Here are holiday and Christmas events near Bradenton and Sarasota for the 2023 season

The 2023 holiday season is here, and Bradenton and Sarasota are ready to celebrate, Florida-style.

Unique holiday and Christmas traditions around Southwest Florida include illuminated boat parades, beach street parties and subtropical light displays.

Other events planned this December include holiday concerts, festivals, markets, theme park events and much more.

Here’s a guide to family-friendly holiday fun on the Suncoast.

Christmas and holiday events

Palmetto’s Christmas in the Park: This annual event includes kids’ crafts, reindeer games and a chance to meet Santa. Also, enjoy the decorated grounds of the Palmetto Historical Park.

  • Details: 3-7 p.m. Friday, Dec. 1 and 2-7 p.m. Saturday, Dec. 2. Palmetto Historical Park, 515 10th Ave. W., Palmetto. Free; registration required; guests must call the museum to reserve a slot with Santa.

  • More info: 941-721-2034.

Christmas on Bridge Street will bring a family-friendly block party to Bradenton Beach’s iconic main drag.

Santa and his entourage, along with his sleigh, will be parked outside of the Bridge Street post office from 3-7 p.m. A kids’ zone with activities will open from 3-5:30 p.m. Four-part harmony group The Dickens Carolers will bring some old-time charm to the event from 5-7 p.m. And many shops and eateries on Bridge Street will be open late.

The Bradenton Beach City Pier will have live music provided by Mike Sails from 6-8 p.m., and other businesses on Bridge Street will also host live music.

The Bradenton Beach Holiday Boat parade will pass by the pier between 6:30 and 7:30 p.m.

Beth and Tyler Zipperer portray basket weavers in a past Walk Through Bethlehem at Samoset First Baptist Church. The production is set for Dec. 3-4.
Beth and Tyler Zipperer portray basket weavers in a past Walk Through Bethlehem at Samoset First Baptist Church. The production is set for Dec. 3-4.

Walk Through Bethlehem: Samoset First Baptist Church’s “Walk Through Bethlehem” event immerses visitors in a “live, dramatic, walk-through Christmas adventure that re-enacts what it might have been like the night Jesus was born.”

The event features over 100 actors, live animals, demonstrations and storytelling.

  • Details: 4:30-8:30 p.m. Saturday, Dec. 2 and Sunday, Dec. 3. Samoset First Baptist Church, 3200 15th St. E., Bradenton. Free; donations accepted.

  • More info:

Palmetto Historical Park and Manatee County Agricultural Museum are all decked out in their holiday finest for history tours and events this December.
Palmetto Historical Park and Manatee County Agricultural Museum are all decked out in their holiday finest for history tours and events this December.

Historic Holiday Tours: Palmetto Historical Museum & the Manatee County Agricultural Museum will host educational tours that explore both museums’ grounds this month, and visitors can see all the historical buildings decked out in Christmas decor.

Spots for the tours are limited, and reservations are required.

  • Details: Historic Holiday Tours offered at 11 a.m., 1 p.m. and 2 p.m. Dec. 5-8. Palmetto Historical Park, 515 10th Ave. W., Palmetto. Free.

  • More info:

Christmas in Cortez: Now in its third year, this festival spirits up holiday family fun in the historic fishing village of Cortez. Hosted by the Florida Maritime Museum, “Christmas in Cortez” will feature games, bounce houses, a maze, a Santa meet-and-greet and other holiday festivities.

Food and drink will be available for purchase at the festival. Event parking can be found at the FISH Preserve, just east of the Florida Maritime Museum. Parking, admission and activities are free.

  • Details: 1-4 p.m. Saturday, Dec. 9. Florida Maritime Museum, 4415 119th St. W., Cortez. Free.

  • More info:

An Old Florida Christmas at Manatee Village Historical Park will welcome food, crafts, music and vendors selling handmade crafts and goods. Historic buildings will be decorated in Victorian and Old Florida styles, and there will be “make and take” craft projects to enjoy.

  • Details: 10 a.m.-3 p.m. Saturday, Dec. 9. Manatee Village Historical Park, 1404 Manatee Ave. E., Bradenton. Free.

  • More info:

Night Before Christmas at G.T. Bray: G.T. Bray Park in Bradenton will transform into a holiday wonderland for this family-friendly Christmas extravaganza.

The annual event is sponsored by Manatee County Government and will feature bounce houses, a petting zoo, face painting and a train ride along a Christmas path. Kids will also be able to say hello to Santa and Mrs. Claus.

Local vendors and food trucks will be there to add to the fun.

Entry is free, but organizers request a donation of one new, unwrapped toy per family for a Toys for Tots drive. A $5 wristband is required to access the bounce houses, train ride and face painting activities.

Parking will be available in several lots around the park.

Bradenton’s Winter Wonderland: After last year’s Winter Wonderland was canceled, the event is set to return for its 21st outing on Dec. 9. The holiday street party will transform downtown Bradenton’s Old Main Street into a charming holiday scene, complete with lights, vendors, crafts, games, food and drink, entertainment and family photo ops.

