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Around the country, fantastic holiday light displays — think millions of twinkling lights! — are being put up earlier and earlier, in some cases before Thanksgiving and in most cases, by Thanksgiving weekend. For a few hours you can forget the baking, the shopping and the wrapping and just enjoy the holidays and each other. You don’t always have to be in big cities either. In New York State, for example, you’ll find unique celebrations in smaller cities and towns.
You might even start a family tradition — or continue one from when you were a child — at lots of places beyond the local mall. (My kids always bawled when I tried to get that picture with Santa, anyway.)
Give the gift of CityPASS to see how major museums and sites have lit up for the holidays—you not only save up to half on major attractions, but in some cities this winter, you have all winter rather than just nine days to use the discounted tickets. Start a new tradition and stay in a kid-friendly Bed and Breakfast inn where the owners can steer you to the best local light displays. Give the gift of travel with a BnB Finder Travel Gift Certificate for the holidays. Make your holiday shopping fun by opting for a hotel stay. Omni Hotels & Resorts Elves and Eggnog package, for example, promises 20 per cent off with holiday turndown service with a treat, delivered by hotel elves
Here are 58 ways your family can light up their holidays this year:
1. ALBUQUERQUE, NM – The Rio Grande Botanic Garden hosts New Mexico’s largest walk-through holiday light show, “The River of Lights,” featuring giant sculptures of plants, animals, and seasonal themes created by millions of lights in over 400 displays. Visit November 30-January 5 (closed on December 24, 25, 31, and January 1).
2. ANNAPOLIS, MD – “Lights on the Bay” is a drive-through holiday light show at Sandy Point State Park along Chesapeake Bay with more than 60 stationery and animated displays including a glowing lighthouse, Navy midshipmen, oysters and blue crabs. Visit November 17-January 1.
3. AUSTIN, TX – Zilker Park’s “Trail of Lights,” a mile-long stretch with 36 seasonal scenes composed of multi-colored twinkling lights, will be on display December 8-22. The event will also feature live music, local food vendors, photo zones, and more.
4. ASPEN/SNOWMASS will be decked out with lights galore. In addition to the fabulous skiing and snowboarding, there’s ice skating, snowbiking and sledding for families as part of the Ullr Nights celebrations on the top of Snowmass Mountain. If you’re in Aspen for the holidays, don’t miss the Dec. 20th Christmas Ullr Night and Dec 31 “Family NYE” Ullr night.
5. BOSTON, MA is home to the largest Christmas tree in New England, and the 71st annual lighting ceremony will take place on November 29. Take a Freedom Trail Holiday Stroll with a costumed guide, learn how Christmas and holiday traditions evolved in Boston, and end your tour with hot chocolate or tea with Boston Cream Pie at the Omni Parker House Hotel. This tour is offered at 3:30 P.M. Thursday through Sunday from November 18-January 31. ZooLights at the Stone Zoo New England attracts thousands starting Nov. 28 with tree-lined paths lit by thousands of twinkling lights, stories read by Mrs. Claus and the chance to pose for holiday photos with reindeer.
6. BRANSON, MO – Silver Dollar City celebrates “Old Time Christmas” with a Christmas Tree featuring over a million lights from November 2-December 30.
7. BROOKLYN, NY twinkles with the “Lights of Dyker Heights,” a neighborhood tradition (between 83rd and 86th streets from 11th to 13th Avenue) that attracts 100,000 visitors to view amazing decorations. Visit in mid-December between 5 and 9 P.M. to enjoy the best and brightest displays.
8. CARRIBEAN – The Islands will be lighted up for the holidays but don’t expect snow! Located 165 miles off the coast of Florida, the outer Abaco Islands of the Bahamas is celebrating the 10th anniversary of the Christmas Festival that kicks off Dec 7. There will be New Year’s Day Junkanoo Parade on Jan 1. The Abaco Beach Resort and Boat Harbour Marina Is welcoming families with special activities and a kids stay and eat free deal
9. CHARLESTON, SC – The annual “Holiday Festival of Lights” returns to James Island County Park this year from November 8-December 31. Named one of the top 20 events in the Southeast, the festival will showcase millions of lights in over 750 displays along a 3-mile driving course. Visitors will also enjoy attractions like the Enchanted Walking Trail, an old-fashioned Carousel, photos with Santa, gingerbread house displays, and more.
