Family Travel Ideas for Winter – Starry Lights, Winter Fests, and Skiing

With the arrival of the Winter Solstice, winter family travel destinations highlight festivals and outdoor activities to brighten up the evenings. Continue reading for a roundup of winter family travel ideas that celebrate the Holiday Season and longer nights of winter including starry light displays, top winter festivals, and skiing deals.

Winter Festivals

Of course, winter doesn’t end with the ringing of the New Year at midnight on December 31st, and those of us in the northern climates have learned how to embrace the season. We humans weren’t meant to hibernate. The days may be shorter, but here are a few ideas for family fun in the snow.

2013 Saranac Lake Winter Carnival ice palace building

2013 Saranac Lake Winter Carnival ice palace building. Photo by Mark Kurtz ©Saranac Lake Winter Carnival

Saranac Lake Winter Carnival, Saranac Lake NY

The longest running event of its kind in the country, the annual Saranac Lake Winter Carnival has run since 1897, and takes place February 6 – February 15, 2015.  This year’s theme is “Groovy 60’s” and will feature the traditional ice palace, fireworks, music, and lots of games.

Quebec Winter Carnival, Quebec City QC

From the oldest, to the largest, Carnaval de Quebec runs from January 30 – February 15, 2015 and has sleigh rides, skating, snow sculptures, and sweet treats like beaver tails and sugar on snow.

Steamboat Springs Winter Carnival, Steamboat Springs CO

Celebrating its 102nd festival February 4 – 8, 2015, Colorado’s Steamboat Springs Winter Carnival spotlights its skiing heritage.  Kids pulled on skis by horses, soaring over the “Donkey Jump,” and firework laden skiers gliding down the slope at night all highlight this winter carnival.

Family Ski Lessons at Whiteface Mountain

Family Ski Lessons at Whiteface Mountain © ORDA/Dave Schmidt


Speaking of skiing, one of the best family activities in the winter is hitting the slopes, and there are plenty of great ski resorts that cater to families.

Learn to Ski in January

Each January is National Learn to Ski and Snowboard Month, and ski areas around the country step up with great deals.  Participating ski areas are offering learn to ski and snowboard and kids ski free packages (could include lifts, lessons and rentals; some blackout dates apply and shipping and handling charges will apply at time of purchase).

I Ski NY

My home state of New York has 50 different ski resorts, many within a two hour drive of New York City.  From beginner trails to Olympic runs, there’s surely something that suits you and your family.  New for 2014, the I LOVE NEW YORK Winter Bus offers service from New York City to various mountain and ski areas around the state for one- or multi-day trips until March 7, 2015.

Smugglers’ Notch, VT

Consistently rated as one of the top ski resorts for families, Smugglers’ Notch knows how to cater to diverse families. Mara Gorman of Mother of All Trips said, “Smugglers’ Notch Resort is tops on the East Coast for an all-around fun family New England ski vacation.”

Keystone Resort, CO

At Colorado’s Keystone Resort, kids ski free all season, no blackout dates, no lift ticket requirements, no strings or catches. In addition, Keystone features Kidtopia with a massive snow fort and fun themed dinners like sleigh rides and fondue.

Northstar, CA

In addition to skiing at Lake Tahoe, California’s Northstar Resort, there’s bungee jumping and a ropes course, but the ski slope is most known for their snowboarding facilities designed by Olympian Shaun White.

Our video interview with’s Alex de L’Arbre shares additional tips for planning a family ski vacation.

For even more ideas for fun winter activities, check out this rundown of the year’s best ski and snow family vacations from our friends at Family Travel Forum.

Holiday Light Displays

The nights may be longer in the winter time, but that just gives more reason to light up the night with fantastic displays.


IlluminOcean, Dana Point CA 

The resorts of Dana Point Harbor have teamed up to create a brand-new holiday event called IlluminOcean.  A FREE display with sea-themed light sculptures, dazzling light tunnels, and a 50-foot GlowMotion tree.  Runs nightly at the seaside California beach town through January 4th.  Click here for our recap and review.

