With the holiday spirit well underway at Universal Orlando Resort, many seasonal offerings are available for park guests to experience. From the classic Grinchmas Who-liday Spectacular at Islands of Adventure to the Universal Christmas Parade featuring Macy’s, the park’s merry transformation is sure to put you into a Holly Jolly Overload.
Thankfully, this year also features the return of the Universal Holiday Tour – a VIP Tour taking place near park close into the after-hours of Universal Orlando Resort. For park guests here in Orlando for a limited amount of time and looking to get the most out of their Christmas vacation, the Holiday Tour is hands down one of the best experiences of the holiday season at Universal.
Advertised as a five-hour walking tour priced anywhere from $79.99 per person to $119.99 per person depending on what date you book, the Universal Holiday Tour is so much more than just a sightseeing adventure. Peppered with exclusive viewings and special meet-and-greets, the five-hour tour featured popular encounters, light bites, sweet treats, and a few special VIP-exclusive meetings with some of the biggest names of the Christmas season.
Part One: The Grinchmas Who-liday Spectacular
The tour started at 5:30 in the evening, giving guests about forty-five minutes to get checked in; as with most of their VIP Holiday Tours recently, check in was through the back gate of Universal, where the old Blue Man Group theater sits. This check-in location ended up being incredibly convenient, as the first stop on our tour was a private viewing of the Grichmas Who-liday Spectacular, which has been held in the very same theater for the last few years.
At 6:30, our tour group of twelve was ushered into the theater along with the other Holiday groups touring that evening. While the large theater was by no means full, it was still a decently sized crowd, and I found the viewing experience to be indistinguishable from any of the daytime shows run for standard park guests. Of course, this viewing was merely the kickoff to our merry adventure, and while the actual viewing experience didn’t feel any different, the reserved seating and exclusive showtime took the planning and hassle out of trying to catch a show during the daytime hours – especially considering it’s almost always a full house during park hours, and the showtimes themselves are limited.
The Grinchmas Who-liday Spectacular is a thirty-minute retelling of Dr. Seuss’s classic. Flawlessly fusing the 1969 animated special and the 2000 film starring Jim Carrey, this show remains one of the best holiday offerings that Universal Orlando Resort has. It’s effortlessly whimsical and always funny, with fun choreography and music arranged by Chip Davis and Mannheim Steamroller. The Whos of Whoville are funny and charming, and the Grinch himself has all the tender sweetness of a seasick crocodile.
Considering this is a show that I make a point to see several times a year, this was the perfect way to kick off a night of holiday fun, and a must-see for any guests looking to feel the magic of Christmas come to life on the stage.
Part Two: La Bamba
By the time we had left the theater, both parks had closed, leaving only the Holiday Tour groups with run of the resort. Our tour guide led us through the deserted streets to La Bamba for a quick bite to eat. The buffet-styled smorgasbord offered simple and comfortable foods; baked alfredo mac-and-cheese, popcorn chicken, french fries, and an assortment of fruits and salad options as well as coffee, water, and sodas were offered for the half-hour we had to eat; we found this was more than enough time, and though theme park food has always had a certain reputation, we found the food that was offered to be pretty good!
Part Three: The Holiday Tribute Store
Perhaps one of the headliners of recent years of Universal’s Holiday Festivities is the Holiday Tribute Store. Relocated to the shops on Hollywood for the Christmas Season, the Tribute Store is a heavily-themed pop-up store dedicated to all things Universal Christmas. Being able to see the Tribute Store after-hours is a special treat since it’s packed at all hours during the day. You don’t realize how beautiful everything really is, how much care and craft goes into the individual rooms of each Tribute Store when you’re packed like sardines wall-to-wall during the daytime hours.
Occasionally (and I was lucky enough to experience this once or twice during Halloween Horror Nights) you hit the store just right during the daytime hours to find it near-empty, but those moments are growing increasingly more rare as the popularity and complexity of the Tribute Store grows yearly. With the Universal Holiday Tour, each small group more or less has the tribute store to themselves, which offers about a half an hour of exclusive me-time in some of the most well-themed rooms in the entire park. Plenty of time to take in all the gorgeous scenery and find some of the little easter eggs (Christmas eggs?) that the good folks at Universal Creative tend to scatter in each Tribute Store throughout the year.
