By Janet K. Keeler
Winter is a glorious time in Florida, with plenty of holiday events and outdoor festivals celebrating food, art and culture. The beautiful beaches, matched by even more gorgeous weather, bring winter residents back and attract travelers from around the world. Floridians come out to play, too.
Some winter events are known far and wide, like the rollicking New Year’s Eve traditions in Key West, Mickey’s Very Merry Christmas Party at Disney World, the world-renowned Art Basel, in Miami and the South Beach Wine & Food Festival.
Here’s a list of some lesser known, but equally fun, winter events in the Sunshine State.
Gilded Holiday Glory
The "Christmas Spectacular!" Holiday Home Tour in DeLand is elaborate, elegant, and over-the-top, featuring designer Christmas decorations in one of Florida's most historic mansions, the 1886 "Gilded Age" Victorian Stetson Mansion. How spectacular is it? The mansion has been recently been listed as one of the "Top 10 Things to do in Florida" by Tripadvisor. Reservations are required.
Snow in Florida?
People come to the Sunshine State to get away from the cold, but we still like a side of the white stuff with holidays, even if it is artificial. Pensacola Winterfest turns Florida’s westernmost city into a holiday wonderland with an elf parade, snowball derby and Santa’s Holiday Express. And snow, too.
Twinkle, Twinkle Florida
The Jacksonville Zoo goes all “Hairy and Bright” for the annual ZOOlights holiday extravaganza. Thousands of LED lights lead visitors through a magical place with moving sculptures, a fairy village and “ice” skating. The zoo closes at 5 p.m. and then reopens at 6 p.m. for the holiday event. Most of the zoo’s creatures will be snoozing but the stingrays, leopards, jaguars, and Lost Temple reptiles and primates can be observed. Carousel and lighted train rides also available.
Arty Holiday Shopping
Florida’s newly minted arts city, St. Petersburg, hosts a second Saturday ArtWalk each month that is more festive than ever in December. That’s because 40 galleries and art venues festooned with holiday decorations offer last-minute gifts in a wide range of prices. Hundreds of folks ride the free ArtWalk trolleys connecting the city’s arts districts. Some of the highlights are the glassblowing demonstrations at Duncan McClellan Gallery and tours of artist studios in the Warehouse Arts District and downtown Art Lofts. Many shops stay open for the 5 to 9 p.m. event and the trolleys stop close enough to the city’s craft beer breweries to try a pint, like a Brown Pelican Dunkel at 3 Daughters Brewing.
Ringing in the New Year, Miami-Style
Bayfront Park on Biscayne Bay is host to the “Big Orange” drop, on New Year’s Eve, South Florida’s answer to the Times Square ball drop. Early in the evening, a 35-foot neon (of course) orange wearing sunglasses (of course) creeps up the side of the InterContinental Hotel across from the park. It drops as the clock ticks toward midnight, after which fireworks light the sky. The free concert will be broadcast live. Parking is limited but there is public transportation.
Seafood, Eat Food
The Florida Keys are synonymous with fresh seafood and there’ll be plenty of it at the annual Florida Keys Seafood Festival. Bayview Park becomes a seafood lover’s heaven with vendors offering lobster, Key West pink shrimp, smoked fish dip, stone crab claws, fried fish and conch three ways: chowder, fritters and salad. Thousands of hungry souls pack into town to taste fine seafood and listen to live music. Thank the Florida Keys Commercial Fishermen’s Association for the party after you wipe the cocktail sauce from your chin.
Get Your Motor Running
The annual Thunder by the Bay Motorcycle Show comes roaring into Sarasota before the new year is even a week old at Lakewood Ranch, on the east side of I-75. Formerly in downtown, the event is still expected to draw 40,000 motorheads and cycle-mates to see what the other guy is riding. There will be charity rides, bike shows, a nighttime block party, plus food, drink and music. Vendors will be out in force offering ways to dress up your bike and your body. The winter event is a fundraiser for Suncoast Charities for Children.
