November 22, 2015
Wherever you find yourself this holiday season, make time to grab the kids and grandkids and check out the holiday lights whether in your neighborhood, nearby city, at the local zoo or a theme park. The displays and entertainment get better every year! Make it a tradition by over-nighting at a hotel decked out for the holidays. Omni Hotels, for one, has a stocking stuffer deal that not only offers a discount and special turn down treats, but a token to donate to a charity. Even if you can’t get away until Christmas week, you may find a deal. According to the hotel mega search site www.trivago.com, six of the top 20 searched cities for holiday getaways—including Orlando and Anaheim—tout average hotel rates under $200 a night even during that extremely popular vacation week.
So whether you’re planning a vacation or a staycation — sleeping in a hotel, villa rental or at the in-laws — add a visit to a seasonal lights display in a botanic garden, zoo or theme park to your annual holiday ritual.
Our roundup of the top holiday displays across America is compiled with the Family Travel Forum. If we left out your neighborhood or you want to share a favorite find, please use the Comments section below. Happy Holidays!
ALBUQUERQUE, NEW MEXICO
The ABQ BioPark hosts New Mexico’s “The River of Lights” featuring giant sculptures created by millions of lights in over 400 displays. November 28-January 2.
Southern California’s epicenter of theme parks has lots going on at the holidays, especially at Disneyland with the resort transformed into a magical winter wonderland with themed entertainment (think Jungle jingle cruise and Haunted Mansion Holiday, and decorations everywhere, including at the hotels. DisneyLand Resort’s 60th Anniversary Diamond celebration adds even more sparkle to the festive entertainment with “A Christmas Fantasy” parade, “Disney ¡Viva Navidad!,” the all-new “Paint the Night” parade and the “Disneyland Forever” fireworks spectacular. This season, guests may enjoy two versions of the nighttime spectacular, “World of Color,” nightly at Disney California Adventure park with the performance of “World of Color – Celebrate! The Wonderful World of Walt Disney” and “World of Color – Winter Dreams.”
“Lights on the Bay” is a drive-through holiday light show at Sandy Point State Park along the shores of Chesapeake Bay with more than 60 stationery and animated displays. November 21-January 2
In Zilker Park, the annual Trail of Lights ) winds through 1.25 miles of scenes composed of multi-colored twinkling lights; a 155-foot conical tree made entirely of lights is at its center. Get a preview at the casual 5k fun run (Dec 6th). Lots of eats in this foodie town, plus kids activities, local crafts vendors and photo ops. December 8-22
Find more than 60 booths of crafts, gifts, food and drinks at the new European-style Christmas Village in Baltimore at Inner Harbor West Shore Park. It’s back after drawing 150,000 visitors in its first year. November 26 – December 27
For 71 years, New England’s largest holiday tree (lighting Dec 3) has been the centerpiece of the Freedom Trail Holiday Stroll; this special tour is offered Thursday to Sunday only. After your costumed guide explains Boston holiday traditions, take the family to the Omni Parker House Hotel which is celebrating its 160th Anniversary for hot chocolate or tea with a slice of the yummy Boston Cream Pie invented there. November 6-January 30
Silver Dollar City celebrates “Old Time Christmas” with a musical 5-story special effects Christmas Tree featuring over a million lights Nov. 7-Dec.30 ; only one of Branson’s many holiday events.
BROOKLYN, NEW YORK
The “Lights of Dyker Heights” attracts 100,000 visitors to view amazing decorations. Come visit between 5pm and 9pm to meet the locals while enjoying hot chocolate and a cannoli. November 30-December 30 on a special Slice of Brooklyn tour .
