Who says you can’t have a family reunion at Christmastime?
The second half of 2021 appears to be signaling some light at the end of the pandemic tunnel. That has many families thinking about catching up with each other and renewing bonds that have been stifled during the past year.
What better way to make up for a disappointing 2020 than a family reunion Christmas. Since we’re all hungering to travel and to reconnect, such a trip during this magical season makes a lot of sense.
Now is the time for planners to start turning dreams into reality. Here are a few ideas on where to gather for the holidays this November or December.
Blowing Rock, North Carolina
In the Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina, the little resort town of Blowing Rock offers families a Santa’s bag full of goodies. Blessed with all kinds of vacation rentals—cabins, cottages, chalets, condominiums and cozy inns and lodges—the quaint village is perfect for reunion groups that would rather celebrate than hibernate.
The spirit of Christmas comes alive at Chetola Resort’s drive-thru Festival of Lights, a dreamy display staged from Thanksgiving weekend through January. (Chetola, one of the larger resorts, has 73 one- to four-bedroom condos, each with a fireplace, and lots of amenities, including a spa, indoor pool and fitness center.) On weekends at the Tweetsie Railroad, a Wild West-themed attraction, night-time steam engine train rides feature a light-filled extravaganza and visit from Santa.
Appalachian Ski Mountain is a great place for families because it is a small mountain with mostly beginner and intermediate slopes, Moreover, the Blowing Rock resort is alcohol-free, has a nice skating rink and is home to a renowned ski school. For more winter fun, there’s Hawksnest Snow Tubing, which offers more than 30 lanes in four different areas and three moving carpet lifts to bring you back to the top.
Blowing Rock’s historic Main Street, all decked out for the holidays, abounds with charming gift shops, including one devoted to everything Christmas. Bargains on name brands and designer fashions lure shoppers to Tanger Outlets.
In this Ozarks vacation tourist magnet, every season draws family groups, but Christmas is perhaps the most wonderful time of the year, with festivities running from the beginning of November to New Year’s Day. Theaters in the Live Music Show Capital of the World present special holiday spectacles, with fare ranging from country music to Broadway-style productions.
Silver Dollar City theme park transforms into a sparkling wonderland with jillions of lights, special shows and a magnificent nightly parade during its annual two-month-long festival, An Old Time Christmas. Smaller productions are staged throughout the park.
Dolly Parton’s Stampede dinner attraction puts on a yuletide extravaganza with a cast that includes 32 majestic horses and a country-style meal with all the holiday fixin’s. For more seasonal cheer, ride Branson Scenic Railway’s Polar Express or experience the Let There Be Lights! drive-thru display, a two-mile LED circuit complete with real reindeer, at Branson’s Promised Land Zoo at Shepherd of the Hills Homestead. All ages will enjoy one of Branson’s newest indoor attractions— Aquarium at the Boardwalk.
For Christmas shopping, Branson offers tons of possibilities. Retail magnets range from Branson Landing, a downtown mall situated on Lake Taneycomo, to Branson Craft Mall. Deals on designer brands can be found at Tanger Outlets and The Shoppes at Branson Meadows. Historic downtown abounds with shops purveying antiques and collectibles, and more nostalgia awaits at Dick’s 5 & 10, an old-fashioned dime store that has been around for 60 years.
Grapevine, the official “Christmas Capital of Texas,” offers hundreds of Christmas events spanning 40 days. The Gaylord Texan Resort, a sterling base of operations for your clan, stages Lone Star Christmas, an annual celebration that sparkles with two million twinkling lights and enormous decorations inside a massive glass atrium filled with gardens and waterways. Also making the season bright are activities such as Christmas crafts, gingerbread decorating, snow tubing and ice skating. Another favorite hub for family groups is Great Wolf Lodge and its massive indoor waterpark.
Grapevine’s charming Main Street, festooned in holiday decor, bustles with shoppers seeking out unusual gifts in the many specialty shops, while an open-air, European-style Christmas market takes place at Town Square Gazebo. Historic Palace Theater presents holiday concerts and movies. Everyone is encouraged to wear pajamas on Grapevine Vintage Railroad’s North Pole Express, a time-honored holiday ritual with Santa and his elves.
Grapevine Mills, a Texas-sized mall with more than 180 stores, is a destination in itself, with attractions like SEA LIFE Aquarium, LEGOLAND Discovery Center, The Escape Game, an AMC multiplex and family-friendly restaurants like Rainforest Cafe. Stores include Disney Outlet, Nike Factory Outlet, Saks Fifth Avenue Off 5th and The Children’s Place Outlet.
A Family Reunion Christmas at Sea
Whether your gang are cruise aficionados or have never taken a vacation at sea, this might be the year to consider holding your reunion on a cruise ship in the balmy Caribbean or Bahamas. These seagoing cities are custom-made for multigenerational gatherings, as they offer a boatload of activities and events for all ages, morning to night.
While grandma and grandpa lounge by the pool or mom and dad enjoy a spa treatment, kids can be splashing around the water park or hanging out at the children’s playroom or teen center. The wide variety of restaurants is another plus.
On festive December sailings, the cruise lines pull out all the stops. Expect lavish Christmas trappings, holiday-themed shows and meals, and visits from Santa. Special activities could range from ornament-making classes to decorating your own gingerbread cookies.
Holiday cruises always fill up fast, and this year, with pent-up demand from pandemic-weary travelers, it’s wise to reserve your berths as soon as possible. The lines’ group departments can provide details on group discounts and even free passage for every so many travelers booked. Meeting space for private parties also can be arranged.
Florida-based lines popular with families include Disney, Carnival, Royal Caribbean, Costa and Norwegian. One idea is combining a three- or four-night Bahamas cruise with a visit to Walt Disney World and other Central Florida theme attractions. Those lured by the less-visited ports of the Southern Caribbean will want to consider Royal Caribbean’s new cruises from Barbados (starting in December 2021) aboard the 1,992-passenger Grandeur of the Seas, which calls at islands like Trinidad, Tobago, St. Vincent, Dominica and Grenada.
Other Ideas for a Family Reunion Christmas
The Orlando area, a natural for families, can keep your clan busy for days with visits to Walt Disney World Resort, Universal Orlando’s two theme parks and SeaWorld Orlando, not to mention alligator parks and various amusements. Instead of Florida sunshine, how about a destination reunion in sunny Southern California, where you could base yourself in the Anaheim area, home to Disneyland and Knott’s Berry Farm.
In the Tennessee Smokies, Pigeon Forge and the nearby communities of Gatlinburg and Sevierville abound with vacation rentals ideal for family groups. These mountain towns take on a festive air when their music theaters switch to holiday shows starting in November. Dollywood theme park becomes a Christmas wonderland. Ober Gatlinburg ski resort is a mountain of fun for families, offering skating and snow tubing in addition to skiing and snowboarding.
For an urban Tennessee getaway, consider musical Nashville and perhaps make camp at the Gaylord Opryland Resort with its monthlong Country Christmas celebration. The hotel’s acres of over-the-top decorations include 3 million lights, 15,000 poinsettias and 15 miles of green garland. Also venture to downtown Nashville, home to music clubs, the Country Music Hall of Fame & Museum and the brand-new National Museum of African American Music at Fifth + Broadway, a shopping magnet that opened its doors in March.
A family reunion centered around the holidays will give your gathering an extra dose of merriment and will be remembered by all generations for years to come.
by Randy Mink