You may have noticed a particularly jolly squirrel hanging around Universal Studios Florida during the holidays. You can meet him in his ‘I love acorns’ sweater, purchase treats and merchandise featuring his adorable mug, and even explore themed environments dedicated to him in the annual Tribute Store. But who IS Earl the Squirrel, and where did he come from?
In a time where most characters and tie-ins at the theme parks are directly related to some sort of existing intellectual property, Universal Orlando has somehow created their own parks original character in Earl the Squirrel… And he’s quickly becoming the unofficial icon of the holidays.
The Story of Earl the Squirrel
Earl the Squirrel is one of those urban legends or big fish tales that seemed to change over the years, and depending on who was telling it.
The official story from Universal Orlando is that a mischievous squirrel was found nestled in the branches of the park’s main Christmas tree. According to the legend, this squirrel had an affinity for blue Christmas lights, often stealing strands and bringing them back to his nest.
Now, while that is where the official story ends, the lore goes even deeper. The tale is that the squirrel, nicknamed “Earl” by the company’s Entertainment team, actually bit through a strand of lights, causing them all to go out. And, according to *some* accounts, when the team investigated, they found the squirrel, lifeless by the severed light strand.
Regardless of which version of the tall tale you believe, little nods to the electrical situation can still be found in signage at the parks and marketing that include Earl the Squirrel. Examples include a decorative “high-voltage” sign featuring a squirrel, or this year’s holiday season kick-off video featuring Earl the Squirrel biting through an electrical cord at a haunted house, effectively ending Halloween Horror Nights.
No matter how the actual story may go, the concept of a holiday-light loving squirrel has been celebrated within Universal Studios Florida every year since, memorialized by a plush squirrel hidden within the large tree in the New York section of the park.
Finding Earl the Squirrel at Universal Studios Florida
Every year since the story began you could find a hidden plush squirrel within the large Christmas tree at Universal Studios Florida, holding a small strand of blue lights. This tradition has been going on since at least 2015, and continues to this day.
Christmas critter hiding in Universal’s tree now sneaks back in every once in awhile! Sneaky critter. pic.twitter.com/d1eh2IPDTx
— Alicia Stella (@AliciaStella) December 12, 2018
Beginning in 2018 a mechanism was added to make Earl the Squirrel dip back into the tree, and then re-emerge every 30 seconds or so. This automated movement makes it a little tougher to find him, especially since he’s in a new spot every year!
Now you can meet the “real” Earl the Squirrel in person at the park during the holidays! Universal Orlando introduced a meet and greet character in 2021. He stands 6-feet tall and wears a green sweater proclaiming his love of acorns.
His location for character greetings is changed up time to time, first meeting in front of his tree, but then near the park entrance in 2021. Now in 2022 he meets across from Mel’s Drive-In near the entrance to Central Park during the day, and in CityWalk near his Tree Farm delivery truck at night.
Earl the Squirrel’s Empire (The Tribute Stores)
Universal Studios Florida had hosted Halloween Horror Nights “Tribute Stores” for several years, but 2020 marked the first annual “Holiday Tribute Store.” It also marked the first time Earl the Squirrel would see his name and likeness appear on themed signage and even some pieces of merchandise!
One of the themed rooms in that first Holiday Tribute Store was designed as “Earl’s Tree Farm.” Little did we know that would be the first of many new ventures from our little enterprising rodent.
By 2021, Earl the Squirrel had created his very own roadside attraction, located within the second annual Holiday Tribute Store. Named “Earl the Squirrel’s Christmas Museum & Emporium,” this location featured a variety of treats designed after the growing-in-popularity squirrel, as well as a whole new line of Earl the Squirrel merchandise.
And that leads us to this year, 2022, where Earl’s empire has grown to not only include the Tree Farm and Museum, but now, an even more massive entertainment venue, named “Earl’s North of the Border,” a spoof of the real roadside attraction, “South of the Border” in South Carolina.
But that’s not all, this year’s Tribute Store seems to hint at even bigger things on the horizon for the entrepreneurial little critter. On your way out of the Tribute Store, you can check out the official “EARL-LANDO Preview Center,” where Earl is showing off his yet-to-be-built theme park!
From Tree Farm to Amusement Park, our beloved nut-loving, cord-chewing mischievous squirrel seems to be moving up in the world! And we’re just along for the ride.
And speaking of rides, posters for some of the attractions Earl would like to be included in his new EARL-LANDO theme park can be found along the walls of the Tribute Store’s exit pathway!
It really is Earl the Squirrel’s world, we’re just living in it.
The Fandom of Earl the Squirrel
Love for Earl the Squirrel within the theme park fan community has been growing just as fast as his empire.
People from around the world come to meet him in the parks for a photo.
Is this…the best day of my life? pic.twitter.com/tqVD6ZUc1l
— Tarah Chieffi (@tarahchieffi) December 9, 2022
Artists have posted their own fan art of Earl in multiple mediums.
Happy Holidays from Earl the Squirrel 🎄🐿️ @UniversalORL pic.twitter.com/EvGg7UhN58
— Holly Jolly Rabbit Kyle 🐰🎄 (@TheRabbitKyle) November 30, 2022
And this year, there’s an even a song all about Earl the Squirrel!!
Our last Christmas song of the year is live! A tribute to our favorite theme park squirrel! We hope you enjoyed our bit of holiday fun. Try to get out to some shows. We’re taking a break for a while to work on new music so you only have a few more chances pic.twitter.com/Fv7nP9DSra
— Pangolin (@PangolinFL) December 10, 2022
Even families who have no idea who the adorable and happy squirrel character is will line up for a photo. It goes to show that you don’t have to base everything in the theme parks on existing I.P. for guests to enjoy it! Just look at something like Universal Orlando’s other homegrown breakout star, ‘Lil Boo.
The Rise of Earl the Squirrel’s Success (Merchandising)
Even if you don’t happen to spot the walkaround character, fail to find the hidden plush squirrel in the tree, or bypass the elaborate displays in the Tribute Store, it’s impossible to miss the Earl the Squirrel branded merchandise at the Universal Orlando Resort.
What started with humble beginnings of a few items in 2020, like a hat and a shirt, has exploded in the last couple years to cover just about every single souvenir you can think of possibly purchasing in a theme park.
There are shirts and sweaters, mugs and cups, Christmas ornaments and gift tags, blankets and pillows, bags, and for the first time ever this year, Earl even has his very own plush!
But the tie-ins don’t stop there. The recurring “Holiday Tree Hunt” scavenger hunt at Universal Orlando has been taken over by Earl the Squirrel this year as well!
After finding every tree in all of the participating locations inside of Universal Studios Florida, Islands of Adventure, and Universal CityWalk you will earn a special Earl the Squirrel ornament, with additional styles available for purchase.
What may have started as a cute hidden nod to a story shared between Team Members at Universal Studios Florida has turned into a full-blown holiday tradition for the entire resort.
The legacy for Earl the Squirrel is still being written, and now that you know the history too, you may start to notice small allusions to this Christmas critter all around the parks for years to come. And perhaps, he can become a part of your holiday traditions as well.
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So disappointing that Universal Hollywood has failed to capitalize on these fantastic icons in the making. They made a half-hearted attempt for HHN, as all of the Lil’ Boo merchandise was for sale at the shops – but with not a single customer understanding what it was. Even stranger, their Terror Tram had a walking portion that passed through a section lined with Funkins, and not a single one had a Lil’ Boo carving…
Universal Orlando’s media interaction with their customers is second to none. The only thing that comes close is Knott’s Berry Farm with their Boysenberry festival and Ghost Town Alive