MAKING SPIRITS BRIGHT
The holidays aren't just about spectacle, but it certainly helps enhance the magical, celebratory qualities for which the season is so beloved. That's why most communities around the nation string up lights and hold tree lighting ceremonies. To help enhance your holidays, we've compiled a list of the most sparkling, wondrously excessive Christmas light displays happening throughout the U.S. in 2018.
As many as 3 million lights and 1,000 set-pieces go into the Christmas display at Bellingrath Gardens, a 65-acre estate home and garden open to visitors year-round. From Nov. 24 to the end of December, they're hosting their 22nd incarnation of their Magic Christmas in Lights ceremony featuring hot chocolate, choral performances, and photos with Santa. Admission starts at $16 per adult.
NORTH POLE, AK
Based in a town called North Pole and marked by 900-pound St. Nick statue, the Santa Claus House dispenses seasonal cheer and postal services all year-round. In December, the House hosts Christmas in Ice, a winter ice park made up of an ice slide, ice maze, and other frozen sculptures beautifully illuminated by festive lights each evening. Admission starts at $9 for adults and $6 for children.
Glendale Glitters, the state's largest light display with free admission, celebrates the season in 16 historic downtown blocks with 1.6 million LED lights, a 30-foot Christmas tree, horse-drawn carriages and thousands of visitors seeing how they sparkle. The display stays up until Jan. 12.
HOT SPRINGS, AR
Garvan Woodland Gardens in Hot Springs puts 4.5 million LED lights to good use creating animated holiday scenes featuring gingerbread men, butterflies, and more. Families can take photos with Santa on select days, sip complimentary cocoa, and take in free concerts while ambling the seasonally decorated 17 acres until Dec. 31. Admission is $15 for adults and $5 for children over 6.
The Festival of Lights at Riverside's historic Mission Inn Hotel boasts many holiday highlights you wouldn't expect in sunny southern California — including fresh-fallen (fake) snow, ice-skating, and horse-drawn carriage rides. Four million lights, hundreds of animated figures, an enormous man-made mistletoe, and festive confectionary offerings all go into the six-week holiday celebration frequently heralded as one of the country's very best.
Though the state's many mountains towns nearby have plenty of gorgeous holiday displays, few can compete with the Denver Zoo's Zoo Lights event, for which 60 acres are illuminated by creative LED animal sculptures. Admission for the nightly festivities starts at $15 (separate from standard zoo admission) for members. Visitors can enjoy the lights, choirs, ice-carving, Santa visits, and much more.
NEW HAVEN, CT
From late November to New Year's, Lighthouse Point Park in New Haven hosts their Fantasy of Lights festival, allowing motorists to drive through two miles of 100,000-plus lights formed into 60 animated displays. Admission is $10 per standard vehicle, with all proceeds donated to the Goodwill of Southern New England.
The Light Spectacular at WonderFest in Cape Henlopen State Park has a Christmas village in addition to a light display, so expect to linger. Carloads of up to 7 people are $15 in advance, and $20 at the gate.
ST. AUGUSTINE, FL
St. Augustine, the nation's oldest continuously occupied settlement, lights up its historic sights with as many as 3 million (all-white) bulbs for a long holiday season from Nov. 18 to Jan. 31. Visitors can enjoy a Florida-style white Christmas by foot, boat, pedicab, or horse-drawn carriage any night for free.
Though the Atlanta Botanical Garden's display may be more impressive for its light tunnels and model trains, the holiday lights and festivities around the Atlantic Station neighborhood offer a free alternative featuring a giant, sparkling Christmas tree and illuminated snowflakes suspended over streets. There's plenty to do there throughout December, like visit Santa's cottage, shop German handcrafts and sweets at the Christkindl Markt, or skate on the Southeast's largest outdoor ice rink.
Hardly 10 miles from Honolulu International Airport, local Keith Yoshida organizes an impressive neighborhood display called Waikele Lights of more than a dozen houses, most powered by solar energy, with lights synchronized to seasonal songs. Thirty-minute shows occur every night from 7 to 9:30 p.m., broadcast via an online webcast.
