years), I want to talk about the food. Oh, and speaking of food, you’ll want to treat yourself to the sampler lanyard (5 or 10 items) for all the delectable food and drink cabins. My invitation to the media event came with the 5 item sampler, but I can see the advantages of the 10 item option if you plan to attend multiple nights or are there with another person or group. As far as the 5-item lanyard, my friend Dani and I were able to share it and had plenty to eat and drink. Prior to setting out into the park, the SWO public relations team provided many food and drink items for us during the media mixer. My favorite is the s’mores waffle cone! Absolutely delicious. We also had the Christmas dinner and candied popcorn. Out in the park, we had the donut pulled pork sandwich (not included in the sampler), brisket macaroni and cheese, and chicken and waffles! Yes! Chicken and waffles, you heard me. For drinks, we had the Jingle Juice. All the speciality beverages I saw were hot (just FYI). For a cold beverage, there are options but they are not the specialty drinks.

We attended Clyde and Seamore’s Countdown to Christmas, Winter Wonderland on Ice, and Shamu’s Christmas Miracle. Unfortunately, we did not attend O Wondrous Night because of scheduling conflicts. Of course, we also enjoyed the Sea of Trees show on the lagoon that runs throughout the evening. Clyde and Seamore’s show is always hilarious!! You are in for a laugh for sure. Since we were attending during the same showtime as O Wondrous Night, it wasn’t terribly packed but was nicely filled. Largely unchanged, this show is pretty much the same as it was last year, but it is still such a fun show and will have you laughing the whole time. One of my favorite parts of the show is actually the pre-show when the audience all joins together to sing familiar Christmas songs and carols. Although it is a show geared towards the younger members of the audience, there are jokes and references for us adults to chuckle as well. At one point, one of the trainers forgot his line, and there was a comedically self-aware moment. And the Frozen jokes were great. New for this year were some meta jokes about the stores in the mall. So incredibly funny! Poor Blockbuster haha. Do yourself a favor and sit down for a heaping helping of laughter and merriment as Clyde and Seamore Countdown to Christmas!

Winter Wonderland on Ice returns this year! Arrive early for the preshow! Enjoy the beauty of the violin as a fantastically talented violinist plays Christmas music as you wait for the show to begin. Much like the Christmas on Ice show at Busch Gardens, this show features many talented figure skaters in beautifully choreographed skating numbers to your favorite Christmas songs. To be honest, I still prefer the Busch Gardens show, but those skaters are at the park year-round so they can put more time into the show design. That being said, with SeaWorld placing the show on the water’s edge, the exquisite Sea of Trees can be seen behind the ice stage. Since the show is outdoors, SeaWorld is able to integrate some lite pyrotechnics in the show! As a figure skating hobbiest, I have a high degree of appreciation for these shows. I love watching the movements and picking out the ones that I am able to do! Note: I still have a long way to go haha. Bayside Stadium is packed for this show, so make sure to arrive early.

The Christmas Village at Port of Entry is always a treat! With special a’cappella groups, the Christmas village train set, and of course, you can meet Rudolph and Friends! This is the area where you can also enjoy hot chocolate, eggnog, craft beer, and cookies! Located near the Christmas Village is Santa’s Base Camp where you can meet the big man himself. With many places to sit down and relax, this is a great place to slow down and take in the smells and songs that make this “the most wonderful time of the year.” I came across the most adorable plushies, once of which is a promotional item! I saw a Shamu with a Santa hat and a Santa Sloth!! There is also a hedgehog and other cuddly plushy animals that will be hard to resist.

Merry Christmas!

Ryan is a screenwriting professor at the University of Tampa and works in creative services in live themed entertainment. He’s also published prolifically on theme parks and produced a peer-reviewed study. If you like this article, check out the others and FOLLOW him!

