Updated November 17, 2013
When most people think of amusement parks and theme parks, they think of hot summer days filled with roller coaster screams. But a handful of parks remain open long after summer's sun has waned to celebrate Christmas and the holidays. We're not just talking about destination parks in warm locales, like Walt Disney World (although the Florida resort does offer some great holiday fun), but also parks in places where the mercury can dip pretty low, and snow is a distinct possibility.
Find out which parks deck their midways, brew hot cocoa, present holiday shows, and, yes, crank up their coasters and other rides amid winter's chill. The guide is arranged alphabetically by US state.
2013 Christmas Holiday Events at California Theme Parks
Includes info about Christmas events at Disneyland, Knott's Berry Farm, Legoland, Six Flags Discovery Kingdom, and other parks.
- North Pole (really!-near Pike's Peak)
- 2013 dates: In general, the park will be open daily, except Tuesdays and Wednesdays, through Dec. 24.
This small Christmas-themed park is open May through December, but it really glows during the holiday season. Take a ride on the world's tallest (by altitude, anyway) Ferris wheel, the Candy Cane Coaster, and the Peppermint Slide, or catch some stage magic at Santa's Show House. Of course, Mr. Claus awaits all good boys and girls at Santa's House.
Lake Compounce Holiday Lights
- 2013 dates: Fridays, Saturdays, and Sundays, November 29 through December 22.
The event will include a North Pole Railway train ride, cookie decorating, storytelling, carolers, a selection of kiddie and family rides (weather permitting), Santa (naturally!), and lots of festive lights (of course!).
Official Holiday Lights site.
2013 Christmas Holiday Events at Florida Theme Parks
Includes info about Christmas holiday events at Walt Disney World, Universal Orlando, Legoland Florida, Busch Gardens Tampa, and SeaWorld Orlando
Stone Mountain Park
Stone Mountain Christmas
- Stone Mountain
- 2013 dates: Select dates from November 9 to January 1 (2014)
Special features include The Polar Express 4-D Experience, a multi-sensory film based on the popular Christmas movie, a themed train ride, shows such as "Toyrific!" and "Forever Christmas," a parade, and nightly fireworks.
Official Stone Mountain Christmas site
Wild Adventures Christmas
- Valdosta, GA
- 2013 dates: December 14, 15, 21 to 23, 26 to 31, January 1 to 5 (2014)
Special features include the show, Tinker the Talking Christmas Tree, Holly Jolly Safari dance party, Elf's Workshop craft station, a train ride aboard The Candy Cane Express, and a meetup with Santa.
Official Wild Adventures Christmas site
The Polar Express and Christmas Festival of Lights
- Carver (near Cape Cod)
- 2013 dates: Nov. 22 to January 1 (2014), open most days. The park alternates The Polar Express and Festival of Lights events (two separate events). See official site for details.
Located in the heart of Massachusetts' cranberry country, the featured attraction is the authentic Edaville Railroad steam train, which makes its way through a cranberry bog. On select days it is transformed into The Polar Express, based on the popular children's book and film. Millions of Christmas lights line the train route as well as the park's turn-of-the-(last) century village. Edaville also features a carousel and other kiddie and spinning rides (which are open amid the winter chill).
Official Edaville U.S.A. Christmas Festival of Lights site
Silver Dollar City
An Old Time Christmas
- 2013 dates: Nov. 2 to Dec. 30, select days. See official site for schedule.
Weather permitting, many of the park's rides (including the wonderful Outlaw Run roller coaster
) are open for the event. Special for the season, Silver Dollar City features 4 million lights, the Christmas on Main Street tree-lighting presentation, the Gifts of Christmas Holiday Lights parade, musical performances, and presentations of "A Christmas Carol" and the musical show, "It's A Wonderful Life," based on the classic film. Santa holds court in Kringle's Krossing. Artisans demonstrate their old-world skills and sell their wares. Special holiday treats include hot wassail and ginger cookies.
- Jefferson (in the White Mountains)
- 2013 dates: Nov. 23 to Dec. 30, open select Saturdays and Sundays plus Friday, Nov. 29. See Christmastime official site for details.
The original and only remaining Santa's Village park (there had been a few other same-named, but separately run parks) celebrates Christmas in the spring and summer but, oddly, was closed during the holiday season until a few years ago. First opened in the 1950s, the park has the perfect blend of authentic nostalgia and contemporary appeal. Most of the rides and shows, including Santa's Skyway Sleigh (a mini-monorail), the 3-D movie, "A Tinkerdoodle Christmas!" and the Merry Christmas Ferris Wheel, are operating, even when there is some snow on the ground. (This is in the White
Mountains, after all.) Warm up by the big bonfire, then head back for some more rides.
Official Santa's Village Christmastime site
Cliff's Amusement Park
Cliff's Magical Christmas
- 2013 dates: Nov. 29 to Dec. 29, select dates. See official site for details.
