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Taking the Kids: Making holiday lights a post-Thanksgiving tradition

By Eileen Ogintz, Tribune Content Agency on

Let the gawking begin!

There's no better time to see who has the biggest and best holiday lights than as soon as the Thanksgiving dishes are done. In some cases, before Thanksgiving if you are looking for ways to get everyone out of the house.

Cities, towns and hotels, just like many families, are getting themselves holiday-ready earlier and earlier. (Check out our annual Taking the Kids Guide to Holiday Lights around the country to find a display near you.)

AAA projects 50.9 million Americans will journey 50 miles or more away from home this Thanksgiving -- 1.6 million more than last year and more than any traveling over the holiday weekend anytime since 2005.

Those in Denver, for example, head to the historic Brown Palacehotel, which has just celebrated its 125th anniversary and is famous for kicking off the holiday season the Sunday before Thanksgiving with its Champagne Cascade in the lavishly decorated nine-story Atrium. (Check out the stained glass in the ceiling.) A Master Swordsman uses a Napoleonic saber to sever the necks of Moet & Chandon Champagne bottles. The Champagne is then poured into the top glass of a two-story high, 6,000-glass pyramid that cascades into the glasses below. Even jaded teens can't help but be impressed, even if they can't have a glass.

Families make it a tradition to just come see the Brown Palace's famous displays -- more than 100,000 LED lights, plus some 4,800 ornaments -- and have breakfast with Santa or an elaborate tea before heading downtown to do some holiday shopping and, of course, see more lights. A little history: When the Brown Palace Hotel and Spa opened on Aug. 12, 1892, Montana, Washington, Idaho, Wyoming, Utah, Arizona, Oklahoma and New Mexico were not yet states. The Palace's front doors have never been locked since, making the hotel the longest continuously operating hotel in Denver.

Does your family have a holiday lights tradition? We always did (going to see the famous tree in Rockefeller Center) and we didn't celebrate Christmas. I think gawking at the lights, wherever you may be, is just plain fun and a good way to explore unique traditions in different parts of the country. If you are someplace new this holiday season, perhaps at Thanksgiving or in December, embrace the chance to see something new and different. (Maybe Santa arriving on a surfboard at Southern California's Seaport Village on Saturday Nov 25, followed by a festive parade. Maybe Albuquerque’s annual Luminaria Tour, Sunday, Dec. 24), the tradition in which candles are placed in paper bags and lined up along the sand, a system historically used to guide people to Christmas Mass.)

Make a holiday tradition your own. In my family, we used to get each of our three kids a kitschy ornament from where we had visited that year. If you are someplace new, allow the kids to choose a fun holiday memento of where you went to see the light display.

Take your pick of more than 1,400 events over 40-plus days in Grapevine, Texas, which calls itself the Christmas Capital of Texas. There's everything from parades to ice slides and giant ice sculptures to rides on the North Pole Express.

Have dinner in a life-sized gingerbread house. At Great Wolf Lodges around the country you can do just that as part of the Snowland festivities. (When you dine in, your fee goes to the Ronald McDonald House Charities.) There are plenty of North Pole University crafts and other activities as well as the indoor water slides and play areas for which Great Wolf Lodges are famous.

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In New Orleans at the Ritz-Carlton, make your own gingerbread house, without all the mess at home, every weekend in December ($140 for four kids). While that's going on, grown-ups can enjoy a holiday cocktail -- Pomegranate Joy, perhaps with Champagne, pomegranate liqueur and more. If that's too pricey, you can always stop in to see the life-sized gingerbread house that is a replica of New Orleans' Famous Wedding Cake House.

Avoid the stress -- for a night anyway -- by spending the night at a lavishly decorated city hotel or country inn so you can take your time checking out decorations and browsing for gifts. (AAA recommends among others, the Inn by the Bandstand in Exeter, New Hampshire, with its collection of Santa figures and a lighted village display.

If you are in the Washington, D.C., area, time-travel back to the 18th century with the Christmas Illuminations event at Mount Vernon, George Washington's home, which offers candlelight tours and fireworks over the Potomac as Lady Washington welcomes you to see how the holidays would have been celebrated in 1797, complete with making chocolate and a resident fifer playing holiday music.

In Cabarrus County, North Carolina, the Charlotte Motor Speedway boasts a 3.75-mile course with some 3 million lights illuminating a theme of "Santa's Mountain," drive-in movies, the chance to drive on the famous track, an infield Holiday Village Thursday through Sunday nights, complete with petting zoo, pony rides, s'mores and, of course, photos with Santa.

And in San Francisco, the kids can't help but gawk at the 12-foot-high Medieval Sugar Castle and the St. Francis Enchanted Castle in the historic lobby of the Westin St. Francis Hotel. The Castle will have grand circular towers and illuminated windows with elves spotted climbing up to the sugar castle. Locals flock to the St. Francis Sweet Boutique for freshly baked holiday cookies, gingerbread men, Parisian macarons and more.

Let the gawking begin! And have a cookie for me!


(For more Taking the Kids, visit and also follow "taking the kids" on, where Eileen Ogintz welcomes your questions and comments.)



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