Top Holiday Light Celebrations Across America

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.

Small Town Homey Winter Getaways


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If you’re traveling, take advantage of the homespun style of a Bed and Breakfast inn en route; you can even ask your family for a BnB Finder Travel Gift Certificate for the holidays.  We’ve found that small towns offer more charm and just as much pizzazz as big cities over the holidays; Lake Placid in New York State is just one example.

Big City Winter Getaways

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.  More winter discounts are offered by Omni Hotels & Resorts, whose Elves and Eggnog package includes 20% off luxurious rooms, with 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!


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 30-January 5 (closed Dec 24, 25, 31, and Jan 1)


“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 17-January 1


Both the town and the Aspen/Snowmass mountain resort are decked out with lights galore.  In addition to the fabulous skiing and 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 2013 Trail of Lights 5k Run (Dec 7th) or buy a Zip Park & Pass for a later date, so your family can park nearby, skip the entry gate line and get good seats in the heated tent for nightly entertainment. Lots of eats in this foodie town, kids activities, local crafts vendors and photo ops. December 8-22


Find 60 booths of crafts, gifts, food and drinks at the new European-style Christmas Village in Baltimore at Inner Harbor West Shore Park. November 28 - December 24


For 70 years, New England’s largest holiday tree (lighting Nov 29) has been the centerpiece of the Freedom Trail Holiday Stroll; 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 18-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. November 2-December 30



The “Lights of Dyker Heights” attracts 100,000 visitors to view amazing decorations; best seen in mid-December between 5pm and 9pm


There’s no snow but there’s lots of cheer in the Caribbean during the high season. Abaco, one of the Bahamas Outer Islands, celebrates its Christmas Festival December 7 through New Year’s Day, when there’s a really fun Junkanoo Parade. The Abaco Beach Resort and Boat Harbour Marina is welcoming families with special activities and a kids stay and eat free deal during this time.


The annual “Holiday Festival of Lights,” named one of the top 20 events in the Southeast, features millions of lights in over 750 displays. Visitors will also enjoy attractions like the Enchanted Walking Trail, an old-fashioned Carousel, gingerbread house displays and more.  November 8-December 31


Drive through Speedway Christmas at the legendary Charlotte Motor Speedway in Concord, where millions of lights decorate a Christmas Village. November 23-December 30


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. November 22-January 4


Key Chicago events include “The Magnificent Mile Lights Festival” which begins Nov. 23 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 14- January 5


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 22-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 30 to January 1


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


Comet ISON (C/2012 S1), nicknamed the Christmas Comet, is expected to make its first pass by Earth this season above the Beaches of Fort Myers & Sanibel. Local resorts are offering a variety of special comet packages and activities, including visits to the J. N. “Ding” Darling National Wildlife Refuge on Sanibel Island. Early November through early January


More than 175,000 lights illuminate “Christmas in the Square,” the largest holiday lights and music show in North Texas. November 29-January 6


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 a holiday magic show.  December 12-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 is December 6. November 13-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 Main Street, at its wineries, the vintage railroad, malls and at its Great Wolf Lodge and Gaylord Texan resorts.


Head to the Sunset Hill neighborhood to see hundreds of lighted Christmas Balls, made by residents, displayed in the trees and bring canned goods to contribute to their food drive. December


Village at Gulfstream Park presents a dancing light display choreographed to the holiday music of the Trans-Siberian Orchestra in a locale they claim has two tons of holiday decor. Hourly shows 6pm–11pm November29-December 30


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 15-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 29-January 11


Partake in KC’s winter holiday family events outdoors at the glittering Country Club Plaza (an 84-year-old tradition) and 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 14-31 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 a $1 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 21-December 29


Another small town that competes with big cities is McAdenville, whose decorated neighborhoods get jammed with the traffic of admiring homeowners. December 2-26 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 30-December 27


Nola’s City Park twinkles with hundreds of thousands of lights as part of the annual Celebration in the Oaks holiday lights festival. November 28-January 4


The 105th Annual Christmas Boat Parade returns with more than 100 decorated 100 boats sailing a 14.7-mile route to Bay Island. December 18-22


The Big Apple does everything Big. From the Rockefeller Center Christmas Tree to the world’s largest menorah at 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 11 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 30-January 5


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 14 but all season 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 through 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 8-Dec 20); caroling concerts and candlelight processional at Epcot’s “Holidays Around the World” (Nov 29-Dec 30); Sea World’s ”Christmas Celebration” (Nov 23-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 about Taking the Kids 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-December 31


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 5-7, 12-14, 19-21


Philadelphia will be aglow this holiday season -- from the classic free Holiday Light Show, Dickens Christmas Village and daily organ concerts at Macy’s in Center City to the choreographed musical lights at Franklin Square, boat parades and Philly fireworks over the Delaware River waterfront. November 14-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 Dollywood’s annual lights and concert events (four million). November 12-February 28


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 22-December 30


The “Vintage Christmas in Portsmouth” festival in this small New Hampshire town features the Strawbery Banke Museum's 34th annual Candlelight Stroll, in which costumed interpreters showcase the Museum's furnished historic houses. Kids can make crafts, watch hearth cooking, sample hot cider and cookies, enjoy a show and learn about historic winter traditions which span the eras from pre-Colonial to WW2 and the 1950s.  December 7-8, 14-15, 21-22; 5pm-9pm Saturday and 4pm-8pm Sunday


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 21st 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 to their facilities; reservations recommended. November 29-January 4


San Antonio’s River Walk is the place to be November 29 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. Late November-December 7


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 warm weather! November 22-January 1


The City by the Bay has bundled holiday lights, public art, Pier 39 events, and more holiday cheer into a 49 hours in 49 square miles of San Francisco website packed with hotel and vacation packages as well as a calendar of daily events for locals. Don’t miss the six public light sculptures that overtake the city; follow #illuminateSF on social media to learn about the artists and locations.


The wildly popular Polar Expressthat runs on the vintage Saratoga & North Creek Railway draws thousands to this cute Victorian town. Expect the kids to love the North Pole station where Santa and elves welcome the train.  November 19-December 29


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 64th 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 29-December 31


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. November 27-January 5


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. December.


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 21-January 12


After 26 years, this “Victorian Christmas” has grown from twinkling lights to a Victorian Museum and Craft Village, a Winter Wonderland for children, and more.  December 12-13


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 tree and nautical-themed light displays. November 22-January 1


The nation’s capital celebrates in winter:  the lighting of the National Menorah (Nov 27), the National Christmas Tree (Dec 6) and, all season, the snowtubing, Panda photo ops and outdoor ZooLights at the National Zoo. Experience a historic Christmas at Mount Vernon with traditional holiday decorations and an 18th century chocolate-making demonstration November 29-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 Town, Holiday Traditions and Grand 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 travel section contains advertising and some sponsored content. All opinions are based upon the author’s actual travel experience and knowledge.

Thank you to this section's sponsors:  Aspen/Snowmass,, Kingsmill Resort, BnBFinder, Omni Hotels, Great Wolf Lodge, CityPASS, Abaco Beach Resort, I Love NY, and Niagara Falls USA.


Special thanks to Andrea Timpano for her invaluable research assistance with this story.