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The holiday lights are everywhere – our annual guide to the best and brightest

Hol illum 1

Who can’t love the coming of winter, when holiday lights, Christmas decorations, colorfully wrapped presents and the most imaginative displays take over neighborhoods, parks, zoos and downtowns around the world, snow or not. Maybe it’s time for a holiday getaway, or visiting relatives, preparing for church recitals, baking cookies or chopping your own Christmas tree.

Holiday city-goers must plan ahead; with a CityPASS discounted ticket booklet you can jump to the head of endless lines at major attractions and treat everyone to souvenirs with the savings. Having about half a dozen attractions (varies by city) already paid for also helps to keep the family on-course, too, making itinerary planning less stressful.

Even a historic city like Philadelphia — where there’s lots of free family fun but also cool things to do with CityPASS — begins to sparkle with holiday attractions. Last year’s “Waterfront Winterfest” is returning to Penn’s Landing for an extended run, and the events at independence era sites, like those noted under “Philadelphia” below, are great for all ages as long as you bundle up. Plan to stay for the famous New Year’s Mummers Parade.

Both cozy B&Bs and major hotels dress up for the holidays, but some go all out to attract family vacationers. Big selfie-worthy decor and winter discounts are offered by Omni Hotels & Resorts, whose Resort Stocking Stuffers package, for example, promises 15% off plus a fun holiday turndown service delivered by hotel elves.

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!


The Rio Grande Botanic Garden hosts New Mexico’s “The River of Lights” featuring giant sculptures created by millions of lights in over 400 displays. November 29-January 3 (closed Dec 24, 25, 31, and Jan 1)


Southern California’s epicenter of theme parks has lots going on at the holidays, including the annual for-charity Santa Hustle run on December 14 at Knott’s Merry Farm; and new parades, evening shows and wintery fun at Disneyland. Look online for discount theme park tickets and use the savings for hot chocolate all around. November 22 – January 4


“Lights on the Bay” is a drive-through holiday light show at Sandy Point State Park with more than 60 stationery and animated displays including a glowing lighthouse and blue crabs on Chesapeake Bay. November 23-January 1


Like many ski towns, both the commercial village and the local mountain resort are decked out with lights galore.  In addition to the early season skiing, snowboarding and children’s learning programs on mountain, there’s ice skating, snowbiking and sledding for families as part of the Ullr Nights celebrations on the top of Snowmass Mountain. The biggest events in the season-long family activities program are Christmas Ullr Night (Dec 20) and Family New Year’s Ullr Night (Dec 31)


In Zilker Park, the annual Trail of Lights (a USA Today Top 10 Holiday Celebration) 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 7-21


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 27 – December 24


For 70 years, New England’s largest holiday tree (lighting Nov 15) 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 for hot chocolate or tea with a slice of the yummy Boston Cream Pie invented there. November 14-January 31


Silver Dollar City celebrates “Old Time Christmas” with a musical 5-story special effects Christmas Tree featuring over a million lights; only one of Branson’s many holiday events. At nearby Point Lookout, check out the authentic car from your grandparents’ childhood hit show, “The Beverly Hillbillies,” on display at the Ralph Foster Museum at the College of the Ozarks. November 1-December 30


The “Lights of Dyker Heights” attracts 100,000 visitors to view amazing decorations. Come visit between 5pm and 9pm to meet the locals. November 1-December 1


There’s no snow but there’s lots of sun in the Caribbean during the high season. 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. November 21-January 4


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 14-January 1

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, open November 21-January 3


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 23-January 3

Key Chicago events include “The Magnificent Mile Lights Festival” which begins November 22 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 13- January 4


GE’s Lighting Institute is in Nela Park where thousands of lights illuminate buildings along Noble Road. Early December to January 1


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 28-January 1


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 and admire its annual White Lights Ceremony, with live music and more.  November 29 to January 1


Texans do everything big, so no surprise that “Bigger & Brighter” is the citywide holiday celebration. From museum shows, to “The Christmas Carol,” illuminations downtow, in Fair Park and at the Arboretum, there’s lots to enjoy. November 16 to January 4


Mix the beach and holiday cheer with a musical light show in the Events Plaza at Sandestin Golf and Beach Resort. Shows every Wednesday, Friday and Saturday night, December.


More than 175,000 lights illuminate “Christmas in the Square,” the largest holiday lights and music show in North Texas. November 28-January 3


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 15-January 4


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 5. November 12-January 25


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 its heavily decorated and very cute Main Street. Plan your calendar to drop by some wineries, ride the vintage railroad, shop and relax at the Great Wolf Lodge orGaylord 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 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, themepark rides and entertainment. November 14-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 holiday exhibits at its impressive Children’s Museum. November 28-January 3


Partake in KC’s winter holiday family events outdoors at the glittering Country Club Plaza (an 85-year-old tradition.) There are lights all over the Crown Center complex, showcasing a 100-foot Christmas tree. November-January 1


Candy Cane Lane“ is an eight-square block neighborhood affair in Woodland Hills at Lubao and Oxnard Streets, organized annually since 1952.  December 13-31 until 10pm weeknights, 11pm weekends


The 27th 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 27-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. November 20-December 28


Another small town that competes with big cities is McAdenville, whose decorated neighborhoods get jammed with the traffic of admiring homeowners. December 1-26 from 5:30pm-9:30pm weeknights, till 11pm weekends


Go Victorian as Mystic Seaport hosts a ½ mile walk through an illuminated 19th century maritime village on its annual Lantern Light Tours. November 28-January 3


NOLA’s City Park, a Southern belle with centuries-old live oaks draped in festive Spanish moss, twinkles with hundreds of thousands of lights as part of the annual 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. November 28-January 3