10. CHARLOTTE, NC – Charlotte Motor Speedway brings the holidays to life this winter season with the return of “Speedway Christmas,” a spectacular drive-through Christmas light park and village located at the legendary superspeedway. Featuring millions of lights in its many displays, the event also includes a Christmas Village with S’mores pits, photos with Santa, music, and more. Experience it November 23-December 30, excluding Christmas day.
11. CHATANOOGA, TN – Rock City Garden’s “Enchanted Garden of Lights” returns for its 18th year with more than 30 illuminated holiday scenes. Families will also enjoy live entertainment, cookie decorating, and face painting for the kids. This year’s event will be held November 22-January 4 (closed for Christmas Eve).
12. CHICAGO, IL hosts “The Magnificent Mile Lights Festival” with a tree-lighting parade on November 23 featuring giant helium balloons, marching bands, and classic characters from Walt Disney World. 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 from November 14- January 5. “Christkindlmarket,” a German-American holiday market, will set up shop for its 18th year in Daley Plaza from November 26-December 24.
13. CLEVELAND, OH – Head to Nela Park, home of GE’s Lighting Institute in East Cleveland, to see thousands of lights illuminate buildings along Noble Road. Visit between early December and New Year’s Day.
14. COEUR d’ALENE, IDAHO — Visit the Coeur d’Alene Resort November 29-January 1 to enjoy a stunning show of over a million lights in 250 displays. Guests can also take lake cruises to Santa’s Workshop and enjoy special holiday musical performances.
15. COLORADO SPRINGS — At Cheyenne Mountain Zoo, take in over one million holiday lights and visit indoor animal exhibits. More than 250,000 strands of lights decorate the historic Broadmoor hotel nearby where the annual White Lights Ceremony kicks off the season November 30 with live music and more.
16. CRUISE AWAY —Royal Caribbean offers good deals on holiday cruises with special celebrations on Thanksgiving, Hanukkah, Christmas and New Year’s Eve. Garland, 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 traveling 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.
17. DESTIN, FL This December, celebrate the holidays with a musical light show in the Events Plaza at Sandestin Golf and Beach Resort each Wednesday, Friday, and Saturday at 6 & 7 P.M.
18. Fort Myers, Fla. You might have the chance to see the “Christmas Comet.”Comet ISON , (C/2012 S1), nicknamed the Christmas Comet is expected to make its first pass by Earth from early November 2013 through early January 2014. The Beaches of Fort Myers & Sanibel are offering a variety of special packages and activities to see the comet, including at the J.N. “Ding” Darling National Wildlife Refuge on Sanibel Island,
19. FRISCO, TX – More than 175,000 lights sparkle and shine as visitors walk or drive through “Christmas in the Square” from November 29-January 6 (closed Christmas Day), the largest holiday lights and music show in North Texas.
20. GALVESTON ISLAND, TX – “Festival of Lights” at Moody Gardens features over a million lights in 100 animated displays. Visitors can also enjoy outdoor ice skating, snow-tubing down a 100-foot long ice slide, a seasonal gift market (November 28-30), and a holiday magic show (December 19-28). Visit December 12-January 4.
21. GATLINBURG, TN – Hop on a Gatlinburg Trolley and enjoy the annual “Winter Magic” light displays featuring animals indigenous to Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Visit November 13-January 25. Gatlinburg will also host its 38th annual Festival of Lights Christmas Parade showcasing regional marching bands and giant helium balloons on December 6.
22. GRAPEVILE, Texas.They don’t call this little Wild West town near Dallas the “Christmas Capital of Texas” for nothing; Grapevine goes all out for the holidays with 1400 events along Main Street, at its wineries, the vintage railroad, malls and at its Great Wolf Lodge and Gaylord Texan resorts.
23. HALLANDALE, FL’s Village at Gulfstream Park will present “Symphony in Lights,” a spectacular dancing light display choreographed to the holiday music of the Trans-Siberian Orchestra. The event features more than 250,000 lights and requires 2,000 watts of sound, 47,000 feet of cable, and 2 tons of holiday décor. Shows are on the hour, every hour from 6 – 11 P.M. November29-December 30.
24. HERSHEY, PA – Hersheypark’s “Christmas Candylane” shines with over two million lights and festive decorations. The event will also include visits with Santa’s reindeer, family-friendly rides, and holiday entertainment. Hershey’s “Sweet Lights” is a two mile drive-through attraction with nearly 600 animated displays. Visit November 15-January 1.