Lots of lights, a few rides, a huge Christmas tree, Santa, and more await visitors to Cliff's first holiday event.
- North Pole -- where else?! (near Lake Placid)
- 2013 Dates: Saturdays, and Sundays, Nov. 23 to Dec. 30, plus Nov. 29, Dec. 26, 27 and 30.
The small, Christmas-themed park is open in the summer and during the Christmas season. It offers a few rides such as a Ferris wheel and carousel (that are open weather-permitting) as well as shows such as the Mother Goose Guild and a Nativity Pageant.
Dutch Winter Wonderland
- 2013 dates: November 23, 24, 29, 30, December 1, 7, 8, 14, 15, 21, 22 and 26 to 30.
Like its sister property, Hersheypark, Dutch Wonderland will also be thawing out some of its rides for the holidays. The Princess of Dutch Wonderland will be offering some Christmas stories. Santa will be on hand to see who's been naughty or nice. And the Dutch Winter Wonderland Royal Light Show will feature colorful lights synchronized to holiday music.
Official Dutch Winter Wonderland site
Hersheypark Christmas Candylane and Hershey Sweet Lights
- 2013 dates: Nov. 14 to Dec. 31. See official Hersheypark site for calendar of events.
The park will scrape off the ice and open some of its rides (weather permitting) for hardy souls to enjoy. The park's great coasters won't be open, but you will be able to board the Reese's Xtreme Cup Challenge, the Scrambler, and other select rides. It'll be quite a sight to see riders, all bundled up in mittens and parkas, twirling on the Wave Swinger. Shows will include the musical, "A Music Box Christmas."
Hershey also offers a drive-through holiday light display beginning November 15. Called Hershey Sweet Lights, it features 2 miles of trails with over 1 million lights on more than 500 animated tableaux. Hershey offers hotel packages and other holiday promotions as well.
Official Christmas in Hershey site
- West Mifflin (near Pittsburgh)
- 2013 dates: Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays, Nov. 29 to Dec. 22
The park will be hanging loads of twinkling lights, offering carolers, and opening some of its rides, weather permitting. For its 2011 season, Holiday Lights won About.com's Readers' Choice Award for Best Theme Park Holidays Event
Official Holiday Lights site
A Very Furry Christmas
- Langhorne (near Philadelphia)
- 2013 dates: Nov. 23 to Dec. 31. See Sesame Place official site for details.
The event will include a parade, shows such as "Elmo's Christmas Wish," loads of decorated trees, and some of the park's rides (if the weather cooperates).
Official A Very Furry Christmas site
Smoky Mountain Christmas Festival
- Pigeon Forge (near Knoxville)
- 2013 dates: Nov. 9 to Jan. 4 (2014) on select days. See Dollywood site for details.
Weather permitting, many of Dollywood's rides will be operating during the festival. If they are running, you could check out the park's 3.5 million twinkling lights from the top of one of the coasters. Some of the lights will be synchronized to holiday tunes. The park will also feature an ambitious production of "Dollywood's A Christmas Carol" and other holiday shows, including "My People!" and "Christmas in the Smokies." At Santa's Workshop, children will be able to make their own holiday craft projects.
SeaWorld San Antonio
SeaWorld's Christmas Celebration
- San Antonio
- 2013 dates: Select dates, Nov. 23 to Dec. 31. See official site for details.
Shamu Claus, as well as Santa Claus, will be on hand to greet guests. Special shows will include "Clyde & Seamore's Countdown To Christmas," featuring the park's sea lions, as well as "Elmo's Christmas Wish." Candy Cane Forest will be decked out with over 100,000 lights.
Official SeaWorld's Christmas Celebration site
Six Flags Over Texas
Holiday in the Park
Arlington (near Dallas)
Six Flags Fiesta Texas
Holiday in the Park
- 2013 dates: Saturdays and Sundays through December 22
The tiny Christmas-themed park is open for another holiday season.
Busch Gardens Williamsburg
- 2013 dates: Nov. 22 to Dec. 31 for select dates. See Busch Gardens official site for details.
- Get Christmas Town passes direct from Busch Gardens.
Busch Gardens will transform its European hamlets, including Ireland and England into Old World Christmas villages. Always well regarded for its shows, the Christmas Town productions of "Miracles," "Gloria!," "Deck the Halls," and "O Tannenbaum" should be top-notch. Weather permitting, the park's rides, including Verbolten
and Mach Tower, will be operating. Delicious holiday-themed food and a dining experience with Santa are also on tap.
More info: Christmas Town official site
Holiday with Lights
- Federal Way (near Seattle)
- 2013 dates: Dec. 6 to 31 for select dates. See Wild Waves official site for details.
The park offers select rides, plenty of twinkling lights (of course), shows, and Santa's workshop.
More info: Holiday with Lights official site