With the winter holidays approaching, it's time to celebrate the season with parades, attractions and festive events to get families into the holly, jolly spirit. If you're looking for a getaway that goes above and beyond with decorations, light shows, arts and crafts, shopping and appearances by Santa himself, here are locations in the Northeast that are must-visit destinations this holiday season.
Bank of America Winter Village at Bryant Park: New York
Nestled within the Manhattan hustle and bustle, this annual seasonal offering is returning for a 21st year, and will once again provide a wide, open-air opportunity to dine, shop and skate. Slated to open by Halloween this year, the scene includes a 17,000-square-foot ice rink. Admission to the rink is free, but tickets must be booked for ice time (skates are available to rent). You also can dine at the rink-side Lodge bar and restaurant or check out the many wares for sale in the village’s holiday market. Free pop-up shows feature professional skaters. For a nearby bonus, the Rockefeller Christmas tree (30 Rockefeller Plaza; 212-588-8601, rockefellercenter.com), once lit in December, is less than a mile away.
INFO 40th-42nd streets, Fifth-Sixth avenues, midtown Manhattan; 212-768-4242; bryantpark.org.
Santa's Workshop: New York
For starters, this destination is literally located in North Pole (a hamlet in upstate Essex County) and the park is already open for business: Saturdays and Sundays only Sept. 4-Oct. 9 (also open Columbus Day), and again Nov. 12-Dec. 18 (including Nov. 25). The layout is a representation of a village that Kriss Kringle would call home, with shops that sell candy, hats, toys, candles and baked goods. There’s also a blacksmith shop, rides like a mini roller coaster and kiddie Ferris wheel plus a real U.S. post office where you can have mail officially postmarked "North Pole." There also are “Breakfast With Santa and Friends” on select days through October; “Dinner with Santa” in December; and “Yuletide Family Weekends,” which are two-day sessions (intended for kids ages 2-10) that include time with Santa and other characters. The facility also hosts its nighttime “Village of Lights,” during which the park is dressed in lights, the fire pits are lit, the shops are open, caroling takes place and Santa is available to meet (Dec. 4, 11, 18-23, 26-30). General admission is $39.95, kids younger than 2 enter free. Meals with Santa cost extra (and include general admission); tickets are available online in advance. Village of Lights is $24.95 for ages 2 and older; tickets are purchased on site on day of visit and don’t include any extras.
INFO 324 Whiteface Memorial Hwy., Wilmington; 518-946-2211, northpoleny.com.
Roc Holiday Village: New York
Scheduled to kick off on Dec. 2, the holiday village takes place in Rochester’s Manhattan Square neighborhood and runs through Dec. 23, open Wednesdays through Sundays. Attendees can look forward to free ice skating (with your own skates, a limited amount of rental skates will be available), curling, hockey demos, figure skating performances and meet-and-greets with skating costumed characters. Guests looking to shop will find several vendors on-site, while hungry folks can check out food trucks or visit The Lodge restaurant and tavern. There are private igloos that can be reserved for up to 90 minutes for groups of 6-8 people (VIP bar service can be ordered). Attendees also can look forward to special classes such as wreath or cookie decorating (classes start at $45), and Santa will be on hand for photo ops.
INFO 353 Court St., Rochester; rocholidayvillage.com.
Cape May: New Jersey
The city is well known as a summer seaside spot, but when it comes to Christmas, this community — famed for its Victorian houses — goes big with wide stretches of holiday lights, dangling ornaments and garland placed at many locations around town. Tours are held both day and night, including a self-guided “Christmas Candlelight House” outing held Dec. 3, 10 and 17 (5:30 to 8:30 p.m.; $45, $30 ages 3-12) that both passes by decorated spots and takes attendees inside some of the festive attractions. Other tours explore the 1879 Physick House Museum ($20, $15 ages 3-12) and a select group of specially decorated inns and private homes. Guided trolley rides will be an option, with some enhanced by holiday music ($20, $15 ages 3-12) while others focus on haunted tales ($25, $15 ages 3-12) told by members of an area theater company. The Tree Lighting is slated for Nov. 19, during which the Atlantic Brass Band plays a free concert and Santa is to make his Cape May arrival. For a meeting with Mrs. Claus, there’s “Santa’s Trolley Ride” ($20, $15 ages 3-12), during which Kriss Kringle’s better half leads riders in singing holiday songs and tells stories before Santa joins the jaunt on the grounds of the Physick estate.
