A man who claims to be Santa Claus (Douglas Seale) arrives at the Orlando International Airport on December 23. Ernest P. Worrell (Jim Varney) is working as a taxi driver. He takes a passenger to the airport, but speeds and the passenger falls out of the taxi. Ernest later picks up Santa Claus, who tells Ernest that he is on his way to inform a local celebrity named Joe Carruthers (Oliver Clark) that he has been chosen to be the new Santa Claus. Joe hosted a children's program named Uncle Joey's Treehouse in the Orlando area similar to Mister Rogers' Neighborhood with emphasis on manners and integrity with the catchphrase "They never get old. They always stay new. Those three little words, Please and Thank You.". It got canceled three weeks before and Joe must settle for a new job reading stories to children.
While they are driving, a runaway teenage girl (Noelle Parker) calling herself Harmony Starr joins Ernest and Santa in the taxi. When they get to their destination, Santa possesses no legal currency (only play money), so in his giving Christmas spirit, Ernest lets him ride for free. The decision gets Ernest fired. As a dejected Ernest leaves the taxi garage, his former boss throws out Santa's sack, which it turns out Santa left behind.
Santa arrives at the Orlando Children's Museum to talk to Joe, but is interrupted and rebuffed by Joe's agent, Marty Brock. Marty misunderstands Santa's name, thinking he said "Mr. Santos," and continues to call him by that name, even when he tells him his real name. He begins to worry as he then discovers he left his sack in the taxi, and becomes more discouraged as he realizes he is becoming forgetful in his old age (he's 151 years old, as his passport shows he was born in 1837). Joe does not believe Santa's story and Marty has him arrested. Meanwhile, Ernest goes over to his friend Vern's house to put up a Christmas tree, much to Vern's distress (as with the original commercials that first introduced Ernest, the audience never sees Vern's face and only his point of view). Ernest discovers the magic power of the sack, and realizes the owner really is Santa Claus. He and Harmony immediately set off to find Santa and return it.
On Christmas Eve, having learned of Santa's imprisonment, Ernest poses as Astor Clement, an employee of the governor and Harmony as the governor's niece, Mindy, and they help Santa escape from jail by convincing the police chief that Santa believing that he is Santa Claus is "infectious insanity" and he must be taken to solitary confinement. Ernest disguises himself as an Apopka snake rancher (Lloyd Worrell from Knowhutimean? Hey Vern, It's My Family Album) who sneaks Santa into a movie studio and speaks to a security guard about delivering the snakes to people who direct horror films. Meanwhile, Marty presses Joe to move on from his children's show career, shave his beard, and instead land a part in a movie as a father and family man, since he is good at working with kids; however, it turns out to be a horror film titled Christmas Slay about an alien which terrorizes a bunch of children on Christmas Eve; this offends Santa so deeply that he punches the director in the eye. Joe accepts the part but feels uncomfortable swearing in front of the kids on set.
Harmony is fascinated by the power of the sack, and hopes to find gifts of monetary value inside. She steals it, replacing it with one filled with feathers, and attempts to run away yet again. Santa tracks down Joe at his house, but has nothing to show except the fake sack. Joe politely but firmly declines the job.
Ernest heads to the airport to pick up the sleigh, reindeer, and two of Santa's elves before they hit rush hour traffic. But their truck is disabled and Ernest decides to drive the sleigh to the Children's Museum. His inexperience, though, leads him and the elves on a wild, out-of-control ride through Orlando. Meanwhile, Joe is overcome by conscience when the director refuses to tone down any of the profanity in the film. He sees the haphazardly-flying sleigh from a distance, and realizing that Santa was telling the truth all along, is overcome with joy and runs off to find him.
Joe finds Santa at the Children's Museum and accepts the job. Harmony returns with the real sack, apologizing to Santa (who reveals that her real name is Pamela Trenton.) The sleigh arrives just in time and Joe asks Ernest (saddened that the adventure is over) to drive for the first night, while Pamela (who decided to go home) hitches a ride as an honorary elf.
The film ends with, "Merry Christmas To All And To All A Good Night," followed by a sleigh dash that spells, Knowhutimean?, one of Ernest's catchphrases. Meanwhile, Chuck and Bobby were looking at the letter 'E' for what it means. Suddenly, you see the Easter Bunny's ears when they come out of the cargo box. Chuck rolls his eyes and squeals like he is screaming for help.
- Jim Varney as Ernest P. Worrell, Astor Clement, Auntie Nelda, The Snake Guy
- Douglas Seale as Santa Claus (a.k.a. Seth Applegate)
- Oliver Clark as Joe Carruthers, the new Santa Claus
- Noelle Parker as Pamela Trenton, a.k.a. Harmony Starr, Mindy
- Gailard Sartain as Chuck (Storage Agent)
- Bill Byrge as Bobby (Storage Agent)
- Billie Bird as Mary Morrissey
- Key Howard as Immigration Agent
- Jack Swanson as Businessman
- Buddy Douglas as Pyramus the Elf
- Patty Maloney as Thisbe the Elf
- Barry Brazell as Cab Passenger
- George Kaplan as Mr. Dillis
- Robert Lesser as Marty Brock
- Zachary Bowden as Boy in the Train Station
- The film was the first major feature production filmed almost entirely in Orlando, Florida at the then-unfinished Disney-MGM Studios. Vern's house was actually a façade located on Residential Street at the park, and was part of the Studio Backlot Tour until it was demolished in 2002.
- The remainder of the scenes were filmed in various locations in the greater Orlando area, including Orlando International Airport, Epcot Center Drive, Lake Eola, Church Street Station and Orange Avenue in Downtown Orlando, a toll booth on the Bee Line Expressway, the original Orlando Science Center which has since been replaced by a new facility (used as the "Orlando Children's Museum" in the film), and the Orlando AMTRAK station. Scenes that take place in the movie studio and its hallways were shot at the facilities of the local FOX affiliate WOFL which in the mid-1980s had its own custom promo featuring the Ernest character. A small number of scenes were filmed in Nashville.
In the opening weekend the film opened at #2 at the box office and grossed $5,710,734 from 1,634 theaters. Its final domestic grossing was $28,202,109.
- ↑ "Orlando Looking Good As 'Ernest' Hits Screens", Orlando Sentinel. Retrieved on 6 October 2010.
- ↑ Wilmington, Michael (1988-11-15). "Not Even Christmas Can the Save New 'Ernest'", Los Angeles Times. Retrieved on 6 October 2010.
- ↑ "Jim Varney Is Good For Some Laughs.", Chicago Tribune (1988-11-14). Retrieved on 6 October 2010.
- ↑ "Ernest Saves The Day When Santa Needs Help", Orlando Sentinel. Retrieved on 6 October 2010.
- ↑ "Box Office Mojo".
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