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The Best Family Holiday Travel Destinations

  • Ho,ho, ho! Santa greets vistors at Charleston's James Island Country Park.

  • Four million light brighten up Hersheypark's holiday lights.

     

     

  • Welcome Grinchmas at Universal Orlando's Islands of Adventure.

  • Let it glow: The Magic Kingdom's Cinderlla Castle is "Frozen" for the holidays.

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BOSTON, MA

Merrymaking Moment: Boston’s beloved Faneuil Hall Marketplace (dating from 1743) is now home to Blink! A Light & Sound Extravaganza (as well as what’s billed as the Northeast’s tallest Christmas tree). The choreographed light display dances to the tunes of the Boston Pops’ Holiday Pops.

Stocking Stuffer: Santa is coming! Santa is coming! Paul Revere may have yelled that instead, had he taken the Freedom Trail Foundation’s Historic Holiday Stroll. Festive traditions, revolutionary highlights—and Boston cream pie—deliver a taste of the city’s illustrious past (including the American premiere of A Christmas Carol).

CLIFTON, OH

Merrymaking Moment: Legendary Lights of Clifton Mill has been named one of the best illuminated displays in the U.S. The historic (still working) mill—along with the gorge, riverbanks and surrounding trees—is lit up by 4 million bulbs synchronized to music every hour.

Stocking Stuffer: Downtown Dayton (a short drive away) kicks off its Holiday Festival with the Grande Illumination Tree Lighting and Children’s Parade, followed by a month of free events and family activities.

CHARLESTON, SC

Merrymaking Moment: Drive through 3 miles of more than 700 fantastic displays at James Island County Park’s Holiday Festival of Lights. Then check out the other offerings, including a Victorian carousel, Santa’s Village and homemade gingerbread houses.

Stocking Stuffer: On December 12 Charleston Harbor hosts its 34th Parade of Boats.

GREAT SMOKY MOUNTAINS, TN

Merrymaking Moment: The Bavarian-influenced town of Gatlinburg—at the entrance to the Smokies—and nearby highways and roads light it up LED-style. Gatlinburg Winter Magic includes dancing fountains and animals indigenous to the area. During the day, head to the top of Mount Harrison on the Ober Gatlinburg Ariel Tramway for skiing, tubing and even (tame) wildlife encounters. ;

Stocking Stuffer: At Dollywood, about 10 miles away in Pigeon Forge, you’ll find a very Smoky Mountain Christmas—rides, performances and singing galore—as well as Christmas Place, one of the largest ornament stores in the country. ;

HERSHEY, PA

Merrymaking Moment: Holidays at Hersheypark Christmas Candylane are a real sweet deal: $18.85 admission. Not only is the deliciously charming park glittering with cheer, but for the first time a few coasters (weather permitting) will be operational, including the stomach-saulting sooperdooperLooper and the newest attraction, the indoor Laff Trakk.

Stocking Stuffer: Head to Amish country and hop aboard the Strasburg Rail Road Santa’s Paradise Express (or opt for the Christmas Tree Train or The Night Before Christmas Train).

McADENVILLE, NC

Merrymaking Moment: The small town of McAdenville has been transforming itself into Christmas Town USA for nearly 60 years. Hundreds of trees are decorated, wreaths adorn the city’s light poles and every house is decked out in Christmas finery. Visitors can drive or walk through.

Stocking Stuffer: The Christmas Town 5K gives participants a sneak peek at the decorations before Christmas Town’s official start.

MIAMI, FL

Merrymaking Moment: The weather outside is delightful, yet Santa’s Enchanted Forest proves that Christmas cheer is a state of mind. Billed as the world’s largest holiday theme park, it features rides, shows, games and much more in a festive (and balmy) atmosphere.

Stocking Stuffer: Visit one of Miami’s beautiful beaches and make a snowman out of sand.

NASHVILLE, TN

Merrymaking Moment: A Country Christmas at Gaylord Opryland Resort is a one-stop winter wonderland, with ice sculptures, snow tubing, skating and carriage rides.

Stocking Stuffer: No visit to Nashville is complete without sitting a spell at the Grand Ole Opry, but to add a southern twang to your holiday, cruise along the Cumberland River while enjoying the countrified Christmas show on the General Jackson Showboat.

NEW YORK, NY

Merrymaking Moment: It’s a dance-off between the high-stepping Rockettes (and rockin’ Santas) at the Radio City Christmas Spectacular and the enchanting world of George Balanchine’s The Nutcracker at Lincoln Center. And, of course, there’s the iconic Rockefeller Center Christmas Tree, the department store window displays, including Saks Fifth Avenue’s 3-D projected show, and the shimmering UNICEF Snowflake gracing the intersection of Fifth Avenue and 57th Street. ;

Stocking Stuffer: Next stop is the Holiday Train Show at the New York Botanical Garden in the Bronx. Model trains whoosh around NYC’s famed landmarks (created from natural materials like leaves and bark) housed in a Victorian glass conservatory.

ORLANDO, FL

Merrymaking Moment 1: Every evening at Universal Studios Florida the Macy’s Holiday Parade (balloons and all) floats its way down the re-created streets of NYC. At the adjacent Islands of Adventure, the classic Dr. Seuss tale is brought to life in the Grinchmas Who-liday Spectacular, set to music by Mannheim Steamroller.

Merrymaking Moment 2:  Walt Disney World Resort offers its own very Disney celebration. All four parks are aglow with lights and enchanting decorations, but during the beloved fireworks at The Magic Kingdom, Cinderella Castle transforms into a glistening Frozen ice palace. At Epcot, a celebrity narrator shares the story of Christmas accompanied by a live choir and orchestra.

Stocking Stuffer: A nightly tree lighting sets the stage for a free (yes, free) 25-minute Cirque Dreams holiday performance at Orlando’s Gaylord Palms Resort & Convention Center.

Bonus Merrymaking Moment: The Southern California counterparts of both parks—Universal Studios Hollywood and Disneyland—offer holiday celebrations similar to those in Orlando. ;

Bonus Stocking Stuffer: The Mission Hotel & Spa in Riverside, CA, welcomes all visitors to its stunning and renowned Festival of Lights.

WILLIAMSBURG, VA

Merrymaking Moment: Journey through Christmases past at Colonial Williamsburg with candlelit tours, ghost walks, musical performances and joyful feasts, in addition to all the other intriguing offerings of this living-history museum.

Stocking Stuffer: Spend an enchanted evening at Busch Gardens Williamsburg’s Christmas Town. Along with rides—including a coaster, weather permitting—and holiday shows, the entire park is awash in more than 8 million shimmering lights.

Additional reporting by Abby Kass

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