Vacation to The Magic of Harry Potter


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From the first few chapters of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone to the afterward of the seventh book, my son Collin and I devoured the popular book series and waited in lines for the hardbook releases. So when we heard that Universal Florida was adding a Harry Potter theme park section, we eagerly followed nuggets of news shared with the Muggle, or nonmagical, world.

When the Wizarding World of Harry Potter opened in June 2010, reports of lengthy lines kept us away until fall, when a family trip to a nearby town provided the perfect opportunity for an overnight detour in Orlando. Even then, I wondered, would the lines be awful? Would the experience be a letdown after months of buildup and our own imaginations?

Balancing value with convenience

When visiting Universal from out of town, the main decisions include where to stay, what type of admission ticket to purchase, and whether to buy additional Express Plus Pass tickets.

Multiple-day, multiple-park tickets include admission to both Universal's Islands of Adventure and Universal Studios Florida, home of the new Rip Ride Rockit music-themed roller coaster and a special spring Mardi Gras celebration with concerts and a family-friendly Mardi Gras parade. My husband, son and I only had one day to play and wanted to spend a good chunk of it at the Harry Potter area plus enjoy other favorite rides at Islands of Adventure.

We wanted to maximize time at the park and minimize inconvenience, lines and, if possible, expenses. Staying off-site means lower hotel rates, but driving to the big paid parking garage and walking to the park entrances. The benefits of staying on-site outweighed the additional expense for us. We opted for the Hard Rock Hotel so we could use the Express lines an unlimited number of time at no extra cost and enter the Harry Potter part of the park one hour early.

We took full advantage of the early entrance benefit, arriving at the main gate in plenty of time after grabbing a quick breakfast from The Kitchen downstairs and walking to the park.

Riding a broom with Harry Potter

Once inside the turnstiles, we quickly followed the crowd to the Wizarding World of Harry Potter and straight to the Forbidden Journey experience inside the impressive Hogwarts Castle. It is tough to hustle through Hogsmead without being distracted. The village re-creation is impressive, from the storefront windows to the snow-capped roofs and cobbled streets.

If it's crowded and you have a bag or backpack, detour by the lockers near the Hogwarts Express train. Forbidder Journey riders have to check bags before entering the castle. Although there are lockers at the ride, using other ones could reduce your wait. Pay attention to the lines at the ride, and don't get in the one for the castle lockers if you don't need to.

Waking up for the one-hour early entrance paid off. We walked quickly through the outdoor herbology greenhouses and castle rooms straight to the ride-loading area. Without a line to slow us down, we whizzed past important parts of the attraction, including the scene in the Defense Against the Dark Arts classroom where Ron, Harry and Hermione explain the basis of the ride. If you're also fortunate to not wait in line, be sure to go through the castle again to take in the details of the Gryffindor Common Room, the Portrait Gallery and Dumbledore's office, complete with a pensieve.

The Forbidden Journey simulates a broomstick ride, and you come face to face with huge spiders, dementors and a dragon. It's rated by Universal as family-friendly, but it might be too scary for sensitive younger children or riders who don't like to feel as if they are flying through space. The ride view changes slightly depending on where you sit, so choose another seating arrangement if you ride more than once.

We rode twice before there was much of a line, and Collin and I later used the single-rider entrance to bypass much of the wait, an option for families with children old enough to ride alone. It's easy to miss the door for single riders in the dark of the castle entry area, so ask an employee if you can't find it.

The Forbidden Journey ride is fun if you are a real Harry Potter follower, although the storyline doesn't fit any particular book or familiar situation. If you haven't wondered which house you'd be sorted into and are only marginally familiar with the characters, you can still enjoy the special effects, but it may not be as interesting without a bit more background.

The wand chooses

Our second stop was another attraction that reportedly has long lines, and we did wait. In Ollivander's Wand Shop, an actor picks one person (or a sibling pair during our visit) to enact the story of the wand choosing the child. Try to be in the front of an admitted group for the best chance of having your child selected, and stand up near the rail inside the room. The experience is probably magical for the selected person, but we found it a little lackluster.

Hippogriffs and dragons

Don't bypass the family-friendly Flight of the Hippogriff roller coaster even if your older kids – and you – love the Dragon Challenge, which is the Dueling Dragon ride reinvented. The Flight of the Hippogriff provides a terrific view of that park area and Hagrid's hut outside the castle.