There’s no snow but there’s lots of sun in the Caribbean during the high season and special events at hotels throughout the islands. Only on St. Kitts can you watch the traditional St. Kitts-Nevis Sugar Mas Carnival, combining the entertainment, parades and costumes of Mardi Gras with Santa’s cheer. There are weeks of music and dance competitions; performances by local folklore groups such as Mock Jumby, Masquerades, Mummies and the Bull; street activities and events at hotels that build to New Year’s Day. The island gets jammed with cruise ship passengers but if you book ahead for the big weekends, you’ll have a much more satisfying (and relaxing) experience. Until January 2
CHARLESTON, SOUTH CAROLINA
The annual “Holiday Festival of Lights,” considered one of the top 20 events in the Southeast, features millions of lights arranged in 750 displays along a three-mile route. Visitors will also enjoy attractions like the Enchanted Walking Trail, an old-fashioned Carousel, gingerbread house displays and more. November 13-January 3
CHARLOTTE, NORTH CAROLINA
Drive through a “Speedway Christmas” at the legendary Charlotte Motor Speedway in Concord, where millions of lights, music, a fire pit for s’mores, and a Santa inhabit a Christmas Village. Closed Christmas Day, November 21 –December 30.
Rock City Garden’s “Enchanted Garden of Lights” returns for its 19th year with more than 30 illuminated holiday scenes. Families will also enjoy live entertainment, cookie decorating, and face painting for the kids. November 20-January 2
Key Chicago events include “The Magnificent Mile Lights Festival” which begins November 21 with a tree-lighting parade and continues with a German-American holiday market in Daley Plaza. The Museum of Science and Industry celebrates “Christmas Around the World” and “Holidays of Light” with more than 50 trees decorated to represent various cultures and holiday traditions. November 19- January 3
GE’s Lighting Institute is in Nela Park where thousands of lights illuminate buildings along Noble Road. Early December to January 1
COEUR D’ALENE, IDAHO
Enjoy holiday music performances and see 250 scenes composed of more than 1.5 million lights. The lakefront Coeur d’Alene Resort runs three nightly “Journey to the North Pole” cruises to Santa’s Workshop. November 20-January 3.
COLORADO SPRINGS, COLORADO
The Cheyenne Mountain Zoo is decorated in over one million holiday lights, making a visit to the indoor animal exhibits very festive. Drop by the historic pink Broadmoor Hotel nearby for a hot chocolate. December 4 to January 1
CRESTED BUTTE, COLORADO
Like many ski towns, both the commercial village and the local mountain resort are decked out with lights galore this season. At 4 hours from Denver, 3 from Colorado Springs, Gunnison-Crested Butte is a convenient getaway for early season skiing, snowboarding, snowbiking, children’s learning programs and new graded trails for both beginners (with a wooden “Main Street” to ski by) and intermediates while the historic town and nearby Gunnison are decked out for the holidays with special events.
Texans do everything big, so no surprise that “Big D” is the citywide holiday celebration. From museum shows, to “The Christmas Carol,” illuminations downtown, in Fair Park and at the Arboretum, there’s lots to enjoy, including Downtown Wonderland starting. November 19.
More than 175,000 lights illuminate “Christmas in the Square,” the largest holiday lights and music show in North Texas. November 27 -January 3
GALVESTON ISLAND, TEXAS
“Festival of Lights” at Moody Gardens boasts 100 animated light displays along with an outdoor ice rink, snow-tubing down a 100-foot long ice slide and, in late December, a holiday magic show. November 14-January 10
Hop on a Gatlinburg Trolley and enjoy the annual “Winter Magic” light displays featuring animals indigenous to Great Smoky Mountains National Park; the kickoff holiday parade with local marching bands is December 4. November 11-January 31
They don’t call Grapevine, near Dallas and Fort Worth, the “Christmas Capital of Texas” for nothing; Grapevine goes all out for the holidays with 1400 events in 40-plus days including its nightly See the Magic of Christmas Light Show and downtown decorated with more than a million twinkling lights. Plan your calendar to drop by some wineries, ride the vintage railroad, shop and relax at the Great Wolf Lodge or Gaylord Texan resorts. In fact, at the Great Wolf, the annual “Snowland” festivities allow families to dine in a life-size gingerbread house (the $10 fee is a contribution to Ronald McDonald House), get snowed on in the lobby, write letters to Santa and much more wintry fun, with rooms starting at $199/night including admission to their amazing indoor waterpark.. The Gaylord Texan’s Lone Star Christmas features ICE! In which two million pounds of ice is hand-carved into holiday scenes, characters and five two-story tall ice slides. Events from Nov. 11-Jan 3. 2016
With Santa, real reindeer, Yule Log Hunts, caroling, “Gingerbread Wars” and special arts & crafts, the entire 135 acres of Woodloch Pines Resort in the Pocono Mountains which has been welcoming families for more than 50 years will be dressed for the season-, complete with illuminated “Festival of Lights” wagon rides all new Christmas Musical Revue after Family Winter Olympics in the snow.
