Holiday Dazzle: The USA’s Most Spectacular Winter Light Displays
November 1, 2021
Wanna go on a holiday lights safari this winter? You have plenty of options for such a journey. When the weather turns chilly, gardens, zoos, racetracks, caverns, city parks, resorts, and mansions across the U.S. outdo themselves with multitudes of twinkling lights and stunning décor involving trains, animals, North Pole denizens, and other creations.
Book well in advance for these popular attractions, many of which require online timed reservations, and always check the venue’s website for mask and vaccine requirements. Recently, several walking routes have switched to drive-through access—a bonus for little ones and those who tire easily on foot. So sign up and get happily mesmerized by the holiday magic at these spectacular destinations.
Pictured above: Winter Festival of Lights at Oglebay Resort in Wheeling, West Virginia
Colorful depictions of hippos, lions, giraffes, and other creatures graze the walking paths of the Cincinnati Zoo’s PNC Festival of Lights. The zoo’s 4-million-bulb spectacle glitters with elaborate Christmas trees, a walk through a rainbow-colored tunnel, a black-light puppet show, and stations for roasting s’mores. To see the real animals, arrive early since zoo tickets include access to the festival.
Dates: November 19–January 9
Who says fairy-tale forests aren’t real? Stained glass structures shimmer in the moonlight, a magical field of December tulips ripples into reds and yellows, and uplights bathe oaks and redwoods in shades of blue and green at Enchanted Forest of Light, a Grimm-worthy attraction at Descanso Gardens in Los Angeles County. Play with light and shadow by nudging the illuminated lanterns along the 1-mile walking path.
Dates: November 21–January 9
Las Vegas puts on an impressive light show all year round, so you can bet this drive-through attraction will up the ante on technically impressive glitz and sparkle. Inch your car along the 2.5-mile racecourse ablaze with 600 exhibits created from 5 million lights before buddying up to the jolly fellow aboard the Santa Tram. Other ways to overload your senses include multiple light tunnels and a Sports Alley paying homage to Vegas athletic teams.
Dates: November 11–January 9
More than 400 exhibits light up this 3-mile drive in western Massachusetts. Look for animated deer leaping over the road, a roaring lion, a hopping frog, and nods to famous locals such as Theodor Geisel, aka Dr. Seuss. One section, Toy Land, pays tribute to Candy Land, the Game of Life, and other iconic board games and toys created by Springfield’s own Milton Bradley.
Dates: November 24–January 2
The hillsides are decorated with more than a million lights at Oglebay Resort in Wheeling, West Virginia. Take a trolley tour or drive yourself through 6 miles of displays that feature light tunnels, marching toy soldiers, rocking horses, fierce dinosaurs, and a 70-foot-tall tree fashioned from bulbs that sync to music. In Gardens of Light, colorful light flowers bloom.
Dates: November 4–January 9
The holiday celebration at Longwood Gardens in the scenic Brandywine Valley of southeastern Pennsylvania evokes fire and ice this season. In the 1,000-acre botanical garden’s conservatory, flickering flame lanterns adorn a 22-foot-tall fir tree, icicles hover above a blue stream, and poinsettia beds add bands of burning red. Outdoors, walk through a 200-foot light tunnel, wind past 150 trees ribboned with more than 500,000 lights, and watch colored lights mimic dancing fountains. Get warm by cozying up next to the firepits.
Dates: November 19–January 9
During Christmas Nights of Lights, more than 2 miles of creations fashioned from a million lights populate the Indiana State Fairgrounds. As you drive past Christmas trees and rows of candy canes, sing along to holiday tunes synced with your car radio and keep an eye out for the mischievous elves hidden in the show.
Dates: November 12–January 2
Given the fun-loving spirit of New Orleans, it should come as no surprise that the city has not one but two major holiday traditions. The iconic City Park sparkles with Celebration in the Oaks, which transforms 25 woodsy acres into a beguiling 2.5-mile drive (or bicycle path on certain nights). Lights turn the oaks draped with Spanish moss into a backdrop for dinosaurs, crocodiles, unicorns, leprechauns, and other critters. Take a detour to sample the rides at Carousel Gardens Amusement Park (add-on ticket required). Before or after your drive, join locals in Reveillon, a feast of creole-inspired Christmas dinners at participating restaurants (such as Antoine's, pictured above).
Dates: November 25–January 2
The flora takes a backseat to model trains inside the grand Enid A. Haupt Conservatory during the New York Botanical Garden’s annual Holiday Train Show. More than two dozen mini choo-choos and trolleys chug along a half-mile track, rolling past 175 cleverly crafted miniatures of such NYC landmarks as the Statue of Liberty, Brooklyn Bridge, and Penn Station. Outside, NYBG GLOW (separate ticket required) adorns 1.5 miles of walkways with eye-catching light displays you can stroll among to the accompaniment of a live steel pan drum ensemble.
Dates: November 20–January 23
Instead of decorating what’s overhead, Lights Under Louisville uses 4 million bulbs to turn the city’s Mega Cavern, a former limestone mine, into one of America’s largest underground light shows. Illuminated snowmen, palm trees, and basketball players scroll past on the subterranean walls. Drive your car along the milelong route or take the Christmas Express, an open-air tram that shows off 40 themed exhibits populated by more than 900 characters. Since you don’t have to wait until dark here, even tots with early bedtimes can enjoy the experience.
Dates: November 12–January 2
In addition to being a family-friendly live entertainment hub, Branson calls itself “America’s Christmas Tree City” for the 1,500 decked-out beauties lining the streets during the holiday season. Get a bird’s-eye view from the top of the Ferris wheel on the downtown strip (Highway 76). For a close-up of the brilliant displays, go ice skating at the rink adjacent to the wheel or drive through Lights of Joy, a 1.5-mile trail lined with 300 exhibits. The Silver Dollar City theme park, meanwhile, offers An Old Time Christmas with down-home entertainment amid millions of lights.
Dates: November 1–January 2
During Holidays at the Newport Mansions, over-the-top homes that once belonged to Gilded Age industrialists get even more over the top with elaborate wreaths, flower displays, and Christmas trees in nearly every room. At The Breakers, built for the Vanderbilt family, a 15-foot-tall stack of poinsettias dominates the Great Hall; take a close look at the tree in the bedroom of patriarch Cornelius Vanderbilt to see if it's bedecked with train ornaments in reference to a major source of his wealth. Kids can follow a child-friendly audio tour at the Breakers or The Elms, where antique circus toys are on display. Don’t neglect the gardens, either. “Sparkling Lights at The Breakers” (pictured above; separate ticket required) offers 6 acres’ worth of stately luminance.
Dates: November 20–January 9
The annual Austin Trail of Lights is among the longest-running holiday traditions in the Texas capital. Those who drive through Zilker Park during the event will motor past more than 2 million lights. Dozens of trees swathed in red, green, blue, and yellow bulbs create a bedazzling ribbon against the city skyline. You also go through a light tunnel and pass 70 creations incorporating stars, fairy-tale figures, friendly dinosaurs, and sports figures.
Dates: November 27–December 31
You get double the dazzle at Coeur d’Alene, where more than a million lights reflect in the waters of the Idaho city’s namesake lake. To take in Coeur d’Alene Resort’s Holiday Light Show on foot, hit the property’s floating boardwalk. You can also get out on the water with a Journey to the North Pole Cruise to Santa’s workshop, complete with fireworks. The big guy even reads his Nice List, filled with the names of every child on the boat. Elsewhere, Santa reads stories in the lobby for overnight guests, and elves bring cookies and milk at bedtime.
Dates: various events November 13–January 3