25. INDIANAPOLIS, IN – The Indiana Soldiers and Sailors Monument will be illuminated with 26 toy soldiers and sailors, 26 peppermint sticks, and nearly 5,000 lights as part of the annual “Circle of Lights” celebration. Visit November 29-January 11. At Conner Prairie, check out the entries from the gingerbread house competition or explore the grounds of Prairietown to learn about holiday celebrations in the 1830s. Visitors to the Children’s Museum of Indianapolis will enjoy the annual Jolly Days exhibit available November 23-January 5. Still looking for things to do? Traditionally, many Indianapolis attractions offer free admission on one of the 12 days leading to Christmas.
26. KANSAS CITY, MO – “Plaza Lights” at Country Club Plaza is an 84-year tradition with miles of lights decorating 15 blocks of the city. The lighting ceremony will be held November 28. While you’re in town, visit Crown Center to see the Mayor’s 100-foot tall Christmas tree adorned with over 7,000 lights.
27. LOS ANGELES –Visit the town of Woodland Hills December 14-31 and explore Candy Cane Lane where homeowners at Lubao and Oxnard Streets transform their homes with holiday lights and decorations. A neighborhood tradition since 1952, this eight-square block display can be viewed before 10 P.M. during the week and before 11 P.M on weekends.
28. MARSHALL, TX welcomes families to the 27th annual “Wonderland of Lights Festival.” Featuring millions of lights in hundreds of displays throughout the city, the festival also includes outdoor ice skating, a live variety show, North Pole Play Land, carriage rides, and more. Enjoy all the festival has to offer November 27-December 31.
29. MILWAUKEE, WI – The “Holiday Lights Festival” includes animated light displays, Jingle Bus tours, and more. Visit November 21-December 29. During December, check out “Candy Cane Lane,” a stretch of blocks just north of Oklahoma Avenue in the West Allis neighborhood. Each year, three downtown Milwaukee parks are set aglow by animated scenes, dancing luminaries, and thousands of lights illuminating the trees.
30. McADENVILLE, NC – Visit the town of McAdenville December 2-26 and enjoy the holiday lights and decorations that have made this neighborhood famous throughout the region. Enjoy the lights from 5:30-9:30 P.M on weeknights and 5:30-11 P.M. on weekends. To avoid traffic delays, plan a Sunday evening visit between 9 and 11 P.M.
31. MYSTIC, CT –As part of its Victorian Christmas celebration, Mystic Seaport will host Lantern Light Tours November 30-December 27. The tour will feature a ½ mile walk through a 19th century maritime village illuminated by hundreds of lanterns.
32. NEW ORLEANS, LA – City Park twinkles with hundreds of thousands of lights as part of the annual Celebration in the Oaks holiday lights festival. . Visit November 28-January 4.
33. NEWPORT BEACH, CA – The 105th Annual Christmas Boat Parade returns to Newport Beach December 18-22. More than 100 boats will be garnished with lights and decorations to sail along a 14.7 mile route ending outside Bay Island. The parade begins nightly at 6:30 and will include a fireworks display on both the first and last nights.
34. NEW YORK, NY has not only the Rockefeller Center Christmas Tree but, at 32 feet tall, the world’s largest menorah at Grand Army Plaza in Brooklyn. The Big Apple is also home to New York Botanical Garden’s “Holiday Train Show” in the Bronx with miniatures of NYC landmarks made entirely out of plants on display November 16-January 12. GingerBread Lane – a 1.5 ton, 300-square-foot village made entirely of edible gingerbread, royal icing, and candy – makes its New York City debut at the New York Hall of Science (NYSCI) in Queens on November 17.
35. NIAGARA FALLS, USA – Tour the “wine trail” or do holiday shopping on the famous Erie Canal – not to mention watching the spectacular falls. On the Canada side, visit the “Winter Festival of Lights” November 9-January 31 and enjoy millions of lights in over 120 animated displays. The Great Wolf Lodge on the Canada side, like other Great Wolf Lodges around the USA, hosts an annual Snowland celebration complete with indoor snow and a life-size gingerbread house from November 30-January 5.
36. OCEAN CITY, MD – Northside Park hosts “Winterfest of Lights” with hundreds of animated displays. Tour scenes of your child’s favorite fairy tales on the Winterfest Express, take photos with Santa, visit the gift shop, and more from November 21-January 1.
37. OCEANSIDE, CA – Oceanside Harbor is one of the best spots to view the “Parade of Lights” –a spectacular procession of decorated, illuminated boats on December 14. Visit the Holiday Sunset Market every Thursday evening in December from 5-9 P.M. to find amazing gifts and enjoy carolers, pony rides, face painters, and more.
