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Where to go for a glowing good time after dark this holiday season
We may not have snow in Sarasota County. But we definitely know how to celebrate a bright Christmas, decorating our homes, public spaces, and well-known local sites with all kinds of twinkling touches. There’s no shortage of holiday light displays in these parts, ranging from subtle to over the top. Get in the holiday spirit by visiting one of these spots known for lighting up the night at this time of year.
Sarasota Jungle Gardens
A daytime visit to Sarasota Jungle Gardens offers a chance to roam its 10 acres of winding trails and tropical vegetation that’s home to more than 200 native and exotic animals. But the site’s annual Holiday Lights Spectacular gives visitors a different look at the longtime attraction.
Light displays are set up all over the gardens, like an illuminated “Candy Cane Lane.” There’s marshmallow roasting and other family-friendly activities, along with live entertainment in the bird pavilion two times a night. Santa even makes an appearance for photo ops, along with the gardens’ famous bird and flamingo residents.
The event is marking its 15th year and takes place on December 9, 10, 16, 17, 21 to 24, and 26 to 30 from 6 to 9 p.m. Admission is $11 for adults, $6 for children ages 3 to 12, and free for children under 3.
Marie Selby Botanical Gardens
A trip to the 15-acre Marie Selby Botanical Gardens in Sarasota can include a walk among the banyan trees, a stroll through an orchid-filled greenhouse, and other close encounters with all kinds of plant life. This time of year, visitors can also enjoy the gardens after the sun sets during the 13th annual Lights in Bloom event.
The gardens are illuminated in colorful lights, some hanging from the trees and others taking the shape of things like flowers and butterflies. This year the number of lights has doubled from half a million to more than one million. Favorite scenes from past years, like the Wishing Tree and Santa’s North Pole Workshop, will be joined by new, not-yet-revealed displays. Miniature garden trains are tucked in among the vegetation, and there’s nightly live entertainment.
This year’s event takes place December 16 through 23 and December 26 through 30 from 6 to 9 p.m. Tickets are $25 for adults, $7.50 for children ages 4 to 16, and free for children under 4.
For a special evening, guests can purchase tickets for the Selby Experience on December 16, 17, 18, 22, 23, 29, and 30. Those tickets ($100 for adults, $30 for children ages 4 to 17), include reserved parking, early admission, and a cocktail buffet and holiday desserts at Michael’s on the Bay, the gardens’ new event space.
Sit back and enjoy the ride on SRQ Trolley’s Holiday Tour of Lights. Through Dec. 30, the company offers nightly tours at 6:30 and 8:30 p.m. that take in some of Sarasota’s best illuminated displays.
“We have been doing the tour now for about seven years, and every year we’re creating a bigger and better tour, thanks to the wonderful people of Sarasota who put so much time and effort into their light displays,” says SRQ Trolley owner Priscilla Gratton. “They contact us toward the holiday season to see if they can get on the tour!”
A soundtrack of holiday tunes is played during the excursions, and guests can bring their own beverages along (no glass containers or coolers). Tickets cost $15 per person and are selling fast. Or you can book an entire trolley for large family groups.
“It’s just grown throughout the years,” says Gratton. “People tell friends and they tell friends… It’s just been amazing!”
Historic Spanish Point
Historic Spanish Point occupies a prime bayfront spot in Osprey and has been home to everyone from prehistoric settlers to Chicago socialite–turned–Sarasota cattle rancher Bertha Palmer. Now a 30-acre outdoor museum, it celebrates the season with its annual Holly Days and Mangrove Lights.
Miniature white lights twinkle among the site’s trees and mangroves, giving it a magical glow. Historic and reconstructed structures like White Cottage and Mary’s Chapel are also decked out for the holidays. Historic Spanish Point remains open from 5 to 9 p.m. on Thursdays and Fridays in December so that visitors can enjoy the festive ambience. (Regular admission applies—$12 for adults, $10 for seniors, $5 for children ages 5 to 12, and free for children under 5.)
“Looking for a different date night?” asks Tracey Viviano, the site’s volunteer coordinator. “There is nothing better than taking a stroll to see Christmas lights on a cool night with that special someone.”
On New Year’s Eve, Historic Spanish Point welcomes families for its Starlight and Fire Family Party at the White Cottage. In addition to checking out the lights, visitors can roast marshmallows by a bonfire and frolic in some faux Florida snow from 6 to 10 p.m. At a cost of $10 for adults and $5 for children, it’s an inexpensive and fun-filled way to spend the hours waiting for the clock to strike midnight.
Enander’s Winter Wonderland
The lights go on at Enander’s Winter Wonderland on December 9 and remain lit throughout the month. This family-run display on Mission Valley Boulevard in Nokomis has become a must-do holiday tradition for many in the area, and for good reason. Featuring more than 200,000 lights, it includes scenes depicting seasonal staples like Santa and his elves along with kid-friendly faves like Cinderella and dinosaurs.
The family says there will be 20 new items this year, including a tree with 7,000 lights controlled by a computer. It’s free to stroll the property and admire the family’s handiwork. Parking can sometimes be challenging on Mission Valley Boulevard; respect neighbors’ no-parking requests.
Downtown Venice is absolutely aglow this time of year. Lights wrap the towering palm trees that line Venice Avenue, creating a cool effect that’s totally Instagram-worthy. Additional lights hang from lampposts in the shaped of poinsettias, gift boxes, and other holiday symbols.
In front of Venice City Hall sits an illuminated animal menagerie that includes everything from Florida wildlife (like an alligator, dolphin, and sea turtle) to more exotic creatures (like a camel, ape, and rhinoceros). After checking out that display, head to the nearby Venice Arboretum at West Blalock Park. Many of the trees there (a lot of which were planted to honor deceased loved ones) have been strung with lights and other decorations for the season. It makes for a pleasant post-dinner walk and a pretty, no-cost way to end a holiday evening.