The town of Hershey does its own 2-mile “Sweet Lights” drive-through attraction while Hersheypark’s Christmas festivities include visits with Santa’s reindeer, holiday lights, theme park rides and entertainment. November 13-January 1
This town goes all out: illuminating the Indiana Soldiers and Sailors Monument in “The Nutcracker” style for its annual “Circle of Lights,” offering free admission to many attractions on one of the 12 days before Christmas, and featuring Jolly Days Winter Wonderland at the country’s largest Children’s Museum. November 21-January 3
KANSAS CITY, MISSOURI
Crown Center is home to the Mayor’s Christmas Tree, which, at 100 feet, is one of the nation’s tallest. The tree is a symbol of the Mayor’s Christmas Tree Fund, which donates gifts, food and clothing to communities in need. The 85-year tradition continues at Country Club Plaza with outdoor winter holiday family events while Downtown Dazzle, features more than 100 different, holiday-themed exhibits, shows, performances and attractions during the first three weekends of December.
LOS ANGELES, CALIFORNIA
“Candy Cane Lane“ is an eight-square block neighborhood affair in Woodland Hills at Lubao and Oxnard Streets, organized annually since 1952. December 12-31 until 10pm weeknights, 11pm weekends L.A. ZOO LIGHTS returns with glittering light tunnels, animated monkeys in the trees, a giant glowing snake, elephant sculptures and the chance to see real reindeer. Nov. 27 to Jan. 3 (except Christmas Eve and Christmas Day). Check out the Family New Year’s Eve!
The 28th annual “Wonderland of Lights Festival“ brings hundreds of holiday light displays, outdoor ice-skating, a live variety show, North Pole Play Land, carriage rides and more. November 25-December 31
Downtown Milwaukee celebrates a “Holiday Lights Festival” with animated light displays, dancing luminaries in three local parks, and $1 per ticket Jingle Bus tours that are ideal for baby and grandparents. West Allis neighbors put on Candy Cane Lane, a homespun lights display just north of Oklahoma Avenue. Nov. 9-Dec. 27.
McADENVILLE, NORTH CAROLINA
Another small town that competes with big cities is McAdenville, whose decorated neighborhoods get jammed with the traffic of admiring homeowners. Dec. 1-26 from 5:30pm-9:30pm weeknights, till 11pm weekends
Go Victorian as Mystic Seaport hosts a ½ mile walk through an illuminated 19thcentury maritime village on its annual Lantern Light Tours. Nov. 27-Dec. 20 where you time travel back to Christmas Eve 1875.
NEW ORLEANS, LOUISIANA
NOLA’s City Park, a Southern belle with centuries-old live oaks draped in festive Spanish moss, twinkles with hundreds of thousands of lights throughout 25 acres of the park drawing 165,000 visitors to the Celebration in the Oaks holiday lights festival. Drop by the art museum’s free sculpture garden to take some family portraits, and take out a paddleboat out for a great view. Nov. 27-Jan. 3
NEWPORT BEACH, CALIFORNIA
The Ring of Lights Cruises enable you to cruise the harbor taking in houses, business and boats all lit up for the holidays. Dec 4-Jan. 3; The famous Newport Beach Boat Parade takes place Dec. 16-Dec. 20., complete with a contest for the best decorated boat.