38. ORLANDO, FL – Orlando has it all – glittering trees, fireworks, and more from Disney World at “Mickey’s Very Merry Christmas Party”(select nights November 8-December 20); Epcot’s “Holidays Around the World” with a celebrity narrator and a candlelight processional (November 29-December 30); Sea World’s ”Christmas Celebration” (November 23-December 31), and Macy’s Holiday Parade and “Grinchmas” at Universal Studios as well as Christmas Bricktacular with a huge LEGO Crhistmas tree and Kids’ New Year’s Eve at LEGOLAND Florida . See what my family said about experiencing the holidays in Orlando. Think ahead and save with great deals on attraction tickets through UndercoverTourist.com.
39. PALM DESERT, CA – Living Desert, a 450 acre museum, zoo, and botanical garden, presents the “WildLights Festival” featuring thousands of lights that turn the desert into an after-dark wonderland. Come for festive games, live music, and a train ride through the display. Also enjoy “Holidays around the World” featuring new light displays, international food, camel rides, wildlife shows and more on select evenings November 23-December 31.
40. PAWLEYS ISLAND, SC – Brook Green Gardens’ “Nights of a Thousand Candles” features 5,500 candles illuminating garden paths, festive holiday lights, hand bell ringers and carolers on December 5-7, 12-14, 19-21.
41. PHILADELPHIA, PA –Franklin Square welcomes Electrical Spectacle, a new holiday light show featuring thousands of lights choreographed to seasonal music. The show will run every half hour between 4:30-8 P.M. from November 14-December 31. Philadelphia will be all aglow this holiday season—from the classic Holiday Light Show, Dickens Christmas Village and daily organ concerts at Macy’s in Center City; A Longwood Gardens Christmas with colorful light displays and decorated trees; the Independence Seaport Museum’s fourth annual Parade of Lights; and two New Year’s Eve fireworks displays–one at 6:00 P.M. and one at midnight–along the Delaware River Waterfront.
42. PIGEON FORGE, TN puts up more than five million holiday lights in gigantic displays during “Winterfest.” Enjoy them from the comfort of a heated trolley ride November 12-February 28. Additionally, the Dollywood theme park celebrates with four million lights and festive shows during its Smoky Mountain Christmas from November 9-January 4.
43. PINE MOUNTAIN– Callaway Gardens Resort will present “Fantasy of Lights” November 22-December 30. Drive through or ride the Jolly Trolley to see giant toy soldiers, an enchanted rainbow forest, Snowflake Valley, and more.
44. PORTSMOUTH, NH hosts its ninth annual “Vintage Christmas” this December. As part of the celebration, the Strawbery Banke Museum will sponsor a candlelight stroll featuring live music, horse-drawn carriage rides, and more each weekend from December 7-22. At Waterville Valley Resort, Santa will arrive November 30 by dogsled with a gift for each child in attendance, followed by a tree lighting ceremony and fireworks.
45. RICHMOND, VA– Drive the family car or rent a bus or limo to enjoy the Tacky Light Tour, a local tradition featuring festive light displays, lawn decorations, and animated scenery.
46. RIVERSIDE, CA is home to the 21st annual “Festival of Lights” at the historic Mission Inn Hotel and Spa. The event features four million lights, more than 400 animated displays, horse-drawn carriage rides, appearances by Santa, and more. Visit November 29-January 4.
47. SAN ANTONIO, TX –San Antonio’s River Walk celebrates the season with its annual Ford Holiday River Parade and Lighting Ceremony November 29 at 7 P.M. The River Walk will also host holiday boat caroling with over 185 singing groups (December 4) and Santa’s Rockin’ River of Lights (December 6-7).
48. SAN DIEGO, CA –San Diego’s Botanic Garden presents “Garden of Lights” with over 100,000 lights, live music, crafts for kids, and a nutcracker exhibit December 7-23 and 26-30. At the Del Mar Fairgrounds, get into the spirit with “Holiday of Lights” November 22-January 1. Visit LEGOLAND to see a 30-foot tall Christmas tree constructed of 245,000 green Legos and enjoy a musical holiday light show and Jungle Bells at the San Diego Zoo with a nightly tree trimming ceremony and special holiday shows; see fresh snow every day in San Diego at Sea World’s Snow World
49. SAN FRANCISCO touts 49 square miles of holiday cheer, whether you want to eat, see a holiday performance or holiday lights. Towering lighted trees are found outdoors from the waterfront (PIER 39′s Tree Lighting Celebration includes Disney Pals on Nov 23-24) to Nob Hill and the Castro. All four towers of the Embarcadero Center are outlined with lights for six weeks, while the palm trees at Union Square are wrapped in lights. The historic Path of Gold streetlights on Market St. bear lighted snowflakes. The city’s cable cars are festively decorated too and are available for holiday lights tours.