Florida is for Bird Lovers
There are more than rockets flying over the Space Coast. The coastal region is on the Eastern Continental Flyway, a major bird migration corridor. Some 330 species of birds have been spotted here so it’s no surprise that bird enthusiasts and shutterbugs will find lots to love about the annual Space Coast Birding and Wildlife Festival at Eastern Florida State College in Titusville. The birding festival includes field trips, photography workshops, offshore birding and wildlife excursions and more. Bring binoculars to spy roseate spoonbills and some of the last scrub jays in the state.
A Hopping Good Food Festival
The Sunshine State is famous for oranges, key lime pie and stone crab claws. But frog legs? Not so much, but that hasn’t kept the folks of Fellsmere, northwest of Vero Beach, from celebrating the hoppers as good eating during the Fellsmere Frog Leg Festival. For more than two decades, the city has been raising funds for children’s programs by selling frog legs (700-plus pounds of them!) and gator tail dinners during the festival. Oh, but there’s more, including frog jumping contests, carnival rides, live music, a car show and dozens of booths featuring crafts, jewelry and other artisan items. You can even try your hand at catching a frog but remember, they have a distinct advantage.
Mapping Out History
Will apps and other digital directional aids be the end to paper maps? Perhaps, but there are still plenty of map and atlas enthusiasts around to appreciate the art of cartography. The organizers of the annual Miami International Map Fair can attest to that. Thousands of map lovers descend on HistoryMiami Museum to attend talks and workshops and check out the wares of vendors, among them sellers of rare books. Experts also offer opinions on maps brought in by visitors. (Perhaps that Louisiana Territory map in granny’s attic is worth something). Special topics include 20th century pictorial maps, the secret provenance of maps and the history of celestial cartography.
Pack Your Breath Mints
It’s billed as the “best stinkin’ party in South Florida” and if you like the pungent taste of the “stinking rose” then the South Florida Garlic Fest is your kind of soiree. Florida isn’t a garlic-growing state, but years ago a group of civic leaders decided garlic was the perfect vehicle to help them raise money for non-profit arts and children’s groups. The idea stuck (or stunk?) and now there it’s three days worth of food, drink and music in John Prince Park in Lake Worth, a new location. Garlic ice cream, garlic BBQ or garlic-loaded chicken nachos, anyone?
A Pirate’s Mardi Gras
Gasparilla season is January, February and March in Tampa and that’s when Pirate culture collides with Mardi Gras-like festivities around the city. There’s a pirate invasion in the waters downtown and several parades that draw thousands. The main Gasparilla parade has become so raucous (but fun) that a children’s parade has become a Pirate Festival mainstay. Krewes of men and women dress in pirate garb to toss beads and ride floats at all the parades. There are balls and parties, too. It’s a festive time and the Knights of Sant' Yago Night Parade in historic Ybor City is one of many popular events. The historic Cuban neighborhood always looks festive at night. Watch the cigar rollers and buy yourself a local stogie while you’re here.
Art in the Great Outdoors
No need for a jacket for the annual Naples National Art Festival, where as many as 300 artists display their work in Cambier Park. Naples is an art-loving city with many galleries and that love spills outside during the fine-weather month of February. Some 15,000 visitors walk among the tents of paintings, sculptures, hand-blown glass, ceramics, woodworks and artisan jewelry. The artists are almost always present and it’s a good time to ask them about their work. And then buy a piece.
The Atlantic Celebrates the Pacific
The music, food and dancing of another tropical region of the world, the South Pacific, is celebrated at the annual Polynesian Cultural Festival in Oakland Park, north of Fort Lauderdale. Hula dancing, ukulele concerts and authentic food from Hawaii, Fiji, Tahiti and Samoa will be featured. Bring your grass skirt, or buy one at the festival, so you can take part in the hula competition. Hula is a beautiful and sacred dance used to tell stories, and you’ll learn about that at the festival.