All across America, towns and attractions with special Christmas celebrations invite families to hit the road
What better way to enjoy the most wonderful time of the year than taking a road trip with loved ones. Gather the clan, hitch up the sleigh and ride over the river and through the woods to one of America’s great Christmas destinations.
Decked out in yuletide trappings, ablaze with dazzling lights and offering an ambitious roster of events, certain places make the season extra magical with celebrations that bring out the child in everyone and fill the family stocking with memories to last a lifetime. It’s not too early to plan a holiday getaway for this November or December.
In the Ozarks of southwest Missouri, the family-friendly town of Branson pulls out all the stops for Christmas, one of its busiest times. Branson’s famous music theaters present seasonal shows, with fare ranging from country to Broadway-style, while Sight & Sound Theatre’s “Miracle of Christmas” captures the true spirit of the season with a biblical account of Jesus’ birth. Silver Dollar City theme park transforms into a Christmas wonderland with jillions of lights and a nightly parade during its annual two-month-long festival, An Old Time Christmas. For more holiday cheer, ride Branson Scenic Railway’s Polar Express or experience drive-through light displays like the one with animated figures set to music at Shepherd of the Hills Homestead.
A merry olde English Christmas enchants families strolling the main street in historic downtown Cambridge, Ohio, when Dickens Victorian Village takes over Wheeling Avenue. From November 1 to January 1, scores of Victorian-era scenes and figures—from groups of carolers to Bob Crachit carrying Tiny Tim—will feature nearly 200 lifelike mannequins wearing real vintage clothing. For a keepsake photo, dress your own family in period garb at the Dickens Welcome Center and even pose with Charles Dickens. Or have tea with Queen Victoria at the Cambridge Country Club. And don’t miss the nightly Guernsey County Courthouse Light Show, synchronized to holiday music.
Grapevine, the official “Christmas Capital of Texas,” offers 1,400 Christmas events in 40 days. The Gaylord Texan Resort’s LoneStar Christmas celebration sparkles with two million twinkling lights, enormous decorations, a life-size house made of real gingerbread and ICE!, an elaborate display of Charlie Brown ice sculptures that invites visitors to go snow tubing down icy slides. Grapevine’s Main Street, bustling with shoppers, is home to the Historic Palace Theater, which presents holiday concerts and movies. Everyone is encouraged to wear pajamas on Grapevine Vintage Railroad’s North Pole Express.
Gaylord Opryland Resort, a focal point of holiday excitement in Nashville, Tennessee, always hits it out of the park. This year’s month-long A Country Christmas will be highlighted by a Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer musical and an ICE! exhibit with scenes from the movie A Christmas Story, not to mention acres of over-the-top decorations (including 3 million lights, 15,000 poinsettias and 15 miles of green garland). In eastern Tennessee, the place to be at Christmastime is Pigeon Forge, where Dollywood theme park puts on one of the best Christmas extravaganzas in the nation. The stages at Country Tonite and Smoky Mountain Opry give way to heartwarming Christmas shows.
Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, has claimed the title of “Christmas City USA” since 1937. On weekends during the holiday season, wooden huts on and around Main Street invite shoppers to peruse handmade gifts at the German-inspired Christmas City Village. Christkindlmarkt, an even bigger artisan market, is held at Bethlehem’s SteelStacks arts and cultural campus.
A touch of Germany also flavors Frankenmuth, a town known as Michigan’s Little Bavaria. The big attraction here is Bronner’s Christmas Wonderland, the world’s largest Christmas store.
While November and December may not be traditional vacation months, these and other cheery destinations around the U.S.A. show that off-peak travel can make the season merry and bright for family groups—like yours!
Randy Mink, senior editor of Premier Travel Media, has written travel articles for newspapers, magazines and websites for 49 years. He is a longtime member of the Society of American Travel Writers and Midwest Travel Journalists Association. Randy also has been a tour director for senior and student groups.
Each with its unique appeal, the five mountain towns that make up the North Carolina Smokies are Maggie Valley, Waynesville, Lake Junaluska, Canton and Clyde. Host your family reunion in these charming towns that boast a picture postcard-worthy backdrop of the Great Smoky Mountain National Park and Blue Ridge Parkway. With year-round activities, events and festivals and wildlife abounding, there is plenty to see and do in Appalachian Country.
Located on the fringe of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, Maggie Valley is a charming town that offers a variety of things for families to do with favorites like hiking, fishing, horse riding, ziplining, whitewater rafting and skiing. Maggie Valley also has many family-friendly attractions like the popular Wheels Through Time Museum that houses a rare collection of American motorcycles and memorabilia along with unique American automobiles with exhibits like Military Might and the Chopper Graveyard. A great place to enjoy the outdoors is Cataloochee Ranch where you can take a tractor-drawn wagon ride and enjoy games like horseshoes, badminton and ping-pong and activities such as swimming, trout fishing and more. An easy hike takes you to the observation deck at Soco Falls where twin waterfalls cascade down forested terrain making it another must-see attraction in Maggie Valley.
Between the Great Smoky and Blue Ridge Mountains, Waynesville affords breathtaking vistas in every direction. Families can explore Frog Level, a declared National Historic District with restored buildings dating back as early as the early 1900s. Downtown, which is a buzzing hub with art galleries, shops, cafés and restaurants, makes for a fun day out and the community of Hazelwood is where you can find a statue of the North Carolina state dog, the Plott Hound. There is no shortage of outdoor adventures to be had in Waynesville. Families can go waterfall hiking in the mountains and elk watching in Cataloochee Valley where they freely roam.
Named after nearby Mount Junaluska, the 200-acre Lake Junaluska and its surrounding 1,200 acres hills and valleys is an ideal destination for family reunions. Known for its nature trails, set off on Rose Walk that is lined with rose bushes and runs along Lake Shore Drive and the paved Lake Junaluska Walking Trail surrounding the lake with breathtaking views of the mountains. The lake is also the center of seasonal events and celebrations like the two-day Smoky Mountain Folk Festival, Independence Day at Lake Junaluska with parades and concerts and Appalachian Christmas with festive music, food and local artisan vendors.
Nestled in the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains on the Pigeon River, Canton is a quaint historic town with fun experiences year-round. Attend a concert, movie or performance at the renovated Colonial Theatre that dates back to 1932 and enjoy a farm-to-table family meal at the Imperial and Southern Porch that is housed in a Victorian-style building built in the 1800s. Families that like festivals will be treated to many in Canton including the Canton Labor Day Festival and the Cold Mountain Music Festival, which features musical talent, family-friendly activities and bites and beverages by local food and drink vendors. Enjoy a day of fishing, swimming, hiking and picnicking at the picturesque Lake Logan along with recreational activities like kayaking, canoeing and tubing at Pigeon River.
Families can experience authentic Appalachian culture and Southern charm in Clyde where the mountainous scenery never gets old. Visit the Haywood Community College Arboretum to see species of trees, shrubs and ground covers as well as a rhododendron garden and dahlia garden, a fruit tree orchard and greenhouse. Drop in at the Shook-Smathers House built in 1795 for a history lesson, take a kid-friendly hike up to Max Patch for 360-degree views of the Great Smoky Mountains and Mount Mitchell and see bison, mini horses, mini donkeys, llamas, alpacas, goats and rabbits at Buffalo Creeks Vacation Bison Farm.