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7 Great Holiday Lights Festivals

OPENER_holidaylightsWe all know how beautiful America’s cities are when dressed in their holiday finery of elaborate window displays; infinite strands of tiny white lights; and enormous, radiant Christmas trees. There are, however, smaller communities where the holiday bright lights more than rival those in the big city. Here are seven unexpected places with some high-wattage shows.

#1: The Coeur d’Alene Resort Holiday Light Show, Coeur d’Alene, ID

CoeurdAlene-ID_LightsOn the day after Thanksgiving, Coeur d’Alene Resort flips the switch on 1.5 million lights and keeps them glowing through January 1.

More than 250 different shining images—from wreaths to ski jumpers to fire-breathing dragons—reflect onto Lake Coeur d’Alene from a floating boardwalk.

Take a lake cruise and visit Santa’s Twinkling North Pole Workshop. You’ll be in awe of the nighttime parade of illuminated floats and band music, where even the instruments and uniforms of the high-school marchers light up.

#2: Festival of Lights, East Peoria, IL

PeoriaIL_70AB7661East Peoria lights up for the holidays. It all begins in late November with a parade of elaborate light-adorned floats (a 70-foot interpretation of a Clydesdale horse team and wagon and a 95-foot smoke-spewing Chinese dragon are among the favorites). The event’s mascot is Folepi, a wooden soldier whose name comes from the acronym of Festival of Lights. Look for him in Winter Wonderland, a two-mile drive-through an electric park open from Thanksgiving through the end of December. Note that there’s a per-vehicle admission fee.

Editor’s Note: East Peoria was one of the communities affected by the severe tornadoes that hit the Midwest on November 17, 2013. Said Jill Peterson, Communications Coordinator for the City of East Peoria,  “Our hearts and prayers go out to those affected by the recent tragic events. In an effort to get our minds off the storms and on to happier times and holiday traditions—if only for an hour or two—we are moving forward with the Festival of Lights Parade and Winter Wonderland.” If you’re in the area, consider stopping by the festival to show your support for the community.

#3: An Old Time Christmas, Branson, MO

BransonMO_ CmasDickensCloseSnowEven Scrooge would smile if he saw Silver Dollar City theme park lit up with 4 million lights. Get in the holiday spirit by attending this extravaganza featuring an evening parade and a five-story Christmas tree laden with special lighting effects.

Check out the Living Nativity show, which re-creates the original Christmas in Bethlehem, or the musical production of Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. Meet St. Nicholas in Kringle’s Krossing, or watch crafts demonstrations and do a bit of holiday shopping. It all starts in early November and continues till late December.

#4: Christmas Festival of Lights, Natchitoches, LA

Three things distinguish the city of Natchitoches (pronounced nak-a-tush): its age; its annual Christmas Festival of Lights; and the fact that it served as a location for the 1989 film, Steel Magnolias. Established in 1714, Natchitoches is the oldest city within what was the Louisiana Purchase. And it continues to make history from late November to early January, when residents flip the switch on 300,000 holiday lights strung all around town for a festival that draws roughly 100,000 people—about six times the year-round population. There’s also ornament painting, shopping for gifts, a lighted-barge parade on a nearby lake, fireworks, live-music shows, and photo ops with Santa. Most B&Bs include Steel Magnolias in their film library—and a box of tissues by the TV.

#5: Galaxy of Lights, Huntsville, AL

HunstvilleBotanical_9421323737_6057c04a93_hBetween mid-November and New Year’s Eve, millions of lights transform the Huntsville Botanical Garden into a sparkling wonderland. Displays depict Santa and other holiday characters as well as scenes from children’s stories. There’s even an icicle forest.

Other events include an evening 5K run and a Santa Brunch. You can drive through the grounds between 5:30 and 9 most nights during the festival, though there are also designated walking (and dog-walking!) nights.

#6: Stone Mountain Park Christmas, Stone Mountain, GA

StoneMountain_snowmountain-snowmanYear-round, Stone Mountain Park is known for attractions such as gondola rides to the top of its eponymous 825-foot peak. Early November through New Year’s Day, however, also see 40-minute, 5-mile caroling rides in open-air train cars pulled by a 1940s locomotive. Crossroads, the park’s re-created 1870s Southern town, is open, too, with craftspeople demonstrating glass-blowing, candy-making, and other skills.

There are also artificial “snowfalls,” visits from Santa, musical productions, and 4-D showings of The Polar Express. Topping it all off is the nightly display of more than 2 million lights twinkling throughout the vast park.

#7: Winter Festival of Lights, Wheeling, WV

This winter festival from early November to early January takes place on more than 300 acres and along a 6-mile drive through the Oglebay Resort and Conference Center. New attractions are added every year, but nothing beats classics like the 60-foot poinsettia wreath and candle, the festival’s tallest attraction; the 12 Days of Christmas tableau; and displays featuring Charlie Brown and the rest of the Peanuts gang.

OgleBay_soldiersThe festivities also include an animated light show with holiday music at the on-site, 30-acre Good Zoo. Consider swinging by the resort’s Wilson Lodge for a holiday buffet, or visit the Christmas Shop to browse ornaments and collectibles.