There's no reason to tremble over making family travel plans for the holidays when the kids are out of school. The key to avoiding the bedlam of places like Disney World and Disneyland during the holidays is to head elsewhere. Many cities, especially these five, celebrate the family holiday spirit without demanding that you ride roller coasters and pay hotel prices that would turn jolly Santa into the Grinch.
St. Nick Meets St. Pete
Hitting a Florida beach in December is a popular traveler's dream, but the cities of Tampa and St. Petersburg also turn Tampa Bay into a prime holiday destination for other reasons. St. Pete's beachfront Straub Park offers Glice (artificial ice) skating, Busch Gardens Tampa throws in a Santa's House at Christmas Town, and Tampa's Lowry Park Zoo hosts a Christmas in the Wild celebration and family-focused Noon Year's Eve—where a DJ counts down to noon on December 31 with kid-friendly toasts to the new year.
Christmas Choirs in Canada
Many call Quebec City the most “European" city in North America, and the holidays are when it sparkles like an Old World winter wonderland. Colorful lights illuminate the main square, Place de l'Hotel-de-Ville, towered over by Notre-Dame de Quebec Basilica-Cathedral and City Hall. Also delightful to stroll past are shop-lined narrow lanes of the Petit Champlain district. Yet another crowd pleaser is the German Christmas Market in the Old City (Nov. 23-Dec. 23), where choirs sing, gingerbread is served and families flock to the Kindermarkt (Christmas Market for kids). As for the weather, Quebec City's location near Maine guarantees a traditional White Christmas.
December in the Desert
Phoenix holds nothing back in celebrating the holiday spirit. Throughout December, the Christmas at the Princess Festival features an outdoor ice rink, a train that chugs past 4.5 million LED lights and a tree that performs “light dances" to holiday songs. Other area resorts' homages to the holidays include the Westin Kierland's nightly 3-D animations set to holiday music and The Wigwam's snow slide. But it's hard to top Las Noches de las Luminarias, the Desert Botanical Garden spectacle throughout December when 8,000 hand-lit luminaria bags light the way up a desert hillside path while the desert rings with nightly performances by everyone from handbell ensembles to cowboy balladeers.
Whether it's “Miracle on 34th Street," “When Harry Met Sally" or “Home Alone 2," holiday movies set in Manhattan repeatedly prove that it's a magical place in December. It all begins at Rockefeller Center, where a lit-up Norway Spruce towers over the city's most popular ice skating rink. There are more ice rinks in Central Park, plus classic live-performance options like the Radio City Rockettes Christmas Spectacular and the New York City Ballet's Nutcracker. Department store decorations and window displays are most elaborate at Saks Fifth Avenue, Barneys New York, Bloomingdale's and Macy's—where Santaland is a re-creation of the North Pole.
Santa in San Diego
With fewer chimneys to slide down than in most cities, Santa has extra time in San Diego to catch some waves while the reindeer tan on the beach. The city's beaches and mild temps are two reasons for a visit, but so are its holiday events. Holiday of Lights at Del Mar Fairgrounds (Nov. 24 –Jan. 1) includes the Holiday Hayride and the largest drive-through light show on the entire West Coast, featuring elaborate holiday decorations. Just across town in Balboa Park, the San Diego Zoo's Jungle Bells celebration (Dec. 8-Jan. 1) features acrobatic elves, “reindeer games", professional carolers and a Polar Express 4-D experience.