The holidays are just around the corner, and there’s nothing like an electrifying display of holiday lights to charge you up for the season and zap you with that jolly-good Christmas cheer. Luckily for us, there’s no place in the world that does holiday lights quite like the good ol’ U.S. of A., and we’ve rounded up a merry mix of small towns and sprawling cities that do it best.
From East to West, from dazzling Disney displays to brilliant boat parades, sparkling city skylines to mesmerizing megawatt-lined drives, when these top 10 destinations for holiday lights flip the switch, they mark the spectacular start to the holiday season, guaranteeing spectators a sparkling dose of over-the-top holiday spirit.
The Big Apple is known for doing things bigger, better, and brighter, and the holidays are no exception, what with the city’s wondrous window displays, holiday concerts and events, bustling holiday markets, ice-skating rinks, chestnut-roasting street vendors, and seemingly endless street-to-street stream of shining holiday lights.
While you can hardly turn the corner without glimpsing a generous glimmer, some illuminations are simply not to be missed: Start with Rockefeller Center’s iconic towering tree, set aglow with some 30,000 bulbs that glisten down upon the ice-skating rink, bugling lit-up angels, and wide-eyed tourists through early January (lit November 30; free; www.rockefellercenter.com). Tree-lighting fixes (all free) abound – try the South Street Seaport (lit November 25; www.southstreetseaport.com), Lincoln Center (lit November 28, www.winterseve.org), Washington Square Park (lit December 7; www.washingtonsquarenyc.org), Bryant Park (lit November 29; www.bryantpark.org), or the Metropolitan Museum of Art (lit November 29; www.metmuseum.org); or, catch the lighting of the world’s largest Chanukah menorah – at 32-feet high and 4,000 pounds – on the southeastern corner of Central Park on December 20. Other highlights include downtown’s wonderful Winter Garden, where 45-foot-tall palm trees are offset by 100,000 white lights (lit November 29–January 8; free; www.artsworldfinancialcenter.com) and the dangling dozen of illuminated 14-foot stars at the Time Warner Center (now–January 3; free; www.shopsatcolumbuscircle.com).
Look to the city’s outer boroughs, too, for unique takes on holiday lights: We especially like the ostentatiously decorated homes (expect larger-than-life motorized displays, inflatable decorations, and a gargantuan gaggle of glaring lights) in Brooklyn’s Italian-American neighborhood of Dyker Heights (free). Overwhelmed on where to start? Sign up for an organized tour: CitySights NY offers 2.5-hour “Lights of the Holidays” tours of Manhattan (runs November 28–December 30, except Christmas; $44 adults, $34 kids ages 5 to 11; www.citysightsny.com), while A Slice of Brooklyn offers a Brooklyn-based “Christmas Lights and Cannoli Tour,” on select dates in December ($55 adults; $45 children under 12; www.asliceofbrooklyn.com).
For more than a century, Newport Beach’s “Christmas Boat Parade” has delighted spectators with a “Christmas-sea” feeling all its own. A fine flotilla of some 200 vibrantly decorated vessels, from multimillion-dollar yachts right down to simple canoes, glides through Newport Harbor as holiday music and costumed carolers fill the air with melodious merrymaking. The brilliant boat parade (it’s the oldest one in the country) attracts close to a million viewers; it’s held nightly from December 14 through December 18 and lasts about 2.5 hours – show up on the closing night for a fireworks finale. Viewing areas for the beaming 14-mile boat route are on the public beaches and establishments bordering the Balboa Peninsula, the Fun Zone amusement area (where you can hear live commentary from Captain Mike Whitehead, the official voice of the parade), and Balboa Island.
What’s more, many harbor-front homeowners and businesses participate in the annual “Ring of Lights” contest, showcasing their own elaborate holiday displays, while providing a striking backdrop to the boat parade (free; www.christmasboatparade.com). Well worth a detour, the historic Mission Inn Hotel & Spa in Riverside (set less than 50 miles away) is the setting for an extravagant showing of more than 3.6 million holiday lights in its “Festival of Lights” event; expect 400-plus animated figures, live reindeer, and even snow machine-produced flurries – come on opening night for a fireworks display, to boot (November 25-January 8; free; www.festivaloflightsca.com).
3. Walt Disney World
It’s the happiest place on earth, and come Christmastime, it might just be the brightest place on earth, to boot! The Orlando area’s Walt Disney World Resort makes a business of holiday lights magic, with its coup de grâce event, “The Osborne Family Spectacle of Dancing Lights,” unfolding at Hollywood Studios. The theme park is blanketed by a staggering 5 million bulbs that sync up with animated displays for choreographed interpretations of holiday tunes – not to mention the artificial snow flurries, 3-D effects, and colorful decorations that crop up around every bend.
