You can plan a trip to Orlando around a special event any month of the year, but the ones that follow are among the most popular. If you don't find something that tickles your imagination and timetable, scout for others at www.disneyworld.com, www.universalorlando.com and www.orlandoinfo.com.
Art and literature lovers come together each January to celebrate the talented works and tragic life of one of Florida's own during the Zora Neale Hurston Festival of the Arts and Humanities (www.zorafestival.com; 407-647-3307 or 407-647-4436; 227 East Kennedy Blvd., Eatonville, FL 33896). The acclaimed black writer spent her childhood 25 miles north of Orlando and helped teach others about African-American life through stories such as How It Feels To Be Colored Me (1928) and The Florida Negro (1938). Hurston died poor in 1960. The annual festival, held for the last two decades, has everything from concerts and a book fair to an art show and Southern cooking. Many events are free; most others are $5-$10.
The Capital One Bowl (www.fcsports.com; 407-423-2476; 1610 W. Church St., Orlando, 32805), played on New Year's Day, is the more heralded of Orlando's two post-season college football games (the other is the Champs Sports Bowl in December). This game pits a team from the SEC against one from the Big Ten. The Michigan Wolverines beat the Florida Gators 41—35 in 2008, sending coach Lloyd Carr into retirement with a win over Florida's coach Urban Meyer and Heisman winner Tim Tebow. Tickets to the nationally televised game, played at the Florida Citrus Bowl, run about $75.
When the Magic Mickey gets into something, it's seldom half-hearted, and distance running is no exception. The Walt Disney World Marathon and Half Marathon (www.disneyworldsports.com; 407-939-7810; Lake Buena Vista, 32830) attract some 30,000 participants and as many spectators in early January, rivaling the nation's most storied marathon held in Boston. The fun starts with 5K and kids' runs on Friday. A 13.1-mile half marathon and 26.2-mile marathon kick off Saturday and Sunday, respectively. True masochists try Goofy's Race and a Half Challenge—running in the half and full marathons on consecutive days. The weekend also features health and fitness expos, which include nutrition and training seminars.
Looking for a way to spend your children's inheritance (or at least dream about the possibility)? The Central Florida International Boat Show (www.boatshowflorida.com; 407-456-6680; 9400 Universal Blvd. Orlando, 32819) is filled will all sorts of nautical eye candy. Typically, some 400 runabouts, cruisers, fishing boats and personal watercraft are in the spotlight at this four-decade-year-old event, held in mid January at the Orange County Convention Center. The show also includes marine accessories, interactive fishing video games and a wakeboarding demonstration. The center is huge and parking reaches to the North 40. $8 adults, kids 15 and under free with paying adult.
Fat Tuesday comes to Orlando every Saturday night from early February to mid April at Universal Studios' Mardi Gras celebration (www.universalorlando.com; 407-363-8000; 1000 Universal Studios Plaza, Orlando, 32819). Granted, it's only a microcosm of the real deal in New Orleans, but it's still a good excuse to dance or otherwise party the night away. Headliners change annually, but acts have included Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons, Kool and the Gang, Huey Lewis and the News, the Doobie Brothers and Smokey Robinson. You also can tickle your taste buds with jambalaya and etouffee, dodge stilt walkers and snatch beads that are tossed from floats in the nightly parades. This is a special-event ticket that sells for $46.95.
Billed as the largest pro rodeo east of the Mississippi, the Silver Spurs Rodeo (www.silverspursrodeo.com; 321-697-3495; 1875 Silver Spur Lane, Kissimmee, 34744) also is one of the oldest—dating to 1944. Held in mid February at Osceola Heritage Park's indoor arena, it attracts 60 cowboys and cowgirls who compete in a variety of traditional events like bull riding, bareback and saddle bronc riding, steer wrestling, team roping and barrel racing. Even youngsters get into the act during mutton busting, a thigh-slapping competition that gives them a chance to try to ride a sheep for 8 seconds. Admission is $15.