NEW YORK, NEW YORK
The Big Apple does everything Big. From the Rockefeller Center Christmas Tree (78 feet this year adorned with 45,000 LED lights and topped with the Swarovski Crystal Star to the world’s largest menorah at Grand Army Plaza (Dec.6-Dec.13) , the New York Botanical Garden’s “Holiday Train Show” (miniature NYC landmarks made entirely out of plants Nov. 21-Jan 18) ) to the 1½ ton, the huge Gingerbread Lane village made entirely of edible gingerbread at the New York Hall of Science in Queens (Nov. 14-Jan.9) — New York does the winter holidays big.
NIAGARA FALLS, USA & CANADA
Spectacular Niagara Falls are illuminated at night year-round, but there’s nothing like snow crystals to magnify their beauty. In Niagara Falls USA, collect unique holiday ornaments at the 18 wineries on the Niagara Wine Trail and shop on the famous Erie Canal during Lockport’s Winter Wonderland Project. Cross the Rainbow Bridge to the Canada side for the “Winter Festival of Lights.” The Great Wolf Lodge on the Canada side, like 12 other Great Wolf Lodge indoor waterpark hotels around the USA, hosts an annual Snowland celebration complete with indoor snow and a life-size gingerbread house. November 21-January 31
OCEAN CITY, MARYLAND
Northside Park hosts the “Winterfest of Lights” incorporating scenes of your child’s favorite fairy tales; easily accessible via the Winterfest Express. November 19-January 3
Orlando has it all for those who plan ahead. Disney guests can save up to 25 per cent at
select Walt Disney World Resort Hotels from Nov. 28-Dec 23, being front and center for all of the holiday fun– glittering trees, fireworks, Disney characters in their holiday finery, Cinderella’s Castle transformed by Queen Elsa into an ice palace during “A Frozen Holiday Wish” castle lighting Show. There’s also Disney World’s “Mickey’s Very Merry Christmas Party” (select nights Nov 8-Dec 18); caroling concerts and candlelight processional at Epcot’s “Holidays Around the World. At SeaWorld’s Christmas Celebration you’ll find holiday-themed shows and entertainment, The Christmas Village featuring unique artisans and culinary delights, and The Polar Express Experience where and more. There’s also the chance to see the Macy’s Holiday Parade at Universal Orlando Resort Dec.5-Jan. 2 where you can also celebrate Grinchmas. Read more on TakingtheKids.com about an Orlando holiday.
PALM DESERT, CALIFORNIA
The 450-acre Living Desert is decked out for the “WildLights Festival“ that blankets its botanical gardens and educational displays in thousands of lights. Come for festive games, live music, a train ride and the new global-focused area selling international foods, camel rides and wildlife shows. Select dates Nov. 23-Dec.31.
PAWLEYS ISLAND, SOUTH CAROLINA
Brookgreen Gardens’ “Nights of a Thousand Candles” uses the glow of 5,500 candles to light garden paths, bell ringers, light sculptures, and carolers. December 3-5, 10-12, 17-19.
Philadelphia will be aglow this holiday season — from the classic free Holiday Light Show, Dickens Christmas Village and daily organ concerts indoors at Macy’s in Center City; to the choreographed musical lights, Electrical Spectacle, which plays every half hour outdoors at Franklin Square; to boat parades and Philly fireworks(two shows) over the Delaware River waterfront. The family can stay warm in one of the city’s many terrific restaurants. Nov. 12-Dec. 31
PIGEON FORGE, TENNESSEE
As you drive along in a heated trolley, ask the kids to guess the number of lights (five million) in this resort town’s gigantic “Winterfest”. Nov. 10-Dec. 31
PINE MOUNTAIN, GEORGIA
The Callaway Gardens Resort’s playful Jolly Trolley runs through a “Fantasy in Lights” composed of 8 million lights depicting 15 holiday scenes . Nov. 13-Jan. 2.