Downtown Lewiston by the Washington state border glitters in the snow for the season, as trees, tunnels and gingerbread homes in Locomotive Park are lit up with vibrant and elaborate lights until the weekend after New Year's. Children can sit on Santa's lap and all are welcome to sit by a large gas fireplace while seeing the lights.
Here's one of the few occasions where driving a long distance to see a single home's holiday display may be well worth it. Larsen's in Elburn is a large countryside home that has stunning hour-long light shows featuring lasers, more than a million LED lights, 2,400 strobes, synchronized holiday music, and 10-foot-tall Nutcrackers. Santa also stops by for free visits on Saturdays.
SANTA CLAUS, IN
It's predictable that the town of Santa Claus would go all out for the Christmas season. What's more surprising is just how unique their largest display, Land of Lights, truly is — a drive-through outdoor tunnel of LED lights telling the story of Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeers through light across 12 miles. Admission is $15 per car.
The citizens of Keokuk create original displays for their annual City of Christmas light show at Rand Park. Until Dec. 26, the drivable route winds through nearly 100 Toyland exhibits depicting a Nativity scene and Santa's workshop among others, decorated with approximately 1 million lights.
GREAT BEND, KS
Christmas lights wind all through the town of Great Bend for their annual Trail of Lights, where Veteran's Park, Jack Kilby Square, and Brit Spaugh Park all host unique displays, many designed and built by parks department employees. There's also an ice skating rink and Santa House for children to sit on Santa's lap.
Housed in a former limestone mine, the Louisville Mega Cavern is a unique attraction any time of year, but especially for Lights Under Louisville, the world's only fully-underground drive-through light show, featuring 3 million lights and 850 displays. Check on their site in advance to find coupons for $5 off the $27 per car admission.
Fireworks light the sky every Saturday in December in Natchitoches, only one of eight cities celebrating the state's Holiday Trail of Lights. Vibrant lights and holiday set pieces are strung up along the Cane River and celebratory events continue until Jan. 6, including the Dec. 1 Christmas Festival with live entertainment, crafts, food vendors, and $10 admission charged for adults.
With Norton Lights in the town of Wells, what began as a competition between brothers has now ballooned into one of the state's best holiday displays — they've even partnered with Make-A-Wish of Maine with a donation box at the end of the driveway at 213 Canterbury Road. Stop by in December until Christmas to see a truly impressive, oft-heartwarming music-synced light show in the snow.
Baltimore has its own miracle on 34th Street starting Nov. 25, when strings of lights span the festive avenue in Hampden and every resident decks out their home with unique holiday displays. Some are classic, featuring candy canes and nutcrackers, while others show city pride by employing local icons like Edgar Allen Poe or Chesapeake crabs.
The Festival of Lights held by the La Salette Shrine in Attleboro has been centered around a gorgeous Nativity scene since its inception in 1953, though today it also includes 300,000 lights across 10 acres. Also onsite is an international crèche museum boasting more than 1,000 unique and themed crèches (Nativity scenes) from around the world.
Lanterns illuminate the snowy streets of Dearborn weekends throughout December, when Holiday Nights at Greenfield Village emulates an old-fashioned Christmas atmosphere featuring Model-T train rides, ice skating, live reindeer, caroling, horse-drawn wagons, and chestnuts roasting on an open fire. It's best to buy tickets, which cost $28 for adults, in advance online.
Bring a toy or nonperishable food to donate before seeing the 12-story-tall, light-animated Christmas tree at Duluth's Bentleyville Tour of Lights. For a spectacle billed as the nation's largest free walk-through light display, more than 4 million lights are strung across the 20-acre Bayfront Festival Park. Families can take photos with Santa or Rudolph and snack on complimentary cocoa and roast marshmallows.
One of the nation's best private light displays is the free Richardson Light Show in Madison, featuring 250 inflatables, more than 100,000 LED lights, and a 23-foot-tall animated Christmas tree. The lighted strings and wire-framed characters flicker along to seasonal songs nightly, and Santa, Rudolph, and Frosty are all known to attend the occasional show.