The Dragon Challenge suspended dual coaster has been revamped to be part of the Harry Potter story's Tri-Wizard Challenge, and it's still the same great thrill of a ride, whether you choose the Chinese Fireball or the Hungarian Horntail. The front seats of both are terrific rides, especially if the timing of the coaster starts is right and you fly head-first toward each other partway through.

Bottoms up with butterbeer

Plenty of Harry Potter fans have wondered what butterbeer tastes like. Now more than 1 million mugs have been sold to Muggles, according to Universal. The best description is a mix between cream soda and butterscotch with a thick, foamy head. Butterbeer comes regular or frozen. Frozen may be many fans' favorite, but we preferred the regular.

If the line at the butterbeer cart in Hogsmead village is long, head to Hog's Head Pub in the back of Three Broomsticks Tavern, which serves English and American fare. If you don't like butterbeer, maybe pumpkin juice will suit your taste. The pub also sells adult beverages. (Watch the boar behind the bar.)

All the rest

After getting our fill of Harry Potter, we headed to the rest of the park, which was relatively empty. Collin and I rode the Incredible Hulk coaster a couple of times, waiting for the front car for maximum blast-off effect. Spider Man is my husband's favorite, which he thinks has a more developed storyline and better ride than the Forbidden Journey in Harry Potter.

Dr. Seuss lovers can imagine they are strolling or riding through his books in Seussville, an area that is mainly geared toward the younger kids but everyone can appreciate. Kids (and adults) cool off in water features of If I Ran the Zoo and play in water at Me Ship, the Olive, where you can squirt unsuspecting riders of Bilge Rat Barge, a neighboring ride that soaks its passengers. Younger kids who want a thrill and don't mind getting wet may enjoy Dudley Do-Right's Ripsaw Falls.

The park closes earlier during off-season, but visitors can stay a little longer shopping and enjoying the sights. Strolling through Harry Potter world in the evening lets visitors take in the details, and the lights if it's dark. Check the website for hours.

After spending many years in Florida, I'm always up for a visit to Jimmy Buffet's Margaritaville, in this case the restaurant at Universal's CityWalk. We enjoyed dinner on the porch before riding the water taxi back to the hotel to collect our belongings and rental car to continue our journey in Florida. Too bad we couldn't just use floo powder.

If You Go

The Universal Orlando Resort website is full of information to help you plan your visit: www.universalorlando.com. You can preview the Harry Potter area, find the Mardi Gras musical lineup, purchase tickets and Express Plus Pass options, and make hotel reservations.

The Hard Rock Hotel periodically hosts live bands in the Velvet bar. The Velvet Sessions can be loud, especially if you have small children. Ask for a room away from the main areas and several floors up if you are there at that time and don't want to hear the music.

Be sure to check with membership clubs for hotel and admission rate comparisons.

Benefits of On-site Lodging

On-site property guests get unlimited Express privileges, which lets you skip the regular lines and use the Express Pass entrances multiple times at rides that offer the special entrance.

Other ticket holders may purchase an Express Plus Pass, but they can only be used once at each participating ride. They also vary in availability and price depending on the date (approximately $20-$60 plus tax, in addition to a ticket). Check the Express Plus Pass price online for the dates you're considering to see what ticket combination works best for your family.

Property guests have been able to enter the Wizarding World of Harry Potter one hour before it opens to the general public. Since Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey attraction doesn't have an Express pass entrance, getting in early reduces wait times at this featured ride.

On-site hotel and Express Pass benefits are subject to change, so check online for the most updated information.

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Calendar

December 2019

Wear your favorite holiday attire and dine with Santa Claus. Enjoy a delicious brunch, stories and crafts, and take pictures with the jolly man from the North Pole. 

Cost: $10/child. Free for ages 2 and younger

Where:
Joyner Park Community Center
701 Harris Rd.
Wake Forest, NC  27587
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Participants develop their naturalist skills and understanding of local nature. Ages 5-8 with parent. Register online. 

Cost: $8/resident, $10/nonresident

Where:
Stevens Nature Center/Hemlock Bluffs
2616 Kildaire Farm Rd.
Cary, NC
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Telephone: 919-387-5980
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Girls ages 5-12 take their favorite doll and have a creative time together preparing for the holidays. Register by emailing llpolkhouse2@gmail.com.

