The best holiday events now through Christmas in Sarasota, Manatee and Charlotte counties – Sarasota Herald-Tribune

Celebrating the holidays here along Florida’s Gulf Coast means lots of fun, family-friendly activities – most of them free – in much better weather than what people are experiencing in the rest of the country. And our most cherished holiday traditions include lights, palm trees and brightly decorated boats, so we get to witness Santa make appearances by land and by sea. Yeah, even Kris Kringle prefers to spend winter in the Sunshine State.
Starting this week, you’ll find festive lights and more around Sarasota’s University Town Center district, on the Manatee River in downtown Bradenton and along Charlotte Harbor in Punta Gorda. And then through December each weekend brings a fresh roster of parades, festivals and other fun happenings. Here’s our annual list of the best holiday events in Sarasota, Manatee and Charlotte counties, which take place now through Christmas week. 
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UTC is hosting another full schedule of holiday events including light shows, outdoor holiday movies, horse-drawn carriage rides and fireworks. Other fun activities happening at UTC include Hands on Hanukkah with Temple Sinai Sarasota (Nov. 28-Dec. 5), taking place in Saks Court, as well as the always popular Santa’s Flight Academy (now through Dec. 24) and Santa Paws photos (Nov. 28 and Dec. 5) in Grand Court. Today through Jan. 1, The Mall at University Town Center, 140 University Town Center Drive, Sarasota; 941-552-7000; 
Fishermen’s Village, featuring a mix of restaurants and shops as well as a resort and marina along Charlotte Harbor, hosts its annual Festival of Lights now through the end of the year with more than a million lights plus plenty of traditional themed holiday decor. Today-Dec. 31; Fishermen’s Village, 1200 W. Retta Esplanade, Punta Gorda;
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Located by City Hall along the Manatee River in downtown Bradenton just across from the Twin Dolphin Marina, Barcarrota Boulevard is where you will find both sides of the waterfront street lined with holiday light displays, several with a musician theme, plus a large Christmas tree outside the mayor’s office starting Thanksgiving night. Nearby destinations include The Bishop Museum of Science and Nature plus Corwin’s Ice Cream, which has been known to also serve hot cocoa during the holidays. Dining and drinking destinations Pier 22 and Oak & Stone also are right there. Nov. 25 through Dec. 31, Barcarrota Boulevard, Bradenton
A holiday parade right by our world-famous Siesta Beach, this one begins at Avenida del Mare and Beach Road at 5:30 p.m., traveling north on Beach Road onto Ocean Boulevard into Siesta Key Village. Santa will arrive at Siesta Center at the end of the parade to greet children and take photos free of charge 6:30-8:30 p.m., with gift bags provided for the first 250 kids. Shops and restaurants will offer refreshments and special holiday bargains, with live music at various venues and free public transportation via the Siesta Breeze Trolley. 5-9 p.m. Nov. 27; Siesta Key; free to attend, $50 parade entry fee ($35 nonprofits); 941-349-3800;
Above the Bar Hospitality Group, which operates numerous Siesta Key restaurants and bars, will hold this event the same day at The Hub Baja Grill featuring holiday lights, hot cocoa, visits from Santa and The Grinch, snow, balloon artists and more. 6-8 p.m. Nov. 27; The Hub Baja Grill, 5148 Ocean Blvd., Siesta Key; 941-349-6800;
The Venice Holiday Parade rolls through downtown Venice starting at 6:30 p.m. It begins at the corner of Park Boulevard. and West Venice Avenue and then proceeds on the north side of West Venice Avenue after crossing over Harbor Drive. From there, it will make a turn on Nokomis Avenue and go to Turin Street before ending at Venice Community Center. 6:30 p.m. Nov. 27; downtown Venice; 941-488-8780,
The annual winter festival will feature a 16-foot giant human snow globe, three-ton snow slide, helicopter raining down gelt from above, trackless train ride, ice menorah, kids activities, DJ music, Latkes by Sam, kosher food by Michael’s on East and more. 4-6 p.m. Nov. 28; Phillippi Estate Park, 5500 S. Tamiami Trail, Sarasota; $5 purchased before Nov. 24, $7 after, free children under 12; 941-925-0770;
Shop and dine through downtown Venice with Christmas-y treats, live music and the twinkle of lights along Miami, Tampa and West Venice avenues where restaurants and stores compete for various best decorated prizes. 5-8 p.m. Dec. 2; downtown Venice;