This year’s Christmas Tribute Store is themed to the idea of being an in-universe Post Office that services many of the Universal Landmarks (Except for Atlantis and Amity, apparently), and is run by everyone’s favorite Holiday Nut, Earl the Squirrel.
During the Holiday Tour, we’re clued into some of the lore behind Earl the Squirrel and how he came to be part of the Universal cast of characters, as well as some fun trivia about the 80-foot Christmas tree at the corner of New York and Illuminations Avenue.
Part Four: Meeting Santa
No Christmas extravaganza would be complete without the Big Man himself! While day guests have the opportunity to see Santa as the grand finale of the Universal Holiday Parade Featuring Macy’s – a long running tradition in Universal’s holiday parade – Holiday Tour guests actually get an exclusive meeting with Santa.
This was by far my favorite part of the tour.
Even as a grown adult, having the opportunity to tell Santa that a recent and incredibly important Christmas wish really did come true was an incredibly special moment. Taking place in the upper floors of the 30 Rock building at the corner of New York, it was beautifully decorated and intimate, with each family in each private group getting to meet Santa individually. While the entire tour was a delight, this was certainly the highlight of the night and a moment that I’ll cherish forever.
Part Five: Secret Surprise Attraction
After our meet-and-greet with Jolly Old St. Nick, we were brought back to the front of the park for a surprise attraction experience; anyone with cursory knowledge of the parks knew which attraction we would be experiencing since our tour guide had given us the hint at the beginning of the event that it would be “a ride where you stand up.” Considering there’s only one attraction that fits the bill – and the newest attraction in Universal Orlando Resort to boot – it wasn’t all that difficult to figure out which attraction we would be experiencing!
Despicable Me: Minion Blast is a unique attraction, though I wouldn’t really call it a ‘ride.’ Guests are welcomed into Villain-Con to test their mettle in a competition to see who will become the newest member of the Vicious Six. Donning your E-Liminator X blaster, you board a moving walkway that carries you through themed rooms where you blast and destroy your way to the highest score!
While many have given this attraction mixed reviews, I like to think it has a lot of potential in its fully realized state. One of the first offerings of Universal’s app connectivity to bring digital gameplay to the parks, players are able to link their blasters to their accounts to join leaderboards, complete missions, and customize their weapon’s functionality based on unlockable upgrades.
Unfortunately, this fully realized state isn’t accessible to everyone. During the attraction experience, I learned the hard way that only smartphones with NFC (Near Field Communications) capabilities are able to tap and connect to the E-Liminator X blasters, limiting who is able to connect to the full game experience of the attraction. For those who are able to use Apple, Samsung, or Google Pay by tapping your phones to credit card terminals, connecting your Universal app to your E-Liminator X blaster should be a breeze – but if you have a slightly older model of smartphone or a phone that has not yet had its NFC settings turned on, you may not be getting the full experience of Despicable Me: Minion Blast.
Part Six: Meeting the Grinch and Dessert Bar
The Grinch is rude, abrasive, and has nothing nice to say about anyone who meets him – and that’s exactly why we love him. While a meeting with the Grinch may not be as holly and jolly as a meeting with Santa Claus, it’s a unique experience that’s sure to make you laugh. With Universal shaking up how this Grinchmas meet-and-greet works, daytime guests can find themselves in a standby queue for up to three hours to meet this Wholiday Hum Bug; one of the biggest draws and best perks of the Universal Holiday Tour is a private meet-and-greet session with the Grinch in all his Grinchy glory. This year’s meet took place in the same theater that we’d seen the Wholiday Spectacular in earlier, and while each tour group did get to go in on an individual basis, with each family in the tour group meeting the Grinch separately for some fun banter and a photo op, many of the night’s individual tour groups were in the theater at the same time.
To help control the crowds and ensure that each tour group did get an exclusive meeting with the Grinch, parties were ushered in one tour group at a time, while the others were encouraged to use their waiting time to enjoy a sampling of holiday treats that had been set up in the room opposite the theater, or to take advantage of one of the two other meet and greet opportunities in the sound stage: guests were given the opportunity to meet and take photos with one of the Whos, as well as a VIP-exclusive meet and greet that cannot be found anywhere else in the parks.
