It’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas … Well, the halls may not be decked with boughs of anything at this very moment, but when travel planners dream up ideal trips for November and December, they find plenty of holiday fun in the Southeast.
From the Gulf Coast to Kentucky’s Bluegrass region, the destinations on this shortlist will help groups celebrate the most wonderful time of the year in spectacular ways.
Shaker Village of Pleasant Hill
In Shaker Village of Pleasant Hill, peacefulness is a tangible gift to visiting groups. The Harrodsburg, Kentucky, site preserves one of the nation’s largest Shaker settlements. And come December, it becomes a beautiful, holiday village.
“Sitting around the fire, singing carols together, being among the beautiful historic buildings here, walking around the scenic landscape — it’s a balm for the soul,” said Bill Rankin, vice president of public programming and marketing.
With natural greenery gracing the ledges, red ribbons festooning the fences and luminaries glowing in the windows, the village becomes just the right backdrop to get in the mood of the season.
Groups can familiarize themselves with the Shaker way of preparing for Christmas through hands-on activities like creating greenery decorations, making reed stars or taking cookie decorating classes.
Illuminated Evenings are the programmatic star on the village’s metaphorical Christmas tree.
“When you come to an Illuminated Evening, and you have your hot cider or chocolate and you’re listening to a choir in the 1820 meeting house, walking out by the firepits and roasting marshmallows, taking a candlelit walk as you learn a little bit about how the Shakers celebrated Christmas in these huge historic homes, and culminating in caroling around our Christmas tree out on the lawn, I can’t think of a more family-friendly setting that I have ever been to for the holiday season,” Rankin said.
Magic Christmas in Lights at Bellingrath Gardens
Walter Bellingrath purchased a fishing camp to relax, per his doctor’s orders, in 1917. That property would develop over the course of his lifetime into the Bellingrath Gardens and Home and its Magic Christmas in Lights, one of Mobile’s local treasures and now a Southern Christmas destination illuminated in 3 million LED lights..
“It really gets you excited for the holidays,” said Bellingrath’s Cassidy Smith. “The combination of the gardens and the holidays brings so much joy to your heart and makes you feel like a little kid.“
Magic Christmas in Lights, from late November to early January, consistently rated one of the South’s best botanical light displays, is a walking tour that takes about an hour to complete.
Plan to arrive midday to see the property’s sprawling gardens and the exterior of the estate in the daylight. Tour guides will educate groups on the Bellingrath family as they explore the property. Plus, one of the guides on staff is the grandson of Mr. Bellingrath’s physician. “He’s a walking encyclopedia and actually won best local historian in Mobile this year,” Smith said.
“I had a ton of people telling me how it was a beautiful experience and they had so much fun,” Smith said. “People spend their anniversaries here and get engaged here. It really is a ‘fun for all’ kind of experience. Kids can run around and wear off their energy; adults can relax and take a stroll. If you’re a nature enthusiast you get the best of both worlds. If you just love the holidays, it’s a great thing to do outdoors.”
Oglebay Resort’s Festival of Lights
Wheeling, West Virginia
An hour southwest of Pittsburgh — yet still south of the Mason-Dixon line — is Wheeling, West Virginia, home to a much-loved Festival of Lights at the Oglebay Resort. Here the holiday season is welcomed earlier than any other destination on this list. Its Festival of Lights begins in early November and spans a full two months. This municipal park is a state jewel spanning 2,000 acres and packs in all the quintessential light-show attractions in one evening.
Groups can explore the entire property via this six-mile drive-through light show. For a fun group experience, park the motorcoach and ride the resort’s trolley instead.
The route meanders through the park, starting with two dozen light features in Oglebay’s Good Zoo. Hop off at one of the zoo stops to enjoy photos with Santa, a laser light show or a ride on the Winter Express. Deeper into the zoo is a winter carnival built for the more adventurous. This attraction features an ice rink, a climbing wall and other activities like a decorated tree trail.
Hop back on the trolley to view the light features on Schenk Lake, where synchronized music and lights are on full display. After all, what’s a light display without the Trans-Siberian Orchestra and Led Zeppelin? The fun for all ages continues at the Wilson Lodge, where another dozen dazzling light features and activities like Christmas movies, elf scavenger hunts, character performances take place.
Natchitoches Christmas Festival
Louisiana’s oldest settlement is not only the location where the hit movie “Steel Magnolias” was shot, but it’s also home to one of America’s earliest and most treasured holiday light displays.
