Every neighborhood has its Griswolds — the family that cleans Walmart out of colored lights and nearly drains the power grid in their quest to make things festive. When I was a kid, our local holiday display champ was the house with the 12-foot illuminated snowman and equally massive Santa on their lawn. Another neighbor turned their whole home’s façade into a replica of “It’s a Small World” from Disneyland.
I thought those decorations were pretty impressive, until some family friends who lived near Pasadena, California took me to Upper Hastings Ranch — with themed block after themed block ablaze with lights — and I realized that my neighbor’s giant Frosty was pretty small potatoes.
To help you get in the seasonal spirit, here are 6 of the biggest, most awe-inspiring holiday displays around the country.
Pasadena, CA: Upper Hastings Ranch “Holiday Light Up,” Dec 7-Jan 1
This northeast Pasadena neighborhood started its holiday decorating tradition in the early 1950s. Each block has a theme (reindeer, snowmen) that’s decided by the block captains every year, and plywood icons placed in front of each house announce the themes to visitors. As I recall, the residents really go to town.
Altadena, just north of Pasadena, is also famous for its Christmas Tree Lane, a mile-long stretch of road lined with deodar trees that are strung with 10,000 lights each year. Dating from 1920, it’s the oldest display of its kind in the U.S.
Brooklyn, NY: Dyker Heights “Dyker Lights,” Nov 30-Dec 31
For over 25 years, residents of this neighborhood have been trying to top each other’s extravagant displays — some even have their decorations professionally installed. Around 150,000 people come to Dyker Heights each year to gape at motorized toy soldiers, towering nutcrackers, and talking Santas, not to mention thousands and thousands of lights. The neighborhood (83rd to 86th Streets between 11th and 13th Avenues) is nearly a mile from the closest subway stop, so it’s best to drive or take a bus or bike tour.
Saint Augustine, FL: “Nights of Lights,” Nov 23-Feb 2
This holiday celebration traces its origins to the Spanish Christmas tradition of placing a white candle in the window. The Nights of Lights festivities begin with a Light-Up Celebration at the historic Plaza de la Constitution (which is decorated with 3 million lights). The weeks to follow offer a candlelight march and Christmas parade, a Regatta of Lights with brightly decorated boats of all varieties, Luminary Night at the St. Augustine Lighthouse (featuring thousands of luminarias), and a Surf Illumination around the ocean pier.
Richmond, VA: “100 Miles of Lights,” late Nov-early Jan
Richmond and the surrounding towns of Williamsburg, Newport News, Hampton, Norfolk, Portsmouth, and Virginia Beach all get merry with holiday events like GardenFest at the Lewis Ginter Botanical Garden and the James River Parade of Light. Maps are also available for the self-guided Tacky Light Tour, featuring the most outrageously decked-out houses in the region.
Branson, MO: “Ozark Mountains Christmas,” Nov 1-Dec 31
This historic town gets into the season in a major way with 2 drive-through displays. The Trail of Lights winds through a 160-acre homestead and features various themed “lands” of animated characters. The Festival of Lights, located near Highway 76 (aka the Branson Strip), is a mile-long stretch with over 175 illuminated displays. Silver Dollar City, a nearby theme park, also joins the action with their annual festival “An Old Time Christmas,” which dazzles the eye with over 5 million lights.
Pigeon Forge, TN: “Smoky Mountain Winterfest,” Nov 5-Feb 28
Not just limited to the holiday season, this festival offers a full calendar of winter activities in Pigeon Forge, Sevierville, Gatlinburg, and small towns throughout the region. Winter parades, crafts fairs, fireworks, a chili cookoff, cowboy poetry, and imaginative 3-D light displays make for months of cold-weather fun.
If you’re planning a road trip to check out one of these extravaganzas (or just plan to view the local colors), be sure you’ve got the right auto insurance. Stop-and-go traffic plus winter weather plus gaping at lights can be a recipe for fender benders.
Helpful holiday tips
If you’re headed out of town for the holidays, don’t forget to prepare your home before departing. Read about 6 reasons to winterize your home (and how to do it), and brush up on safety tips for hosts and travelers alike.