Cost: $22/attendee, $20/sister

Where:
Historic Polk House
537 N. Blount St.
Raleigh, NC  27604
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Telephone: 919-676-6368
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See dancers and a guitarist from Flamenco Carolina perform a Spanish style of music and dance.

Cost: $3/person

Where:
Century Center
100 N. Greensboro St.
Carrboro, NC  27510
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Ebeneezer Scrooge was visited by three spirits, but what about the next Christmas? With heartwarming excitement, discover how the Cratchit family has fared in the year that has passed since old...

Cost: Free

Where:
Wake Forest Renaissance Centre
405 S. Brooks St.
Wake Forest, NC  27587
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The Durham Medical Orchestra performs with special guest Joseph Alessi, principal trombone, New York Philharmonic.

Cost: Free

Where:
Baldwin Auditorium, Duke University
1336 Campus Dr.
Durham, NC  27705
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As a Christmas gift to our community and surrounding area, Wake Forest Presbyterian Church delivers the true Christmas story in a stirring virtual “walk” through Bethlehem to the stable...

Cost: Free

Where:
Wake Forest Presbyterian Church
12605 Capital Blvd
Wake Forest, NC  27587
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Sponsor: Wake Forest Presbyterian Church
Telephone: 919-556-7777
Contact Name: Meghan Reynolds
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Fun for the entire family, enjoy this wonderful, witty retelling of a classic fairy-tale. With a score consisting of well-known pop songs, follow Snow White and her Seven Dwarves as they try to...

Cost: $10-$60/person

Where:
Duke Energy Center for the Performing Arts
2 East South Street
Raleigh, NC  27601
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Sponsor: Duke Energy Center for the Performing Arts
Telephone: 919-996-8700
Contact Name: Blake Jones
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The choir presents its 49th performance on Handel's "Messiah."

Cost: Free

Where:
White Plains United Methodist Church
313 S.E. Maynard Rd.
Cary, NC  27513
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The first day of winter is right around the corner! Help us welcome the season by making a snow globe to take home. We will bring the materials if you bring the imagination! For all ages (adult...

Cost: For all ages (adult accompaniment required for all children); FREE. Registration

Where:
Crowder County Park
4709 Ten-Ten Rd
Apex, NC  27529
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Telephone: 919-662-2850

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Children will enjoy this wonderful book written by John Denver reminding us not to forget about the wildlife this holiday season. We will make a craft then take a walk to look for our wildlife...

Cost: Free

Where:
Harris Lake County Park
2112 County Park Dr.
New Hill, NC  27562
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Sponsor: Harris Lake County Park
Telephone: 919-387-4342
Contact Name: Joanne St. Clair
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Join RTOOT as it performs the music of great Italian composers as well as beloved Christmas classics. Purchase tickets online. 

Cost: $9/adult, $3 ages 12 and younger

Where:
Cary Arts Center
101 Dry Ave.
Cary, NC  27511
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Dan the Animal Man brings some of his animals from his vast collection to entertain all ages. 

Cost: $3/person

Where:
Century Center
100 N. Greensboro St.
Carrboro, NC  27510
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Help find candy canes hidden in Bond Park before the Grinch turns them green. Ages 6-12. Registration required online. Choose course #127871. 

Cost: $10/child

Where:
Bond Park
801 High House Rd.
Cary, NC
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Embark on a wild ride with favorite Disney characters Mickey, Minnie, Goofy and many others in this fun-filled getaway featuring unexpected hijinks and character interaction. Purchase tickets...

Cost: $15 and up

Where:
PNC Arena
1400 Edwards Mill Rd.
Raleigh, NC  27607
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Website »

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Ages 1-5 and caregiver delight in the discoveries of nature. Register online. 

Cost: $8/resident, $10/nonresident

Where:
Stevens Nature Center/Hemlock Bluffs
2616 Kildaire Farm Rd.
Cary, NC
View map »


Telephone: 919-387-5980
Website »

More information

Get into the holiday spirit by decorating cooking, making a craft and enjoying a holiday children's show.

Cost: Free

Where:
Century Center
100 N. Greensboro St.
Carrboro, NC  27510
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The Wake Forest Abilities Choir will present an evening of holiday music under the direction of director.

