Must-Visit Holiday Events in the Midwest

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Must-Visit Holiday Events in the Midwest

The Midwest is home to some fun and magical holiday events. No matter where you travel you will find something to experience this holiday season from carriage rides, live music, train rides, ice skating, and so much more. Grab the family and start some new holiday traditions by crossing off these holiday events in the Midwest happening this holiday season.

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Hardy’s Reindeer Ranch – Rantoul, Illinois

Suggested by Erin Huiatt from Des Moines Parent

If you are looking to make friends and kiss a live reindeer add Hardy’s Reindeer Ranch to your travel bucket list. Hardy’s Reindeer Ranch is located in a very small town Rantoul, Illinois just outside of Champaign, Illinois. This small ranch reminds me a lot of some of our favorite pumpkin patches here in the Des Moines area. While the Alaskan Reindeer is the highlight they offer tons of other fun activities and holiday shopping for the whole family. They also sell Christmas trees and are open from fall through Christmas.

Kissing a reindeer at Hardy’s Reindeer Ranch

Stroll on State – Rockford, Illinois

Suggested by Melissa Schwartz from A Little Time and a Keyboard

Rockford’s magnificent Stroll on State kicks off the holiday season with cheer, lights, and merriment every year on the Saturday after Thanksgiving. The event’s jubilant parade dazzles with inflatable balloons, floats, bands, antique cars, and more. Tree lightings dot Rockford and light displays add joy throughout the city. Live music, local vendors, Santa visits, free ice skating, horse and wagon rides, and so much more delight families each year. Stroll on State wows in spectacular fashion with the Fire and Ice display of specially carved ice blocks set ablaze. We have attended Stroll on State several years in a row and the Fire and Ice display amazes us every time. The evening is capped with a fireworks show! All Aglow at Nicholas Conservatory and Gardens will also kick off on November 26 inviting the public to enjoy a holiday light display in the gardens. All Aglow will run through January 7, 2024. The Festival of Lights at Sinnissippi Park also kicks off on November 25. Rockford treats us in such a vibrant and joyful way to enter the holiday season!

Light up the Lake at Navy Pier – Chicago, Illinois

Suggested by Erin Huiatt from Des Moines Parent

Celebrate this time of year at Navy Pier in a way you have never seen before! During the Christmas season, Navy Pier shines with Light up the Lake comprising more than 600,000 twinkling lights and beautiful light displays; an Alpine ice rink, an authentic holiday beer garden, kiddie train rides, Santa’s Village, and gift market, and other family-friendly events. Offering something for everyone, This event will run from November 24 through December 31st, in Festival Hall at Navy Pier. Special themed events, including date nights, are also planned.

Magnificent Mile Lights Festival

Suggested by Theresa Goodrich from Your Chicago Guide

Chicago is a magical place during the holidays, and perhaps the most magical is the Magnificent Mile Lights Festival. What began in 1949 as a single decorated tree is now a spectacular display of more than two hundred stretching the length of Chicago’s famous shopping district, from the river all the way to Oak Street. 

The festivities start with the lighting of the Wrigley Building’s holiday tree the Friday before Thanksgiving. The next day, Pioneer Court, at the base of the famous Tribune Tower, turns into Lights Festival Lane. It’s an exciting celebration with shopping specials, loads of activities, and visits with Santa. The day culminates with a parade of floats, marching bands, celebrities, and musical performances led by Grand Marshalls Mickey Mouse and Minnie Mouse. The post-parade fireworks over the Chicago River are the cherry on top. If you’re looking for a wonderful way to start the holiday season, Chicago’s Magnificent Mile Lights Festival is fun for the whole family.

Caroling on Festival Lane


Merry Prairie at Conner Prairie – Fishers, Indiana

Suggested by Shelly Bergman from DIY Mama Blog

Nothing beats the holidays in the Midwest. There are so many different types of holiday events around Indiana from ice skating, to sledding slopes, to drive-through holiday light displays. Our family’s favorite central Indiana holiday event is Merry Prairie hosted by Conner Prairie. You may have heard of their huge fall event, Headless Horseman. This event is similar but makes all the decorations cheerful and adds some snow. 

