Since the first electric bulb was lit more than a century years ago, people have been finding more creative ways to use them in beautiful displays. Today, holiday light displays can be found in nearly every major city and small town across the country and holiday revelers hike, drive and even boat to see the lights as part of their family traditions.
We put together a list of 10 of the best holiday displays in the country; some you may know well and some may enlighten you:
The Country Club Plaza: Kansas City, Mo.
One of the most popular holiday traditions in Kansas City and throughout the Midwest is the Plaza lighting ceremony on Thanksgiving night. Thousands flock from all over the Midwest to see 80 miles of lights — more than 280,000 twinkling bulbs — get switched on. The lighting ceremony is such a huge deal in the metropolitan area that it is broadcast on live television for the people who don’t want to brave the cold or the throngs of revelers. One of the most outstanding seats for the show is from a room in The Raphael Hotel or InterContinental Hotel, both of which overlook the Plaza. If you miss the switch being thrown on Thanksgiving night, no worries. The lights twinkle nightly through mid-January.
River of Lights and Luminaria Tour: Albuquerque, N.M.
The Botanic Garden in Albuquerque is the scene of hundreds of thousands of holiday lights that delight visitors each year. The staff of craftsmen at the garden creates one-of-a-kind new sculptures and displays of animals and plants each year, which approximately 90,000 pairs of eyes sees every year. Old Historic Town in Albuquerque is one of the most visited areas of the city and on Dec. 24, it is transformed into a sea of luminarias. Who knew basic brown paper bags could be turned into such a beautiful light display? There is a walking and driving tour, but locals say the walking tour is more fun and stunning.
Silver Dollar City: Branson, Mo.
Even people who don’t normally flock to theme parks attend the Old Time Christmas celebration at this 1800s-themed park, which draws more than 350,000 people to its annual holiday of lights celebration. The park has received recognition from some of the top travel Web sites and TV channels for the more than 4 million lights that adorn the park between Nov. 5 and Dec. 30, which is truly an amazing sight after dark, especially from one of the awesome tall rides nearby. The park also presents a nightly Holiday Light Parade, featuring eight floats and over 100,000 lights. A five-story special effects tree features 350,000 energy-saving lights and will keep your family members, young and old, captivated. Like many amusement parks, there is an entry fee.
PNC Festival of Lights at the Cincinnati Zoo & Botanical Garden: Cincinnati, Ohio
What could be better than combining holiday lights with visiting one of the nation’s top zoos and seeing all of the cool exotic animals? Maybe it’s the fact that when it comes to conservation, the zoo and botanical gardens in Cincinnati doesn’t just think of wildlife, but the planet: The nearly 2 million lights displayed at the park are all energy-saving bulbs. The park even has special themed areas for the kids, such as the Candy Cane Forest. There is an entry fee to the zoo.
Fantasy in Lights at Callaway Gardens: Pine Mountain, Ga.
More than 150,000 people visit Callaway Gardens each year to take in the Fantasy of Lights, which displays more than 8 million twinkly bulbs in true holiday fashion. From Nov. 18 to Dec. 30, visitors to this park, which is dedicated to land stewardship and environmental education, can experience displays including Santa’s Workshop, the Nativity and ‘Twas the Night Before Christmas. This is a drive-through display, or visitors can ride the Jolly Trolley. There is an entrance fee to the park, which goes to support this nonprofit organisation.
The Magnificent Mile Lights Festival: Chicago, Ill.
What’s not to love about Chicago? The Magnificent Mile Lights Festival in the Windy City gives visitors to the city just one more reason to embrace the city during the holidays. The festivities begin in the city the weekend before Thanksgiving, on Nov. 19, giving visitors a chance to get a jump on the holiday spirit. One million lights will illuminate 200 trees along Chicago’s Magnificent Mile, and the evening will conclude with a stunning fireworks display over the Chicago River.
The Lights of Christmas: Stanwood, Wash.
Each December, Warm Beach Camp, 50 miles north of Seattle, Wash., draws more than 50,000 people to take in the 1 million lights and holiday entertainment at the attraction. Visitors to this holiday light festival just don’t get to enjoy only the lights, but also the music of the season on five music stages and a polar express train ride. There is an entry fee to the park and the lights are on Dec 1-4, 8-11, 15-23 and 26-28.
The Great Smoky Mountains: Tenn.
The Great Smoky Mountains are a national treasure in and of themselves, but when the surrounding areas light up their towns for their Winterfest celebrations, the region is even more magical. Pigeon Forge lights up its city with more than 5 million holiday lights, bringing hundreds of thousands of visitors. Sevierville gets into the winter spirit presenting Shadrack’s Christmas Wonderland Nov. 11 to Jan. 8 (there is a fee to this light display synchronised to music). Gatlinburg’s Winter Magic lights up the city with millions of energy-efficient lights Nov. 10 to Feb. 8 and offers trolley rides through the national park for a small fee. Finally, a trip to the area would not be complete without a trip to see the 4 million lights and holiday light parade at Dollywood.
Holiday River Parade and Lighting Ceremony: San Antonio, Texas
They say they do everything big in Texas, and that includes its holiday light displays. The lights go on for the season Nov. 25, when more than 150,000 people will celebrate the official kickoff of the season along San Antonio’s famous River Walk. The display includes over 1.4 million energy-saving LED lights and stays on until Jan. 1. There is a fee to see this display.
Boat tours throughout the U.S. If there is a large body of water nearby, MainStreet learned there is typically a holiday light boat parade to go marvel at during the holidays. It was hard to choose just one to highlight, so we’re giving you a roundup of several of the largest from all around this great nation:
• NYC Holiday Boat Parade, Nov. 26, New York Harbor and the Hudson River.
• Downtown Hampton Lighted Boat Parade, Hampton, Va., Dec. 3
• Winterfest Boat Parade, Fort Lauderdale, Fla., Dec. 10.
• Channel Islands Harbor Holiday Lighted Boat Parade, Oxnard, Calif., Dec. 10
• Christmas Boat Parade, Newport Beach, Calif., Dec. 14-18.
• The N.C. Holiday Flotilla, Wrightsville Beach Nov. 26
• Island of Lights Holiday Flotilla, Carolina Beach, Dec. 3.
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