Christmas tree at the Willard InterContinental in Washington, D.C.
The Willard InterContinental

Hotel Noel! The Jolliest Hotel Christmas Decorations and Traditions

Lots of hotels across the United States get festive each December with lobby Christmas trees, visiting carolers, and enough twinkling lights to rival a stargazing park. But the ho-ho-hotels that follow go beyond, supplying extra-special yuletide magic via unique traditions involving everything from elaborate ice sculptures to a canoeing Santa Claus. With these stays, there’s no place like a home away from home for the holidays. 

Pictured: the Willard InterContinental in Washington, D.C.

The Willard InterContinental in Washington, D.C.
The Willard InterContinental
The Willard InterContinental, Washington, D.C.

Holidays at the Willard InterContinental in Washington, D.C., are steeped in elegant traditions. And we do mean steeped—the hotel’s Nutcracker-themed afternoon tea service in Peacock Alley is a locally beloved December staple. If there’s not room in your budget for finger sandwiches and sugarplum scones, you can enjoy nightly caroling concerts from visiting choral groups in the lobby for free. Then goggle at the annual gingerbread display, modeled each year after a different D.C. landmark and featuring ever-more-impressive effects, such as live audio and fondant cherry blossoms. Finally, have a seasonal cocktail in the historic Round Robin Bar

La Fonda hotel in Santa Fe
La Fonda on the Plaza
La Fonda, Santa Fe

For a Christmas with Southwestern charm, you can’t do better than Santa Fe, where strings of lights and paper lanterns called farolitos impart a golden glow to adobe buildings. Like powdered sugar, a thin layer of snow provides the finishing touch. From its spot in Santa Fe Plaza, La Fonda is an essential piece of the scenery and a holiday destination in its own right. In mid-December, the hotel hosts the Winter Indian Market where visitors shop for one-of-a-kind holiday gifts from 150 Native American artists selling jewelry, pottery, weavings, and paintings. All season long, the hotel keeps its kiva fireplaces blazing and shows off a gingerbread-and-gumdrops replica of the building’s facade.

Ice slide at a Gaylord hotel
Gaylord Hotels
Gaylord Opryland Resort, Nashville

If ever there was a time to embrace a more-is-more aesthetic, it’s the season of silver bells and sparkle. Nashville’s Gaylord Opryland Resort obliges with its annual Country Christmas spectacle in November and December, when the huge hotel’s halls are decked with 3 million holiday lights, a 48-foot-tall Christmas tree, and nearly 7,000 giant blocks of ice that are sculpted into yuletide scenes by pros from the famed ice festival in Harbin, China. Without leaving the grounds, you can go ice skating or snow tubing, hobnob with North Pole denizens, and, this being Nashville, catch performances by country superstars. (Meanwhile, the Gaylord's sister property, the Palms near Orlando, builds a mini city out of 2 million pounds of ice.) Save the subtlety for Presidents’ Day.

Ice skating at the Edgewater hotel in Madison, Wisconsin
The Edgewater
The Edgewater, Madison, Wisconsin

At the end of November, Madison’s stylish Edgewater hotel transforms its outdoor Grand Plaza into a winter wonderland with abundant holiday decorations and an ice skating rink where visitors turn figure eights in view of two of the city’s icons: the Wisconsin State Capitol building and Lake Mendota. Inside, the hotel keeps things jolly with a season-long calendar of festivities. Among the highlights are a pancake breakfast with a pajamas-only dress code (an excellent excuse to put your family in matching flannel) and a meet-and-greet with Santa and, possibly more significant for Big Ten fans, Bucky Badger from the nearby University of Wisconsin-Madison. 

Christmas tree at Mohonk Mountain House in New Paltz, New York
Mohonk Mountain House
Mohonk Mountain House, New Paltz, New York

Mohonk Mountain House, situated in a densely wooded spot in the Hudson Valley north of New York City, goes the traditional route during the holidays. Handmade wreaths, garland clumps known as kissing balls, and several lovingly decorated Christmas trees fill the 19th-century Victorian property with the scent of pine, while seasonal activities celebrate the time-tested joys of scavenger hunts, ice skating, cross-country skiing, and cookie decorating. The architectural possibilities of sweets are showcased in the annual Hudson Valley Gingerbread Competition, during which the region’s top confectionary builders converge on the hotel to vie for gingerbread supremacy. Mohonk displays the winners through New Year’s. 

Santa arriving by outrigger canoe at Outrigger Waikiki Beach Resort in Honolulu
Outrigger Waikiki Beach Resort
Outrigger Waikiki Beach Resort, Honolulu

“Here we know that Christmas will be green and bright,” Bing Crosby sang in “Mele Kalikimaka” of December in Hawaii, “the land where palm trees sway.” Throw in some world-famous sand and surf and you’ve got a good description of Honolulu’s Outrigger Waikiki Beach Resort. The fun-loving hotel kicks off the holiday season with the arrival of Santa in an outrigger canoe on the hotel’s beachfront. In Hawaii, apparently even Rudolph is on vacation. If you’re still dreaming of a white Christmas, head to the onsite Duke’s Waikiki restaurant and gaze upon the snow-colored ice cream filling of the macadamia-topped, chocolate cookie–crusted Hula Pie. 

Gingerbread house at Disney's Grand Floridian Resort at Walt Disney World in Florida
Walt Disney World Resort / Kent Phillips, Photographer
Disney's Grand Floridian Resort & Spa, Walt Disney World, Florida

Christmastime gives Disney yet another chance to activate the company’s unrivaled skill at creating moments that are at once magical and monetized. Many of Walt Disney World’s onsite hotels boast enchanting yuletide décor—but room rates seem designed for guests with the funds of Scrooge McDuck. Still, you don’t have to spend the night to check out the crowded lobby of Disney’s Grand Floridian Resort, known for its massive Christmas tree and 15-foot-tall Victorian gingerbread house covered in more than 5,000 edible shingles. Yes, of course there’s an adjacent shop selling cookies, fudge, peppermint bark, and other sweets. 

Holiday dinner theater at the Broadmoor in Colorado Springs, Colorado
The Broadmoor
The Broadmoor, Colorado Springs, Colorado

If staying busy is the key to combating the holiday doldrums, then they don’t stand a chance at the Broadmoor. The century-old resort at the base of Cheyenne Mountain in Colorado Springs schedules a sleigh full of activities as part of its 12 Days of Christmas program, entertaining guests with a dinner-theater music show, games, visits from Santa, cooking classes, tennis lessons, fitness workouts, and a lot more—much of which is free for hotel guests. In the resort’s rugged outdoor surroundings, the Seven Falls cascades serve as dramatic backdrop for a colorful light show that sets a 1,250-foot-long box canyon aglow. 

Ice skating rink at Hotel del Coronado in San Diego
Hotel del Coronado
Hotel del Coronado, San Diego
The red-roofed grande dame of San Diego hotels pulls off the impressive feat of bringing outdoor ice skating to Southern California with its surreal beachside rink. An adjacent lounge has a fire pit as well as a menu of snacks and seasonal cocktails. The Del’s Garden Patio, meanwhile, is adorned with poinsettia trees, evergreens, igloos, and the frigid throne of Krystal the Ice Princess, who’s on hand for photo opps with kids. See? It’s fun to linger outdoors in winter without getting frostbite. But don’t let that stop you from popping into the hotel's wood-paneled lobby to lay eyes on the two-story Christmas tree.