Florida is a hotspot for baseball's spring training and Lake Buena Vista gets its share of the action from mid February to the end of March when the Atlanta Braves work off the winter's rust (www.atlantabraves.com or disneyworld.disney.go.com/wdw/parks/specialEvents?id=AtlantaBravesDetailPage; 407-939-7810 or 407-839-3900, Lake Buena Vista, 32830). Players stretch, grunt and try into get in shape during the first two weeks at Disney's Wide World of Sports, then play 15 home games at the complex's stadium. The schedule usually includes three or four night games. Tickets start at $14.50 for general admission and climb to $23.50 (lower reserved seats).
Classical music lovers flock to the wooded grounds of Rollins College in mid-February for a fortnight of fun at the annual Bach Festival (www.bachfestivalflorida.org; 407-646-2182; 1000 Holt Ave., Winter Park, 32789). It's one of Florida's finest celebrations of the works of Johann Sebastian Bach and other composers. Performances by the Bach Festival Orchestra and Choir are among the highlights. There also are lectures and open rehearsals. Tickets range from $15 to $55.
At a half-century-old, the Daytona 500 (www.daytonainternationalspeedway.com; 386-947-6800; 1801 W. International Speedway Blvd., Daytona Beach, 32114) is one of NASCAR's longest-running races. Held at the Daytona International Speedway in mid February, the 200-lap race attracts the sport's biggest names. The winner usually pockets around $1.5 million, not bad for a day's work. (Note from the Surgeon General: earplugs are a splendid idea if you plan to attend.) Tickets start at $95. Daytona International's other February events include the Budweiser Shootout and the Chevy Silverado HD 250, which is part of the NASCAR truck series.
Stars such as Johnny Bench and Donovan McNabb join John Kruk, Peter Gammons and other broadcast regulars at the annual edition of ESPN The Weekend (www.disneyworld.com; 407-839-3900; 3111 World Drive, Lake Buena Vista, FL 32830), held at Disney's Hollywood Studios. The three-day event includes Q&As with athletes and network personalities as well as broadcasts of some of the sports channel's shows, including ESPN Deportes and Baseball Tonight. Some guests also get a chance to experience an audition for a job at the sports channel. Other visitors get a shot at going head to head with trivia expert Howie Schwab. Admission is included in the regular Studios' ticket price, $71 adults and $60 for kids 3-12.
Arguably, the Sunshine State's best berries come from Plant City, near Tampa, and the annual crop gets a celebration of its own at the annual Florida Strawberry Festival (www.flstrawberryfestival.com; 813-752-9194; 2202 W. Reynolds St., Plant City, 33563), held an hour southwest of Orlando in early March. Expect county fair-style rides, racing pigs and country music to go along with the state's second most popular fruit (citrus is first). You'll find them plain, in pies and in shortcake. The 78-year-old festival also offers livestock shows and other agricultural exhibits. Concerts feature entertainers such as Crystal Gayle, Sugarland, Tom Jones and Trace Adkins. Admission is $9 adults, $5 kids 6-12. Concert tickets are $10-$35.
He was a golf idol in the early days of television. Now he's a fixture in Orlando, where his Arnold Palmer Invitational (www.bayhillinvitational.com; 407-876-2888; 9000 Bayhill Blvd., Orlando, 32819), previously called the Bayhill Invitational, is the first local pit stop for the PGA. Though he no longer plays competitive golf, "Arnie" is a frequent face at the mid March tourney. Past champs Tiger Woods (2001-2003) and Phil Mickelson (1997) are among the regulars. Daily tickets are $45 with parking costing another $20.
Motorcyclists and wannabes roar into Daytona Beach for Bike Week (www.officialbikeweek.com; 386-255-0981; Daytona Beach, 32120), which its organizers promote as the world's largest motorcycle event. That's not a stretch—this party draws 250,000 people. Activities for the early March event include motorcycle and custom paint shows, free demonstration rides by major manufacturers such as Harley Davidson, equipment swap meets, concerts and races at Daytona International Speedway. The local chamber of commerce also sponsors a 22-mile riverfront ride that passes through Bulow Creek State Park. You even can get hitched on the beach if you come with a marriage license. Given the underlying beer and bikini theme, this isn't a good event for your children.