Princeton: New Jersey
The town may be most famous for its same-named Ivy League university, but it’s also an annual winter holiday event hub. Ice skating is slated to return to its Palmer Square (19 Hulfish St.; palmersquare.com), and the Princeton Symphony Orchestra will hold its annual concert on Dec. 17 (3 and 6 p.m.; tickets start at $10, available at princetonsymphony.org). Princeton’s McCarter Theatre Center (91 University Pl.; 609-258-2787, mccarter.org) will present “The Nutcracker” Nov. 25-27 (tickets start at $35 for ages 3 and older), then feature a stage adaptation of Charles Dickens' “A Christmas Carol” Dec. 7-24 (tickets start at $35 for ages 5 and older).
Smithville: New Jersey
A small, rural community in Atlantic County, it has evolved into a shopping and dining destination that utilizes several historic structures repurposed as retail businesses and eateries — and when the winter holidays arrive, stores and shops get gussied up in festive lights and décor as part of its annual Christmas celebration. The area will once again hold its free “Holiday Dickens Fest,” which will feature an outdoor musical adaptation of “A Christmas Carol,” its “Magical Talking Tree” (a Christmas tree that speaks with children when it’s “awake”) and a nightly “Light Show on the Lake,” during which dozens of tree-shaped light sculptures flash to musical accompaniment. Guests can take a trip on the mini train ($3) that runs around the grounds, ride a carousel ($3) or stop by the village green to make s’mores. Visitors who would like to stay more than one day can grab a room at its Colonial Inn, which has accommodations at various points in the village (starting at $189); all reservations include a continental breakfast, afternoon snacks and complimentary beverages such as hot chocolate and apple cider throughout a stay.
INFO 615 E. Moss Mill Rd., Smithville; 609-748-8999, historicsmithville.com
Six Flags Great Adventure: New Jersey
During the warmer months, this amusement park is best known for its thrilling coasters and rides, but when the winter holidays arrive, it hosts its Holiday in the Park winter festival. The festivities are set for weekends and on other select days from Nov. 25 through Jan. 1. The park will be decked out in holiday décor and over a million lights, and will feature attractions such as live stage shows and an LED light show on a five-story tree. Guests can check out Joy to the World, a trail of lit trees and stained glass that showcase religious holidays from around the globe. Attendees can take photos with costumed characters and find food and drink such as hot turkey platters, seasonal beers and spiked eggnog. Fire pits also will be lit for roasting s’mores. The “Holiday in the Park Drive-Thru Experience” also is slated to return and is open to cars, SUVs and pickup trucks; reservations are required.
INFO 1 Six Flags Blvd., Jackson, New Jersey; 732-928-2000, sixflags.com.
Lots of Long Islanders make the trip to this iconic amusement park with a candy persona. Starting with select dates on Nov. 11 before moving to a daily schedule Dec. 2-Jan. 1 (closed Dec. 25), the park will open its Christmas Candylane holiday attraction. The decorations will include over 5 million lights, and guests can look forward to the NOEL show, which will feature over 250,000 lights synchronized to holiday music. Santa’s reindeer also will serve as an attraction, as will the Candymonium coaster (among other rides) and the Treeville walk-through experience on its Boardwalk. Chocolate will play a part in the affair, with the company’s signature hot chocolate and other treats available for purchase. Visitors also can check out the Hershey Sweet Lights drive-through experience, a holiday-themed, 2-mile trip that follows a trail decorated with animated, illuminated displays with seasonal music. General admission tickets are $76.95, $54.95 ages 3-8; tickets can be used on any public operating day through Jan. 1.
INFO 100 Hersheypark Dr., Hershey, Pennsylvania; 800-437-7439, hersheypark.com.