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Christmastime is “Magical” at Universal Orlando

Universal Orlando guests can now experience the magic of Christmastime in the Wizarding World of Harry Potter (WWoHP) Hogsmeade and Diagon Alley. You’ve asked for a holiday overlay in the Wizarding World, and now you can experience it. From Christmas Pudding at the Leaky Cauldron to the Magic of Hogwarts Castle mapped projection show, your holiday spirits will be uplifted throughout the Wizarding World. This marked the first year that the WWoHP receives a Christmas overlay during the holiday season, and it is not to be missed. Between Grinchmas (see my review from last year as it is largely unchanged) at Islands of Adventure, the Mannheim Steamroller, Holiday Parade, and Harry Potter Christmas at Universal Studios (as well as HP IoA), you will find plenty to fill your day. In fact, my friend Dani and I found so much to do that we didn’t experience one ride because the time just wasn’t there. But when you’ve ridden everything hundreds of times, you feel that there is the time to spend on the limited time engagements.

For months, I have been looking forward to the brand new Harry Potter Holiday offerings at Universal Orlando. This will be the first time that JK’s WWoHP will receive a seasonal overlay of decorations and attraction offerings. Now that WWoHP has received the Christmas treatment, perhaps Halloween will be next! Between both parks at Universal Orlando Resort, there is a world of holiday happiness around every corner, or in this case, through walls. With so much going on, it can be a little daunting to try to fit everything into a day. For annual passholders who visit regularly, this won’t seem as tough because the rides can be skipped. For those who are visiting on vacation, definitely consult the Universal Orlando app or website for show schedules in order to map out your day to make sure you get everything in (for vacationers, you definitely need to plan 2 full days minimum). On our way to the park, Dani and I looked at the park schedule on our way across the I-4 and made a general itinerary of the order in which we wanted to experience the limited time engagements. If you plan out your itinerary, you’ll find that getting to see the shows and parades you want will be much easier and definitely less stressful once in the park.

Our first stop was Diagon Alley to see the There’s Nothing Like a Holiday Spell Celestina Warbeck show. I adore this show, and often watch it when I am in the park. Her voice, the costumes, and music genuinely create the atmosphere of a 1940s jazz nightclub. The Celestina Warbeck show still has the quintessential Wizarding flare to it, and the original songs were superb! Expecting no less, Celestina’s Christmas gown was drop dead gorgeous and her Banshees were killer as well. Although the vocal artists/character performers who portray Celestina always look like they are having a great time, the degree of enthusiasm from Celestina was greatly increased during the show. I imagine it’s due to the show being new, and it’s a break from the regular song lineup. If I could suggest one way to start your holidays at Universal Orlando, this is the show that I would recommend hands down. And get this, at the finale of the show, Diagon Alley is covered in snow flurries!

After leaving the Celestina show, Dani and I made our way to the Leaky Cauldron to see the decorations and to see if they had some seasonal offerings on their menu. To our delight, there were some additional items AND a Christmas Pudding for dessert! I’ve read of Christmas Pudding in Charles Dickens’ timeless masterpiece A Christmas Carol, but never had the opportunity to try one. Without even knowing what was in it, Dani and I both ordered the pudding with her banger sandwich (her regular) and my Guinness lamb & beef stew (my regular). Although the interior of The Leaky Cauldron is not nearly as decorated as the streets of Diagon Alley, the subtle additions of pine garland created a festive atmosphere. After eating out main courses, it was time to dive into our Christmas Pudding. The mini pudding came out in the shape of a bundt cake with icing on the side to drizzle over top of the pudding. I was aware that British puddings were more like buddy cakes, but still to see a pudding in that shape was pretty cool. Once the icing was drizzled, Dani and I sunk our forks into the moist pudding and took our respective bites simultaneously. It was unanimous–YUMM! We both absolutely loved the pudding. Its flavor reminded us both of a spice cake with currents. Hints of cinnamon and sugar were also found in the pudding. We would both definitely order the Christmas pudding again.