The 106th Annual Christmas Boat Parade returns with more than 100 decorated boats (including fancy yachts) sailing a 14.7-mile route to Bay Island. Fireworks on both the first and final evening. December 17-21


The Big Apple does everything Big. From the Rockefeller Center Christmas Tree to the world’s largest menorah at Brooklyn’s Grand Army Plaza, the New York Botanical Garden’s “Holiday Train Show” (miniature NYC landmarks made entirely out of plants) to the 1½ ton, 300-square-foot village made entirely of edible gingerbread at the New York Hall of Science in Queens — New York does the winter holidays big. Check NYC & Company for the latest holiday events and take advantage of a CityPASS for big savings on tickets local attractions. November 16-January 12


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 29-January 4


Northside Park hosts the “Winterfest of Lights” incorporating scenes of your child’s favorite fairy tales; easily accessible via the Winterfest Express. November 21-January 1


Oceanside Harbor’s “Parade of Lights” boat procession takes place December 13 but all season long, visitors take in the carolers, pony rides and face painters at the Holiday Sunset Market.  December, Thursdays 5pm-9pm


Orlando has it all for those who plan ahead. Save with great deals on attraction tickets throughUndercoverTourist.com and take the whole family to see glittering trees, fireworks and more at Disney World’s “Mickey’s Very Merry Christmas Party” (select nights Nov 7-Dec 19); caroling concerts and candlelight processional at Epcot’s “Holidays Around the World” — one of our favorites (Nov 28-Dec 30); Sea World’s ”Christmas Celebration” (Nov 22-Dec 31); “Grinchmas” at Universal Studios; and a “Christmas Bricktacular” with a huge Lego Christmas tree and Kids’ New Year’s Eve at Legoland Florida. Read more on TakingtheKids.com about an Orlando holiday. November-January


The 450-acre Living Desert is decked out for the “Wild Lights 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. November 23-November 26


Brook Green Gardens’ “Nights of a Thousand Candles” uses the glow of 5,500 candles to light garden paths, bell ringers, light sculptures, and carolers. December 4-6, 11-13, 18-20


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.  November 13-December 31


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” and compare that to what’s on display at the Dollywood themepark’s annual Smoky Mountain ights and concert events (four million). November 8-January 3


The Callaway Gardens Resort’s playful Jolly Trolley runs through a “Fantasy of Lights” composed of giant toy soldiers, an enchanted rainbow forest, and Snowflake Valley. November 14-December 30


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.  Weekends, December 6-21


This college town produces the “Tacky Light Tour” each winter, a local tradition featuring festive light displays, lawn decorations, and animated scenery. December


For a high-class tradition, enjoy the 22nd annual “Festival of Lights” at the Mission Inn Hotel and Spa where more than 400 animated displays, horse-drawn carriage rides and appearances by Santa regale overnight guests and visitors; reservations recommended. November 28-January 6


San Antonio’s River Walk is the place to be November 28 for the annual boat parade, but if you arrive in December you can join more than 185 singing groups and partake in holiday boat caroling and “Santa’s Rockin’ River of Lights.” December 5


This action-packed, family-friendly city presents the Botanic Garden’s 100,000-light “Garden of Lights,” fun events at the San Diego Zoo, the Del Mar Fairgrounds’ “Holiday of Lights,” Sea World’s Snow World and more Christmas cheer in Legoland, whose 30-foot tall Christmas tree is constructed of 245,000 green Legos. Just don’t expect beach weather! December 6-30, closed December 24, 25


The City by the Bay has holiday lights, public art, special events, and more holiday cheer beginning November 22-23, with Disney characters coming out for the annual “Pier 39 Tree Lighting Ceremony” at the waterfront marketplace. Have hot chocolate or cider at San Francisco “Zoo Lights” from December 19-30. Glittering palm trees adorn Union Square, which hosts the city’s Macy’s Christmas Tree and Bill Graham Menorah. November 28-January 4


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 14-January 1


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 is built around a four-story musical tree, snow falling on a real ice skating rink, cozy fire pits, Christmas carolers, a new carousel and even a Nativity garden scene. This beautiful 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, a wild ride which passes 2,000,000 Lagoon Lights, winter-themed characters like Snow Kong and Nessie the Loch Ness monster, and multi-faith Hanukah dreidels, Santa, toy soldiers and a candy cane forest. November 20-January 4.


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 65th 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 28-January 4


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. November 26-January 4


The annual “Lights of Christmas” celebration is said to be the grandest holiday event in the Pacific Northwest, with lights, five entertainment stages, pony and train rides. Weekends, December 4-30


The IBEW funded “Holiday Lights in the Park” has more than 50 light sculptures and animated displays in Phalen Park all proceeds from this fun family event donated to charity. November 26-January 1


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.  November 14-January 4


After 28 years, this “Victorian Christmas” has grown from twinkling lights to a Victorian Museum and Craft Village, a Winter Wonderland for children, and more.  December 11-12


Virginia Beach offers“Holiday Lights at the Beach” 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.”  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. November 21-January 3


The nation’s capital celebrates in winter:  the lighting of the National Menorah (November 16), the National Christmas Tree (December 5) and, all season, the snowtubing, 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. November 28-January 6.


Travel back 200-300 years at the Historic Triangle to learn how holidays were celebrated; Colonial Williamsburg’s “Grand Illumination” events include Christmas home tours, holiday pops concerts, and traditional tavern dinners. At Kingsmill Resort, book a suite and enjoy all the area attractions including Busch Gardens themepark and Revolutionary-era Yorktown with special Christmas TownHoliday Traditions andGrand Illumination packages with rates starting at $209 per night

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 good deals on holiday cruises with 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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