Winter Wonderland takes place near the waterfront, where the Manatee River Holiday Boat Parade will pass by between 7:30-8:30 p.m.

The Florida Railroad Museum’s North Pole Express offers family friendly holiday magic throughout December.
The Florida Railroad Museum’s North Pole Express offers family friendly holiday magic throughout December.

North Pole Express at the Florida Railroad Museum: The North Pole Express transports guests through rural Manatee County to a Christmas village with activities, campfires, hot chocolate, cookies and a meet-and-greet with Santa. The experience lasts about three and a half hours.

Tickets for this local favorite are quick to sell out.

  • Details: Nov. 30 and Dec. 1-3, 6-10, 13-17 and 20-21. Florida Railroad Museum, 12210 83rd St. E., Parrish. Tickets start at $43.

  • More info: 941-776-0906.

Enchant St. Petersburg: This popular annual event at Tropicana Field returns with “the world’s largest Christmas light maze,” a shopping village with vendors, ice skating, live entertainment, crafts and food.

Holiday parades

Jiggs Landing Outpost will host an Old Florida holiday boat parade on the Evers Reservoir and Braden River on Dec. 2.

Boat decoration starts at noon with a backdrop of live music from 11 a.m.-7 p.m.

The parade starts at sunset. Spectators can bring a lawn chair and set up waterside or rent a screened tent for $50.

Jiggs Landing Outpost is open until sunset with food, drinks and sweets.

  • Details: Parade starts around 5:30 p.m. Dec. 2. Jiggs Landing Outpost, 6106 63rd St. E., Bradenton. Free. No entry fee for participants.

  • Info: 941-727-4181.

Bradenton Beach Marina’s Holiday Boat Parade: The fifth annual parade will start near the Longboat Pass Bridge. The festive boats will then float north up the Intracoastal waterway, ending at the Bradenton Beach Marina.

Recommended spots to view the parade are the Longboat Pass Bridge (6-6:45 p.m.) and Bradenton Beach City Pier (6:30-7:30 p.m.).

AMI Privateers Children’s Christmas Parade: This annual parade spreads holiday cheer all along Anna Maria Island with a procession of colorful floats.

The parade steps off at 10 a.m. from the Coquina Beach North Ramp and travels down Gulf Drive through Bradenton Beach and Holmes Beach and ends on Pine Avenue in the City of Anna Maria.

The parade will be followed by an after-party at Holmes Beach City Field with free hot dogs for kids and a visit from Santa.

The Manatee River Holiday Boat Parade keeps the holiday spirit afloat with a festive nautical display down the famous waterway.

Boat owners will compete for cash prizes based on theme creativity, lights, music and crowd reaction.

Parade viewing points include Snead Island, the Green Bridge Fishing Pier and sidewalk areas, parts of Riverside Drive in Palmetto and the Bradenton Riverwalk.

Alternatively, grab a reservation at Riverhouse Waterfront Restaurant, Caddy’s or Pier 22 Restaurant for a view with food.

Estimated viewing timeline:

6 p.m. - Staging begins at Shaw Point

6:30-7:30 p.m. - Bradenton Yacht Club (Private Members Club)

7:15-8:15 p.m. - Riverhouse Waterfront Restaurant

7:30-8:30 p.m. - Pier 22 Restaurant/Twin Dolphin Marina/Oak & Stone

Holiday shows

Van Wezel Performing Arts Hall has a month of holiday shows lined up this December that includes popular musicians, dance and circus arts. Here’s a look at the December offerings:

Nov. 29: Dave Koz and Friends Christmas Tour 2023

Dec. 4: Sweet Caroline Tour: A Neil Diamond Christmas

Dec. 13: Marie Osmond: An Orchestral Christmas

Dec. 14: Sarah Brightman: A Christmas Symphony

Dec. 16: The Illusionists: Magic of the Holidays

Dec. 20: Il Divo: A New Day Holiday Tour

Dec. 21: Celtic Angels Christmas

Dec. 23: Cirque Musica: Holiday Wonderland

Dec. 28: Nutcracker! Magical Christmas Ballet

Dec. 30: Salute to Vienna New Year’s Concert

  • Details: Van Wezel Performing Arts Hall, 777 N Tamiami Trail, Sarasota.

  • More info and tickets: 941-263-6799.

Sarasota Orchestra will celebrate the holidays with its “Great Escapes Holiday Party” concert this December. The program includes selections from Tchaikovsky’s “The Nutcracker,” Irving Berlin’s “White Christmas,” Samuel Coleridge-Taylor’s “Christmas Overture” and Jessie Montgomery’s “Hymn for Everyone.”

  • Details: Dec. 6-10. Sarasota Orchestra’s Holley Hall, 709 N. Tamiami Trail, Sarasota. Tickets start at $47.

  • More info: 941-953-3434.

