Top Holiday Lights Celebrations Across America

Author: Family Travel Forum Staff

Tags : Baby, Cheap Vacation, Christmas Holiday, Kids, Multigen, North America, Road Trip, Teens, USA, Winter Getaway

We love the winter season, when holiday lights, Christmas decorations, colorfully wrapped presents and the most imaginative retail displays overtake downtowns around the world, regardless of whether there’s sun or snow outside. It’s the time for a New Year’s getaway, or maybe visiting relatives, preparing for church recitals, baking cookies, cutting down your own Christmas tree (see our directory of U-Pick Christmas tree farms), dusting off favorite songs and bedtime stories and, of course, taking in local festivities.

Big City Winter Getaways to Celebrate the Holidays

Holiday city-goers must plan ahead because hotels get fully booked and special attractions and seasonal shows sell out quickly. Even if you can't get tickets, your family is guaranteed that shops and major hotels will dress up their public spaces for the holidays, and often put on fancy High Tea afternoons for kids in efforts to attract family vacationers. For truly selfie-worthy decor like Gingerbread Houses, a classic High Tea and winter discounts, head to Omni Hotels & Resorts, whose Resort Stocking Stuffers package, promises 15% off on a two-night stay, plus a fun holiday turndown service. Guests will receive a $10 Omni Credit gift plus a charity token for each night they book, which can be ear-marked for the food, shelter or children's charity of choice.

With so much going on, where can a family go for a quick yet affordable getaway? Fortunately, our friends at the hotel metasearch engine,, examined all the hotel rates that holiday-makers were finding on their website to determine the best values at the most popular destinations. Of the 20 most popular cities, six offer average hotel rates during the Christmas/New Year's period of less than $200/night. These affordable spots might ring your bell; take a look.

1. Las Vegas = $167/night
2. Orlando = $174/night
3. Anaheim = $179/night
4. Chicago = $187/night
5. San Diego = $159/night
6. San Antonio = $121/night

Keep reading to find out what's going on in each of these fun cities over the holidays, where many of the festivities are free.

So whether you’re planning a vacation or a staycation -- sleeping in a hotel, renting a villa or camping at the in-laws -- add a visit to a seasonal lights display in a botanic garden, town square, shopping mall, zoo or theme park to your annual holiday ritual.

Top Holiday Lights and Christmas Decorations in America

Our roundup of the top holiday displays across America is compiled with Taking the Kids. 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 28-January 4 (closed Dec 24, 25, 31, and Jan 1)


Orange County has lots going on at the holidays. At the Disneyland Resort, merry magic means festive décor, special treats and classic park attractions such as "it’s a small world" which have been reimagined for the season. Take a nap so you're ready for the new "A Christmas Fantasy" parade, "Disney ¡Viva Navidad!" and both the "World of Color – Celebrate! The Wonderful World of Walt Disney" and "World of Color – Winter Dreams" evening shows. November 20-January 6.



“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-January


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 opps. 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 more than 150,000 visitors in its first few years. November 26 - December 27


For 70 years, New England’s largest holiday tree (lighting december 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 for hot chocolate or tea with a slice of the yummy Boston Cream Pie invented there. November 6-January 30


Don't miss an Ozark Mountain Christmas which features many drive-through light displays, including the 2½-mile long "Shepherd of the Hills Trail of Lights." At the Silver Dollar City amusement park, celebrate an “Old Time Christmas” with a musical five-story special effects Christmas Tree featuring over a million of its own lights; only one of Branson's many holiday events. November 11-December 31


The “Lights of Dyker Heights” attracts 100,000 visitors to view amazing decorations. Come visit between 5pm and 9pm to meet the locals. November 30-December 30


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. October 20-January 2


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


In Speed City, it's more than appropriate to drive through a Speedway Christmas event at the legendary Charlotte Motor Speedway , where millions of lights, music, a fire pit for s'mores, and a Santa inhabit a Christmas Village. But this town boasts an outdoor ice rink, Christmas parades, holiday laser lights and more. November 19-January 19. Speedway Nov 21-Dec 30, closed Christmas Day


Rock City Garden’s “Enchanted Garden of Lights” returns for its 20th year with more than 30 illuminated holiday scenes. Families will also enjoy live entertainment, cookie decorating, and face painting for the kids. Booking a Dinner with Santa package gets you a meal and a VIP entry pass. 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


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 26-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.  December 4 to January 1


Texans do everything big, so no surprise that "Big D" is Dallas' citywide holiday celebration. From museum shows, to "The Christmas Carol," illuminations downtown, in Fair Park and at the Arboretum, there's lots to enjoy. November 8 to January 3