The exhibit – which began as an Arkansas family’s home Christmas light display that had spiraled into a statewide attraction – was transported to the park in 1995 and Disneyfied to an almost unfathomable scale (now–January 7, closed December 8; standard park admission applies, $85 ages 10 and up, $79 ages 3 to 9, taxes additional). Tack on a visit to the Magic Kingdom, as well, where “Mickey’s Very Merry Christmas Party” delights with live entertainment, a jolly holiday parade anchored by Santa himself, snowfall on Main Street, a holiday-themed light show on the Cinderella Castle (which is already draped with some 100,000 snow-white lights), and a fireworks finale (select nights from now–December 18; day-of event admission ticket is $62.95 ages 10 and up, $57.95 ages 3 to 9, taxes additional).
One thing’s for certain: The old "'twas the night before Christmas" poem certainly doesn't apply here, because with all of these lights, it'd be impossible for a mouse (in this case, Mickey and Minnie both!) – or anybody else, for that matter – not to stir.
4. Denver, CO
If you can sneak in a Colorado ski vacation before the new year, don’t miss a stopover in Denver, decked out with downright dazzling light displays during their “Mile High Holiday” events. December 2 and 3 see the “9NEWS Parade of Lights” march from the festively illuminated City and County Building (the city’s largest lighting display, it’s lit November 25) through the downtown Denver area, featuring nearly a million shiny lights, a dozen twinkling floats, soaring balloons, marching bands, and more (free; www.denverparadeoflights.com). Also pop by the Denver Botanic Gardens’ “Blossoms of Lights” exhibition, where more than a million colorful holiday lights are integrated into the gardens, and further enhanced by extras like glistening ice sculptures and a strolling choir (December 2–January 1; $9.50 adults, $6.50 kids ages 3 to 12; www.botanicgardens.org). Meanwhile, the Denver Zoo’s “Zoo Lights” event invites visitors to embark on a holiday lights safari – its 38 acres are embellished with more than 150 animated animal sculptures (December 9–January 1; $9 adults, $5 kids ages 3 to 11; www.denverzoo.org).
5. Chicago, IL
Chicago’s frosty winter weather, festive events, and glittering lights make it a hotbed for holiday spirit. The 20th annual “Magnificent Mile Lights Festival” is at the city’s celebratory epicenter, where more than a million lights on 200 trees flank the famous shopping strip, with hundreds of shop’s holiday window displays adding to the appeal.
Don’t miss stepping in to see Macy’s 45-feet-high Great Tree, whose lights remain up through March 1 (free; www.themagnificentmile.com). Meanwhile, downtown’s sparkling Christmas tree in Daley Plaza has been prettifying this plaza for 98 years; a Santa’s workshop for the kids and German-style Christmas market ensure the square is positively brimming with holiday cheer (remains lit through January 8; free).
6. Branson, MO
Nestled in southwestern Missouri’s scenic Ozark Mountains, the city of Branson transforms into a veritable winter wonderland each holiday season, bursting at the seams with lavish light displays and dozens of Christmas spirit-infused shows and events. For the most gleeful glitz, head to the 1880s-style theme park Silver Dollar City, site of “An Old Time Christmas,” with an elaborate light-and-music show showcasing no fewer than 4 million radiant lights and 1,000 decorated Christmas trees. Highlights include the musically inclined 5-story Special Effects Christmas Tree, which, along with the surrounding square, beams with over a million lights that “dance” to select Christmas tunes; there’s also a holiday light parade with light-embellished musical floats that runs twice each evening (now–December 30, closed Christmas Eve and Christmas; park admission of $55 adults and $45 ages 4 to 11 applies; www.silverdollarcity.com).
Shift gear for some yuletide cheer at the “Branson Area Festival of Lights Drive-Through,” a mile-long drive set aglow with some 175 luminous displays (now–January 2; $12 per vehicle; www.explorebranson.com), or opt for the “Trail of Lights,” winding through a 160-acre historic homestead, complete with themed sections, holiday music, and more than 4 million colorful Christmas lights – don’t miss the “Santa’s-eye view” from the atop the 230-foot-high tower (now–January 2; $10 adults, $5 ages 4 to 16; www.trailoflights.com).