During the event, families can experience ghost stories in the homes of the people living in Prairie Town or see what a typical holiday feast might consist of. The elve’s pop-up workshop is in the barn where you can help make toys and other STEM activities. Guests can also stroll through the winter wonderland of lights, take a spin on Kringle’s Carousel, or sled down the tube sledding hill. You can’t go wrong with a night (or two) at Merry Prairie! Hop over to DIY Mama, where I share a few tips you’ll want to know before you go.


Reflections In The Park – Dubuque, Iowa

Suggested by Kylie from Between England and Iowa

A great family-friendly holiday event in the Midwest is ‘Reflections In The Park’. This is a drive-thru Christmas light display that takes place in Louis Murphy Park in Dubuque, Iowa. Reflections In The Park opens on Thanksgiving Day and runs through December until the beginning of January. Light displays are donated by local businesses, so many are unique to places in Dubuque. For example, the Dubuque Clock Tower makes an appearance! There are over 80 light shapes altogether. The entrance is $10 per vehicle which covers all passengers inside. Everyone is given a candy cane (adults and children!) and visitors are instructed to tune their car radio into a channel that plays Christmas music. It’s an all-around sensory delight! You may even be lucky enough to see Santa during the visit! It’s open from 5 pm until 10 pm. All profits from Reflections In The Park go to Hillcrest Family Services, a charity based in Dubuque.

Reflections in the Dark in Dubuque, Iowa

Winter Wonderscape at Reiman Gardens – Ames, Iowa

Suggested by Katy Flint from Flint & Co.

Reiman Gardens, located in Ames, Iowa may be known for its beautiful landscaped gardens full of a large variety of plants & flowers during the summer, but each December, it transforms into a Winter Wonderscape Holiday Light Show. Grab the family and get in the holiday mood with a stroll through their grounds where you’ll see a large variety of holiday lighting displays, music, hot cocoa vendors, and more. From lighted polar bears ice skating to glowing, floating orbs you’ll be amazed and awed around each corner! Make sure to bundle up since it’s all outside, but it’s worth the chill! End your visit with a walk-through of the RG Holiday Express Train display. The Light Show is open Thursday – Saturday evenings in December from 5 PM-8 PM. Make it a complete trip to Ames by stopping at the famous Hickory Park for some mouthwatering BBQ! 

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Reiman Gardens in Ames, Iowa


Holiday Nights in Greenfield Village – Dearborn, Michigan

Suggested by Erin Huiatt from Des Moines Parent

Mingle with merrymakers amid the smells of chestnuts warming bonfires and the sounds of carolers, fiddlers, and bustling yuletide activity at Holiday Nights in Greenfield Village. One of the country’s premier holiday celebrations, Holiday Nights in Greenfield Village has been an annual tradition for many. Stroll down Main Street which offers goods, food, and warm drinks, or take a ride on a horse-drawn carriage ride.

Holiday Kerstmarkt – Holland, Michigan

Suggested by Erin Huiatt from Des Moines Parent

Experience a delightful outdoor European-style market with holiday items, delicious food, and artisan demonstrations in Holland, Michigan at the Holiday Kerstmarkt. This market is held on weekends from November 18 – December 16.

Wild Lights at Detroit Zoo – Detroit, Michigan

Suggested by Erin Klema from The Epicurean Traveler

Lions and tigers and Santa’s reindeer — oh my! During the holiday season, five million LED lights illuminate the Detroit Zoo for the annual Wild Lights, one of the most festive activities in the Detroit area. With dazzling “dancing” lights, trees and buildings twinkling in the dark night sky, and 280 sculptures of zoo animals, you’ll find plenty of fun photo opportunities. Wild Lights at the Detroit Zoo runs from late November through early January each year, and purchasing tickets in advance is recommended. 

Wild Lights at the Detroit Zoo


Bentleyville Tour of Lights at Bayfront Festival Park – Duluth, Minnesota

Suggested by Erin Huiatt from Des Moines Parent

Duluth’s mega Christmas light spectacular is the largest walk-through display of lights in America. Guests are invited to stroll under the glow of more than 4 million lights in a 20-acre park on the shores of Lake Superior. Mr. and Mrs. Claus, along with Rudolph the Red-nosed Reindeer, will be on hand for photos and handing out candy canes. The event will open each night at 5 p.m., closing at 9 p.m. on Sundays through Thursdays, and 10 p.m. on Fridays and Saturdays. For additional information visit Bentleyville USA.