Disney loves creating special events that cause its cash registers to sing and one of the more popular ones is Epcot's International Flower and Garden Festival (www.disneyworld.com/flower; 407-824-4321; 1320 Avenue of the Stars, Lake Buena Vista, 32830), scheduled March 19-June 1, 2008. Now in its 15th year, the event delights gardeners and floral fanciers with a celebration of color and creativity showcasing millions of flowers, thousands of plants, a butterfly garden and more than 70 topiaries including leafy versions of Capt. Hook, Pirate Mickey, Beauty and the Beast, and others. Lecturers, hands-on seminars and nightly concerts by Paul Revere and the Raiders, Peter and Gordon, Davy Jones, Herman's Hermits and others are part of the action. The event is included in normal theme park admission, $71 for adults, $60 for kids 3-9.
The LPGA's Ginn Open (www.ginnopen.com; 407-662-1700; 7714 Excitement Dr., Reunion, 34747) is one of several golf tournaments that have made Orlando a popular pro golf stop from mid fall through mid spring. This one has the women's tour on the Tom Watson- and Arnold Palmer-designed courses at the Reunion Resort. Gate tickets are $20-$30 daily or $50-80 for the full event.
Dessert lovers can celebrate one of the country's favorites at the Great American Pie Festival (407-566-2200; www.piecouncil.org/great.htm; Lakeside Park, Celebration, 34747), April 18-20. This is a wonderful excuse to add to your recipe book as well as your waistline. The weekend is all about pies—how to make them and bake them as well as a ton of other fun including children's games, cooking demonstrations and, uh-oh, a pie-eating contest. If you dare, you can gorge yourself at a never-ending pie buffet that offers pies, ice cream and toppings (about $10). The weekend also includes the APC Crisco National Pie Championship. Winners will be honored April 20. General admission is free.
Anyone looking for a chance to let their cultural hair down has the welcome mat waiting from the Orlando International Fringe Festival (www.orlandofringe.org; 407-648-0077; 398 W. Amelia St., Orlando, 32801). This annual celebration allows you to inhale the visual and performing arts, while rubbing elbows with bankers, beatniks and virtually everyone in between. Scheduled May 15-26, the Fringe is a collision of art, music and theater that ranges from Shakespeare to sword swallowing to satire. Although some shows are adults-only, there also are several for kids. Past offerings include Acting 101 and clay creations. Admission varies but most events are $10 or under. The schedule includes venues scattered around downtown.
More than 250 up-and-coming musicians, filmmakers and visual artists are featured May 14-17 at downtown Orlando's Florida Music Festival (www.floridamusicfestival.com; Church Street, Orlando, 32801). The non-stop party takes control of a three-block chunk of real estate with music ranging from pop and country to hip-hop and alternative. The festival also presents the Indie Film Jam, an international competition that features documentaries, short subjects and artist videos. The art show includes charcoal sketches, photography and paintings. The fun is at multiple sites around downtown's Church Street. Admission is $10-$15.
The Zellwood Sweet Corn Festival (www.zellwoodcornfestival.com; 407-886-0014; 4253 W. Ponkan Road, Zellwood, 32798), now in its 35th year, celebrates this locally-grown treat. Stroll through arts and crafts exhibits and watch Big Bertha, a super cooker that churns out 1,650 ears of corn every nine minutes. The corn fest, May 24-25, also has shows by country music star Jim Van Fleet & the Reign and John Anderson. Admission is $25.
The Power of the Force and the Magic of the Mouse combine each year for Star Wars Weekends, a family-friendly fan-fest scheduled for four consecutive weekends in June at Disney's Hollywood Studios theme park (disneyworld.disney.go.com/wdw/parks/specialEvents?id=StarWarsWeekendsSpecialEventPage; 407-839-3900; 3111 World Drive, Lake Buena Vista 32830). The event runs Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays with the park's Star Tours thrill ride serving as the centerpiece of an event that stars a four score of heroes, heroines, androids and villains from the Star Wars movies. Celebrities often take part in meet-and-greet sessions, conversations and gala motorcades. Throughout Star Wars Weekends guests never know which character they'll find around the corner, whether it's the heroic Jedi Luke Skywalker, the mysterious bounty hunter Boba Fett, the furry Chewbacca or the evil Darth Vader. Jedi Mickey Mouse usually makes an appearance during the weekends, included in the regular admission, $71 for adults, $60 for kids 3-9.
