CLEVELAND, Ohio – Brighten up the season this year with a vacation road trip, illuminated Christmas displays and markets, life-size nutcrackers and decorated zoos.
This holiday season promises to be bigger and brighter than the last, in part because we are better able to walk around in search of festive fun.
Several events, canceled or banned last year due to the pandemic, are back for 2021, including WinterFest in Kings Island and the Winter Festival of Lights in Niagara Falls, Ontario.
Where to go? It depends on the time you have:
* Take an afternoon or evening and head to the Akron or Cleveland Zoo, where the holiday lights, tours with Santa Claus and the animals in cold weather provide great family fun.
* Take a day and drive to Cambridge, about two hours south of Cleveland, where the downtown streets are decorated with dozens of characters from the Dickensian era, as part of the Victorian Village’s annual celebration of Dickens.
* Or make it a weekend and head to Niagara Falls, Ontario, where Americans are once again welcome to enjoy the community’s long-running Winter Festival of Lights event.
Want more ideas? Here are a dozen, all located a short drive from Cleveland:
WinterFest at Kings Island, Mason, Ohio
WinterFest, the park’s popular holiday-themed event, returns to Kings Island this year after being canceled in 2020. The festival runs through December 31, featuring the park’s iconic Eiffel Tower transformed into a giant Christmas tree, ice skating on the Royal Fountain, 19 live shows, 20 rides (including the popular Mystic Timbers roller coaster), a new Winter Wonderland parade and more.
Admission is $ 29.99 to $ 34.99 (free for Cedar Point Platinum pass holders). The event will take place from December 3 to 5, from 10 to 12, from 17 to 23 and from 26 to 31. Information: visitkingsisland.com
Christmas lights in Kennywood, West Mifflin, Pennsylvania.
Kennywood’s popular seasonal celebration, Holiday Lights, is also back, after a year off. Among the entertainment, just east of Pittsburgh: a million twinkling lights, Pennsylvania’s largest Christmas tree, entertainment, festive food and drink, and rides. New this year: For the first time, Kennywood plans to host a roller coaster during Event: Jack Rabbit, the classic wooden roller coaster open since 1920. The festivities run on select nights until January 2nd. Online tickets cost between $ 19.99 and $ 24.99. Information: kennywood.com
Peoples Gas Holiday Market, Pittsburgh
While in Pittsburgh, stop by the Peoples Gas Holiday Market, which returns this year to the historic Market Square. Inspired by European Christkindlmarkts, the market features national and local vendors housed in wooden chalets selling holiday treats and unique gifts. The market is open until December 23.
Also in Pittsburgh: Outdoor skating at PPG Place’s UPMC rink, Holiday Magic! at the Phipps Conservatory and Botanical Gardens, and the world’s largest pickle ornament, on display at EQT Plaza, 625 Liberty Ave. Information: Downtownpittsburghholidays.com, visitpittsburgh.com
Aglow Conservatory, Franklin Park Conservatory, Columbus
Franklin Park’s outdoor gardens are fully landscaped for the holidays, with a light show set to music, a Candyland scene with a life-size gingerbread house, a collection of illuminated topiaries and more. Inside, visitors can tour the Chihuly Collection, the Gingerbread House Contest, as well as hundreds of seasonal poinsettias, evergreens, and container gardens. The event takes place every evening until January 9 (closed December 24 and 25). Tickets cost $ 22. Information: fpconservatory.org
* Closer to home, check out A Garden Holiday at the Cleveland Botanical Garden and Deck the Hall at Stan Hywet in Akron.