After our early dinner, we were ready to board the Hogwarts Express to Hogsmeade for the Magic of Hogwarts Castle show. Upon approach to Kings Cross Station, we saw the wait was 60mins; so needless to say, we decided to walk to IoA. On our way, we stopped in the Universal props store where they sell old props to attractions. With HHN having ended just a couple weeks prior, there were many HHN props and decorations for sale. Annual Passholders do not get a discount at this store, but it’s definitely worth a browse because you may find a piece to a show or ride that you enjoy. Once we arrived at IoA, we were greeted with a new holiday mix of music at the Port of Entry instead of the whimsical tunes that are present for most of the year. On our way to WWoHP Hogsmeade, we passed through Dr. Seuss Landing. In no area is there a greater feeling of Christmas than in Seuss Landing. Much like Dickens is credited for inventing Christmas in how we commonly celebrate it, Seuss has also been incredibly instrumental in fostering the Christmas spirit through his brilliant book How the Grinch Stole Christmas. Since we saw the show last year, we did not make the time to see Grinchmas again this time. But, I plan to watch it before the holiday season is over. If you haven’t seem it, definitely check it out as it is the live theatrical presentation of How the Grinch Stole Christmas. As The Lorax is a favorite book of ours, we stopped to take a picture with he who “speaks for the trees” since he decorated the Onceler’s place for Christmas.

We arrived at the base of Hogwarts Castle about 1hr prior to showtime, and there were already about a dozen or so groups of people sitting down in the taped off viewing area for the show. With the queue for Forbidden Journey reading 45mins, we decided to go ahead and select our spot for the new show on its debut weekend. It’s a good thing that we did, because in no time at tall, the area was filling up quickly. Since the show begins at sundown (the times guide states dusk–believe me, it’s after sundown), the start time varies based upon sunset. As the sun goes down, you’ll notice that the cliffs beneath the castle begin to get covered in snow. I’m aware that is mapped prediction, but the snow dropped cliffs look quite real. You’ll begin to hear the familiar Harry Potter theme as snow falls over the castle, and that marks the beginning of the show. And, such an amazing show it is! Simply breathtaking. It has a great blend of familiar images from the movies as well as Christmas animations. The song selection was excellent and paired with eat animations nicely. Whether you have seen the Harry Potter movies or not will not negatively impact your experience of this seasonal show. It is enjoyable for everyone! There is a warmth that iminates from Hogwarts during the show that will have you completely wrapped in the magic of the season.

After making our way through the overly crowded and disorganized streets of Hogsmeade (I’ve heard Universal modified the guest flow of traffic on night two, which is good because leaving the courtyard was horrendous Saturday night), we quickly headed for the Christmas Music of Mannheim Steamroller concert at Universal Studios. I don’t know about you, but I grew up with the music of Mannheim Steamroller at Christmastime, and I look forward to their limited time engagement at Universal Studios Florida every year. Even if you do not know them by name, it is highly likely that you are familiar with Chip Davis’ combination of synth and orchestra pieces. The company at Universal is the Mannheim Steamroller Orlando compliment and not the full company (because they are touring at this time), but the sound is just as big and the showmanship is excellent. Since my mom does not live around here, I made sure to FaceTime with her so she could vicariously enjoy the concert with me from 500mi away. Attending the concert was the perfect way to end our day of holiday enjoyment at Universal Orlando.

Suffice it to say, Universal Orlando has done an outstanding job with its special limited time holly jolly holiday offerings this year. The addition of the Christmas overlay in the WWoHP more than doubles the festive events going on now. Don’t miss out on the “magic” of Christmas at Universal Studios and Islands of Adventure this holiday season.


Christmas Arrives at Disney’s Hollywood Studios

The Holiday season is in full swing at Disney’s Hollywood Studios! Sunset Seasons Greetings debuted last week along with the return of Jingle Bell Jingle BAM. Accompanied by snow flurries surrounding you on Hollywood and Sunset Boulevards, you will be energized by the joy and cheer of crowds of guests singing some of your favorite Christmas songs–you’ll definitely want to join in. Although the park still feels empty at Christmastime without the late Osborne Family Spectacle of Dancing Lights, the seasonal offerings at the park do help to fill the void. The present shows still fall short of the immersive experience of the incredible brilliance and beauty of the famous dancing light show. But I digress. My friend Dani and I had a fun time watching the two nighttime Christmas spectaculars….(more)