Cost: Free

Where:
Wake Forest Renaissance Centre
405 S. Brooks St.
Wake Forest, NC  27587
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Embark on a wild ride with favorite Disney characters Mickey, Minnie, Goofy and many others in this fun-filled getaway featuring unexpected hijinks and character interaction. Purchase tickets...

Cost: $15 and up

Where:
PNC Arena
1400 Edwards Mill Rd.
Raleigh, NC  27607
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Website »

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Celebrate pecans at the State Farmers Market.

Cost: Free

Where:
State Farmers Market
1201 Agriculture St.
Raleigh, NC  27603
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Join us to learn about how Habitat for Humanity helps build houses, hear a Christmas tale and then build a graham cracker house of your own. Call to, 919-245-2532. Best for ages 4 and up with a...

Cost: free

Where:
Orange County Main Library
137 W Margaret Ln
Hillsborough, NC  27278
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Sponsor: Orange County Public Library
Telephone: 919-245-2539
Contact Name: Libbie Hough
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Is there a man in the moon, and is the moon made of cheese? Sip on some hot cocoa and listen to some of the stories people have told about the moon and find out if there is truth to them. Then...

Cost: For all ages; FREE. Registration is required for everyone, and adult accompanime

Where:
Crowder County Park
4709 Ten-Ten Rd
Apex, NC  27529
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Telephone: 919-662-2850
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Discover family traditions from North Carolina and around the globe. Create art, enjoy free access to Frida Kahlo, Diego Rivera, and Mexican Modernism, and have a special visit with Santa.

Cost: Free

Where:
North Carolina Museum of Art East Building and Museum Plaza
Raleigh, NC


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Bundle up and enjoy an evening around the campfire learning about creatures of the night and listen to Native American tales about some of our favorite nocturnal animals. Roast marshmallows and go...

Cost: Free

Where:
Harris Lake County Park
2112 County Park Dr.
New Hill, NC  27562
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Sponsor: Harris Lake County Park
Telephone: 919-387-4342
Contact Name: Joanne St. Clair
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Kids ages 5-12 enjoy indoor activities while parents enjoy a night out. Register online. 

Cost: $30/resident, $45/nonresident

Where:
Halle Cultural Arts Center
237 N. Salem St.
Apex, NC  27502
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Wear white clothing and play games, tumble and dance. Enjoy pizza, drinks and more. Ages 5-10. Registration required online. Choose course #127487.

Cost: $18/child; $28 for two children per family

Where:
Middle Creek Community Center
125 Middle Creek Ave.
Apex, NC  27539
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Friday, December 13, 6:00pm, at both the Millbrook and Wake Forest Campuses. Put on your Christmas jammies, grab a blanket and come out for a  festive night to watch the classic animated...

Cost: Free

Where:
Crossroads Fellowship
2721 E Millbrook Road
Raleigh, NC  27604
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Sponsor: Crossroads Fellowship
Telephone: 919-981-0222
Contact Name: Lorraine Entwisle
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Have some fun and make something great at the Clay studio (and parents can sneak away and grab a bite or do some shopping at Northgate Mall). Each kid will complete and paint a piece of pottery...

Cost: $18 per child per workshop

Where:
1058 West Club Blvd
Durham, NC  27701
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Telephone: 919-560-2726
Contact Name: Lauren Tannenbaum
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Embark on a wild ride with favorite Disney characters Mickey, Minnie, Goofy and many others in this fun-filled getaway featuring unexpected hijinks and character interaction. Purchase tickets...

Cost: $15 and up

Where:
PNC Arena
1400 Edwards Mill Rd.
Raleigh, NC  27607
View map »


Website »

More information

Sing along with the band as they perform holiday favorites of Christmas, Hanukkah, the winter solstice and more. 

Cost: Free

Where:
Cary Senior Center
120 Maury O'Dell Place
, NC  27513
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Celebrate the love and joy that this season brings by creating art inspired by a Christmas tree. Register online. Choose course #126761.

Cost: $32/resident, $42/nonresident

Where:
Cary Arts Center
101 Dry Ave.
Cary, NC  27511
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Website »

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Give rugby a try. Take part in tag rugby pick-up games every Saturday morning at Baileywick Road Park, near the Second Shelter.  No experience necessary. All ages. 

