Top Holiday Lights Celebrations Across America

Author: Family Travel Forum Staff

Tags : Baby, Cheap Vacation, Christmas Holiday, Featured, Kids, Multigen, North America, Road Trip, Teens, USA, Winter Getaway
Electrical Spectacle holiday show in Philadelphia; photo J. Fusco

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, dusting off favorite songs and bedtime stories and, of course, taking in local festivities.

 

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Big City Winter Getaways to Celebrate the Holidays

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.
 

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!
 

ALBUQUERQUE, NEW MEXICO

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)

 

ANAHEIM, CALIFORNIA

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

 

ANNAPOLIS, MARYLAND

“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
 

AUSTIN, TEXAS

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
 

BALTIMORE, MARYLAND

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
 

BOSTON, MASSACHUSETTS

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
 

BRANSON, MISSOURI

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
 

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. November 1-December 1
 

CARIBBEAN

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
 

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 14-January 1
 

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, open November 21-January 3
 

CHATANOOGA, TENNESSEE

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
 

CHICAGO, ILINOIS

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

CLEVELAND, OHIO

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 28-January 1
 

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 and admire its annual White Lights Ceremony, with live music and more.  November 29 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. Grab one of their lodging deals and enjoy extreme-skiing movies, Santa visits and the annual Holiday Art Market (December 9-24) at the Gunnison Arts Center. November 22 - January 4
 

DANA POINT, CALIFORNIA

After you've spotted some whales at sea, return to an OC Dana Point Harbor aglow with Illuminoceans, 22 attractions -- including light tunnels and leaping dolphins -- made of millions of holiday lights set in 23 miles of cable. The area's luxury resorts have holiday specials too. November 26 to January 4
 

DALLAS, TEXAS

Texans do everything big, so no surprise that "Bigger & Brighter" 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. November 16 to January 4
 

FRISCO, TEXAS

More than 175,000 lights illuminate “Christmas in the Square,” the largest holiday lights and music show in North Texas. November 28-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 15-January 4
 

GATLINBURG, TENNESSEE

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
 

GRAPEVINE, 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 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 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.

 

HERSHEY, PENNSYLVANIA

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
 

INDIANAPOLIS, INDIANA

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
 

KANSAS CITY, MISSOURI

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
 

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 13-31 until 10pm weeknights, 11pm weekends
 

MARSHALL, TEXAS

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
 

MILWAUKEE, WISCONSIN

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
 

McADENVILLE, NORTH CAROLINA

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
 

MYSTIC, CONNECTICUT

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
 

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 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
 

NEWPORT BEACH, CALIFORNIA

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
 

NEW YORK, NEW YORK

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
 

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 29-January 4
 

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 21-January 1
 

OCEANSIDE, CALIFORNIA

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, FLORIDA

Orlando has it all for those who plan ahead. Save with great deals on attraction tickets through UndercoverTourist.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
 

PALM DESERT, CALIFORNIA

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
 

PAWLEYS ISLAND, SOUTH CAROLINA

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, PENNSYLVANIA

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
 

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” 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
 

PINE MOUNTAIN, GEORGIA

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
 

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.  Weekends, December 6-21
 

RICHMOND, VIRGINIA

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

RIVERSIDE, CALIFORNIA

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, TEXAS

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
 

SAN DIEGO, CALIFORNIA

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
 

SAN FRANCISCO, CALIFORNIA

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

 

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 14-January 1

 

SCOTTSDALE, ARIZONA

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
 

SEATTLE, WASHINGTON

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
 

SPRINGFIELD, MASSACHUSETTS

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
 

STANWOOD, WASHINGTON 

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
 

ST. PAUL, MINNESOTA

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
 

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.  November 14-January 4
 

THOMASVILLE, GEORGIA

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, VIRGINIA

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
 

WASHINGTON, DC

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.

 

WILLIAMSBURG, VIRGINIA

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. A family suite from $209/night at the elegant Kingsmill Resort makes a great base to explore all the area attractions including the festive Busch Gardens themepark and Revolutionary-era Yorktown.
 

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.