Instead of watching the same movies and listening to the same music, get in the holiday spirit with a trip to the latest holiday events.
Eating and shopping are a given, but families in search of other holiday activities can find all sorts of cool things to do across Illinois, from ice skating and festive parades to sitting in an igloo surrounded by skyscrapers.
One of those traditions is seeing “The Nutcracker,” performed at several theatres around the area. The most celebrated and elaborate version is by the world-renowned Joffrey Ballet. The famous Tchaikovsky score is played live by the Chicago Philharmonic Orchestra, as graceful ballet dancers in beautiful costumes use dance to tell the story of a young girl’s Christmas dream (November 30–December 29; Auditorium Theatre, Roosevelt University, 50 E Ida B. Wells Drive).
For kids who can’t sit through a 2-hour ballet, plus intermission, rent ice skates and cruise around Maggie Daley Park Skating Ribbon. The untraditional, winding path next to Millennium Park has the skyline as a backdrop. Night skating is available, and you can even skate on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day (opens November 15; Millennium Park).
What really kicks off the holiday season in Chicago, though, is its annual downtown parade. The crowds are large, but so is the BMO Harris Bank Magnificent Mile Lights Festival. The first night of the two-day event begins with live music and famous Chicago treats, like Garrett Popcorn and Frango chocolates. It culminates the next night with an impressive parade led by Mickey and Minnie Mouse. Giant helium-filled character balloons (think: New York’s Thanksgiving Day parade) float down Michigan Avenue, as do marching bands, holiday dancers, and lit-up parade floats, some carrying well-known musicians. The parade concludes with a fireworks show over the Chicago River (November 22–23).
Those not interested in standing out in the cold can sit in an igloo. It’s pricey, but you can reserve a heated, clear-dome igloo for up to 12 people on the Godfrey Hotel’s rooftop bar, I|O. Clear views of lit-up skyscrapers surround you, as you order cocktails or the new Smores in a Jar dessert. Enjoy that while you send the kids to the outdoor fire pits to make their own smores—the DIY supplies are also on the menu (opens November 23; 127 W Huron).
Animal-themed light displays set to music, as well as actual animals, are part of Lincoln Park Zoo’s ZooLights. Admission is free to see more than 2 million lights used in the displays, although there are fees to ride the train or carousel. Ice sculptures are carved on weekends, and carolers stroll the grounds (November 29–January 5, select days; 2001 N Clark).
Trees are the stars of the light show at the unique Illumination at The Morton Arboretum in west suburban Lisle. Visitors walk along a 1-mile path past colorful and creative art installations within the trees. Entertainment, hot chocolate and bonfires dot the path (November 23–January 5; 4100 Illinois Route 53).
There’s a similar display in north suburban Glencoe, at the Chicago Botanic Gardens’ Lightscape. Its huge light tunnels, in between colorful light displays, are fun to walk through, including one with long, dangling strings of light (November 22–January 5; 1000 Lake Cook Road).
Stay in your car for the drive-through light display in East Peoria’s Festival of Lights, a 35-year tradition, with giant animated displays of things like ski jumpers and a 160-foot-long steam engine train. Be sure to wave to FOLEPI, the event’s toy soldier mascot, and if you’re lucky, you might see Santa, who occasionally drops by (November 23–December 31; 123 Par 3 Lane).
Alton’s Christmas Wonderland light show, set up by the “grandpa gang,” fills Rock Spring Park with more than 4 million lights, including a cascading waterfall. Afterward, head to the neighboring town of Bethalto, where their Christmas Village features a live nativity, and holiday craft and food vendors (November 29–December 29; 2116 College Ave.).
Families spend the whole day out at Rockford’s annual Stroll on State. A parade and family stroll starts the day. Meander around the area, taking horse-and-wagon rides, enjoying music and food, and visiting the new kids’ elf houses. The evening tree-lighting celebration is capped off with fireworks and a synchronized light show under the Jefferson Street Bridge, along the banks of the Rock River (November 30).
The roller coaster rides may be closed at Six Flags Great America in far north suburban Gurnee, but the park transforms into Holiday in the Park. Family-friendly shows with dancing elves or Looney Tunes characters run all afternoon and evening, as do outdoor s’mores stations, Santa visits and light displays (November 23–December 31, select days; 1 Great America Parkway).