PORTSMOUTH, NEW HAMPSHIRE
The “Vintage Christmas in Portsmouth” festival in this small New Hampshire town features the Strawbery Banke Museum’s annual Candlelight Stroll, in which costumed interpreters showcase the Museum’s furnished historic houses. Events start Dec. 1 -31.
City home owners show off their decorations on a “Tacky Light Tour” each winter, a local tradition featuring festive light displays, lawn decorations, and animated scenery. Houses must have 40,000 lights to qualify for the list. December
For a high-class tradition, enjoy the d annual “Festival of Lights” at the Mission Inn Hotel and Spa with hundreds of displays, more than 4 million lights, horse-drawn carriage rides and appearances by Santa. The Festival was an annual gift to the community from owners who saved the historic landmark in 1992; The City of Riverside has adopted The Mission Inn Festival of Lights as a citywide iniative with additional decorations throughout downtown. Nov. 27-Jan. 6
SAN ANTONIO, TEXAS
San Antonio’s River Walk is the place to be November 27 for the annual boat parade, but if you arrive in December you can listen or join in to the singing groups who perform Christmas Carolas throughout the 2 ½ miles in the downtown River Walk Dec.2-20. On weekends Dec. 4-20, take in the Fiesta de las Luminarias—the banks of the San Antonio River lit by more than 6,000 Luminarias .
SAN DIEGO, CALIFORNIA
This action-packed, family-friendly city presents the Botanic Garden’s 100,000-light “Garden of Lights,” (Dec 5-23 and 26-30) . SeaWorld’s Christmas Celebration is included in the price of admission complete with . Clyde & Seamore’s Christmas Special, and the shelter-adopted stars of The Pets Rule Christmas show. The Reindeer Training Academy features live reindeer that guests can meet up close. This is the place to see Southern California’s biggest Christmas tree—320 feet tall. Nov.21-Jan 3. There’s more Christmas cheer in Legoland, with Holiday Snow Days + Winter Nights, complete with a 30-foot tall Christmas tree constructed of 245,000 green Legos. Nov.21-Jan.3
SAN FRANCISCO, CALIFORNIA
The City by the Bay has holiday lights, public art, special events, and more holiday cheer with Snowflakes on Market, the Pier 39 Tree first lit Nov. 22 ginning November 21-22, with Disney characters coming out for the annual “Pier. Have hot chocolate or cider at San Francisco “Zoo Lights” weekends and holiday nights Dec. 4- Jan. 3 . Glittering palm trees adorn Union Square, which hosts the city’s Macy’s Christmas Tree and Bill Graham Menorah. November 27-January 3. Take a Classic Cable Car Holiday Nights & Sights Tour and starting Nov. 29, stop in at the Fairmont San Francisco to see the two-story Gingerbread House.
SARATOGA, NEW YORK
The wildly popular Polar Express that runs on the vintage Saratoga & North Creek Railway draws thousands to this cute Victorian town. Expect the kids (most dressed in pajamas) to love the North Pole station where Santa and elves welcome the train. Almost daily; November 13-December 27
Most everywhere in the temperate Phoenix – Scottsdale resort corridor, you’ll see cactus decked out in twinkling lights and front lawn Santas. But for a real holiday getaway, book a family vacation at the Fairmont Scottsdale Princess, whose“Christmas at the Princess” pageantry includes a new cast of holiday characters visiting from the North pole, S’mores land (think holiday campfire!), a huge Desert Ice Holiday Rink, four-story Christmas tree, nightly 3D light shows, Princess Express Train rides throughout the Lagoon lit with more than 2.8 million LED lights, rides on the Christmas Carousel and Hanukkah Menorah lighting complete with Latkes. The resort’s “Magical Memories” family package includes a double room, skating session, $10 donation to the Cox Charities, and VIP access to the Princess Express Train,, holiday goodies and more. November 19-January 3.