Ellenton Premium Outlets, the outdoor mall with covered walkways and lush landscaping that;s home to 130 designer and brand outlets, will again host a Holiday Village produced by Dreamlands Amusements. There will be holiday lights and displays, free visits with Santa nightly, free performances by Victoria Circus and then myriad amusement rides with single tickets priced at $1.50 with various package and wristband deals. Dec. 2-Jan. 2 (closed Dec. 6-8),  Ellenton Premium Outlets, 5461 Factory Shops Blvd., Ellenton; 941-723-1150;
The event begins with a special performance at 5:30 pm, Christmas carol singalong at 6 p.m. and then Santa arriving on his sleigh and tree lighting ceremony, with photos with Santa available 6:30-8 p.m. There will also be holiday entertainment and special store promotions at the Circle’s many shops and restaurants. 5:30-9 p.m. Dec. 3; St. Armands Circle Park, 1 St. Armands Circle, Sarasota; 941-388-1554;
Fresh Fridays – the free, monthly event series in downtown Sarasota that debuted Nov. 5 – returns with the holiday-themed « Shop, Stroll, Sing! » A DJ will play Christmas-themed music throughout the evening and there will also be a karaoke segment featuring guests from Sarasota Area Arts Organizations and raffle prizes for participants courtesy of local merchants and restaurants. Plus, there will be complimentary sweet treats, holiday swag for the first 500 guests, and what organizers are describing as « a special appearance of snow that promises to make the event an unforgettable night. » 8-11 p.m. Dec. 3, Lemon Avenue and State Street (with the roads blocked off to traffic), Sarasota; 941-544-2765,
Meet and take photos with Santa, and bring a letter for him that can either be put in a mailbox or given to him to read later. Visitors have the option to add a guided tour of Palmetto Historical Park, with Manatee County Agricultural Museum also open for self-guided tours and its grounds hosting reindeer games and crafts. Reservations are required. Dec. 3 and 4; Palmetto Historical Park & Manatee County Agricultural Museum, 515 10th Ave. W., Palmetto;
Bridge Street, the bustling row of restaurants and shops in the Anna Maria Island city of Bradenton Beach, will host Christmas activities throughout the afternoon and evening on Dec. 4. The festivities include a visit from Santa and his sleigh at the post office (3-7 p.m.), a kids zone at Island Time (3-6 p.m.) and Dickens Carolers (5-7 p.m.). Then between 6:30 and 7:30 p.m., the Bradenton Beach Holiday Boat Parade is expected to pass by historic Bridge Street Pier. 3-9 p.m. Dec. 4, Bridge Street, Bradenton Beach; and
North Port’s annual Poinsettia Parade returns with a Retro Rockin’ Holidays theme. It will march south down Sumter Boulevard starting from Sylvania Ave. through the City Center Campus and ends at the Poinsettia Festival, which organizers say is a prime location to catch the parade. The festival will take place throughout the grounds of the City Center Campus including on the Front Green and inside City Hall. There will be a tree lighting ceremony, food vendors and lots of live entertainment. 4-8:30 p.m. Dec. 4, City Center Campus, 4970 City Hall Blvd., North Port; 941-429-7275;
A tradition dating back to 1989, the Venice Christmas Boat Parade of Lights in south Sarasota County takes place the first Saturday in December. Spectators line the Intracoastal Waterway and gather at places such as Pop’s Sunset Grill and Pelican Alley with the parade starting above Albee Road Bridge and heading south with a turn around before Circus Bridge. 6 p.m. Dec. 4, Intracoastal Waterway, Venice and Nokomis; 941-718-8644, 
It’s a « silver bells » theme for the 25th year of the Sarasota Holiday Parade with thousands of participants  – including lighted floats, high school marching bands and Santa Claus – expected to make their way down Main Street from Washington Boulevard to Gulfstream Avenue. 6 p.m. Dec. 4; downtown Sarasota;
Guided by Jenny Jingle, the daytime holiday tour visits city spots with Christmas story connections, where guests will hear about Sarasota traditions during the holidays and sing along to Christmas songs. The tour includes free cocoa at the Trolley Cottage before the tour and prizes awarded for best ugly sweater. 11 a.m. Wednesdays and 2 p.m. Sundays Dec. 8-26; Discover Sarasota Tours, 1826 Fourth St., Sarasota; $39.99, $29.99 children ages 3-11; 941-260-9818;
The Sarasota neighborhood filled with popular restaurants, bars and shops hosts this family-friendly event featuring pictures with Santa, Music Compound’s annual holiday concert, hot cocoa, castle bouncy house, trampoline, snow slide, climbing wall and raffle. Parking will be available at Sarasota Memorial Hospital’s South Garage at U.S. 41 and Hillview Street. 5-9 p.m. Dec. 10; Southside Village, Sarasota;
The festival will feature live circus performances under the big top including The Flying Wallendas, as well as food, crafts, exhibits, flea market, pictures with Santa and Saturday night fireworks. 2-8 p.m. Dec. 10, 11 a.m.-8 p.m. Dec. 11 and 11 a.m.-4 p.m. Dec. 12; Sarasota County Fairgrounds, 3000 Ringling Blvd., Sarasota; $12, $8 children ages 3-12 (daily), $30, $20 children (multi-day); 941-870-7444; 