Sunset Seasons Greetings is Hollywood Studios’ newest seasonal offering for Christmastime that takes place on the Hollywood Tower Hotel (a-k-a The Tower of Terror). Initial impressions of the show leave me with the evaluation that it’s a cute show. Like so many other Disney nighttime shows these days, it relies upon mapped projection technology instead of precisely choreographed dancing Christmas lights. There are four different animation sequences and they repeat until 8pm. Between each roughly minute-long map projection animation transforming the Tower of Terror into a colorful array of images and shapes, there is a transitional animation on the Fantasmic billboard (note: Fantasmic is now sponsored by Pop Secret–not sure that’s the brand you want associated with your show) that highlights a different aspect to the Holiday season. My favorite sequence on the billboard was the one featuring clips from Mickey’s Christmas Carol. Each mapped projection show on the Tower features different music and imagery–each unique. To watch the show from start to finish takes 10-12mins. Since this is a show throughout the evening that rotates, it definitely alleviates any concerns of overcrowding on along Sunset Blvd.

Returning for its second year is Jingle Bell Jingle BAM. For a full review of the show, please see my article from last year. After experiencing the changes that Disney World made to the show, I must say that it feels a lot more Christmassy than it did last year. Last year, I was left wondering where all the Holiday spirit was. Perhaps others felt as strongly as I did that this “Christmas” show lacked Christmas, and Hollywood Studios decided to integrate more of a holiday feel to make it feel like a special seasonal offering. I especially appreciated the singalong of It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year as well as other Christmas standards. There truly is a little something for everyone at this new iteration of the infant show. After the show, my friend Dani and I still remarked that everything we experienced throughout the evening still does not feel as magical as the Osborne Family Spectacle of Dancing Lights, but we still had a great time!

If you are planning to visit Disney World this holiday season, don’t miss these seasonal nighttime spectacular offerings at Hollywood Studios.

“Where are You Christmas?” A Review of “Jingle Bell, Jingle BAM” at Disney’s Hollywood Studios

img_7604One of my favorite times of the year at the Disney Parks is the holiday season. And not just November through December but September through October too. The autumn and winter holidays offer so much opportunity for seasonal offerings that make the Holidays a special time of year for friends, family, and lovers. Of all the holidays, Christmastime is the generally the highest attended and most looked forward to at the Disney Parks. Whereas Universal Studios Florida is the king with Busch Gardens Tampa Bay as Queen during Halloween, the big D is arguably king at Christmas–perhaps the Jingle King? Putting a Christmas spin on Pumpkin King. For years, hundreds of thousands of park guests flood the Disney Parks to enjoy everything from Cinderella’s Castle draped in icicle lights to Mickey’s Very Merry Christmas Party to the late Osborne Family Spectacle of Dancing Lights and even Holidays Around the World at Epcot’s World Showcase and Jingle Cruise (the holiday overlay at Jungle Cruise). Not to even mention the elaborate gingerbread houses and other creations at the Disney Resorts. Over the last few years, we have witnessed a slow mitigation of Holiday offerings. Most notably the Osborne Family Spectacle of Dancing Lights at Hollywood Studios (DHS) and Animal Kingdom’s Jingle Jungle Parade. Along with so many anxious park guests and Cast Members, I too was curious how DHS was going to adjust its Christmas offerings with the conspicuous absence of the Osborne Lights. Sunday night, I was finally able to watch the new Jingle Bell, Jingle BAM show at DHS, and if I had to sum up the experience in one word, it’d be a lukewarm “meh.” But as you know, I will provide you with many more words, haha…….

After the announcement of Jingle Bell, Jingle BAM as the special seasonal nighttime spectacular offering at DHS, I was still sad that there were no more dancing lights but I was looking forward to the new show and how it was going to play out. Taking place in the center of the park at the replica of the timeless Grauman’s Chinese Theatre serving as the show building for the opening day attraction The Great Movie Ride and icon of the park, Jingle Bell, Jingle BAM (Jingle BAM from hereon) is a colorful display of map projections, lasers, and pyrotechnics. Many of your favorite Disney and Pixar animated films are included as well as a sequence from Tim Burton’s The Nightmare Before Christmas. In addition to the familiar film clips, there is a loosely integrated narrative with Santa’s elves and then a message from the big man himself. Accompanying the outstanding map projections of gingerbread men, presents, snow, and other holiday iconic images are a vast array of lasers crisscrossing the sky adding an immersive effect to the courtyard and Hollywood Blvd. No nighttime spectacular at the Disney parks would be complete without pyrotechnics. Jingle BAM boasts a fantastic finale of fireworks that dazzle the sky.