That’s right. We got to pet the dog.
Max the Dog was just as cute and lovable as you would expect; and why wouldn’t he be? He’s basically living the dream of any dog. He got to meet so many new people, and they were all there to give him pets.
After meeting Max and while still waiting for our party to be called to meet the Grinch (though, Max was a tough act to follow), we stopped for a quick bite in the holiday treats hall. Though a lot of sweet foods were offered, they were notably missing any kind of milk or hot cocoa to accompany it; which, really sounds like a nitpick, but being offered coca-cola alongside sweets is like being offered a root canal – not a very pleasant experience.
The sweets themselves were a nice snack break, though! Offering festive choices like sugar cookies and peppermint cheesecake bites, everything tasted just like the holidays!
Part Seven: The Magic of Christmas at Hogwarts
After meeting the Grinch, our final stop on the Universal Holiday Tour was a private viewing of The Magic of Christmas at Hogwarts, a stunning eight-minute projection show that sees the Hogwarts Castle in Islands of Adventure come to life with Christmas Magic. Set against a beautiful and often haunting score that highlights the music featured in the film’s various Christmas scenes, viewers are treated to a lights show only possible through Wizarding Magic, complete with dancing ghosts, living snowmen, and a barely-noticeable ad placement for Weasely’s Wizarding Wheezes.
Having seen this show many times through the years, it’s safe to say that all showings of this spectacle for daytime guests are packed. The streets of Hogsmeade are often at a wall-to-wall standstill while the show is running and for up to forty minutes prior. As a day guest, I tend to view this show from the bridge connecting The Wizarding World of Harry Potter to Jurassic Park, to avoid the crush of the crowd trying to view it from in front of the entrance to The Forbidden Journey – arguably the most popular spot to try and catch a viewing of any nighttime Hogwarts Castle show.
As VIP guests on the Universal Holiday Tour, all tour parties converged at the end of the night to view this show, but the crowds still were not half as bad as they are during the daytime show. Nearing ten thirty at night by this point, the park had long been closed, and all the guests that remained in the park were Holiday Tour guests. For the very first time, I got to view the Hogwarts Castle show from the front of the castle, and it was without a doubt the best view I’ve had of the event in all the years and all the iterations I’ve attended.
Part Eight: Wrapping it All Up
At the end of the day, many of the things that were offered on this tour were completely accessible to day guests, and for Florida Residents with annual passes, the offerings on this tour were not necessarily things that we have ever had a hard time accomplishing throughout the Holiday Seasons. Notably missing from this tour was any viewing of the Universal Holiday Parade Featuring Macy’s, and because showings are extremely limited in the Christmas Season, this tour also did not include any special viewing or special seating for the Manheim Steamroller shows that are traditionally held at the Music Stage Plaza.
It’s important to note that while I greatly enjoyed this tour, it did not offer everything there is to do at Universal during the Holidays, and what it did offer is for the most part easily accomplished by a few dedicated days enjoying the park during their holiday festivities.
For the price, many residents who frequent the parks may not find extraordinary value in a Universal Holiday Tour the same way they might during the Halloween Season. However, for families coming from out-of-town or those who have a very limited time at Universal Studios for the Holidays, the Universal Holiday Tour is a brilliantly curated tour offering all of Universal’s best holiday experiences in a condensed – but not overwhelming – time frame that offers plenty of laughter, merriment, and Christmas magic.
In no way do I regret participating in this Holiday festivity, but I do wish that the website had offered more information on the itinerary of events that come standard in the Holiday Tour. During the after-hours experiences on this tour, you truly feel like part of a VIP group. The photo opportunities were amazing, once-in-a-blue-moon photos of an empty and dazzlingly lit park, and our tour guide was as kind as he was funny.
With Universal offering a rotating menu of VIP experiences throughout the year, I believe that they’re all worth a try, and given my experiences this year, I would absolutely come back in the future. The Universal Holiday Tour, while not necessarily offering you many experiences unavailable to particularly diligent day guests, was still a special experience, and a memory that I hope all of you get to make as well.
Merry Christmas, everyone, and a happy Who Year!!