ORLANDO – Maybe it’s nothing more than the inevitable process of getting older, but I find that I increasingly appreciate the smaller, quieter things in life.

Or maybe it has to do with living here in Central Florida, where every day in December we get television ads trumpeting all the ducky things we have to do to get into the holiday spirit.

Having just taken in a sneak peek of what Sea World is doing this year, I can tell you that yes, there’s a lot of fun holiday stuff to absorb at our theme parks.

Sea World's Ports of Call gets into the holiday spirit with this seasonal decoration.

But for me, I recently pondered the sublime pleasure of something else entirely: Light Up UCF and Rudolph. But first I had to figure out why.

Light Up UCF is the University of Central Florida’s gift to the holidays, and it won’t remind you of what the theme parks have to offer. It’s a modest event, with a flashy and colorful light show in the UCF Knight’s Plaza, an ice skating rink, a 100-foot ice slide, a merry go round, ferris wheel and Santa choo-choo train. The big neon flash of “Season’s Greetings” lights welcome you upon your arrival, although the music blasting from the skating rink ranges from Christmas favorites to country and even rock and rap.

I got there on Thanksgiving night with my sister, and noticed one thing right off: we didn’t spend a whole heck of a lot of time fighting the crowds. In fact, we almost were the crowd. There were no intimidating-looking lines at the rides, although the skating rink had attracted a decent number of folks and the kids were taking on that ice slide with gusto. My sister and I rode Santa’s train, feeling for all intents and purposes like we had left our childhood behind just a day or two ago, rather than the many long decades that have passed since we’d routinely beam with excitement at an event like this. 

The lights shine brightly at the University of Central Florida's Light Up UCF

Summed up that way, Light Up UCF must sound quite drab, a letdown for those who brave the lines at Walt Disney World or Universal Studios for the big stuff. But for me, it wasn’t dull at all. Granted, I didn’t spend hours at what essentially took me less than a half hour to enjoy. But enjoy it, I did. And as I said to begin with, I think I found myself appreciating the quiet solitude of Light Up UCF – no long lines to crawl through, no waiting an hour to hop on a ride, no pushing and shoving through mobs of tourists and locals. We strolled across the university campus like it was our own backyard.

The same was true last night when I sat down on the couch with a cup of hot chocolate and watched the annual showing of “Rudolph The Red Nose Reindeer,” the 1964 animated show with Burl Ives narrating the story of Rudolph, Hermey, Yukon Cornelius, and the rest of the gang as they save the day when it looks like Christmas might get cancelled due to a blinding snowstorm.

Seen today, the animation in “Rudolph” seems primitive. Computer-generated animation is so sophisticated by comparison that it seems limited only by the imaginations of the designers and artists. I hadn’t watched “Rudolph” in years and have no clue what convinced me to check it out again this year. But even if it makes the likes of “Shrek” seem monumentally artistic and creative by comparison, I found myself hopelessly caught up in a Rudolph nostalgia binge. There I was, quietly anticipating certain moments that proved to be alternately scary (how many times as a kid did I hide my face in my parents’ couch as the Abominable Snowman chased poor Rudolph and Hermey?), sad (remember those misfit toys that nobody wanted?) or perfectly capable of tugging effortlessly at the heartstrings (Clarice doesn’t care if Rudolph’s nose glows or not – awwww!). Maybe I loved the movie as a kid because I empathized with Rudolph and Hermey, and felt like I, too, was something of a misfit – but then again, didn’t we all feel that way as kids when we thought we didn’t fit in with the crowd?

In any case, I stayed with “Rudolph” to the very end, before “NCIS” came on and the holiday entertainment ended. It took me back, just briefly, to a happy time many holiday seasons ago … and so did Light Up UCF. 

Santa's Train is running at Light Up UCF

But as I said, maybe I just wanted the quiet, simple nostalgic buzz I got from that 1964 movie and that quaint little college festival. Not everything we do at this time of year has to be big and splashy and designed for massive crowds. Sometimes it’s the little things that really put you in the mood to celebrate the season.

Light Up UCF continues through Jan. 2, and tickets for the rides are $12. To learn more, call 407-823-6006.

Contact Mike Freeman at FreelineOrlando@Gmail.com.

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