KANSAS CITY, MO
The neighborhood of shops and eateries housed in striking Spanish architecture that is Kansas City's Country Club Plaza turns on their tasteful Christmas lights for thousand to see on Thanksgiving night. The area keeps their free festive displays lit until Jan. 13.
There are many homes in and around Billings that go all out for their holiday decorating, which is why there are also maps made online annually to help visitors find them all. There's also a "scavenger hunt" checklist of sights you can expect to see, among them a moose, a palm tree, the Grinch, and giant ornaments.
Nebraska's Christmas City is Minden, a small town whose holiday season kicks off with the annual "Light of the World" pageant performed at the courthouse square the Saturday after Thanksgiving. The courthouse itself is the beautifully illuminated hub for more than 12,000 bulbs that make the square well-suited for the season.
LAS VEGAS, NV
Far from the Strip both stylistically and geographically, Sam's Town Hotel & Gambling Hall boasts the indoor Mystic Falls Park that becomes especially impressive for their Winter Wonderland display from Nov. 21 to Jan. 1. Stroll beneath a skylight 10 stories above among live trees decorated with festive lights, then see the seasonal laser show and falling snow for free, every hour from 5-10 p.m. daily.
The historic seaside town of Portsmouth starts celebrating Dec. 1 for their monthlong Vintage Christmas. On weekends, a complimentary trolley takes riders through the downtown decked out with wreaths. It all starts at the city Historic Society with a kickoff party and gingerbread house competition =(whose entries are available to view through December) Nov. 30, then ends at First Night Portsmouth on New Year's Eve, with face-painting, fireworks, and ice sculptures.
WEST ORANGE, NJ
The Turtle Back Zoo has a vivid light display, but that's not all. Santa and Mrs. Claus both make appearances (as do other characters) every Friday, Saturday, and Sunday from Nov. 16-Dec. 2, then every night from Dec. 7-31. There's even an ice carver for limited dates. Best of all, it's free.
SANTA FE, NM
Santa Fe's best holiday light display is only available to view one night each year: Christmas Eve. That's because the lights at the Farolito Walk are not LED, but small bonfires and votive candles in paper bags, lining the historic adobes on Canyon Road. Visitors can stroll the crowded but festive streets for free or stop in one of the restaurants or art galleries still open for the holidays.
NEW YORK, NY
There's no shortage of iconic seasonal hangouts in Manhattan, but the Dyker Heights lights in Brooklyn may have them all beat. In the spirit of friendly competition, residents keep outdoing themselves and each other with beautifully coordinated, professional displays with the best ones found from 11th Avenue to 13th Avenue and from 83rd Street to 86th Street.
FOREST CITY, NC
Forest City becomes North Carolina's Christmas town from Nov. 22 to Jan. 2, with a tree lighting ceremony on Thanksgiving and light displays coloring the fountain and live oak trees downtown. Different attractions appear on different nights throughout December — hay rides on Fridays, carriage rides on Saturdays, and "Santa Paws" pictures for pets as well as children on Sundays.
Holiday Lights in Lindenwood Park has 65 light displays and has been a hometown hit for the last 19 years. This year the event, which cars can drive through for $7 per vehicle, is Nov. 30-Dec. 31.
One of the largest water-powered grist mills still in existence, the historic Clifton Mill lights up in a distinctly modern way for its Legendary Lights holiday event — with more than 3.5 million lights adorning the nearby trees, riverbanks, gorge and a covered bridge decked out for a synced light-and-music show. Visitors can also explore a Santa Claus museum and miniature village onsite.
BROKEN ARROW, OK
In its 35th year, Rhema Bible Church's Christmas light display has grown from 60,000 to more than 2 million lights, drawing approximately 200,000 visitors annually. Central to the free display are the LED-enclosed Rhema Park bridge and a "Christmas tree forest" with one 22-foot-tall fir surrounded by smaller, illuminated metal trees.
More than a million-and-a-half lights — many in the shape of tunnels or animated animals — guide visitors through the Oregon Zoo for the annual ZooLights festivities, beginning each day at 4 p.m. until Jan. 5. For $13 per child and $18 per adult, the whole family can enjoy seeing the lights, riding the train, observing the animals, and of course, sampling some of Portland's rightly famed food cart cuisine onsite.