“The annual Natchitoches Christmas Festival is one of the oldest holiday celebrations in the country,” said Arlene Gould, executive director of the Natchitoches Convention and Visitors Bureau.
The festival dates back to the invention of the two-watt lightbulb and a set piece welded by a city worker. The set pieces became popular, and the city added more each year.
“Today we have over 100 designs and set pieces that were welded by the city workers that are all custom,” Gould said. “They’re set along Cane River Lake. They reflect in the water so it’s really pretty.”
Visitors can take in the Christmas displays from the weekend before Thanksgiving until Epiphany. Gould recommends exploring on foot.
“We suggest walking through the National Historic Landmark District,” she said. “We have unique shopping and wonderful restaurants, and there are normally several programs. They’ve had choirs. We have an amphitheater. And there are fireworks every Saturday night. A lot of people have shared that it’s like magic. People get here and they feel like they’re walking in a Hallmark movie, and I remind them: This is the real thing.”
In addition to the set pieces, there are more than 300,000 lights. Saturdays are ticketed.
Groups electing to lodge nearby can look into the Chateau Saint Denis, an 80-room downtown hotel with complimentary motorcoach parking.
Charlotte Motor Speedway
Concord, North Carolina
Merrymakers, start your engines. North Carolina’s Charlotte Motor Speedway transforms into a wonderland for the holidays.
“This show is for people who love NASCAR, people who aren’t familiar with NASCAR, people who are fans of Christmas lights and fans of Christmas music. It’s perfect for anybody in the holiday season,” said Samantha Waddell, communications manager for the Charlotte Motor Speedway.
Speedway Christmas, now in its 15th season, invites visitors to make the days bright on the famous oval with a four-mile drive-through course bathed in the glimmering, twinkling glow of 5 million lights. And it’s worth returning the following year, as each season boasts a unique theme.
“This year is Santa’s Beach Party, so a big chunk of our displays are Santa with reindeer playing in the sand, playing volleyball,” Waddell said. “And then everyone loves the choreographed lights. We have a beautiful lights-to-music section. Dial your radio to a certain channel, and the music and lights will dance together as you drive the course.”
Want even more reason to rev those engines? Speedway organizers cram every square inch of the concourse with Christmas activities.
“There are different themes throughout the concourse,” Waddell said. “We have a Winter Wonderland, a Candyland, and we’ll send you to space and to Santa’s workshop. You can get craft drinks and craft ice cream. You can meet Santa. And we have fun mazes for kids to run through. You can go to Victory Lane and take pictures on the 360 camera. So many things will keep the magic of the holiday season front and center as you walk through here.”
Speedway Christmas runs from the week before Thanksgiving until the first week of January. Reach out to group sales to inquire about group pricing. For a unique group dining experience during Speedway Christmas, plan to eat at the Speedway Club, the motorsports complex’s on-site restaurant. Reservations are encouraged.
Holidays at Colonial Williamsburg
Colonial Williamsburg is so utterly packed with the hustle and bustle of 1700s Christmastide from November to January that the town publishes a 42-page magazine detailing all the hour-by-hour activities available to visitors.
“There’s a lot to do in Colonial Williamsburg,” said Brittany Rice, director of sales at Colonial Williamsburg Resorts. “The great thing about Colonial Williamsburg is it tells the true story of America — and it’s everybody’s story, not just one version of history. Williamsburg is magical during the holidays.
“We kick off the holiday season the day following Thanksgiving, where we do the lighting of Williamsburg,” Rice said. “We have a variety of different evening programs and shows and specialty seasonal menus in the hotels and historic taverns.”
Programming runs the gamut, from music by ensembles like choirs, bell ringers or the Williamsburg Symphony to performances and guided tours with 18th-century characters and demonstrations of life in the not-so-distant past.
On three consecutive Saturdays in December, a dazzling fireworks display fills the evening sky above the Governor’s Palace and the Capitol. These “Grand Illumination”’ weekend events are some of the highlights of the festival season. For many years, Grand Illumination took place just one day during the holiday season, but organizers learned to pivot during the pandemic and now showcase the Grand Illumination on multiple weekends.
Tickets are required in the historic area; overnight stays at one of the town’s five resorts include the entry fee. Some activities, like carriage rides and flint-lock musket classes, have additional costs.