Manatee Village Historical Park will host “An Old Florida Christmas” with vendors selling various handmade goods, food, and offering free “make and take” seasonal crafts. The buildings of Manatee Village Historical Park will be dressed with Victorian and Florida pioneer inspired decor. Attendees are invited to explore landmarks like the “Old Cabbage Head” locomotive, Junior Junction playground, museum exhibits and the Whistle Stop Gift Shop. Unlike previous years, this year’s event is free admission. Vendors will have their own pricing for their goods and cash is encouraged. 11 a.m.-4 p.m. Dec. 11, Manatee Village Historical Park, 1404 Manatee Ave. E., (State Road 64), Bradenton; 941-749-1800;
Suncoast Charities for Children presents the 35th Annual Sarasota Holiday Boat Parade of Lights with area boaters invited to enter free of charge. The event begins at 6 p.m. with vessels making a short transit across Sarasota Bay and entering the Bayfront Park area around 7 p.m.  Best spots for viewing are Marina Jack (dinner reservations highly recommended), Bayfront Park and Centennial Park. An awards ceremony will take place immediately after the parade on the Marina Jack fuel dock. 6 p.m. Dec. 11, Sarasota Bayfront; or
One of downtown Bradenton’s most beloved celebrations is (finally) returning! The city’s website notes that this will be the 20th time the event has occurred, and attendees can expect another family-friendly mix of seasonal lights and treats, live music, special vendors, and then the main attraction, which has always been the snow slides for the kids. Of course, then you’re just a short stroll from Riverwalk where the Manatee River Holiday Boat Parade will pass by. 5-9 p.m. Dec. 11, Old Main St., Bradenton; or
The Manatee River Holiday Boat Parade kicks off at sundown from Snead Island and will find spectators lining the Bradenton Riverwalk and the Green Bridge Fishing Pier in Palmetto. There are also VIP viewing parties taking place at Riverhouse Waterfront Restaurant in Palmetto as well as at Caddy’s and Pier 22 in Bradenton. 6 p.m. Dec. 11, along the Manatee River in Bradenton and Palmetto;
Lights in Bloom: An Open-Air Holiday Light Show will feature more than two million lights throughout the gardens and walkways that form a tropical oasis along Sarasota Bay.  There will also be holiday photo opportunities, children’s arts and crafts and other activities as well as food available for purchase and a cash bar from the Michael’s on East grill. 6-9 p.m. Dec.11-23, 26-30 and Jan. 1 and 2; Marie Selby Botanical Gardens, 1534 Mound St., Sarasota; 941-366-5731, 
Sarasota County Parks, Recreation and Natural Resources invites children ages 12 and under and their families to the free, Breakfast with Santa event from 10 a.m. to noon on Dec. 18. Enjoy breakfast, holiday music, and a visit by Santa in person at Laurel Park or by drive-through at Newtown Estates Park, and don’t forget to drop off letters for Santa. Register children ages 12 and under online before Dec. 10 for a toy giveaway. Unwrapped toy donations for children ages 12 and under are being accepted through Dec. 13 at park and library locations throughout the county. 10 a.m.-noon  Dec. 18.  Laurel Park is located 509 Collins Road, Nokomis, and Newtown Estates Park is located at 2800 Newtown Blvd., Sarasota. For more information visit or call the Sarasota County Contact Center at 941-861-5000.
Sarasota Farmers Market will host a special Holiday Night Market, where guests can stroll through twinkling lights and special holiday décor, and stop by vendors for last-minute gifts (and eats) while listening to live music by Passerine. 5-8 p.m. Dec. 21; Downtown Sarasota; 941-225-9256;
One of Sarasota’s most beloved events, the 26th annual Christmas Day parade is expected to roll through the Amish and Mennonite community of Pinecraft again this Dec. 25th. The parade typically starts at 3 p.m., with participants meeting earlier at the Der Dutchman parking lot at 3713 Bahia Vista St., and then it winds through the neighborhood. Bringing a lawn chair for a sidewalk seat is recommended because folks usually line Birky Street an hour or more ahead of the parade start time. 3 p.m. Dec. 25; Pinecraft neighborhood, Sarasota
Sarasota’s famed youth circus returns with the new holiday show « Let It Snow, » which should mix plenty of thrilling stunts with Christmas cheer. 1 and 6 p.m. Dec. 26, 2 and 7 p.m. Dec. 27-30; Sailor Circus Arena, 2075 Bahia Vista St., Sarasota; $20-$35; 941-355-9805,
Wade Tatangelo, dining and entertainment editor, can be reached by email at  [email protected] Email entertainment reporter Jimmy Geurts at [email protected] Support local journalism by subscribing.


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