Taking the Kids: To See the Best and Brightest Holiday Lights

Maybe it’s your family tradition to return to the same holiday lights display every year — often the weekend after Thanksgiving when everyone is desperate to get out of the house and whining about eating more leftovers. Maybe you seek out a new one where you are visiting friends and relatives.

One thing is certain: Post-pandemic, these displays, whether in big cities, smaller towns, resorts, at theme parks, zoos, botanical gardens or museums are bigger and better than ever. (If you can, book tickets in advance so you won’t be disappointed.)

If you are in Brooklyn, The Lights of Dyker Heights attracts 100,000 visitors to stroll past amazing private house decorations. Bring a few dollars to donate to a local charity.

McAdenville may be a small town in North Carolina but its free Christmas Town USA, in its 67th year, boasts hundreds of holiday trees lit with 1.5 million red, white and green lights. (Dec. 1 through Dec. 26)

When I was a kid, we always made a trek from the suburbs to see the lights along New York’s Fifth Avenue and the Rockefeller Center Christmas Tree (the tree will be lit with more than 50,000 LED lights on Nov. 30) and see the world’s largest Menorah at Brooklyn’s Grand Army Plaza. The New York Botanical Garden’s adorable Holiday Train Show (miniature NYC landmarks made entirely out of plants) is back this year from Nov. 18, 2022 through Jan. 14, 2023. (Visit NYC & Company for current details.)

Rockefeller Center Christmas tree.
Rockefeller Center Christmas tree. (Dreamstime)

When we lived in Chicago, we made it a tradition to visit the Museum of Science and Industry to see the Christmas Around the World and Holidays of Light display, featuring more than 50 trees decorated by volunteers highlighting different countries and cultures. (Nov. 19 through Jan. 3)

And in Denver, we’ve enjoyed Zoo Lights at the Denver Zoo — over 1 million lights, this year including the Aurora Borealis. (Dec. 3 through Jan. 15) and Blossoms of Light at the Denver Botanic Gardens (Nov. 18 through Jan. 7).

This holiday season, families are returning to gathering together enjoying parties, local festivals and holiday lights displays, despite higher costs. In fact, AAA said some 54.6 million Americans will travel 50 miles or more from home — the third busiest Thanksgiving travel season since AAA started tracking in 2000. While some may forsake pricey winter holiday vacations, Americans are still determined to celebrate the season with those they love most. (We hope you share your finds and photos with us with hashtag #starrylights!)

We’ve compiled our annual list of top holiday displays with our colleagues at Family Travel Forum, many incorporating regional traditions. Some you drive through, others have returned to walk-through displays. Here are some of our favorites:

The ABQ Biopark Botanic Garden in Albuquerque, New Mexico, hosts the River of Lights, New Mexico’s largest walk-through holiday production (Nov. 20 through Jan. 1.)

Experience the authentic German-style Christmas Village in Baltimore at Inner Harbor West Shore Park where more than 50 local and international vendors sell traditional crafts, gingerbreads, bratwurst, hot pretzels and more at this outdoors event. Start at the Christmas Gluhwein Pyramid, a tall tower for gluhwein sellers. The concept began in the Ore Mountains of Saxony, where ornament makers decorated the towers in lights. (Come weekdays for free admission Nov. 29 through Dec. 24.)

In Branson, Missouri, Ozark Mountain features over 300 exhibitions, including drive-through night light displays such as the 2.5-mile-long Shepherd of the Hills Trail of Lights and the 2-mile Let There Be Lights Trail at Promised Land Zoo. More than 6.5 million lights, 1,000 trees and 30 live shows comprise an Old Time Christmas at the Silver Dollar City amusement park (Nov. 1 through Dec. 30).

There are more than 1.5 million lights on the largest holiday water display in the country at the lakefront Coeur d’Alene Resort in Idaho. You can get a closeup view with a “Journey to the North Pole” cruise (Nov. 15 through Jan. 2).

They call Grapevine, Texas, the Christmas Capital of Texas because it has millions of twinkling lights and more than 1,400 events in 40 days, starting with the Carol of Lights at Thanksgiving.

Indianapolis, Indiana, meanwhile, goes all out illuminating a statue in the Circle of Lights to make it the ‘world’s largest tree.’ The statue is located at the popular Indianapolis Soldiers and Sailors Monument, itself surrounded by toy soldiers, sailors and peppermint sticks.

In Las Vegas, there is “Glittering Lights” at Las Vegas Motor Speedway while The Bellagio, Aria and Cosmopolitan hotels all have festive outdoor attractions, most free of charge. Plan an outing to “Magical Forest at Opportunity Village,” which raises money for the disabled (select nights Nov. 25 through Dec. 31. Check out the fun and entertainment-packed Vegas.com for a calendar of holiday events.

Celebration in the Oaks in New Orleans is popular with locals and visitors. More than 25 acres of City Park’s famous moss-covered oaks are blanketed in more than a million twinkling lights and light displays. Drive the 2.25-mile illuminated tour or stroll the decorated Carousel Gardens to see the carousel, botanical gardens and enjoy 18 rides at the small midway. (Nov. 24 through Jan. 1.)

Check out your local zoo or botanical garden for their holiday doings. In Palm Desert, California, The 450-acre Living Desert Zoo is celebrating the 30th annual WildLights Festival. Check out the herd of life-size luminescent animal lanterns and the model trains! (Nov. 22 through Dec. 30.)

Pigeon Forge, Tennessee, boasts a new Wonders of Light Walking Trail that runs six miles along the river and boasts dozens of large light sculptures and holiday décor during the Pigeon Forge Winterfest. Pets and wheelchairs are welcome Nov. 10, 2022 through Feb. 19, 2023. While in town, don’t miss Dollywood theme park with more than 5 million lights and a 50-foot-tall tree on exhibit during “Dollywood’s Smoky Mountain Christmas” with holiday music, eats, and local Appalachian artisans making gifts. (Nov. 10 through Jan. 2.)

Happy gawking!

(For more Taking the Kids, visit www.takingthekids.com and also follow TakingTheKids on TwitterFacebook and Instagram where Eileen Ogintz welcomes your questions and comments. The Kid’s Guide to Philadelphia and The Kid’s Guide to Camping are the latest in a series of 14 books for kid travelers published by Eileen.)

©2022 Eileen Ogintz. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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