What began in 1991 as a one-day event has evolved into the week-long Gay Days celebration (www.gaydays.com; 888-942-9329) at several venues—including Walt Disney World, SeaWorld, Universal Orlando and other central Florida attractions. This party, scheduled June 3-9, attracts about 135,000 gays and lesbians. The lineup includes comedy shows, concerts, and cocktail and pool parties. There's also a pre-festival Caribbean cruise. Admission varies by event.
Local wine is celebrated at Lakeridge Winery's Annual Harvest Festival (www.lakeridgewinery.com; 800-768-9463; 19239 U.S. 27 N., Clermont, 34715), held June 13-15. The event includes arts and crafts, food, live music, tastings and tours of the winery, which opened in 1989, about 40 minutes northwest of Disney. You'll also be treated to grape-stomping demonstrations. Lakeridge grows muscadine and bunch grapes (Stover and Suwannee) on the 77 acres surrounding the winery. Admission is $2.
No one does Florida fireworks better than Disney and the nightly Wishes Fireworks show at the Magic Kingdom (www.disneyworld.com; 407-824-4321; 3111 World Dr., Lake Buena Vista, 32830) delivers a real bang on the Fourth of July. While you can catch glimpses of the show from WDW hotels and some of those nearby, the best seats are in the park near Cinderella Castle. The down side: Admission is $71 adults and $60 kids 3-9. If you're inclined toward cheaper shows, head to downtown Orlando for Fireworks over the Fountain at Lake Eola Park (www.cityoforlando.net; 407-246-2121 or 407-246-2827; 101 N. Rosalind Ave., Orlando, 32801). The old-fashioned event includes games, rides, entertainment and food. The best part: It's free.
The Super Bowl XXXVII champion Tampa Bay Buccaneers haven't returned to that lofty perch since, but the team still has a faithful ban base including a growing core in Orlando thanks to the Bucs' Annual Training Camp at Disney's Wide World of Sports (www.disneyworldsports.com; 407-939-1500; 700 Victory Way, Lake Buena Vista, 32830). The team returned to the playoffs in the 2007 season, but lost in the first round to the New York Giants, the eventual Super bowl champions. The training camp lasts three weeks in late July and early August. Admission is free and autograph sessions are held daily.
If you're bound for one reason or another to a summer visit and gnashing your teeth because you missed January's big boat show, the Hot Summer Boat Show (www.boatshowflorida.com/showinfooriginal.html; 407-456-6680; 9400 Universal Blvd. Orlando, 32819) will give you a fix of nautical eye candy Aug. 10-12. Featured attractions range from pontoon boats and runabouts to luxurious yachts and cruisers. It's held at the Orange County Convention Center—where parking is a nightmare, pedestrians can risk life and limb and confusion sometimes reigns. Tickets usually run around $8.
Walt Disney World's Night of Joy (www.disneyworld.com/nightofjoy; 407-824-4321; 311 World Drive, Lake Buena Vista, 32820) is one of the more popular, non-holiday-related religious celebrations in Orlando. The contemporary Christian music show, held Sept. 5-6 in the Magic Kingdom, is in its 26th year, featuring pop, rock, urban and gospel sounds. Advance tickets usually are $45; it's $5 more at the gate. Note: The event usually sells out in advance, so don't wait if you plan to attend. Tickets include access to popular rides such as Space Mountain and Big Thunder Mountain Railroad. Two of the best things about this event—class acts and smaller crowds than during regular hours. The nightly concerts start at 7:30 p.m. and run until 12:30 a.m.