For all the wonderful potential the show has, it unfortunately fails to leave even half the lasting impression that the Osborne Lights left in the hearts and minds of park guests for 20 years. There are a few key elements that contribute to the mediocre reception of Jingle BAM: (1) DHS is not designed/laid out for a nighttime hub show (2) narrative is weak (3) plays out very flat–lacks depth (4) the fireworks are nowhere close to being centered behind the Chinese Theatre (5) fails to elicit a positive emotional response from the park guests (6) Santa’s message is generic and forgettable and (7) there is very little “Christmas” to be found in the show, period. However, it’s not all bad. The show is an outstanding combination of programming, projection technology, and brilliant lasers. The lasers greatly enhance the experience when the snow falls along Hollywood Blvd. From a technical perspective, the show is an incredible spectacle of what happens when art and science are combined.

Unless you arrive one or more hours before showtime or purchase the special dinner/dessert package viewing area, you will quickly notice that your view is most likely obstructed by anything from palm trees, to tech booths, to light poles, shoppes, or even children on the shoulders of parents. Let’s face it, the latter is unavoidable. If you’ve ever been to DHS, you’ll remember that the courtyard in from of the stage in front of Great Movie Ride (GMR) is quite small. Possibly a 1/3 of the size of the one in front of the Tree of Life at Disney’s Animal Kingdom (DAK). So, there isn’t much physical space to work with when accommodating thousands of guests in the same location for a 15min show. Although Osborne Lights moved over the years, it was a staple to the local holiday celebrations, for sure, as well as those who would travel hundreds of miles. Very quickly, for those of you who do not know the history of Osborne Lights, the show was originally on Residential Street (a street of TV houses) until it was moved to its former location on Streets of America (production standing set). Families and friends could casually stroll through the millions of lights that danced every few minutes–synced to classic and contemporary holiday hits! No showtimes. Just continual twinkling and dancing from sunset to one hour after the park closed.

Much like the hub area, the backlot area was also unable to support the majority of the park guests at any one (1) time. So, the continual dancing was important because guests could attend at their leisure. Compounding the physical space dilemma, there are also new palm trees that were installed after the hat was removed, two giant towers that are tech/electrical/equipment booths for the “temporary” stage that sits where the hat was, and several light poles. Once you back up toward Hollywood Blvd, your view is also blocked by the other trees and shoppes. Unlike Magic Kingdom, which has a low grade incline from the train station to the castle, there is no incline from the entrance of DHS to GMR; therefore, the possibility of an obstructed view is greatly increased. Never mind that GMR is less than half the height of Cinderella’s Castle. Between the level surface from the entrance to GMR, the palm trees directly in front of GMR, and the tech booths blocking the view from Hollywood Blvd, it is clear that this park is not designed for a hub show. At least a hub show that runs only once. And you know what? There is little that can be done about the layout of the park. So. The Imagineers and entertainment leadership should recognize those shortcomings and develop a way that a decent view of the show is possible from the central area of the park.

I love the concept of storytelling–in all forms. So, naturally I was curious as to how a story was woven into Jingle BAM. Even now, I am attempting to piece together what the story was. Essentially, the elves are looking for Santa because he is missing. Turns out that he has been captured by Oogie Boogie from The Nightmare Before Christmas. After Boogie’s song number, Santa is rescued. Following Santa’s rescue, he has a message about friends and family. More specifically, he directs the message to the City of Orlando. But, it just doesn’t strike an emotional tone. It plays off as canned and generic. Tiny Tim’s closing remarks “God bless us, everyone” from Charles Dickens’ masterpiece A Christmas Carol packs much more meaning and impact. Interestingly, it is the other bookend and answer to the novel’s opening line “Marley was dead to begin with, there’s no doubt about that.” I think a holiday message about friends and family is very important, but this one just plays off as forced–like other elements of this show. There is definitely a story and message there, but it is weak. Perhaps it would have been more effective to include some holiday spirit or nostalgia in his closing remarks. I think the show would play out just as well–if not better–if the plot of rescuing Santa wasn’t present. Not that I think the show should be without a story, but the story should be more coherent. Stories, such as this one, should also attempt to elicit an emotional response from the audience but it does not extend its reach beyond the surface level.

