ORLANDO – Standing on stage in front of a packed audience, Michael Wanzie, the artistic director of the Footlight Theatre at the Parliament House resort, decided to point out some house rules before the lights went down for the show.
“This gives me an opportunity to speak to you directly,” Wanzie said, moments before the start of his new production, a spoof of the Charles Dickens classic that he called “Wanzie’s Glittering Star-Studded A Christmas Carol,” which continues through the next two Saturdays.
“Ladies and gentlemen,” Wanzie said, “we’re so happy to see you. It’s like opening night on Skid Row here.”
But what Wanzie really wanted the crowd to know was that his version of “A Christmas Carol” wasn’t the only way that the gay-friendly resort on Orange Blossom Trail in downtown Orlando was getting into the holiday spirit. Later that night, the resort would be throwing the switch and lighting up the courtyard – an annual tradition there.
“Really, the reason I’m up here tonight is to say this – at 11 o’clock tonight, we light up the courtyard,” Wanzie said. “You can see the hunky raindeer and the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence.”
If Wanzie’s words were a reminder of anything, it’s that the holiday season can be very big business in Central Florida — and that the options for entertainment are as diverse as they get.
As the region’s theme parks like Walt Disney World, Universal Studios and SeaWorld attract visitors flocking here for special holiday-themed events, quite a few other entities – from resort hotels like the Parliament House to community theaters and even churches – have been actively looking for ways to attract the crowds of tourists and local residents eager to get into the holiday spirit.
If Wanzie was tempting the theater’s audience with the promise of raindeer that more closely resembled men best described as hunks, then Theatre Winter Haven was moving in a decidedly more traditional – and sentimental – direction, with a stage version of the classic 1946 movie “It’s A Wonderful Life.”
“Welcome to Bedford Falls, folks,” said Norman Small, the director of the community theater in downtown Winter Haven, and close to the new Legoland Florida theme park. Bedford Falls, of course, was the fictional town that George Bailey lived in, as captured in Frank Capra’s movie starring Jimmy Stewart and Donna Reed.
Despite the popularity of that movie, Small said his theater couldn’t resist recreating it on stage.
“We also know you appreciate theater, the gift of live theater,” he said.
And, to really get audiences into the holiday spirit, Small noted that the audience could get raffle tickets and win an early Christmas present.
“We have a loud cheer for you, because we’re giving away some Christmas money,” he said.
There was a similar raffle drawing on Saturday at First Baptist Orlando, the church in South Orlando that also hosts an annual holiday tradition, this one called The Singing Christmas Trees. In an auditorium that seats 5,000, the church puts two four-foot long Christmas trees on stage, decorated with 250,000 multi-colored lights. Each tree has 14 rows, and on each row sits the chorus that performs Christmas songs throughout the concert.
The pastor of the church, David Uth, asked the people in the audience to fill out some information about themselves in a section of the program book before they left.
“Why are we doing this?” he asked. “Well, we want to say thank you for being here and we are going to draw 20 of these, and if we draw yours, we are going to send you a package with a DVD of the performance you’re going to see here today. So go ahead and fill it out.”
The holiday traditions continue straight through January at many venues around the region, including the theme parks, with the highly anticipated build up toward the big New Year’s Eve bash parties across Central Florida.
Until then, the festivities – and festive mood of this very tourist-friendly region – continues unabated.
Back at the Footlight Theatre, Wanzie started his production with a videotaped card reminding the audience there there were certain things they were prohibited from doing, such as “No yelling fire – unless there is an actual fire.”
And when his lead actress flubbed some critical lines, Wanzie couldn’t help but look out at the audience and say, “Anyone thinking of sending me a drink, now would be the time.”
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