Waterfront Park serves as host to more than 50 toy-themed lights displays, Westlake Park has its holiday carousel, Seattle Center offers ice skating, Woodland Park Zoo is packed with carolers and “WildLights.” During the 66th Annual Argosy Christmas Ship Festival the Argosy will sail with an onboard choir to serenade 45 waterfront communities; Holidays in Seattle has a listing of more events and attractions. November 27-January 3
New England’s most imaginative holiday lighting exhibit brings Seuss Land (this is author Theodor Geisel’s hometown), North Pole Village, and Jurassic World to the three-mile “Bright Nights” festival, which also offers carriage rides. Nov. 25-Jan. 3
The annual “Lights of Christmas” celebration is said to be one of the grandest holiday events in the Pacific Northwest, with more than a million lights, five entertainment stages, pony and train rides. Weekends, Dec. 3-29
ST. PAUL, MINNESOTA
The “Holiday Lights in the Park” has more than 60 light sculptures and animated displays in Phalen Park all proceeds from this fun family event donated to charity. Nov. 24-Jan.
SYRACUSE, NEW YORK
“Lights on the Lake” sparkles over Onondaga Lake Park with its two-mile, drive-through extravaganza featuring Land of Oz, Fantasy Forest and a Fairytale Grand Finale. Nov. 11-Jan. 3
The Tampa Bay area’s biggest Christmas celebration Christmas Town returns to Busch Gardens® Tampa Bay with Busch Gardens’ beautifully lit holiday landscape and special Yuletide experiences. Get a Fun Card and you pay for one day and get all of 2016 free! 20 Select dates Nov.27 to Dec.31.
VIRGINIA BEACH, VIRGINIA
Virginia Beach offers “Holiday Lights at the Beach” (Nov. 20-Jan. 2) and joins Richmond, Williamsburg, Newport News, Hampton, Norfolk and Portsmouth with holiday displays and a lineup of events for the state’s annual “100 Miles of Lights” with drive-through and walk-through light shows—more than two million lights. But you won’t have to leave the Boardwalk to enjoy the town’s beachfront 40-foot-tall Christmas tree and nautical-themed light displays. Nov. 20-January 2
The nation’s capital celebrates the holiday season with all varieties of performances, exhibits, and more. There is the lighting of the National Menorah (Dec.6 ) the National Christmas Tree (Dec.5 ) and, all season, g, Panda photo ops and outdoor ZooLights at the National Zoo. Experience the traditional decorations that grace Christmas at Mount Vernon and see a chocolate-making demonstration ca. 1700s. Nov. 27-Jan. 6.
Travel back 200-300 years at the Historic Triangle to learn how holidays were celebrated; Colonial Williamsburg’s “Grand Illumination” Celebrate a Colonial Christmas at Jamestown Settlement and Yorktown Victory Center with 17th and 18th century English and Virginia holiday traditions. Dec. 1-Jan.3. For a different kind of fun, head to Busch Gardens Williamsburg to Christmas Town™. Eight million lights adorn nearly every building and tree in the 100-acre park, World champion and two-time Olympic silver medalist Elvis Stojko will headline a new holiday-themed ice show.
Family Cruise Vacations For The Winter Holidays
There’s so much competition in the cruise industry that the major companies go all out to lure holiday travelers with special décor, celebratory meals, festive activities and even church services of almost every denomination.
Royal Caribbean offers traditional feasts and activities if you sail over Thanksgiving, Hanukkah, Christmas or New Year’s Eve. Garlands, twinkling lights and a life-sized gingerbread house transform Disney Cruise Line ships into a winter wonderland featuring holiday parties, festive story tellers, and craft-making for kids.
Celebrity Cruises will offer carolers, holiday movie showings, and gifts for children ages 3-17 delivered by Santa himself. Families sailing with Holland America Line will enjoy sing-alongs and traditional holiday cuisine. Seasonal highlights of Carnival Cruises will include holiday-themed entertainment and a special Christmas dinner.
This special FamilyTravelConsulting.com travel section contains advertising and some sponsored content. All opinions are based upon the author’s actual travel experience and knowledge.
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