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Where to celebrate the holidays in Old Florida: Best Christmas light displays

Mount Dora, St. Augustine and Stephen Foster Folk Culture Center State Park work to offer the best Christmas lights in Florida, but there are other interesting spots too.

It’s a shame the days between Thanksgiving and Christmas are so full of shopping and events, because this is a terrific time to enjoy Florida’s natural beauty.

One way to squeeze in a weekend is to combine the outing with your holiday celebrations. These three spots are also excellent places to hike, kayak, bicycle and explore Florida historic sites.

Best holiday lights in Florida: Lightner Museum decorated during St. Augustine Nights of Lights (Photo courtesy FloridasHistoricCoast.com.)
Lightner Museum decorated during St. Augustine Nights of Lights. (Photo courtesy FloridasHistoricCoast.com.)

Sure, every community has decorations and parades, but these three destinations go all out to have the best holiday lights in Florida in a charming non-commercial setting. 

Mount Dora Christmas Lights Festival

Mount Dora is always having a weekend festival. (Here’s our guide to Mount Dora and its special events.) But the city’s Christmas lights festival lasts for a month and includes a wide variety of events.

Mount Dora decorates with three million lights. They flip the switch during the Thanksgiving weekend.

Mount Dora Christmas lights are centered around Donnelly Park, a well-used park in the middle of the downtown entertainment and shopping district. (Photo: Bonnie Gross)
Mount Dora Christmas lights are centered around Donnelly Park, a well-used park in the middle of the downtown entertainment and shopping district. (Photo: Bonnie Gross)

Light Up Mount Dora kicks it off from 4:30 p.m. to 8:30 p.m. Saturday, Nov. 30, 2023, at the downtown lakefront in Evans Park. The event starts at downtown Donnelly Park with dancers and traditional Christmas carols

The center of the Christmas lights is Donnelly Park, but there are lights throughout the town, including around the Christmas tree in Sunset Park. There’s a fun lights exhibit (with moving displays) around the marina and boating center.

Make holidays plans: Florida Rambler’s Holiday Boat Parade Calendar

During 2021, we visited Mount Dora on Thanksgiving weekend and the streets were busy with people admiring the lights and going to and from the many restaurants and bars downtown.

The park was full of families with kids, many of whom were licking ice cream cones from the popular nearby Scoops on 5th. (On the other hand, keep this in mind: Traffic was intense. There were waits for tables at restaurants and the town was packed.)

Mount Dora has a series of holidays events:

  • Friday, Dec. 1, 2023: Mount Dora Christmas Walk, an evening geared to Chirstmas shopping and dining. Shops are open until 9 p.m.
  • Saturday, Dec. 2, 2023, 10 a.m. to noon: The 63rd Annual Mount Dora Christmas Parade.
  • Saturday Dec. 2, 2023 7 p.m.: The Lighted Board Parade.
  • Saturday, Dec. 9, 2023, 3 to 7 p.m.: Christmas snow in the downtown Donnelly Park.
  • Wednesday, Dec. 13, 2023, 7 to 9 p.m. Free holiday concert by the Lake Concert Band and Director John Landers, at Mount Dora Music Hall, 520 N. Baker St., Mount Dora, FL 32757
Best Christmas light in Florida: Mount Dora.
Some of the best Christmas lights in Florida are in Mount Dora.

Mount Dora keeps its lights shining through January.

More details about Christmas in Mount Dora

St. Augustine Nights of Lights

St. Augustine Nights of Lights (Photo courtesy FloridasHistoricCoast.com.)
St. Augustine Nights of Lights (Photo courtesy FloridasHistoricCoast.com.)

St. Augustine turns on the lights on Nov. 18, 2023 and they stay lit up all the way through Jan. 31, 2024. Like Mount Dora, the Oldest City estimates it has 3 million lights. (By city ordinance, all holiday lights in the historic and residential areas must be white.)

One of its most spectacular displays is lighting up the iconic and historic Bridge of Lions.

St. Augustine’s holiday decorations have been ranked among the 10 best holiday light displays by National Geographic, and they can enjoyed by land and sea – there are boat tours, horse and carriage rides, pedicabs, trolley tours, golf cart tours and more.

Old Town Trolley’s lights tour departs nightly beginning at 6 p.m. from the Visitor Information Center. You can find a variety of tours on land and water listed here.

Two favorite photo spots are the Bridge of Lions and the the Plaza de la Constitución, a central park in downtown St. Augustine, where there is a Christmas tree and live music on weekends. 

