The Christmas Capital of Texas, Michigan’s Little Bavaria, America’s Christmas Tree City — there are some cities that just know how to do Christmas — places where the holiday cheer overflows, where the hot chocolate is richer, the lights are brighter, the fires cozier, the carols clearer, the trees taller.
As we look toward the end of a year that has been disastrous in so many respects, the holidays offer a glimmer of hope for travelers. With COVID in the rear-view mirror, outdoor holiday celebrations might make the perfect occasion to get your travelers on the road again.
These destinations have become holiday traditions for groups, who take in the cities’ light shows and live productions, Christmas parades and Christmas shopping, and end up taking home a lot more Christmas spirit.
Virginia Beach, Virginia
Virginia’s 100 Miles of Lights got its start over 20 years ago when a regional effort was launched to promote light shows and holiday events from Richmond to Virginia Beach — a distance of 100 miles — and in the cities in between: Newport News, Hampton, Norfolk and Portsmouth.
“It’s a great hub-and-spoke itinerary for tour operators,” said Jim Coggin, tourism sales manager for the Virginia Beach Convention and Visitors Bureau.
The light shows include both walk-through and drive-through events, and most run from mid-November through January 1.
In Richmond, the Lewis Ginter Botanical Gardens hosts the annual Dominion GardenFest of Lights, and Kings Dominion’s WinterFest shines bright with millions of holiday lights, a 300-foot Christmas tree and live shows. For Richmond’s Famous Tacky Lights Tour, the CVB can help direct tour groups to neighborhoods that work well for motorcoaches to explore Griswold-esque displays.
In Williamsburg, Busch Gardens’ Christmas Town lights up the theme park, and the Grand Illumination is an 18th-century-style fireworks show that lights up the sky over the Colonial capitol. Newport News hosts the Celebration in Lights, and Norfolk is home to the Dominion Energy Garden of Lights at the Norfolk Botanical Garden.
In Virginia Beach, groups can do the Bayport Credit Union Holiday Lights Merry Mile. As the bus drives along the boardwalk, groups can see holiday lights above them, on the beach and on green spaces.
“What’s really cool about our lights is that you can actually drive the motorcoach on our boardwalk,” Coggin said. “It’s the only time of year vehicles are allowed on the boardwalk.”
Groups can also catch the Holiday Parade at the Beach, shop at the Christmas Mouse store and stop for dessert at the Founders Inn, a Colonial-style property decorated with lights inside and out.
Frankenmuth is known as Michigan’s Little Bavaria, and it’s famous for two things: Christmas and chicken. The city’s Bavarian-style architecture and family-style fried chicken restaurants pair nicely with a year-round Christmas theme, which is thanks in large part to Bronner’s Christmas Wonderland.
Bronner’s is an enormous Christmas store with a showroom equivalent to 2.5 football fields; it’s packed to the rafters with every imaginable ornament, stocking, wreath, tree and nativity. The day after Thanksgiving, nearly 30,000 people descend on Frankenmuth, a city of 5,500 residents, to visit Bronner’s, said Christie Bierlein, sales and marketing director for the Frankenmuth Convention and Visitors Bureau.
At Bronner’s, groups can also check out 25 Christmas Lane, a drive-through experience with 50,000-some lights that works well for motorcoaches. Near Bronner’s, Grandpa Tiny’s Farm welcomes groups for Christmas activities like sleigh rides, hot chocolate and pictures with live reindeer.
In downtown, horse-drawn carriages run year-round, but “in the winter, they deck them out in bells,” Bierlein said. “You can hear the bells all day, the horses jingling right down Main Street.” Rides are first-come, first-served, but with two different companies constantly running carriages, people don’t have to wait long for a ride — or they can opt to explore the bedecked downtown.
Frankenmuth is home to two famous chicken restaurants: Zehnder’s of Frankenmuth and the Bavarian Inn Restaurant. Both serve family-style fried chicken dinners, both offer group dining, and both typically have holiday shows. Zehnder’s is a bit more traditional, with additional entrees like fish and steak; the Bavarian Inn features German fare like schnitzel, sausage and sauerkraut. Groups can take a pretzel-rolling class at the Bavarian Inn, and the Frankenmuth Farmers Market hosts an annual Christkindl Market.
Myrtle Beach, South Carolina
Myrtle Beach lights up for the holidays: both Christmas lights along the Grand Strand and marquis lights at the city’s live theaters.
The Pirates Voyage Dinner and Show puts on an epic holiday mashup that retells “A Christmas Carol” with Scrooge as a pirate hunting for hidden treasure. The show features aerial acrobats, sword fights and live animals, such as the camels that carry the Wise Men and the donkey on which Mary rides as she and Joseph walk across the water.
