Updated June 14, 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.
2012 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)
- 2012 dates: In general, the park will be open daily, except Wednesdays and Thursdays, 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
- 2012 dates: Fridays, Saturdays, and Sundays, November 30 through December 22.
The first-year 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!).
2012 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
- 2012 dates: Select dates from November 10 to January 1 (2013)
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
- 2012 dates: December 15 to 30 (excluding December 23 to 25)
Special features include the show, Tinker the Talking Christmas Tree, Let It Snow! 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)
- 2012 dates: Nov. 16 to January 6 (2013), 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
- 2012 dates: Nov. 3 to Dec. 30, select days. See official site for schedule.
Weather permitting, many of the park's rides 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 a presentation of "A Christmas Carol." New for 2012 is 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)
- 2012 dates: Nov. 17 to Dec. 31, open select Saturdays and Sundays plus Friday, Nov. 23. 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
- North Pole -- where else?! (near Lake Placid)
- 2012 Dates: Weekends, Nov. 17 to Dec. 16
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
- 2012 dates: November 17, 18, 23 to 25, December 1, 2, 8, 9, 15, 16, 22, 23, 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
- 2012 dates: Nov. 18 to Dec. 31, open most days. See official Hersheypark site for details.
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 Rockin' Music Box Christmas."
Hershey also offers a drive-through holiday light display beginning November 16. 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)
- 2012 dates: Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays, Nov. 23 to Dec. 30, plus Dec. 26 & 27
For its second holiday celebration, the park will be hanging loads of twinkling lights, offering carolers, and opening some of its rides, weather permitting. Last year, the first year that Kennywood presented Holiday Lights, it won About.com's Readers' Choice Award for Best Theme Park Holidays Event
Official Holiday Lights site
A Very Furry Christmas
- Langhorne (near Philadelphia)
- 2012 dates: Nov. 17 to Dec. 31 on select days. 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)
- 2012 dates: Nov. 10 to Dec. 30 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 "'Twas the Night Before Christmas" and other holiday shows, including "Dollywood's Christmas on Ice" and "Christmas in the Smokies." The park will present The Polar Express 4-D Experience, a ride film based on the popular Christmas film. At Santa's Workshop, children will be able to make their own holiday craft projects.
SeaWorld San Antonio
SeaWorld's Christmas Celebration
- San Antonio
- 2012 dates: Select dates, Nov. 17 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 "A Sesame Street Christmas." 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)
Flags Fiesta Texas
Holiday in the Park
- 2012 dates: Friday, Saturday, and Sunday after Thanksgiving, and then every Saturday and Sunday through December 23.
The Christmas-themed park had been open for many years, but closed -- supposedly forever -- in December 2011. It will, however, reopen for the Christmas season, at least for this year.
Busch Gardens Williamsburg
- 2012 dates: Nov. 23 to Dec. 31 for select dates. See Busch Gardens official site for details.
Busch Gardens will transform its European hamlets, including Ireland and England into Old World Christmas villages. New for 2012, the park will present Retro lane, an old-school christmas light display. Always well regarded for its shows, the Christmas Town productions of "Miracles," "Gloria!," "Deck the Halls," "O Tannenbaum," and "A Sesame Street Christmas," should be top-notch. Weather permitting, the park's rides, including Mach Tower and DaVinci's Cradle, 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)
- 2012 dates: Dec. 14 to 31 for select dates. See Wild Waves official site for details.
Absent since 2004, the park brings back the holiday tradition which includes select rides, plenty of twinkling lights (of course), shows, and Santa's workshop.
More info: Holiday with Lights official site