The sugar castle at Westin St. Francis, San Francisco

The sugar castle at Westin St. Francis, San Francisco

By Eileen Ogintz

Tribune Content Agency

Here we go again.

The baking, the shopping, the wrapping, the parties you wish you could skip, the over-stimulated kids, and you don’t even have a holiday getaway to the sun or the slopes to look forward to.

How about a pre-holiday getaway instead? Make it an overnight when you head to see that favorite holiday light display or museum exhibit. Go see Santa somewhere else besides the mall. (My youngest always bawled anyway.) Whatever part of the country you’re in, you’ll find plenty of holiday lights events and hotels pulling out all the stops to liven up your holiday season — even if just for an afternoon or evening. You might snare a deal — or not spend anything.

In San Francisco, for example, everyone is mesmerized by the 39-day Festival of Light in which 35 public art installations are illuminated, thanks to local and world respected artists. At the same time, the iconic downtown Westin St. Francis has unveiled two one of a kind castles in the historic lobby — a sugar castle resembling a French chateau and a 12-foot St. Francis enchanted castle, a rotating wonderland of gift boxes, gingerbread trees and brightly covered candles. It doesn’t cost anything to ooh and aah or take a picture.

Naples Grande Beach Resort invites families to join Santa’s Sleigh Rides, a daily complimentary, open-air tram from the resort to the beach through their mangrove estuary, festooned with holiday decorations. Santa makes his appearance as a tram driver in Florida attire to drive visitors to the beach, giving out holiday treats, including candy canes and frozen hot chocolate.

In San Diego, have dinner in a giant gingerbread house. The Queenstown Public House transforms itself into a life-sized gingerbread house for the holiday season with windows decorated by gumdrops and frosting and awnings made of candy canes. On Dec. 20, the restaurant will host its “Kids at Heart” decorating party.

You can also eat in a life-sized gingerbread house at one of the Great Wolf Lodges around the country. Kids love Great Wolf because of their indoor water parks. For the entire month of December, the 13 Great Wolf Lodges, from North Carolina to Boston to the Midwest and Southern California, are transformed into Snowland with indoor snow showers, North Pole University activities and perhaps the chance to stay in a specially decorated Snowland suite. Each dinner booked in the gingerbread house supports a local Ronald McDonald House.

Gingerbread village, Crown Center, Kansas City

Gingerbread village, Crown Center, Kansas City

If gingerbread houses are your family’s thing — this year — see where else you can find a gingerbread house-making activity, decorating contest or display. At the interactive historic museum Conner Prairie, located outside of Indianapolis (guests travel back to the 1836 plains), families come to see a veritable gingerbread town, created by professionals and even kids and casting a vote for the People’s Choice, as part of the Holiday on the Prairie activities. How about dinner with Santa?

Three Saturdays in December, The Tides Inn will host gingerbread house making as part of its holiday programming at the Chesapeake Bay hotel, located on a private peninsula in Irvington, Va. Even for a night, it would be fun to enjoy festive decorations and eats that didn’t necessitate any work on your part.

Omni Resorts are known for their gingerbread house competitions — the The Omni Grove Park Inn in Asheville, N.C., will display the winners of its 24th Annual National Gingerbread House Competition all December, while the Omni La Costa Resort & Spa in Southern California has an entire gingerbread festival.

How about racing the kids down an indoor ice slide? Each of the four Gaylord Hotels has ICE! — an indoor winter wonderland created by 2 million pounds of ice, that includes two-foot-tall ice slides and holiday programming.

Invite along your child’s best friend, or their family, and start a new tradition. How about a nearby snow resort? Denverites head to Winter Park, the closest snow resort to the city, accessible by weekend train service this winter. You can see Santa on the slopes every weekend between Thanksgiving and Christmas.

For more ideas, check out our Taking the Kids Guide to Holiday Lights. Even a day spent cutting down your own holiday tree, as my family always does, or heading to a special holiday market can help get everyone in the holiday spirit, no matter how many chores there are left to finish.

If you are in New York, for example, don’t miss the Winter Village at Bryant Park, behind the New York Public Library, where you can ice skate and indulge in a holiday treat or show. Purchases help support the park. After you’ve seen the National Christmas Tree in Washington, D.C., the Downtown Holiday Market, in front of the Smithsonian American Art Museum and National Portrait Gallery, features more than 150 boutique crafters and artisans.

You don’t necessarily need a greeting from a real Santa either. In Kansas City, the very popular EBT Laughing Santa makes everyone smile. He first appeared at Macy’s in the early years of the 20th century and after languishing for decades, he was restored. Today, it’s a Kansas City tradition to listen to his trademark chuckle at Crown Center — eight times a minute.