Universal loves to go head to head with the Magic Mickey when it can and Rock the Universe is its answer to Night of Joy (www.rocktheuniverse.com; 407-363-8000; 1000 Universal Studios Plaza, Orlando, 32819). It's even staged on the same weekend—Sept. 5-6. In addition to concerts, the show offers motivational speakers and a Sunday worship service. Rock the Universe has the same plusses as Disney's show, namely top-notch musicians and smaller crowds as well as access to Revenge of the Mummy, the Amazing Adventures of Spiderman and other rides at the Universal Studios and Islands of Adventure theme parks. Tickets are about $42 in advance and $47 at the gate; advance sellouts are less likely than at Night of Joy.
Foodies get an extra special celebration and a major chance to indulge themselves (responsibly, of course) at the Epcot International Food & Wine Festival (www.disneyworld.com; 407-824-4321; 1675 N. Buena Vista Dr., Lake Buena Vista, 32830). It's one of our favorite excuses for a caloric splurge. On the food front, tapas-size delicacies range from Maine lobster rolls to octopus on purple potato salad. But edibles, usually $3.50-$8, are just part of the fun. There are daily demonstrations by celebrity chefs as well as show and tell from dozens of brewers and winemakers (most tastings are $2.50-$5). The festival runs Sept. 26-Nov. 9 and also has wine-and-dine experiences ($135-$350). And, if music is your thing, the "Eat to the Beat" Concert Series has big-name performers such as past appearances by Little Richard, David Sanborn, The Beach Boys and others. The concerts are included in Epcot's general admission, $71 for adults, $60 for kids 3-9. The meals are extra.
Love spine-chilling fun? If so, Universal's Halloween Horror Nights (www.halloweenhorrornights.com; 407-363-8000; 1000 Universal Studios Plaza, Orlando, 32819) is one of the best ways to satisfy your cravings—but certainly not something meant for kids or the faint of heart. Very realistic ghouls, monsters and haunted rooms scare the skivvies off some adults. You'll run into Jason, Freddy Krueger and Leatherface, be invited into haunted houses and encounter scenes from Friday the 13th and Texas Chainsaw Massacre during your visit to Universal Studios Florida. The 18-year-old event runs on select nights through early November. This is a separate ticket event (about $65). By the way, guests aren't allowed to wear costumes or masks. That's how the costumed scream team (a.k.a., the staff) knows its fellow bad guys and gals from its victims. Note: If you plan to attend, consider buying your tickets in advance on the Internet because some nights sell out.
At the other end of the fright meter, Mickey's Not-So-Scary Halloween Party (www.disneyworld.com; 407-824-4321; 311 World Drive, Lake Buena Vista, 32820) is a G-rated special event aimed at youngsters and families. Instead of fire-breathing fiends and ax murderers, guests dress up and go trick or treating through the Magic Kingdom. Disney characters are available for autographs and photo ops, there's a big fireworks show and the Boo to You Halloween Parade adds to the fun. This is a three-in-one treat: You can celebrate the holiday, get into the Kingdom at less-than-the-regular admission and enjoy some of the most popular rides with smaller crowds than during normal days. It runs through early November. Admission is $46 for adults, $40 for kids 3-9. Mickey's party also sells out some nights, so think about buying in advance.
If you live for bikes, beaches, blondes and bikinis, you may want to plan your central Florida visit around Daytona's annual Biketoberfest (www.biketoberfest.org; 866-296-8970 or 386-255-0415, Daytona Beach, 32114). The Oct. 16-19 celebration has the expected display of dream bikes and motorcycle processions—but there's more. The lineup includes concerts, beach parties, organized rides and races. Many things have no admission. But a warning: If you're traveling with kids you may want to steer clear of this one. In addition to blondes in sometimes-minimal bikinis, there are tens of thousands of not-always sober bikers. Daytona Beach is about an hour's drive northeast of Orlando.