The over all experience of the show lacked depth. It felt very flat–like a projected image, ironically enough. All surface level and spectacle but no substance. One of the major attractions to and benefits from Osborne Lights was the total immersion into a winter wonderland. Immersion is so incredibly important in themed entertainment. The Osborne Lights provided more than a show–an experience! Even more importantly than immersion is the concept of experiential attractions. And this was an experience like no other. Jingle BAM lacks these all too important elements of immersion and experience. Instead of experiencing the seasonal holiday offering, park guests watch as third party spectators. The only time it becomes mildly experiential is when the Florida snow begins to fall. One of the most important elements to the experience of the Osborne Lights was the park guests’ ability to go from spectator to participant. The transition from spectator to participant is a popular trend in themed entertainment attractions because it offers a much more visceral experience. But what about the other nighttime Disney shows??? Aren’t they more of a spectacle than experience? Short answer: yes. Wishes, Illuminations, Fantasmic, and the Tree of Life are all about the sheer spectacle of it all. And there’s nothing wrong with that…provided that is how it’s always been. However, Wishes is set apart because of the strong emotions the music and pyro evokes from the park guests. It truly is a magical experience. But the problem occurs when the park offers a participatory experience and replaces it with something more along the lines of a glorified short film.

Most Disney nighttime spectaculars offer a phenomenal dazzling array of pyrotechnics and fireworks. Keeping in line with the tradition of magical Disney fireworks, Jingle BAM also offers an impressive choreographed firework display and dynamic finale. Unfortunately, those fireworks are not behind the Chinese Theatre–not even close. The majority of the pyro and entire firework finale is way off stage left (house right). illuminating the sky above the Animation Courtyard, the fireworks cause the park guests to turn their heads 90-degrees (away from the center of the show). Although DHS would have to close the Pixar area during the Galactic Spectacular (Star Wars nighttime show) in order to keep guests safe from the falling debris, the fireworks shot off above the Chinese Theatre making for a phenomenal nighttime show that was truly spectacular whether you are a Star Wars fan or not. The show was incredibly impressive. With the fireworks way off to the side at Jingle BAM, it feels more like a distraction than the finale.

Lastly, the show simply does not have that holiday spirit. Other than Santa and a couple Christmas songs, the show has a very generic feel. So much so that, take away Santa and replace a few other elements and the show could silly be modified to run as part of daily operations. That certainly displays efficiency, but this is a seasonal offering during Christmastime and should feel special. Guests should have the impression that they cannot get this experience anywhere else. As it stands, this map projection show is not unlike the one at Magic Kingdom. Since Disney has two popular versions of A Christmas Carol as part of its IP, I was shocked that neither make appearances in the show. What is more Christmassy than the timeless classic??? The lack of Christmas music is compounded by the absence of Jack Skellington’s lyrics in the song What’s This? from The Nightmare Before Christmas. As part of the score for Jingle BAM, the accompaniment from What’s This? can be heard, but no lyrics. Although many people celebrate the holiday season differently and various elements are held more dearly than others, there should have been a mixture of classic and contemporary holiday hits to create a festive atmosphere. The magic of Christmas is very much lacking in this seasonal show. Where are you Christmas?

Over all, Jingle BAM is a cute show. Is it a replacement for the late Osborne Lights? No. Is it filled with holiday cheer? Not particularly. But perhaps this is the start of something that will grow to become nostalgic for guests that are just now experiencing the Disney parks for the first time. With map projection shows taking the place of more practical effect shows, we could simply we witnessing the next evolution of nighttime spectaculars at Walt Disney World. As I recognize the need to evolve and develop new ideas in order to keep the parks relevant to current generations, perhaps Disney Imagineers can find a way to combine both the Osborne Lights and the map projection concept in a new dynamic show–a new experience. In the short term, if Disney Imagineers could find a way to modify the current Jingle BAM to go from a one (1) showtime to something more continuous like the Tree of Life at Animal Kingdom, then that would quickly solve the physical space and adequate viewing dilemma.