We’ve all heard that “everything is bigger in Texas,” but when it comes to celebrating the holidays, a tiny town in Ohio is giving Texans a run for their money. Clifton, Ohio (population 200) is home to one of the largest water powered gristmills still in existence, and it’s the unlikely setting for one of the country’s coolest holiday light displays. It’s like a Cracker Barrel on steroids—a cool place with a delicious, home-cooked breakfast and a general store with everything you didn’t know you needed. Bring the whole family for an evening at Clifton Mill… and read about our other favorite light festivals too!
For the past 27 years, Clifton Mill has put on an epic light show that surpasses your neighborhood tree lighting by a long shot. The display includes 3.5 million lights adorning the riverbanks, trees, and bridges, culminating in a festive and impressive 100-foot waterfall of sparkles. To put it all into perspective, it takes six guys almost three months to prep for the first twinkle—three months! Lights really are all over the place. The covered bridge even has lights that are synced to music every hour and there is a miniature village with scenes like a drive-in theater, a football game, and a country fair, complete with a Ferris wheel!
There’s a Santa Claus Museum, too. It’s the private collection of the Satariano family, and it’s taken over 40 years to amass the display. There are more than 3,000 Santas in different shapes, sizes, and styles, some dating back to 1850. Remember, look, but don’t touch! You can visit the real Santa in his workshop, as well. There are no pictures on his lap, though... he’s just prepping for the big night and getting his toys all made. But you can watch him check his list and load his sleigh every 15 minutes or so.
If you’re craving a plate of flapjacks, the old-school restaurant at Clifton Mill serves breakfast all day—they even give you a third pancake on the house if you can finish the first two (warning, they are seriously giant). They also have dinner and dessert for those not willing to take on the challenge. And what’s a landmark without a cute little gift shop? Attached to the restaurant is the general store with loads of tchotchkes you’re going to want to bring home for nostalgic reasons. Although it is open Monday through Saturday, we recommend stopping by on a weekday... Saturdays can be a bit crowded.
f travelling to Ohio isn't doable for you this holiday season, fear not! there are plenty of other crazy cool light shows around the country. For anyone hitting the eastern seaboard, the Holiday Festival of Lights in Charleston is filled with loads of Christmas-themed activities aside from just a driving tour of twinkling, multicolored lights. They have handmade gingerbread houses, a train, sweet treats, and sculptures that made with more than 50 tons of sand.
For those brave enough to travel through freezing weather, Bright Nights At Forest Park up east will have you bundled up with seven layers. But really, it’ worth the subzero temperatures when you’re snuggly settled in horse drawn wagons and hanging out with Santa.
And, since we’ve established that most things are bigger in Texas, we have to give a mention to the Houston Zoo-- their lights show just might take the (fruit) cake. The zoo is open late each holiday season, illuminated with more than two million lights! Throughout the zoo catch carolers and musical groups singing your favorite holiday tunes and stop at Macaw Cafe or Cypress Circle for a bite to eat. Be sure to check out the select weeknights when the zoo offers discounted rates-- it’s a Christmas miracle indeed!
Another Texan tradition is the Zilker Park Trail of Lights —where they keep Austin, Texas weird and bright. It started as a small gathering in 1965 known as the “Yule Fest.” But in 2014, more than 400,000 people attended the now-lauded event—which is actually more people than Austin had residents in 1965. It’s definitely an excursion for the inner urbanite in all of us, complete with food trucks and live music (Austin is the live music capital of the world, after all).
There are quite a few other Texas favorites like the Rock'n Lights Holiday Light Tour in Round Rock and Moody Gardens Festival of Lights in Galveston. Bonus: you don’t have to bundle up too much in the Lonestar State while you explore the sparkling wonderlands.
For a completely different festival of lights experience, America’s most impressive zoos are a unique experience during the holidays for the whole family—and a fun date spot too. Another Ohio representative, the Cincinnati Zoo & Botanical Garden has an annual show that is truly spectacular. Kids can drop off their lists in Santa’s mailbox, visit Mr. and Mrs. Claus, and even ride the Toyland Express train. Pro tip: don’t pass up the roasted nuts... they’re even better when enjoyed with a beer.
The San Diego Zoo is amazing year round, but every holiday season, visitors can check out the lions and tigers and bears in the dark, weaving through the twinkling lights on every tree and shrub.
Travel up a little ways to the Oregon Zoo in Portland where a million and a half lights twinkle from Thanksgiving to New Year’s weekend. Make sure you spot the fun food carts and cafes while you walk around the zoo: the Bear Walk Cafe has maple bacon cotton candy! And of course hot cocoa, beer, and wine are served too, because what’s a trip to the zoo without it? Don’t skip the train ride, either; it includes a brief performance at the Family Farm and lights that are only visible by rail.
There's no better way to get into the Christmas spirit than to bundle up, grab a cup of hot cocoa, and take a stroll through these colorful winter wonderlands. The adorable displays, Christmas music, and holiday cheer spread by these festivals will cure any Scrooge or Grinch!