Cost: Free

Where:
Baileywick Road Park
9501 Baileywick Rd
Second Shelter Field
Raleigh, NC  27615
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Sponsor: Raleigh Redhawks Rugby
Contact Name: denise travis
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Our Reindeer Romp is open to the entire community and our Girls on the Run families. So join us! Celebrate as nearly 1,000 girls reach their end-of-season goals – the finish line is only the...

Cost: $30 - $35

Where:
Koka Booth Amphitheater
8003 Regency Pkwy
Cary, NC  27518
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Sponsor: Girls on the Run of the Triangle
Telephone: 919-401-6307
Contact Name: Jamie Botta
Website »

More information

Ages 5-12 make a picture frame for the holidays. Snack provided. Register online. 

Cost: $30/resident, $45/nonresident

Where:
Halle Cultural Arts Center
237 N. Salem St.
Apex, NC  27502
View map »


Website »

More information

Ages 1-5 and caregiver delight in the discoveries of nature. Register online. 

Cost: $8/resident, $10/nonresident

Where:
Stevens Nature Center/Hemlock Bluffs
2616 Kildaire Farm Rd.
Cary, NC
View map »


Telephone: 919-387-5980
Website »

More information

Travel with us to Puerto Rico with books, games and arts and crafts!  Join the staff of ISLA (Immersion for Spanish Language Acquisition) for a fun filled hour! Best for ages 3 and up with a...

Cost: Free Gratis

Where:
Orange County Main Library
137 W Margaret Ln
Hillsborough, NC  27278
View map »


Sponsor: Orange County Public Library
Telephone: 919-245-2539
Contact Name: Libbie Hough
Website »

More information

Embark on a wild ride with favorite Disney characters Mickey, Minnie, Goofy and many others in this fun-filled getaway featuring unexpected hijinks and character interaction. Purchase tickets...

Cost: $15 and up

Where:
PNC Arena
1400 Edwards Mill Rd.
Raleigh, NC  27607
View map »


Website »

More information

One ticket admits the entire family to decorate a special gingerbread house. Supplies provided. Workshops available at 2 p.m. and 4:30 p.m. Allergy-free workshop available at 11 a.m....

Cost: $40

Where:
Family Preschool
4907 Garrett Rd
Durham, NC  27707
View map »


Sponsor: Family Preschool
Telephone: 919-402-1500
Contact Name: Sue Henson
Website »

More information

Family Wildlife Series: Holiday Habitat Helpers Saturday, December 14, 2-3 Attract winter wildlife to your backyard by providing or improving their habitat.  Create simple outdoor decorations...

Cost: Free

Where:
Blue Jay Point County Park
3200 Pleasant Union Church Rd
Raleigh, NC  27614
View map »


Website »

More information

Embark on a wild ride with favorite Disney characters Mickey, Minnie, Goofy and many others in this fun-filled getaway featuring unexpected hijinks and character interaction. Purchase tickets...

Cost: $15 and up

Where:
PNC Arena
1400 Edwards Mill Rd.
Raleigh, NC  27607
View map »


Website »

More information

Embark on a wild ride with favorite Disney characters Mickey, Minnie, Goofy and many others in this fun-filled getaway featuring unexpected hijinks and character interaction. Purchase tickets...

Cost: $15 and up

Where:
PNC Arena
1400 Edwards Mill Rd.
Raleigh, NC  27607
View map »


Website »

More information

Join us as we watch for meteors during the Gemenids Meteor Shower. Local astronomers will help us observe these shooting stars and other phenomena in the night sky. As a bonus we may see or hear...

Cost: Free

Where:
American Tobacco Trail
1309 New Hill-Olive Chapel Rd.
Apex, NC  27502
View map »


Sponsor: Harris Lake County Park and the American Tobacco Trail
Telephone: 919-387-4342
Contact Name: Joanne St. Clair
Website »

More information

Favorite Christmas songs are presented in authentic Nashville country style with dazzling guitars and fiddles along with soaring harmonies. Purchase tickets online. 

Cost: $25/person

Where:
Wake Forest Renaissance Centre
405 S. Brooks St.
Wake Forest, NC  27587
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Website »

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See the choir perform beloved Christmas songs with guest vocal group AVANTE. Purchase tickets online. 

Cost: See website for fees

Where:
Cary Arts Center
101 Dry Ave.
Cary, NC  27511
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