Westcoast Black Theatre Troupe will present an original Christmas show called “Joyful! Joyful!” this holiday season. “A blend of new takes on traditional holiday, gospel-infused and pop songs, the production offers a joyful, soulful twist on your favorite seasonal music,” a preview says.

  • Details: Nov. 29-Dec. 30. Westcoast Black Theatre Troupe, 1012 N. Orange Ave., Sarasota. Adults: $50. Students and active military: $20.

  • More info: 941-366-1505.

Holiday shopping and markets

Holidays at UTC: University Town Center has more than a month of holiday activities planned.

Attractions include nightly light shows along Cattlemen Road, an ice rink, holiday movie showings, horse-drawn carriage rides, an outdoor exhibit of holiday greeting cards created by local schools and 40 holiday trees decorated by local charities.

Tightrope walker Nik Wallenda and the Circus Arts Conservatory will present a holiday circus show, “A Brave New Wonderland,” from Nov. 18-Dec. 31.

The Village of the Arts in Bradenton will host a market on Small Business Saturday, Nov. 25, with lots of opportunities to find unique gifts and a scavenger hunt.

The shops of the live-work community display and sell a wide range of crafts and art styles. Live music and eats and drinks at Village restaurants and cafes are another reason to stop by.

The Village’s monthly Art Walk on the first weekend of December will offer another chance to shop.

Check for individual business hours.

  • Details: Small Business Saturday market is 11 a.m.-4 p.m. Saturday, Nov. 25. December Art Walk is 6-9:30 p.m. Friday, Dec. 1 and 11 a.m.-4 p.m. Saturday, Dec. 2. Village of the Arts, downtown Bradenton.

  • More info:

A Holiday Market will bring more than 150 vendors to the Mall at University Town Center for two days in December.

Shop among crafters, artisans and regional businesses and enjoy food trucks, tree lightings and colorful light displays.

  • Details: 4-9 p.m. Friday, Dec. 1 and 11 a.m.-5 p.m. Saturday, Dec. 2. The Mall at University Town Center, 140 University Town Center Dr., Sarasota. Free parking and entry.

  • More info:

Marie Selby Botanical Gardens’ annual holiday light spectacle, “Lights in Bloom,” returns from Dec. 8 2023 to Jan. 4, 2024.
Marie Selby Botanical Gardens’ annual holiday light spectacle, “Lights in Bloom,” returns from Dec. 8 2023 to Jan. 4, 2024.

Holiday light displays

Lights of Palmetto: Opened in 2018, Lights of Palmetto is a free, drive-in Christmas light attraction that features over 500,000 color-changing lights synced up to holiday and popular music. The show happens nightly from Thanksgiving to early January on the 4-acre property of the Stallings family near Buffalo Creek Road. Simply pull in and tune your radio to 96.1 FM to enjoy music with the lights.

Lights of Palmetto has grown every year since it opened with more lights and new props.

Admission is free, but donations are happily accepted for a local toy drive charity. There’s also a box where kids can leave notes to Santa.

  • Details: Opens Thanksgiving night at 6 p.m. Runs nightly through early January. Hours: 6-10 p.m. Sunday to Thursday; 6-11 p.m. Friday and Saturday through early January. Lights of Palmetto is located at 5220 69th Street East. Visitors can park and watch in their cars or walk up the sidewalk on nearby Buffalo Creek Road for another vantage point. Tune to 96.1 FM for music. Free; donations for charity accepted.

  • Info:

“Winter Nights Under the Lights”: Palma Sola Botanical Park’s fourth annual holiday light display is back and bigger with more nights and new activities.

Take a stroll and snap a few family photos among acres of illuminated Florida foliage.

Attractions this year include Santa, food trucks, live holiday music, a gift market, hot cocoa and cider, hay rides, a tree decorating contest, crafts and a decorated golf cart parade.

  • Details: 6-9 p.m. Dec. 13-17. Palma Sola Botanical Park, 9800 17th Ave. NW, Bradenton. Free (donations requested).

  • More info:

Lights in Bloom: “Lights in Bloom” transforms Marie Selby Botanical Gardens in Sarasota into an illuminated winter wonderland.

More than two million lights are in place to illuminate Selby’s gardens and walkways.

The event also includes arts and crafts, activities, entertainment and holiday photo ops. Food and drink will be available for purchase in the gardens.

  • Details: 6:30-9 p.m. Dec. 8-10, 12-23, 26-30 and Jan. 1-3. Selby Botanical Gardens, 900 S. Palm Ave., Sarasota. Adults: $30. Ages 5-17: $15. Children under 5: Free. Early entry tickets available for an upcharge.

  • More info:

Holiday theme park fun

Christmas at Busch Gardens: Busch Gardens’ annual Christmas Town celebration puts a holly jolly twist on Florida theme park fun.

The park is decked out in lights and decorations for the holiday party, and there are festive eats, shows, rides and music to enjoy.

A $138.99 Fun Card allows unlimited entries to the Christmas Town event and free entry to the park through the end of 2024.

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