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


The three-mile-long “Festival of Lights” at Moody Gardens boasts 100 animated light displays along with an outdoor ice rink, snow-tubing down a 100-foot long Arctic 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 call this little Wild West town near Dallas the "Christmas Capital of Texas" because it has more than 1,400 events in 40+ days. Join Christmas Carols (Nov. 23), follow the Parade of Lights (Dec. 3), shop at Christmas Markets in the historic downtown, catch some seasonal shows, and head to Main Street for the "Magic of Christmas Light Show." Visitors who book the Gaylord Texan Resort's annual Lone Star Christmas package will be surrounded by more live entertainment, holiday decor made up of 2 million holiday lights and 2 million pounds of real snow, a 54-foot-tall Christmas tree, miniature trains and more. November 24 - January 3


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 13-January 1


The aloha holiday spirit shines through the annual Honolulu City Lights. Families will find themed Christmas trees and wreaths, ornament making sessions, gingerbread houses, photo opps with massive effigies of Shaka Santa and Tutu Mele (Hawaii-style Santa and Mrs. Claus) plus festive food booths, little rides for keiki, an electric light parade and ongoing entertainment. December 5-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


Take in all of KC’s winter holiday family events such as the outdoors "KCP&L Plaza Lights" at glittery Country Club Plaza. Now 86 years old, the nation's oldest and one of its most elegant malls and the lights rimming all its shops and rooftops are spectacular. There are also lights all over the Crown Center complex, showcasing an ice rink and 100-foot-tall Christmas tree. Don't miss a visit to see the toy trains on display at Union Station, a Dr. Seuss inspired Whoville at City Market, and much more holiday activities. November 26-January 1


You won't find snow, but there's plenty of spirit around town if you count the windows along Rodeo Drive in Beverly Hills, and the fun "Zooray for Hollywood" light shot at the zoo in Griffith Park. This Time Out holiday lights guide has a great roundup for those who want to drive some neighborhoods. Tops of all, the “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


The holidays stay in Vegas like everything else, but that doesn't mean that families won't find plenty to cheer about in hotel, shops and restaurant decor. The Las Vegas Natural History Museum will host its 9th annual "A December to Remember" exhibition, with programs that highlight how different world cultures and religions celebrate friendship and family at this time of year. Check the Las Vegas C&VB calendar to find showtimes for "Elf the Musical," "Ronnie Spector's Best Christmas Party Ever" and other seasonal entertainment. November 28-January 3


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 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. November 19-December 27


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 27-December 20


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 for a great city view. November 27-January 3


Stay ashore for the 107th Annual Christmas Boat Parade, when anything that floats-- from electric Duffy's to kayaks to motorcraft -- gets decked out in bells, bows and lights. More than 100 decorated boats sail a 14.7-mile route to Bay Island. Fireworks on both the first and final evening. December 16-20


From the Rockefeller Center Christmas Tree (lighting on Dec. 2) to the world’s largest menorah at Brooklyn's Grand Army Plaza (Dec. 6-13), 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 (Nov. 14-Jan 9) in Queens -- New York does the winter holidays big. Check out the great store windows and visit NYC & Company for the latest holiday events. November 21-January 18


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,” aptly supported by Ontario Power Generation, which accepts donations to offset the huge electricity bill. November 21-January 31


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


Oceanside Harbor’s “Parade of Lights” boat procession takes place December 12 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. At SeaWorld’s Christmas Celebration, families will find a winter wonderland where ice skaters twirl on a frozen lake, artisans show their crafts at a Christmas Village and carolers roam the crowds. Even Polar Express is included in admission, and for $24 more, each family member can have a reserved seat at all the shows. Feeling chintzy? Dr. Seuss' lovable “Grinchmas” steals the show at Universal Studios (Dec. 6-Jan.3). Makers should be sure to catch a “Christmas Bricktacular” at Legoland Florida, featuring a huge Lego Christmas tree (weekends in December). Disney World's “Mickey’s Very Merry Christmas Party” rocks the place on select nights (Nov 8-Dec 18). Catch Magic Kingdom's holiday-re-themed "Jingle Cruise" ride and make everyone stay up to watch Queen Elsa turn Cinderella Castle into a glistening ice palace during the new “A Frozen Holiday Wish” show. We love the caroling concerts and candlelight processional at Epcot’s “Holidays Around the World” (Nov 28-Dec 30) too.


