For years, Gaylord Hotels has developed a reputation for dazzling from a distance with its lineups of incredible holiday experiences. The brand’s properties, with locations from Colorado to Florida, go to great lengths to plan a series of family-friendly activities that makes guests of all ages say, “Ho-ho-holy cow.” And even when faced with an era of heightened health and safety protocols, these properties still manage to exceed expectations with the promise of “So Much Christmas.”
At the Gaylord Palms in Kissimmee, though, the expectations are always a little greater than anywhere else, because travelers anticipate bigger things in the heart of tourism country. And the bigger the holiday season, the more important it is to deliver. After all, for as many travelers who check in from all over the U.S., there are as many locals who choose this resort for December staycations, and it’s all because of the festivities that rival anything happening beyond Mickey’s welcoming ears.
On any given day, or stay, this is already a resort that rivals the best of the best in the region. Consider what travelers look for in an Orlando getaway, and Gaylord Palms quickly checks every box: location, convenience, comfort, a large pool, lazy river, diverse dining options (and one of the most underrated steakhouses of any resort), convention halls, and enough waterslides (seven) to keep any child thrilled before and after spending hours waiting for the three-minute joy of the Seven Dwarves mine cart ride.
But factor in a variety of festive games, rides, and activities, and this property becomes an entirely different attraction. One where families can check off a variety of holiday boxes, including meeting Santa, having a snowball fight, and racing down a snowy hill on tubes. Sure, it involves a little make-believe, but after my recent visit, and as a lifelong Florida Man, I’m more than convinced that this is one of the best ways to enjoy winter in the Sunshine State.
It Starts with a Quest
No matter the time of year, arguably the best activity any resort can offer is a scavenger hunt. It’s one of the most clever and imaginative ways to coax people into exploring the property beyond the pools, bars, and casino, and that’s usually the best way to turn first-time guests into regulars. At Gaylord Palms, where the focus is on the holiday and the Winter Village that has been raised in the convention halls, the Secret Santa Scavenger Hunt takes guests through the Key West and Everglades areas, allowing them to gawk at the massive boat and visit the baby alligators.
All the while, the educational component has them daftly determining one clue and another, all so they can solve the final puzzle and—SPOILER ALERT—receive their very own Santa’s Secret Service badges. It seems like a small prize for such an in-depth endeavor, but my six-year-old son hasn’t taken the pin off since we got home, and he wants everyone to know that he’s employed by the one and only Santa. My gut tells me that’s the same reaction for most children.
Setting the Mood
One of the greatest challenges that any parent faces in and around Orlando is not only finding a Santa Claus that doesn’t boast a line longer than MCO’s TSA, but also one that is in an appropriate setting that makes for great photos. While some of the more prominent locations—like Disney Springs and the Mall at Millennia—do a fantastic job with reservation-based systems, but parents still need to make at least a half-day of it, and there’s only so much you can do in retail settings.
Visiting Santa at the Gaylord Palms was one of the quickest and most efficient experiences we’ve had with Saint Nick, and it was so convenient, in fact, that my son was able to run back in, wait in line for maybe two minutes, and see Santa again so he could let him know that his Secret Service had a new member. If there’s any criticism to offer, it’s that Santa should probably be aware of the scavenger hunt prize, because it took him a minute to catch on.
The Authenticity of Winter
Northerners will likely scoff at this attempt to deliver snowy vibes in an indoor setting, but you can’t blame us for trying (and enjoying the heck out of it). And the more experienced snow bunnies can stuff their complaints in a stocking with a lump of coal, because the Snow Flow Mountain ice slide elicits nothing but smiles from kids and adults. It’ll also leave a dad with a sore back in the morning, but there’s very little that rivals the happiness of a child who thinks he’s actually playing on snow.
That’s especially the case at the Snowball Build and Blast, which offers guests the chance to roll some ice and compete against other families in testing their frozen projectile marksmanship. The key, as I now feel like a seasoned pro, is rolling small snowballs, as the tub of ice isn’t that large and you’ll want to maximize your opportunities to score with the narrow targets. Also, bring gloves, because us Floridians need reminders that ice is cold.
The Icing on the Frozen Cake
Just like at theme parks, guests will need other activities to help fill the time between snow tube rides, snowball fights, meeting Santa, and doing it all over again. Fortunately, the winter village is designed as such, allowing everyone to stay in this makeshift town and move seamlessly from house to store to adventure. The most entertaining of the bunch is the centerpiece, Mission: Save Christmas Featuring Elf, which is an interactive walking experience that includes a variety of games and photo opportunities.
Back in the village, children will have a blast reading and singing along with Mrs. Claus and her hilarious elf assistant before heading next door to the Gingerbread Decorating Corner. Hop across the way to build toys in the Elf Training Academy, and top it all off with a talking penguin from the Build-a-Bear workshop. Kids can choose from Gaylord Palms puffy jackets and Santa costumes, or there’s even a Miami Dolphins jersey if the toy’s purpose is to always finish right around .500.
There’s plenty more to enjoy here, especially the holiday-themed margaritas, but the bottom line is few resorts offer a complete package when it comes to enjoying the best of Florida’s theme parks (and weather) with the simple things we love about the holiday season. And even Santa would have to admit that it’s pretty awesome to be able to go from a snowy tube ride right to one of seven waterslides.