Zoo lights in Cleveland, Akron, Columbus, Cincinnati and Toledo
Ohio zoos love to get into the holiday spirit, with millions of twinkling lights decorating the trails, train rides, tours with Santa Claus, and other seasonal surprises. And don’t forget the animals, many of which will be on display. Here are some details:
* Wild Winter Lights at the Cleveland Metroparks Zoo offers both tour and driving options, on different days. Admission is $ 20 per person for the passage, $ 60 for a car. The event runs until January 2. Information: clevelandmetroparks.com
* Akron Zoo’s Wild Lights run through December 30; tickets are $ 13. Information: akronzoo.org
* Wildlights at the Columbus Zoo features millions of twinkling lights, plus camel rides and Polar Bear Express, Sparkling Spruce animated display and more. Tickets cost $ 21.99. Information: zoozoo.org
* The Cincinnati Zoo PNC Festival of Lights features 4 million lights, the North Polar Express train ride, Fiona fairies, a black light puppet show and more. The event runs until January 9; tickets are $ 16 to $ 21 depending on the day. Information: cincinnatizoo.org
* Lights Before Christmas at the Toledo Zoo features over 200 images of illuminated animals spread across the 70 acres of the zoo. The event runs until December 31st and reservations are required. Tickets cost $ 23. Information: toledozoo.org.
Victorian village of Dickens, Cambridge
Bob Cratchit, Tiny Tim and Ebeneezer Scrooge are all on hand to welcome you to Cambridge, which hosts its 16th annual Victorian-themed holiday season in 2021. The town center features 180 lifelike mannequins in scenes and poses along Wheeling Avenue – singers, street hawkers, lighters and more – providing a perfect scene from Christmas past. Other seasonal activities include horse-drawn carriage rides, a Christmas candlelight walk (December 18), afternoon tea, tours of the National Museum of Cambridge Glass and more.
Also in downtown Cambridge: Don’t miss Guernsey County Courthouse Light, a nighttime light show outside the 1881-era building, set to holiday music. Information: dickensvictorianvillage.com
Nutcracker Village, Steubenville
The streets of downtown Steubenville, about 90 miles from Cleveland in Jefferson County, were once again inhabited by a horde of life-size nutcrackers, over 180 in all, each uniquely decorated. Look for Uncle Drosselmeyer, Tchaikovsky, Clara and George Bailey, among others. Other holiday activities include an Advent market, cart rides, children’s activities, entertainment and more. Information: steubenvillenutcrackervillage.com
Ohio State Park lodges ready for the season
Consider a nature-based celebration this year, at one of Ohio State Park’s nine pavilions, which are decked out in holiday adornments and feature special events throughout the season.
Among the offers:
* Light up the Lodge at The Lodge at Geneva-on-the-Lake, December 3-5, with gingerbread house decorating, craft workshops, story time with Mrs. Claus and more.
* Breakfast with Santa at Mohican Lodge (December 4, 18, 19 and 23), Punderson Manor (December 5, 12 and 19) and Shawnee Lodge (December 11).
* Santa’s North Pole Outpost at Salt Fork Lodge (December 4, 11 & 18), plus story time with Mrs. Claus on December 11 & 18.
* Winter Carnival at Maumee Bay Lodge, December 27-30.
Room rates vary, but typically start at around $ 125 per night. For information: greatohiolodges.com, thelodgeatgeneva.com
Oglebay Festival of Lights, Wheeling, West Virginia
The popular Oglebay Festival of Lights is in its 36th year, with festive displays spread across 300 acres of parkland. New this year: a 70-foot-tall welcome tree, along with Sounds of the Season, featuring audio experiences related to popular light shows. Here too: guided cart tours, a life-size nursery, the Good Zoo and more. Admission: $ 25 per car is the suggested donation for the primary driving experience. Spend the night at the newly renovated Wilson Lodge, wake up and start over. Information: oglebay.com
Winter Festival of Lights, Niagara Falls, Canada
With the recent reopening of the Canada-U.S. Border, the Clevelanders can add an international touch to their seasonal celebration. The annual Niagara Falls Winter Festival of Lights features drive-through and walking displays, including 3 million lights along the Niagara Parkway, the Dufferin Islands, and through city parks and roads. Here too: the nightly illumination of the falls, entertainment, hotel deals and more. Information: wfol.com
Looking for more? TourismOhio recently updated its Ohio Holiday Lights Trail, which now includes 43 stops across the state, organized geographically. Eight stops are in northeast Ohio. For the full list: ohio.org/wps/portal/gov/tourism/home/seasons/holidays/ohio-holiday-lights-trail