By Eileen Ogintz

Tribune Content Agency

They’re back!

Holiday lights are everywhere from theme parks to zoos to resorts to city centers across the country and abroad.

With our partners at Family Travel Forum we’ve compiled Our Annual Guide to the Best and Brightest that typically glow from right after Thanksgiving through New Year’s, giving you plenty of time to enjoy them.

Still, be careful out there in crowds, especially with kids who aren’t yet fully vaccinated or are too young to get the COVID-19 vaccine. You’ll likely be required to wear masks indoors at community celebrations, but it is wise, public health experts say, for unvaccinated kids to wear masks outdoors as well. Remember, nearly a fourth of new cases are in children and though most recover well, thousands have been hospitalized and COVID-19 continues to be a leading cause of death among children.

More than 1 million lights at the Denver Botanic Garden
More than 1 million lights at the Denver Botanic Garden

I don’t want to put a damper on your holidays, I just want to remind you to be careful when traveling and enjoying holiday festivities with young kids. Mask up, wash hands often, and stay six feet apart when possible.

Now that we’ve gotten that out of the way, let’s see where we can celebrate, whether we return to what had been an annual tradition before the pandemic, create a new one with a drive-through experience, or make it an outing with relatives and friends you’ve been with over Thanksgiving — likely for the first time in two years. (No wonder AAA has forecast more than 53.4 million of us were expected to travel, the highest single-year increase since 2005 and nearly back to pre-pandemic levels.)

You likely will need reservations for holiday light events at zoos, botanical gardens, museums, theme parks and more. Cruise ships decorated to the hilt, like the new kid-friendly Carnival Mardi Gras, are limiting passengers to those who are vaccinated. Restaurants, including at Vail Resorts, are requiring vaccination cards. Some resorts known for their holiday displays like The Broadmoor in Colorado Springs, decorated with a million white lights and a gigantic gingerbread structure, are limiting viewings to guests.

The Broadmoor Hotel at Christmastime
The Broadmoor Hotel at Christmastime

Once you are prepared (got those holiday masks ready?), here are some of our favorite places around the country to get even the grumpiest Grinch in your gang to get in the holiday spirit:

Celebrate all things gingerbread in Asheville, S.C., at the Omni Grove Park Inn’s 29th Annual National Gingerbread House Competition, which is welcoming back in-person competitors this year. The official gingerbread display begins on Sunday, Nov. 28, 2021, and will continue through Sunday, Jan. 2, 2022. (Guests not staying at the resort may visit the display at certain times.)

Experience a German-style Christmas Market at cities across the country from Baltimore’s Christmas Village in Baltimore at Inner Harbor West Shore Park to the Denver Christkindl Market. Expect music, crafts, food, including, of course, beer and mulled Gluhwein) and special activities in some areas for kids.

Wherever you live (or are visiting) look for holiday markets that typically support local businesses. (ln Las Vegas, the “Magical Forest at Opportunity Village” raises money for the disabled.)

A carriage ride in Williamsburg at Christmas.
A carriage ride in Williamsburg at Christmas.

Stay in the car and follow the 57th annual Trail of Lights at Zilker Park in Austin, Texas, voted a USA Today “Top 10 Holiday Celebration,” with more than 2 million lights, 90 lighted trees and more than 70 other holiday displays and lighted tunnels. Tune in your radio for holiday music and history. Nov. 27 to Dec. 31, 2021. You’ll find other drive-through extravaganzas everywhere from the three-mile route of Charleston, S.C.’s ’ annual Holiday Festival of Lights, considered one of the top 20 holiday lights events in the Southeast, The three-mile-long Festival of Lights at Moody Gardens in Galveston, Texas, the largest holiday destination in the Southwest and in Louisville, KY., where Lights Under Louisville is back with more than 4 million lights arranged in 40 themed displays, 10 very cool mapping projections and 900 illuminated characters in a vast complex of caves.

Take a walk back in time — perhaps a historic Freedom Trail Holiday Stroll and discover how Boston’s holiday traditions evolved, Christmas Eve 1876 at Mystic Seaport where the socially distanced Lantern Light Village re-enactment features costumed characters, light displays and music, or in Virginia time travel farther at Colonial Williamsburg (to pre-revolutionary times).

Celebrate with your favorite characters in Orlando. Celebrating 50 years, Walt Disney World welcomes guests with holiday cheer, new shows and lavish decor at all four theme parks – Magic Kingdom, Epcot, Hollywood Studios and Animal Kingdom. Plus, Disney Springs and all the Disney Resort hotels are decked out for the season. Over at Universal Studios Florida, you can count on Hogsmeade and Diagon Alley being decorated as part of the Wizarding World of Harry Potter. Expect to see huge floats and balloons from the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade. At SeaWorld’s “Christmas Celebration,” you will be able to meet Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer and see ice skaters twirl on a frozen lake. LEGO fans should celebrate at “Holidays at Legoland” to catch special shows, LEGO characters, plenty of twinkling lights and a Kids New Year’s Party.

At the Denver Botanic Garden
At the Denver Botanic Garden

Head to a museum in Cleveland, Ohio. Enjoy the Kringle’s Inventionasium Experience. This walk-through experience with costumed characters leads through Mr. Kringle’s top secret laboratory where visitors invent new toys in a fun STEM activity; New Yorkers throng to the American Museum of Natural History to see the origami tree decorated by volunteers. This year’s 13-foot tree is decorated with more than 1,000 origami pieces that include models of the specimens from the new Allison and Roberto Mignone Halls of Gems and Minerals.

The Smoky Mountains beckon. The entire town of Pigeon Forge, Tennessee, creates a winter wonderland for locals and guests to enjoy during the city’s 32nd annual Smoky Mountain Winterfest celebration of the season. Dollywood theme park is a must-see with more than 5 million lights and a 50-foot-tall tree on exhibit during “Dollywood’s Smoky Mountain Christmas.”

Happy holidays!

©2021 Eileen Ogintz. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.