The Holidays at St. Louis Union Station – St. Louis, Missouri

Suggested by Erin Huiatt from Des Moines Parent

The St. Louis Union Station is truly a magical place, but during the holidays they really go all out with the holiday festivities. If you and your family are looking for a fun and festive long weekend away, plan a trip to celebrate the Holidays at St. Louis Union Station. Take a ride on the Polar Express. There is no better way to get into the Holiday spirit than jumping on a train and heading to the North Pole. What better place to catch a train to the North Pole than at the historic St. Louis Union Station? You will journey to the North Pole where your children will receive a keepsake present. Enjoy magical meals and an incredible light show in the Grand Hall. Ride on the giant Ferris wheel and take in beautiful views of the St. Louis area including the St. Louis Arch. Don’t forget to walk by the model trains. There is so much to take in and see at the St. Louis Union Station. Start planning your trip!

Light show in the Grand Hall at the St. Louis Union Station


Legendary Lights of Clifton Mill – Dayton, Ohio

Suggested by Alicia Adams from Roaming On Travels

There are Christmas lights, and then there are legendary Christmas lights. You know, the ones that make you gasp in wonder and awe when you first see them? In the small town of Clifton near Dayton, Ohio, a 219-year-old grist mill has been creating that response in visitors for more than three decades. Located at the edge of a steep river gorge, the historic Clifton Mill displays over 4.2 million lights blanketing the mill, the surrounding landscape, and the banks of the river creating a stunning carpet of tiny, twinkling lights everywhere.

Voted second in the nation in USA Today’s ‘Best Public Holiday Lights Display of 2020’, the light show also includes an outdoor miniature Christmas village, a live Santa Claus, and a light and music show on their historic wooden covered bridge. A Santa Claus museum, a toy collection from past holidays, and the mill’s famous hot chocolate complete the spirit of this holiday display. Visit their website to learn more about admission, hours of operation, and more.

PNC’s Festival of Lights – Cincinnati, Ohio

Suggested by Stephanie Taleghani from Consistently Curious

The Cincinnati Zoo transforms into a magical winter wonderland during PNC’s Festival of Lights. With over 4 million LED lights decorating the zoo, this is one of Cincinnati, Ohio’s best holiday lights displays. An enchanting evening awaits as guests stroll under twinkling lights, admire larger-than-life animal lanterns, and marvel at the dazzling Wild Lights show on Swan Lake.

Visit Santa in Santa’s Village, then sip on hot chocolate while awaiting a ride on The North Polar Express. The Festival of Lights has a yearly scavenger hunt ideal for exploring the entire zoo, including finding the Fiona fairies, which resemble Cincinnati’s famous premature hippo, Fiona. Throughout the zoo, the smell of roasted nuts and other holiday treats fills the air. Various food options are available during the Festival of Lights, including Cincinnati staples, such as LaRosa’s Pizza and Skyline Chili. The Festival of Lights is included with zoo admission and is one of the best things to do in Cincinnati.

Wildlights at the Columbus Zoo – Columbus, Ohio

Suggested by Katie Seeman from Zen Life and Travel

Wildlights at the Columbus Zoo and Aquarium is one of the best and most popular Holiday activities in Columbus. From late November to early January, the zoo is transformed into a magical winter wonderland with the help of millions of twinkling multi-color LED lights. When the sun goes down, grab a hot chocolate and make your way through the holiday exhibits and animal attractions. You won’t want to miss the main animated lights display that’s set to holiday music at Conservation Lake in the middle of the zoo. It will delight kids and adults alike. Shows play every 15-30 minutes throughout the evening. There are other animated light displays, including a giant Christmas tree, throughout the zoo. Don’t miss the Polar Bear Express (a train ride around the zoo), character meet and greets, and of course, the reindeer exhibit! Wildlights is open every night of the season except Thanksgiving, Christmas Eve, and Christmas Day.

Wildlights at the Columbus Zoo
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Erin Huiatt

Erin is a reliable resource and stepping stone for women and families to find support and make connections within our community. She wants families to feel confident to reach out and ask for help and advice to get pointed in the right direction. She enjoys traveling and exploring with her two children in tow!

One thought on “Must-Visit Holiday Events in the Midwest

  1. “I’m eager to learn about the best Christmas activities in the Midwest! This seems like the ideal manual for organizing a joyful and unforgettable holiday season. Excited to go exploring!”

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