Dyker Heights, Brooklyn NY

Think all the lights in New York City are in Manhattan with Times Square and Rockefeller Center?  Fuhgedabouit!!  The Italian neighborhood of Dyker Heights perched on a hill in Brooklyn is known as “Dyker Lights” because of the over the top displays.  There’s animatronic Santas, reindeer, and Nativity Scenes galore.  Plus, when in the area, you have to stop by for cannoli and hot cocoa in an authentic Italian pastry shop.  If you want to see the lights right, take Tony Muia’s Christmas Lights and Cannoli Tour to get the local’s perspective on the area.

Osborne Family Spectacle of Dancing Lights, Orlando FL

What happens when a family light displays goes too far over-the-top and becomes a public nuisance?  No, I’m not talking about Clark Griswold, but Jennings Osborne, the Arkansas businessman who’s Christmas decorations drew too much traffic and power for the neighborhood.  So what did he do?  He packed up the lights and shipped them to Walt Disney World, where they’re strung on the “Streets of America” in Disney’s Hollywood Studios.  Don’t want to pay the theme park admission to see the dancing light show?  Click here for our video report.

Osborne Family Spectacle of Dancing Lights

I’m sure everyone has their favorite displays close to home, and two of our treasured traditions are Kennywood’s Holiday Lights in Pittsburgh, PA and driving over to visit the Lights on the Lake in Syracuse, NY.  Need more ideas for where to go to see the Holiday Lights?  Our friends at The Family Travel Forum have compiled this list of 50+ different spots to take in the seasonal illuminations.  There’s sure to be something close to your home.

Great Wolf Lodge Niagara Falls

Gingerbread Houses

Oh, there’s nothing quite like the smell of gingerbread to put you in the holiday spirit, and a number of places have gone beyond just the simple gingerbread man to creating life-size houses made of the cookie confection.

Great Wolf Lodge, 11 locations throughout the United States and Canada

Why just look at a Gingerbread House when you can dine inside one, but, please, don’t eat the decorations (although you could).  Each December, Great Wolf Lodge’s family of indoor waterpark resorts creates Snowland, and the centerpiece of Snowland is its Gingerbread House.  Families can eat breakfast, lunch, or dinner inside the whimsical abode covered with marshmallow Peeps and other candies.  The best part, Great Wolf Lodge donates proceeds from the meals to local charities.  Click here for our family’s experience dining inside a fairy-tale creation.

Skytop Lodge, Pocono Mountains PA

Nestled in Pennsylvania’s Pocono Mountains is Skytop Lodge, a pristine 85+ year old all-inclusive family resort, with its own life-size gingerbread house.  Elves can be found scurrying around the two story Gingerbread structure, and families can walk through, picking and eating candy hung from baskets inside the cottage.  Our family visited Skytop Lodge during the summertime, and can attest to its beauty.  With a blanket of snow, I’m sure the property looks as if plucked from a Christmas card.

Disney’s Contemporary Resort, Orlando FL

Of course, not to be outdone, Walt Disney World has numerous gingerbread creations including a two story Victorian Gingerbread House in Disney;s Grand Floridian lobby. a grand gingerbread house of its own.  The newest addition is Queen Elsa’s (from FROZEN) Arendelle ice castle adorning the lobby of Disney’s Contemporary Resort.  Do you want to ice a snowman?  Well, you can purchase an iced snowman gingerbread cookie, and give it a nice warm hug before eating.

"Frozen" Gingerbread Holiday Ice Castle Graces Disney's Contemporary Resort

“Frozen” Gingerbread Holiday Ice Castle at Disney’s Contemporary Resort. Photo by Kent Phillips, courtesy Walt Disney World Resort

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About Dave Parfitt

Married, father of two girls, and living in the heart of the Finger Lakes. I'm a runner with a PhD in neuroscience and a passion for travel.