Nothing illuminates the holiday spirit like good old-fashioned glitz. And the United States has plenty of it, from bright lights in big cities to dazzling displays in tiny towns.
Some cities wow us with light displays gleaming with graceful artistry, others strive for flashy, over-the-top effects. It's no surprise, for instance, that Disney World has 10 miles of dancing holiday lights, or that Branson, Mo. has a five-story, Vegas-style special effects tree that flashes and cascades to music.
Despite such showy productions, this is the time of year when small towns shine – towns such as Pine Mountain, Ga., North Pole, Alaska, Riverside, Calif., and Coeur d’Alene, Idaho. They're places where people are so wildly enthusiastic about the holidays that they make the rest of us appreciate the season more.
Here's a look at the best places to see holiday lights this year.
Old Time Christmas
The magic number for Branson’s Silver Dollar City theme park this holiday season is 4 million. That’s the number of lights that will brighten this Missouri showplace during its annual Old Time Christmas display.
But Branson has more in store for visitors. Add the Trail of Lights, a drive-through animated display that winds through a historic 160-acre homestead.
Cap it all with the Branson Area Festival of Lights Drive-Through, a one-mile journey through 175 displays.
Pine Mountain, Georgia
In the national battle to hoist the most holiday lights, tiny Pine Mountain, Ga., may earn the top prize in 2012. The town, located at the foot of the Appalachian Mountains, is home to Callaway Gardens, where more than 8 million lights will twinkle during the holiday season.
Callaway's Fantasy of Lights show, now in its 21st year, began with five holiday scenes, growing to more than a dozen, some animated. To turn on the display each night, the staff at the 14,000-acre resort and garden complex have to flip more than 1,000 switches, taking a two-man staff 45 minutes to make the rounds.
The show is so big that it is stored off-season in a 6,500-square-foot warehouse.
New York City
New Yorkers have lots of great light displays to choose from this time of year, but the Big Apple’s best-known – and splashiest – holiday lights gleam in front of 30 Rockefeller Plaza, where the annual tree lighting ceremony takes place Nov. 28.
Weather delayed the arrival of the 80-foot Norway spruce this year, but by the time the switch is thrown, it will be dressed in more than 30,000 lights and crowned with a Swarovski star.
Other places to see spectacular lighting:
· In Brooklyn, Dyker Heights has been wowing visitors for more than 25 years. The small neighborhood, between Bay Ridge and Bensonhurst, comes alive with lights during the season.
· In Manhattan, celebrate Hanukkah Dec. 8 to 16 with the lighting of the world’s largest menorah at Grand Army Plaza (Fifth Avenue at West 59th Street).
· Finally, at Time Warner Center, see the largest specialty crafted display of illuminated color in the world. Check out the 14-foot color-lighted stars that dance to holiday music in the Center’s Great Room.
The planning starts in summer for Disney World's dazzling holiday season. And the lights go on in mid November, with more than 200,000 shimmering on Cinderella Castle at Magic Kingdom Park and millions more at Hollywood Studios theme park.
The display at Hollywood Studios is called the Osborne Family Spectacle of Dancing Lights and features lights synchronized to holiday music. Created by Jennings Osborne and his family in Arkansas, the production moved to Disney World Resort in 1995.
During the Osborne show, lights dim every 10 minutes, then spring back to life dancing to music. The show is capped off with a dusting of snow.
Southern California’s Inland Empire isn’t really an empire at all, but it does have a crowning jewel, the Mission Inn Hotel & Spa.
Every Christmas for the past 20 years, the inn has become a glittering beacon, packing nearly 4 million lights onto the square block of property it’s located on in downtown Riverside.
In addition, the inn, which isn’t a mission at all, crowds 400 vintage animated figures onto cornices, terraces and cubbyholes to light up the night and delight visitors.
Located 60 miles east of Los Angeles, the century-old inn is a National Historic Landmark and a member of the Historic Hotels of America.
Coeur d’Alene Resort
Coeur d’Alene, Idaho
The little Idaho town of Coeur d’ Alene likes to brag about offering a natural high. Few would dispute it. Situated on the shoreline of ice-blue Lake Coeur d’ Alene, the town’s nearby attributes include dense forests, high mountains and more than 50 lakes.
The Christmas season brings another type of beauty. Coeur d’Alene Resort lights up the night with one of the largest on-water holiday light shows in America, offering illuminated “Journey to the North Pole” cruise boat tours.
The hotel, considered one of the northwest’s premier resorts, uses 1.5 million lights, with more than 250 displays surrounding the resort, a 160-foot-tall tree decorated with 40,000 lights and a wreath so big that it weighs in at 3,000 pounds.
Magnificent Mile Lights Festival
For more than half a century, Chicagoland residents have counted on twinkling white lights along North Michigan Avenue to spark the holiday season.
More than 1 million lights decorate 200 trees along the avenue, remaining lit through the end of February. In addition, displays decorate hundreds of retail businesses, such as Burberry, American Girl Place, Saks Fifth Avenue, Tiffany & Co., Rolex and Cartier.
Christmas Boat Parade
Newport Beach, Calif.
Residents in Newport Beach, Calif., may dream of a white Christmas, but what they usually get instead are sunny days and Santa waving to them from a glitzy yacht in Newport Harbor. But that isn't all bad. As a matter of fact, the 104th annual holiday boat parade will draws more than a million viewers during its five-night run from Dec. 19-23.
This year's parade, titled "Surf, sand and Santa" will include hundreds of decorated boats, ranging from massive bluewater yachts large enough to cross the Pacific to 6-foot plastic kayaks. The brightly decorated bayside homes and businesses of Newport Beach and Balboa Island are the parade backdrop.
Newport isn't the only Southern California city to celebrate the holiday on the water. Boat parades also sparkle on the waters of Naples Island, Long Beach, Marina del Rey, Ventura, Oxnard and San Diego.
Christmas in Ice
North Pole, Alaska
The spirit of Christmas lives year ‘round in North Pole, Alaska, where kids of all ages can visit with Kris Kringle summer or winter and giant candy cane light poles decorate Santa Claus Lane every day of the year.
But the tiny town, located near Fairbanks, Aka., pulls out all the stops during the holiday season, making it special with Christmas in Ice, a lighted sculpture display that draws both local and international carvers. There's also an ice maze and ice slides for the kids.
The show is a precursor to a Fairbanks ice sculpture contest, the World Ice Art Championships, scheduled by Ice Alaska for Feb. 26 to March 24. The event features more than 100 teams from around the world who compete in categories such as single block and multi-block classic. There's also an amateur open exhibition and youth classic.
Grab a thermos of cocoa, jump in the car and take a drive through historic Forest Park, where the Bright Nights show lights up Springfield, Mass., during the holiday season.
The 3-mile trail wanders through Dinosaur Land, Garden of Peace, Toy Land, Seuss Land and various other special display areas offering one of the largest productions in New England.
Bright Nights is in its 18th year and is sponsored by the Spirit of Springfield, a non-profit organization, and the city's Department of Parks, Buildings and Recreation Management.