Make holidays plans: Town of Christmas, Florida, is a nostalgic trip to the past

Festival of Lights at Stephen Foster Folk Culture Center State Park

Christmas lights in Florida: Festival of Lights at Stephen Foster Folk Culture Center State Park (Photo by Florida Department of Environmental Protection)
Festival of Lights at Stephen Foster Folk Culture Center State Park (Photo by Florida Department of Environmental Protection)

Mount Dora and St. Augustine are whole cities of decorations, but this state park decorates so extensively that thousands of people come to see the lights that outline the majestic oak trees and historic buildings in this park along the Suwanee River. The park museum, which looks like a mansion from “Gone With the Wind,” is decorated too. 

Festival of Lights at Stephen Foster Folk Culture Center State Park (Photo by Florida Department of Environmental Protection)
Festival of Lights at Stephen Foster Folk Culture Center State Park (Photo by Florida Department of Environmental Protection)

The lights will twinkle from Dec. 8-24, 2023.

Tickets are $4 per person. Children under 3 are free. You do not pay an additional entrance fee to the park.

  • You can view the lights from dusk until 9 p.m. Last ticket is sold at 8:30 p.m.
  • Every night except Dec. 24 will be a “Holiday Magic Night” with complementary hot cocoa, popcorn and marshmallow roasting by a bonfire. The evening of Dec. 24 is a “Silent Night” with just viewing of the lights but no other activities.

More resources for Stephen Foster Folk Culture Center State Park:

Make holidays plans: All aboard the Sugar Express for a sweet treat: Santa Claus!

More places in Florida with Christmas light displays or extensive festivals

Amelia Island’s Dickens on Centre festival, Dec. 7 to 10, 2023. It will have lots of twinkling lights and downtown Fernandina Beach will be transformed along a Victorian theme. The four day festival’s main attraction is a free Christmas Market including stages with entertainers, vendor booths decked with holiday gifts and music.

48th Annual Historic Holiday Nights Celebration at Edison and Ford Winter Estates in Fort Myers, Nov. 24 – Dec. 31, 2023, 5:30 p.m. to 9 p.m. The traditional event has added new light displays on the grounds of historic estate. The Children’s Holiday Tree Trail has handmade ornaments created by students from local schools. The event includes refreshments for purchase and Santa, carolers, and music on select nights.

Night Garden at Fairchild Tropical Gardens, Coral Gables, Nov. 10 to Jan. 7, 2023. The event turns the beautiful 23-acre botanical garden into an illuminated fairyland with technicolor flowers and sculptures. Activities include rainbow-colored pathways, a talking wise old tree and a Fairy Quest. Weekday tickets are $25; weekends are $35.

Pensacola Winterfest, Nov. 17, 19, 24—26; Dec. 1, 2, 8, 10, 15—17, 19—24. Pensacola’s historic downtown streets are lit up with more than half a million white lights, There’s a Winterfest Elf Parade, daily live performances, holiday trolley tours, cascades of “snow,” and Santa and a cast of holiday characters.

Ocala holiday lights, Nov. 19- Dec. 14. Ocala has a beautifully lit downtown main square, whose lights go on Nov. 18, with a Light Up Ocala event and continue through the holliday season. But there also has two other major holiday light displays in the Ocala area: Winter Wonderland at World Equestrian Center and Ocala Christmas Light Spectacular at the Florida Horse Park. Both events charge for parking: The Winter Wonderland event is $10 weekdays; $30 weekends, the Light Spectacular is $25-$35. Both have more than lights to offer.

The Florida Botanical Gardens in Largo lights up with Holiday Lights In The Gardens, a modestly priced fundraiser at $10 per person, with kids 12 and under free. It begins Friday, Nov. 24 through Sunday, Dec. 31st, 2023. The gardens sparkle with 1 million, twinkling, LED lights in a multitude of colors plus laser lights and lighted figures. Hours are 5:30 p.m. to 9:30 p.m. nightly. There is free parking in two locations:
12520 Ulmerton Road, Largo FL, 33774, and 12211 Walsingham Road, Largo, FL 33778. Food and non-alcoholic hot and cold drinks are available for purchase.

Selby Gardens in downtown Sarasota brings more than two million lights to the gardens and walkways in its Lights in Bloom display Dec. 8-10, 12-23, 26-30, 2023; and Jan 1-3, 2024. It has been ranked one of the best light displays at a botanical garden in the US. Non-member tckets are $30 adults ($40 for earlier admission) and kids 5 to 12 $15 ($20 early admission.)

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Bonnie Gross

Thursday 18th of November 2021

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Bonnie Gross

Thursday 18th of November 2021

You might be looking for holiday boat parades, which we've list here: https://www.floridarambler.com/florida-festivals/holiday-boat-parades/

I'm afraid we don't have information on where to get the best views for each one, which I know can be a challenge.

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