9 of the best places to see Christmas lights in the US

Travel
(CNN) — Christmas in the USA is a combination of traditions from around the world.

Evergreen trees inside homes were popularized in Germany during the 16th century. Decorating with poinsettias? That idea came from Mexico (and the name of the plant came from Joel Roberts Poinsett, the first US minister to Mexico).

And 18th-century England helped to change mistletoe’s image from a poisonous plant to a poisonous plant that’s also a festive kissing trap.

However, there’s one favorite tradition with an all-American origin: electric Christmas tree lights.

It started when Edward H. Johnson, a friend and business partner of Thomas Edison, put a string of 80 hand-wired red, white and blue electric lights on a Christmas tree in 1882.

Since the majority of Americans didn’t have access to electric power until the 1930s, it took about 50 years for Johnson’s creation to become popular.

Since then, it’s become an essential part of American Christmas celebrations, whether that means a couple of strings of “tasteful” white lights around the family tree or a pulsating public display synchronized to “Jingle Bell Rock” that can be seen from low orbit.

With a nod to Mr. Johnson’s first tree, here are nine of the best destinations in the United States where the electric light tradition continues to shine brightly:

1. Las Vegas Motor Speedway (Las Vegas)

It may seem counterproductive to leave the Las Vegas Strip to look at bright lights, but to find Christmas lights in the Nevada desert, visitors can drive down to the racetrack.

The Las Vegas Motor Speedway hosts Glittering Lights, a 2.5-mile circuit that gives car-bound visitors the opportunity to see more than 500 animated displays including a #VegasStrong tribute honoring victims of the October 1, 2017 attack.

It should be noted that while Glittering Lights is hosted at the speedway, the event doesn’t have visitors drive on the track, so crash helmets aren’t required.

Organizers are expecting more than 250,000 visitors to make their way through the circuit this year. The display is on view through January 6. Carload tickets run between $20 and $30.

2. Nights of Lights (St. Augustine, Florida)

Palm trees get their share of holiday glory at this festival in St. Augustine and Ponte Vedra Beach, Florida.

During the annual Nights of Lights, every building, tree and lamppost is draped in white lights. It makes for a dazzling full-town display that visitors can enjoy while wearing just a light jacket.

St. Augustine is the country’s oldest European-settled city, and it draws tourists in warm weather for its Spanish Colonial architecture, military history and over 42 miles of beautiful beaches. For a quarter century, organizers have been illuminating the town during its slower winter months, and shops that used to close now remain open and welcome thousands.

Walking through the city’s display is one option, but visitors can also ride an electric tour bus, carriage, trolley, boat or even charter a yacht. The Ripley’s Red Train ride offers Magic Viewing 3-D glasses that turn the white lights into reindeer and snowmen, bringing the spirit of the North Pole straight to the northeast coast of Florida.

3. Smithsonian’s National Zoo (Washington, D.C.)

During the holidays, the nation’s capital is home to a sparkling free event that’s perfect for families.

ZooLights turns Smithsonian’s National Zoo into a 500,000-LED-light winter wonderland.

Families can take a spin on the solar-powered Speedwell Conservation Carousel, which features custom-carved figures of 58 species of animals, including a clouded leopard and a sloth bear.

There’s also an interactive light canopy, a National Zoo Choo-Choo and a gingerbread throne offering the perfect selfie opportunity at the Gingerbread Village at Elephant Outpost.

The animals aren’t involved in the holiday light spectacular, but evening visitors can warm up at the Zoo’s Visitor Center or roast s’mores by one of six outdoor fire pits.

The display is on view through January 1. Admission is free.

4. Descanso Gardens (Los Angeles)

There are no twinkling elves or red-nosed reindeer here, but Descanso Gardens’ Enchanted: Forest of Light evokes the magic and imagination of the holidays by bathing the trees, plants and flowers in dazzling light displays.

Fireflies fly through the ancient forest, a sea of tulips go light-bright and Sycamore trees are “painted” in rainbow hues when guests play with a special keyboard. Many of Enchanted’s displays are interactive and guests can even create their own light art at Lightwave Lake.

The displays are all kid-friendly and designed to show off the natural beauty of the gardens, creating a forest that’s both a feast for the imagination and a mental break from the typical red and green holiday frenzy.

General admission is $30. On view through January 6.

5. Silver Dollar City (Branson, Missouri)

There are more than 6.5 million lights and 1,000 decorated trees at Silver Dollar City.

There are more than 6.5 million lights and 1,000 decorated trees at Silver Dollar City.

Silver Dollar City

While Branson, Missouri, has grown by leaps and celebrity theaters over the past several decades, Silver Dollar City has been here since 1960.

There are more than 6.5 million lights, over 1,000 decorated trees, nightly parades and two musical productions at An Old Time Christmas. A major highlight is its five-story special effects tree that features 350,000 LED lights. Synchronized with Christmas music, it can make up to 100 light changes per second.

The park’s brand new $26 million Time Traveler coaster is decked out with 30 miles of lights for a dazzling nighttime ride. The festival runs through December 30. One-day tickets start at $54 for kids.

6. Denver Botanic Gardens (Denver, Colorado)

For those who want to see Christmas lights dazzle in a Rocky Mountain setting, there’s Blossoms of Light at the Denver Botanic Gardens.

Following a half-mile path through the Gardens’ 24 acres, visitors see thousands of colorful lights highlight the winter beauty of Ponderosa pines, cottonwoods and other native Western plants.

7. Macy’s at Center City (Philadelphia)

Since 1956, parents have brought their children to Philadelphia’s Center City to marvel at a department store’s resident light display during the holidays.

Macy’s (formerly Wanamaker’s) Christmas Light Show has a Magic Christmas Tree and more than 100,000 LEDs arranged behind a four-story velvet curtain that tell a story with reindeer, toy soldiers and ballerinas.

At the end of the show, the 287-ton Wanamaker Organ, the largest operational pipe organ in the world, plays “O Tannenbaum.” Visitors can also relive “A Christmas Carol,” where 100 figurines in authentic period dress recreate Scrooge’s adventures.

8. Zilker Park (Austin, Texas)

A sparkly Christmas deep in the heart of Texas.

A sparkly Christmas deep in the heart of Texas.

Margaret Licarione

It takes an estimated 15,000 hours and 1,500 volunteers to put together Austin’s Trail of Lights. Located in the Texas capital’s Zilker Park, the popular light show has been going on for more than 50 years.

The 2.1-mile walking circuit features more than 50 light displays and 800 lighted trees. Standing above it all is the Zilker Tree; at 155 feet, it’s touted as the tallest man-made free-standing Christmas tree in the world.

This being Austin, you’ll also find food trucks and live performances throughout the event. On view from December 10 through December 23. Free general admission on most week nights, with a $3 fee on peak weekends.

9. Christmas in Ice (North Pole, Alaska)

North Pole, Alaska’s name comes from an attempt to convince a toy company to move to town.

The toymaker never materialized, but residents of this Fairbanks suburb did embrace the Christmas spirit and for the past decade have hosted the six-week Christmas in Ice festival that combines festive Christmas lights with a contest for intricately carved ice sculptures. Amateurs are welcome to take part.

And despite the fact that this is Alaska in winter, there are outdoor activities for kids, including ice slides and massive ice bowl “twirlers” where kids can sit and be spun until the colorful lights become a nauseating blur. The event goes on through January 8. Admission is $9 for adults; $6 for kids ages 6 through 12. Located next to the festive Santa Claus House.

David Johnston is a freelance writer and editor based in Seattle. CNN’s Channon Hodge and Forrest Brown contributed to this report.

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