The drive-through Hershey Sweet Lights spectacular runs from now until New Year's Day at Hersheypark, where visitors can see nearly 600 animated light displays as they drive through miles of wooded trails. Buy tickets to visit during a weekday for a better price per vehicle ($19), and don't forget to don the complimentary Holospec glasses that seem to make the colored lights multiply.
The National Chain Group has been putting up a massive Christmas display for over 40 years, and it just keeps growing with lights and lawn ornaments added every year. The switch is flipped over Thanksgiving weekend, then the display is on from 5pm-5am through January.
Almost 2 miles of lighted pathways lead visitors through the walk-through holiday display at Hopeland Gardens in Aiken. Park off-site and take a free shuttle ride to the area illuminated by more than 100,000 lights, with nearby businesses offering complimentary refreshments, seasonal activities for children, and $5 s'mores kits to roast in a fire pit onsite.
As many as 100 meticulously decorated Christmas trees donated by local volunteers reach for the ceiling of the State Capitol in Pierre. From now until Dec. 25, Christmas in the Capitol lets visitors roam the light-strewn grounds and then enter to see the public display from 8 a.m. to 10 p.m. daily.
PIGEON FORGE, GATLINBURG, AND SEVIERVILLE, TN
Small towns throughout the Smoky Mountains celebrate Winterfest all the way until Feb. 28, with 5 million lights sparkling throughout snowy town squares in Pigeon Forge, Gatlinburg, Sevierville, and more. Guests can stroll beneath over-the-top displays outdoors, or pay $5 and up in advance to ride the winter trolley through Gatlinburg.
The Trail of Lights sees Austin's Zilker Park neighborhood erect the nation's largest man-made Christmas tree, along with 2 million lights and 41 unique displays. Food trucks and nightly entertainment abound. General admission is free from Dec. 10-13 and 17-19, and spikes to $3 other display nights in December.
SALT LAKE CITY, UT
Temple Square in downtown Salt Lake City is most beautiful when adorned with holiday lights that reflect in the park fountains and fallen snow. While here, look for nightly music performances, a life-size Nativity scene, paper lanterns promoting "peace" in different languages, and the 70-foot-tall Cedar of Lebanon — covered for the season with 75,000 red LED lights.
SOUTH ROYALTON, VT
Large-scale light displays are uncommon in rural Vermont, but the birthplace of Mormonism founder Joseph Smith in South Royalton is always illuminated for the season, with light-covered trees and an LED-lit archway leading up to the memorial pillar. Refreshments are served in the visitor center and a festive musical performance takes place at the nearby church the night before Christmas Eve.
Each holiday season, the Richmond Times-Dispatch gives residents and out-of-towners a helpful list all the city's "Tacky Lights." See all the excessive holiday displays around the historic city using their guide, making sure not to miss unique homes like 12618 Dawnridge Court, which changes themes each year, and 1411 Pennsylvania Ave., where a live Grinch shows up in place of the usual Santa.
The historic Victorian mansions atop Queen Anne hill near downtown Seattle are especially beautiful during December, when every nook and cranny is decorated with LED-lights. End with a stop at Kerry Park for a view of the seasonal skyline, with cranes lit up and a real Christmas tree shining atop the Space Needle. Christmas tree shining atop the Space Needle.
More than 300 acres of the Wheeling Resort in Oglebay light up with unique displays in December for the Winter Festival of Lights, now one of the nation's largest and most visited holiday shows. This year features new attractions like the color-changing Christmas Chameleon and 24-foot-tall Kaleidoscope Christmas Tree. Admission is a suggested donation of $25 per carload.
For $20 per vehicle containing up to eight people, visitors can drive the mile-long, snow-strewn Christmas Carnival of Lights at Jellystone Park Camp-Resort in Caledonia. After passing more than a million lights illuminating the forested setting, the route ends at a workshop where children can see Santa and sip hot beverages.
See the best city lights and home displays in Cheyenne by way of the Cheyenne Street Railway Trolley, which offers annual holiday light tours for $12 per adult and $6 per child. Seasonally clad tour guides lead the trolley rides this year from Dec. 12-24.