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 28


Brook Green Gardens’ "Nights of a Thousand Candles" uses the glow of 5,500 hand-lit candles to light garden paths, as bell ringers, light sculptures, glass sculptures and carolers entertain guests. December 3-19, weekends


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 artistry in lights along South 13th Street and choreographed musical lights, Electrical Spectacle, playing every half hour outdoors at Franklin Square. Boat parades and Philly fireworks (two shows but bundle up) light up the Delaware River waterfront. Plan to stay for the famous New Year's Day Mummers Parade if you can. November 12-December 31


As you drive along in a heated trolley, ask the kids to guess the number of lights (5 million) in this resort town’s gigantic “Winterfest” and compare that to what’s on display at the Dollywood themepark’s annual Smoky Mountain Christmas Festival packed with lights, shopping and concerts (4 million). You can even appreciate them in the daytime "Parade of Lights" and around the new DreamMore Resort. November 7-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 13-January 2


The “Vintage Christmas in Portsmouth” festival in this small New Hampshire town features a Candlelight Stroll with costumed interpreters. Weekends, December 4-26


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, 12 feet of mistletoe, horse-drawn carriage rides and appearances by Santa regale overnight guests and visitors; reservations recommended. The whole town pitches in, with an outdoor ice-skating rink on the pedestrian-only Main Street, holiday vendors and live entertainment. November 27-January 6


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 join more than 185 singing groups and partake in holiday boat caroling and "Santa’s Rockin’ River of Lights." December 4


This action-packed, family-friendly city presents the Botanic Garden’s 100,000-light “Garden of Lights,” fun events at the San Diego Zoo, and more Christmas cheer in Legoland, whose 30-foot-tall tree is constructed of 245,000 green Legos. At SeaWorld’s Christmas Celebration, catch a pinniped and an otter play in "Clyde & Seamore’s Christmas Special", and meet some reindeer at the Reindeer Training Academy. SeaWorld claims southern California’s largest Christmas tree, the 320-foot Christmas Tree of Lights. Bring a sweater and don’t expect beach weather! November 21-January 3


The City by the Bay has holiday lights, public art, special events, and more holiday cheer beginning November 21-22, 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” weekend and holiday nights between December 4-January 3. Glittering palm trees adorn Union Square, which hosts the city’s Macy's Christmas Tree and Bill Graham Menorah. November 27-January 3


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 appealing temperate climate of the Phoenix - Scottsdale resort corridor, you'll see cactus decked out in twinkling lights and reindeer on front lawns. The big local event is "Las Noches de Las Luminarias" at the Desert Botanical Garden, when 8,000 hand-lit paper lanterns illuminate the winter sky. Settle into a luxury room at the North Pole-themed Fairmont Scottsdale Princess, a family and pet-welcoming resort that goes all out for the holidays with life-size characters and more. Enjoy a skating rink, outdoor firepits, carousel, Christmas Petting Zoo, nightly Menorah Lighting, Santa’s workshop and tour the 2.8 million LED lights around the Lagoon by toy train. Reserve ahead for the popular "Magic Memories" package designed for families, by calling 800/908-9370 or visiting their site. November 20-January 3


Westlake Park has its holiday carousel, Seattle Center offers ice skating, Woodland Park Zoo is packed with carolers and 600,000 LEDs shaped like animals for “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. The whole city is lighting up in solidarity. November 25-January 3


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 3-29


The “Holiday Lights in the Park” has more than 60 light sculptures and animated displays in Phalen Park, and all proceeds from this fun family event are donated to charity. November 24-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 11-January 3


After 28 years, this “Victorian Christmas” has grown from twinkling lights to a Victorian Museum and Craft Village, a Winter Wonderland for children with live ice sculpting and the world's largest rocking horse, 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. Busch Gardens’ Christmas Town is celebrating 7 years at the North Pole, with Santa’s Workshop theming all over the park. At dusk, the 8 million twinkling lights make the themepark come alive. Revolutionary-era Yorktown and 17th century Jamestown have special events, too. Check for active dates, November 27--January 3


This lakefront, 135-acre resort in the Poconos is dressed for the winter holidays with “Festival of Lights” wagon rides through an illuminated nature trail, a nice break from all the recreational action. Carolers, yule log hunts, snow tubing, sledding, reindeer and hot cocoa parties are also included in the one-price inclusive getaway at Woodloch. Bundle by day, enjoy their all new professionally staged Christmas Musical Revue after supper, then get curl up and cozy in your spacious family condo.

Family Cruise Vacations for the Winter Holidays

There’s so much competition in the cruise industry that the major cruise companies go all out to lure holiday travelers with special décor, celebratory meals, festive activities and even church services of almost every denomination. Picture all the fuss like a huge drive-through holiday lights display... but at sea.
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, a Royal Dutch High Tea and traditional holiday cuisine. Seasonal highlights of Carnival Cruises will include holiday-themed entertainment and a special Christmas dinner. 


Note! This story was accurate when it was published. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question, and stay up to date with current events to ensure a safe and successful trip.