For nearly six decades, the little North Carolina town of McAdenville (with a population shy of 700) lures some 600,000 visitors to witness its transformation into what’s been dubbed “Christmas Town USA.” A high-spirited partnership between town residents and a local manufacturing company allows the hamlet to trim more than 375 fir trees (they outnumber the households!) with nearly a half-million red, green, and white holiday lights. The trees range in size from 6-footers adorned with 500 lights to 90-foot-high behemoths bedecked in some 5,000 radiant bulbs. Recorded Christmas carols broadcast from a local church add to the high-powered Christmas feel. This year’s event runs through December 26, kicking off with the official lighting ceremony at the town’s Legacy Park on December 1 (free; www.mcadenville-christmastown.com).
Tack on a visit to the “Holiday Lights at the Garden” at the Daniel Stowe Botanical Garden in nearby Belmont (just 5 miles away), where plants and trees are bedazzled with some half-million lights and are joined by a Christmas tree created by orchids, carriage rides, and more (November 25–December 31, closed Christmas; $12 adults, $6 children ages 4 to 12; www.dsbg.org).
San Antonio’s River Walk is always a hotbed of activity, but the holidays take it to new heights, particularly so in 2011, with the infusion of 20 times more Christmas lights (thanks to the city’s move to more energy-efficient LED lighting). You’ll find the bulk of the 1.8 million holiday lights garnishing nearly 200 trees (done up with 10,000 bulbs apiece) and on 20 holiday-hued bridges, all brightened up even further by carolers bellowing their tunes nightly from passing river barges (singers perform November 26– December 18). The festivities kick off on November 25 (and run through January 1), when the switch is flipped and the “Ford Holiday River Parade,” complete with an entourage of lit-up festooned floats, unfolds.
The quarter is also home to the luminous “Fiesta de las Luminarias” on select weekends (December 2–18), whereby some 6,000 luminarias (candle-lit paper lanterns) symbolically light the way for the Holy Family. Come by after December 3, and you’ll also get to ogle the “River of Lights” spectacle, featuring over 100 underwater lights and fiber optic-outfitted water features along the new Museum Reach section of the River Walk (free; www.thesanantonioriverwalk.com). In conjunction with the amped-up display, the city is additionally holding its inaugural “Light Up Downtown Holiday Contest” in 2011, which has downtown business owners competing for the most creative holiday light displays – and your starry-eyed attention.
Virginia is indeed for lovers – and holiday light lovers might just lead that pack! Coming together for one sparkling statewide spectacle, their “100 Miles of Lights” festival strings together illuminated extravaganzas between six cities (all set within a 100-mile span), including Richmond, Williamsburg, Newport News, Hampton, Norfolk, and Virginia Beach. Millions of holiday lights and family-friendly celebrations combine for this one-of-a-kind event, including Virginia Beach’s “McDonald's Holiday Lights at the Beach,” which refashions the boardwalk into a striking nautical- and holiday-themed light display, complete with a 40-foot-tall Christmas tree installed right on the beach – it’s the only time of year that vehicles can drive right on the boardwalk (now–January 1; $10 weekdays, $15 weekends per vehicle; www.beachstreetusa.com).
On November 19, Norfolk’s “Grand Illumination Parade” unfolds, rolling out flashing floats, soaring balloons, marching bands, dancers, and a visit from Santa himself, all in celebration of the illumination of downtown Norfolk (lights stay up through January 1; free; www.downtownnorfolk.org/enjoy/hic). Another highlight is Newport News’ “Celebration in Lights,” an eye-catching, 2-mile, Yule-fueled drive past the forests, fields, and lakes of Newport News Regional Park, all beautified by more than 700,000 holiday lights and 200 illuminated displays (November 24–January 1; $10/vehicle; www.newport-news.org).
10. Baltimore, MD
When it comes to Christmastime magic, it seems that “34th Streets” across the country are a bona fide breeding ground for just that. Just look to Baltimore’s Hampden neighborhood each holiday season, where for more than 60 years, a charming block of row houses on 34th street has been transformed into what’s been dubbed “Christmas Street” and the “Miracle on 34th Street.” Residents come together in a labor of love to bedeck their properties with a holiday hodgepodge of larger-than-life snow globes, flashing angels, musical trains, and blinking lights galore – a handful of the homes will even allow visitors inside to peek into their indoor Christmas wonderlands, as well (November 26–January 1; free; www.christmasstreet.com).
Try and coordinate your visit with the colorful “Parade of Lighted Boats,” an event where more than 50 vessels festooned with holiday lights illustrate Baltimore’s nautical and Christmas spirit on December 3 (free; www.fpyc.net). Plus, new for 2011, the harbor-front Power Plant building will shine with holiday lights, lasers, and 3D effects during early evening hourly show times (now–December 31; free; www.itsawaterfrontlife.org).