Throughout the year, the other theaters feature variety shows, “but during the holidays, it’s full-on Christmas,” said Sandy Haines, group tour sales manager for the Myrtle Beach Area Convention and Visitors Bureau.
“The Carolina Opry Christmas Special” is a classical revue show that features Christmas music and comedy, and Legends in Concerts features lookalike artists for its usual tribute show but switches to holiday songs from famous singers after intermission.
The Alabama Theatre opens “The South’s Grandest Christmas Show” every year on November 1, and the GTS Theater offers two intimate Christmas shows: “The Motown Christmas Tribute Show” and “The Crazy Country Christmas Show.” The Asher Theater, the permanent home of owner James Stephen III’s “Man of a Thousand Voices” impersonation show, also puts on Christmas productions.
At Brookgreen Gardens, the annual Nights of 1,000 Candles illuminates the botanical garden, the sculpture garden and the nature preserve. The event features more than 2,700 candles and myriad twinkling lights strung above statues, outlining oak trees and draping from branches. Groups can walk the garden pathways while sipping cider, cocoa or wine and listening to strolling musicians, singing carolers and storytellers. Brookgreen also has an on-site tent where visitors can buy a catered dinner.
At Ripley’s Aquarium, the Festival of Trees features a Christmas tree for every state, and groups can do a Teas and Trees event with special Christmas refreshments.
Grapevine’s moniker, the Christmas Capital of Texas, is more than a nickname; it’s official. The Texas State Senate gave Grapevine the designation in 2009, and the city now boasts 1,400 Christmas events in 40 days.
“There are twinkling lights every year, Christmas decorations everywhere you turn, lots of selfies with Santa and mistletoe booths and holiday entertainment,” said Heather Egan, director of leisure and international sales for the Grapevine Convention and Visitors Bureau. “We even make it snow in several locations.”
The historic downtown is a holiday hub, with Christmas lights synced to Christmas music and plenty of shopping, dining and holiday activities. Group leaders can package Christmas activity tickets for people to ride on the vintage carousel, visit Santa’s live reindeer or one of several other downtown activities.
Downtown’s historic Palace Theatre shows classic Christmas movies like “White Christmas” and “A Miracle on 34th Street” and offers reserved group seating and dollar popcorn. The theater also hosts live holiday entertainment, like the Texas Tenors, the Grapevine Opry and Elvis tribute shows.
The Texas Star Dinner Theater also puts on a Christmas murder mystery set in Grapevine in the 1800s. At the Nash Farm, groups can experience a Victorian Christmas on the historic-living farm and customize an experience, like learning how to bake on a wood-burning stove or playing games outside.
Groups can create their own glass Christmas ornaments at the Vetro Glassblowing Studio or take home a commemorative wine glass from the Grapevine Vintage Railroad’s Christmas Wine Train, which offers live entertainment aboard the decorated 1920s passenger cars.
A stop at one of Grapevine’s many winery tasting rooms is “another fun way to include some Christmas cheer,” Egan said.
The Gaylord Texan Resort puts on its annual holiday extravaganza; it includes ice skating, snow tubing, and holiday shows and activities like the “ICE!” exhibit.
Branson’s busiest time of year is November and December, but “we work on Christmas all year long,” said Lynn Berry, director of communications for the Branson/Lakes Area Convention and Visitors Bureau.
The town puts on a show for the holidays — literally and figuratively — with decked-out decorations and a peck of Christmas productions.
Christmas kicks off with the annual Adoration Parade the first Sunday in December. The parade aims to put Christ back in Christmas and begins with the lighting of the giant Nativity scene atop Mount Branson.
Motorcoaches can explore three drive-through light tours, and area businesses display over 700 Christmas trees in all shapes, sizes and forms, from traditional evergreens to trees made from go-kart tires, wine bottles and library books. The city is also adding more “landmark” trees as part of its efforts to become America’s Christmas Tree City.
Silver Dollar City transforms into a Christmas wonderland, ablaze with lights and boasting more than 1,000 Christmas trees, including Joy on Town Square, an 80-foot high-tech tree that’s “a digital masterpiece,” Berry said. The park also offers a live production of “It’s a Wonderful Life” and “A Dickens Christmas Carol!” musical.
More than a dozen Branson stages feature high-spirit holiday shows, including “Dolly Parton’s Stampede,” “A Brett Family Christmas” and “Andy Williams’ Ozark Mountain Christmas Show,” which has a new lineup this year. The Sight and Sound Theatre makes Jesus’ birth come to life during “The Miracle of Christmas,” which features over 45 actors, live animals and elaborate sets.
At the Shepherd of the Hills Homestead, the new production, “A Shepherd’s Christmas Carol,” includes a full turkey dinner and a pumpkin dessert. Shepherd also debuted its North Pole Adventure last year, a Christmas experience with a Trail of Lights, horse-drawn carriages, Santa’s workshop and real reindeer.