50. Saratoga, NY Board the vintage decorated train in NYC and take The Polar Express at the Saratoga & North Creek Railway to the “North Pole where Santa and elves welcomes the train. During the return trip, Santa greets each child and the first gift of Christmas: a bell cut from his sleigh.
51. SEATTLE, WA – Seattle’s Waterfront Park serves as host to the Toyland Village holiday light displays with more than 50 toy-themed attractions. Visit Holidays in Seattle online for a listing of events and attractions. Bring the entire family to Westlake Park in downtown Seattle for a ride on the annual holiday carousel, or head to Winterfest at Seattle Center to enjoy ice skating, live entertainment, and more November 29-December 31. Woodland Park Zoo hosts its annual WildLights festival featuring animals, sparkling light displays, and carolers November 29-January 4. During the 64th Annual Argosy Christmas Ship Festival (November 29-December 23), the Christmas Ship will sail to over 45 waterfront communities with an onboard choir.
52. SPRINGFIELD, MA hosts the 19th annual presentation of “Bright Nights,” New England’s premier holiday lighting exhibit. This 3-mile long driving route through historic Forest Park is filled with themed displays like Seuss Land, North Pole Village, and Jurassic World. Visit November 27-January 5.
53. STANWOOD, WA is hosting its annual “Lights of Christmas” celebration at Warm Beach Camp. The grandest holiday event in the Pacific Northwest, it offers displays of more than one million lights, five entertainment stages, pony and train rides, holiday shopping, crafts for kids, and much more. Visit December 5-8, 12-15, 18-23, 26-29.
54. ST. PAUL, MN – IBEW presents “Holiday Lights in the Park” with more than 50 light sculptures and animated displays in Phalen Park from November 26-January 1. All proceeds from this fun family event will be donated to charity.
55. SYRACUSE, NY – “Lights on the Lake” returns to Onondaga Lake Park this year from November 21-January 12 (closed New Year’s Eve). This two mile drive-through extravaganza features several themed scenes including Land of Oz, Fantasy Forest, and a Fairytale Grand Finale that your family is sure to love.
56. THOMASVILLE, GA is celebrating the27th anniversary of “Victorian Christmas” with twinkling lights, a Victorian Museum and Craft Village, a Winter Wonderland for children, and more. The festival will be held December 12-13. Additionally, Flower Foods presents its annual “Christmas in Lights” display on company grounds during the holidays. Highlights include a Victorian village, thousands of lights, and festive music.
57. VIRGINIA — Visit the Historic Triangle and travel back in time to learn how the holidays were celebrated in the 17th and 18th centuries. At Kingsmill in Williamsburg, book a suite and enjoy all the area attractions with special Christmas Town, Holiday Traditions and Grand Illumination packages with rates starting at $209 per night. At nearby Busch Gardens in Williamsburg, enjoy special holiday shows, six million twinkling lights, and themed attractions as part of the Christmas Town celebration. Williamsburg will also host a weekend of Grand Illumination events including Christmas home tours, holiday pops concerts, and traditional tavern dinners. At the Yorktown Victory Center, see what winters were like during the Revolutionary War and get a glimpse of holiday preparations on a 1780s farm. Virginia Beach is one of several Virginia cities participating in the annual “100 Miles of Lights” holiday event which also includes displays and activities in Richmond, Williamsburg, Newport News, Hampton, Norfolk, and Portsmouth. “McDonalds’s Holiday Lights at the Beach” event along the oceanfront boardwalk includes a 40-foot tall tree on the beach and nautical-themed light displays from November 22-January 1.
58. WASHINGTON, DC hosts the 91st annual National Christmas Tree lighting ceremony on December 6 featuring celebrity guests and performers. The lighting ceremony for the National Menorah will be held on November 27. From November 29-January 1, celebrate ZooLights at the National Zoo with holiday light displays, snow tubing, and photos with Panda Claws. Experience a historic Christmas at Mount Vernon with traditional holiday decorations and an 18th century chocolate-making demonstration November 29-January 6.
Special thanks to Andrea Timpano for her research assistance on this story.
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.