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5 Festive Holiday Displays to Light Up Your Winter
From illuminated waterfalls to vineyards to drive-in movies, marvel at dazzling spectacles this season.
From synchronized songs and twinkling lights to trees ablaze with thousands of blinking bulbs, these festive destinations know how to get into the holiday spirit.(Getty Images).
Americans spent billions shopping online between Thanksgiving and Cyber Monday. What were they buying during the five-day holiday spending spree? According to the National Retail Federation, the average American will spend $57.66 on holiday decor, trees and lights this year. And with so much competition between neighbors, there's no better time to hit the road and check out the elaborate displays and special seasonal events at top attractions and cultural institutions across the country. Read on to discover the top places to see spectacular holiday light displays, everywhere from Niagara Falls to California wine country.
Electrical Spectacle Holiday Light Show
It's no wonder that Philadelphia's historic Franklin Square devotes itself to the exploration of light, a science that has advanced light years since Benjamin Franklin first experimented with lightning. Through Dec. 31, 2017, visitors can enjoy the Electrical Spectacle Holiday Light Show presented by Peco, and watch as 50,000 lights are synchronized to holiday music, including performances by the Philly Pops. Two free daily shows alternate each half hour, from 4:30-8 p.m. and 9 p.m. weekends. At Franklin Square, your family can get tickets to play mini golf, or ride the decorated carousel and tiny Lightning Bolt Holiday Express train. Warm up with hot cocoa in a toasty tent at SquareBurger, or in the biergarten heated by fire pits, where the sale of artisanal cocktails benefits hurricane relief in Puerto Rico. Check their calendar for free weekend events celebrating Hanukkah, ice carvings, Santa visits and more. Philadelphia glitters at the holidays, with old and new celebrations all over town. The Macy's Christmas Light Show, with its twinkling lights accompanied by the music of the historic Wanamaker organ from the original store, is another must.
Niagara Falls Fireworks & Illumination
Niagara Falls, New York
As anyone who's seen a cinematic car chase in the movies can tell you, a traditional wetdown ceremony is essential to amplifying reflection and lighting effects, and no one does it better than outfitter Niagara Falls USA. As 3,160 tons of water per second thunder over the falls, winter visitors watch the mist freeze, rise, then fall back as ice, clinging to railings and tree limbs. At dusk, head to the banks of the Niagara River to watch the LED illuminations show, which runs from approximately 4:30 p.m. to midnight nightly in December, and until 2 a.m. on New Year's Eve. Bundle up even more for the Friday Night Fireworks display at 9 p.m. (extra shows take place nightly between Dec.23-29). Families should arrive on Saturdays throughout December for Jingle Falls USA downtown; events include Santa sightings, choirs, dog sledding, cookie decorating and more. The Basilica of the National Shrine of Our Lady of Fatima in nearby Youngstown decorates 15 acres of gardens with 75 ornate light sculptures that can be seen daily 5-9 p.m. through Jan. 6. Bring your passport to catch the ornamental Ontario Power Generation Winter Festival of Lights, as the Canadian side of Niagara Falls lights up with millions of lights and animated displays in surrounding parks. After taking in the spectacle, stay warm with delicious local ice wine.
Christmas at the Princess
If you associate Arizona with cactus, the Desert Botanical Garden in Phoenix stays open most evenings through Dec. 30, lit by 8,000 glowing luminaria, traditional Mexican lanterns. However, Christmas at the Princess, held at the Fairmont Scottsdale Princess, provides a counterpoint, turning itself into a North Pole playground of water and ice. Visitors will encounter a Christmas tree ablaze with 80,000 lights, a colonnade filled with lit palm trees and another light show decorating the resort's facade – all twinkling in time to holiday songs. Continue to the lagoon, where light sculptures like a pirate ship, candy canes and a whale are made with 4.5 million LED lights. From Dec. 12-20, there's a nightly menorah lighting ceremony at 5:30 p.m. Grandparents and toddlers can board the resort's carousel or holiday train if they tire of walking, and meet some costumed characters, perhaps elves or princesses. Follow Graham, the walking s'more, to the ice slides, Ferris wheel and marshmallow roasting play area. True to tradition, the skating rink is surrounded by saguaro cactus. Nightly admission fees and top value $199 overnight packages benefit the #LoveUp Foundation for children in foster care.
Concord, North Carolina
While there's likely too much holiday traffic to race through it, the Charlotte Motor Speedway, home to NASCAR and Dale Earnhardt, boasts a track and tunnels decorated with 3 million holiday lights synchronized to the local radio station. The display is open nightly through Dec. 30. Try to bring your pit crew Thursday to Sunday, when they'll be treated to other holiday activities as well. Watch drive-in movies on the scoreboard, tour Santa's Village of shops and photo ops, and enjoy a big petting zoo, fire pit warming stations, Bethlehem Village featuring a live Nativity scene, horse-drawn carriage rides and more.
A California Wine Country Holiday
Napa Valley, Sonoma Valley and Yountville, California
After an autumn of wildfires that tragically devastated about 10 percent of the region, Napa and Sonoma are open for business, and welcoming visitors with several events, including many fundraisers for victims and recovery programs. Cornerstone Sonoma celebrates with 200 illuminated, ornamental snowmen outdoors and a skating rink open through Jan. 2. Napa's Lighted Art Festival runs Dec. 9-17 from 5-10 p.m. with light projections adorning downtown. And on weekend nights, you can catch the 90-minute Holiday Wine Trolley, a vintage cable car that tours decorated neighborhoods and the Valley.
Yountville, especially along Washington Street and neighboring parks, remains brightly lit and festive through New Year's, with scheduled events like gingerbread house-making and free carriage rides and trolley service. Stop into a few of the 17 tasting rooms showcasing the region's top wineries, each decorated with the ultimate gift items for foodie friends. If you can't afford a table at The French Laundry, Thomas Keller's famous culinary institution, pause at Bouchon Bistro for an unforgettable brunch of sourdough waffles and pastries. The Napa Valley Wine Train, an ideal tour that combines wine tastings with vineyard views, is running Santa trains through Dec. 29. Participants in the 90-minute adventure play games, meet holiday characters, sing carols and snack on hot chocolate and cookies. And perhaps in homage to the fires, Calistoga Ranch, An Auberge Resort, will illuminate a field of cabernet grape vines laced with Christmas lights nightly from Dec. 20-24, offering plenty of holiday cheer.
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About En Route
Practical advice on the art of traveling smarter with tips, tricks and intel from En Route's panel of experts.
Contributors have experience in areas ranging from family travel, adventure travel, experiential travel and budget travel to hotels, cruises and travel rewards and include Amy Whitley, Claire Volkman, Holly Johnson, Marsha Dubrow, Lyn Mettler, Sery Kim, Kyle McCarthy, Erica Lamberg, Jess Moss, Sheryl Nance-Nash, Sherry Laskin, Katie Jackson, Erin Gifford, Roger Sands, Steve Larese, Gwen Pratesi, Erin Block, Dave Parfitt, Kacey Mya, Kimberly Wilson, Susan Portnoy, Donna Tabbert Long and Kitty Bean Yancey.
Edited by Liz Weiss.
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