Disney's Festival of the Masters (disneyworld.com/artfestival; 407-824-4321; 1780 E. Buena Vista Dr., Lake Buena Vista, 32830) is one of the most prestigious art shows in the Southeast and, going into its 33rd year, its staying power is clear. In order to be invited, artists must have earned a first place in a juried show in the previous three years. Scheduled in early November, the event attracts up to 200 exhibitors to Downtown Disney West Side. It showcases fine arts such as painting, sculpture and photography, but you don't have to be a refined art lover to enjoy the fun. It also offers live music and performances by Cirque du Soleil players, a 6,000-square-foot sidewalk canvas for chalk artists, a folk art display at the House of Blues and, for the kids, a learn-to-draw-a-Disney-character class and special dance parties. Admission is free.
The PGA Tour has grown quite fond of Central Florida and the annual Children's Miracle Network Classic (www.childrensmiraclenetworkclassic.com; 407-938-4653; on Seven Seas Drive, Lake Buena Vista, 32830) is one of the headline events. Tentatively scheduled for Nov. 6-9, the tournament is played at Disney's Palm and Magnolia courses. The four competitive rounds are televised by the Golf Channel. The tournament's purse is $4.6 million. Tickets range from $10 for practice rounds to $30 per day live play. There's also a $50 ticket for all seven days. Parking is $10 per day.
Dads and lads get a chance to bond while honing their golf skills at the Del Webb Father/Son Challenge (www.delwebfatherson.com; 407-787-4653; 1400 Masters Blvd., ChampionsGate, 33896), which is held annually in late November-early December at ChampionsGate Golf Resort. The first two days of the event are a pro-am tourney with the father/son competition following. In 2007, Larry Nelson and his son Josh beat Bob and Kevin Tway. Other regulars include Tom and David Kite, Hale and Steve Irwin and Lee and Daniel Trevino. NBC broadcasts the final rounds of the event. Tickets are $20 per day or $50 for a four-day pass. Parking is $5 per day.
For our money, Holidays Around the World at Epcot (www.disneyworld.com; 407-824-4321; 1200 Epcot Resort Blvd., Lake Buena Vista, 32830), sometimes called the Candlelight Processional, is Orlando's most inspiring celebration of the season. The show, staged nightly from late November through December, uses an orchestra, 400-member choir, and celebrities to tell the story of Christmas. Edward James Olmos, Gary Sinese and Rita Moreno are among the perennials in a cast that includes some 15 stars. There are three, 40-minute shows nightly. The event, now in its 38th year, is included in Epcot's regular admission, $71 for adults and $60 for children 3-9.
Disney World attacks New Year's Eve (www.disneyworld.com; 407-824-4321; Lake Buena Vista, 32830) on several fronts. The most enthusiastic celebration is at Pleasure Island, where the action at seven clubs spills into the streets for one big block party capped by a fireworks display done as only the Mickster does it. (If you're desperate for this and can stomach the admission, we recommend camping between Mannequins and the Pleasure Island Jazz Company for a truly surrounding display. But there are several decent viewing areas from nearby Downtown Disney.) There also are slightly longer-than-usual shows on New Year's Eve at Magic Kingdom (Wishes and Fantasy in the Sky) and Epcot (Illuminations). They're included in standard admission at the parks ($71 adults, $60 kids 3-9); Pleasure Island admission is $89 including champagne toast and finger foods.
Sure, Santa and his reindeer make an appearance, but the real draws at Macy's Holiday Parade at Universal Studios Florida (www.universalorlando.com; 407-363-8000; 1000 Universal Studios Plaza, Orlando, 32819) are some of the floats (about 15), marching bands (2-4 daily, most of them from Florida) and yacht-size helium balloons (think Uncle Sam, a toy soldier and more) that you'll see live or on television in Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade in New York City. While the parade size and running time (30-45 minutes) are shorter than the Big Apple's rendition, the daily-at-dusk mini parade (Dec. 8-Jan. 1) is a good tapas-size portion for anyone who has never had an up-close-and-personal with the real deal. If you've been there and done that, or don't give a hoot about parades, this is an excellent time to attack some of the primo rides (Twister, Men in Black Alien Attack, Revenge of the Mummy), while the usual line fillers take a break for Macy's show. Admission is $71 adults, $60 kids 3-9.