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A Christmas Without Snow: Holiday Fun in Warmer Cities

Not every city experiences a “White Christmas.” Some are in a part of the country where it’s warm and sunny all year round. If you are fortunate enough to live in one of these cities, don’t think you can’t still get in the holiday spirit. It’s all a matter of knowing what events are happening in your town.

Let’s take a tour through some of the warmer cities in America and see if we can find some great activities for your friends and family come this holiday season.

Tampa, Florida

Busch Gardens: Christmas Town - Ever think you’d see a place in Tampa that has over 1 million Christmas lights? Busch Gardens' Christmas Town is a virtual Winter Wonderland where you’ll find a variety of holiday celebrations at every corner. This is an especially great destination for families. Take your children for a feast with Mrs. Claus and her elves, chill with some penguins (real ones!), or visit Santa himself in Christmas Town’s own version of the North Pole.

Holiday Happenings at the Florida Aquarium - Did you know Santa loves aquariums? Apparently! There are many activities at the Florida Aquarium throughout the year, but check out what’s on the agenda there for the holidays. It’s quite a sight to see elves don scuba diving gear and explore the Coral Reef Gallery. There will also be several exciting opportunities for children to join Santa for breakfast, or partake in activities in the different snow play areas. Hey parents, feel like “letting loose” for the new year? Be sure to make it to the Aquarium for “Aqua-Eve,” where you can enjoy a midnight fireworks display over the channel while sipping on beer, wine and champagne. Check out the various holiday happenings at the Florida Aquarium to see what other events are taking place.

Los Angeles, California

Various Ice Skating Locations - Normally, ice doesn’t exist in Los Angeles-- except in cold drinks. Well, thanks to the various skating rinks throughout L.A., this is no longer true. Next to the beach at Santa Monica, there’s 8,000 square feet of ice in the form of ICE at Santa Monica. Feel like skating alongside palm trees and skyscrapers? Check out Downtown on Ice in central Los Angeles. With LA’s variety of skating rinks, it’s never been easier to get your tan on while enjoying one of the most important activities of the holiday.

L.A. County Holiday Celebration - Los Angeles is a town of entertainment, so it better put on a big show for the holidays. The Holiday Celebration from the L.A. County Arts Commission will not disappoint. Another perfect event for families, the Holiday Celebration is largely focused on music and dance routines from all over the world. You’ll see acts from Korea, Mexico, India, and more. Out of all the attractions in Southern California, this one really showcases LA’s diverse, international community. Every year, about 5,000 people attend the L.A. County Holiday Celebration, and what’s more, they all it do it for free. That’s right, it’s first come, first serve!

Even though you enjoy the luxury of a persistently warm and pleasant climate, you may still feel like you’re missing out on something during the holiday season. Not to fear! There will always be holiday-themed events regardless of what city you live in. Now, we’ve made sure that our friends in Tampa and LA will keep up that holiday spirit.

Do you live in a city with warm weather? Tell us about some of the holiday activities in your community in the comments!

Celebrate the Season in Tampa Bay's Warmth

While TV ads might have us believe that freezing temps and snow are prerequisites for Christmas festivities – and this year’s early winter blast reinforced that message – there are plenty of places where Christmas arrives amidst balmy days and sunny skies.

On the Gulf Coast of Florida, the Tampa Bay area boasts average December temperatures ranging from 54-72 degrees. Visitors at this time of year have a bevy of options, including seasonal activities and year-round attractions that truly are available year-round.

Photo credit: Busch Gardens Tampa - "Christmas Town"

Busch Gardens Tampa might have the best of both worlds: classic amusement park fun and special "Christmas Town" festivities. The park’s new Falcon’s Fury attraction is the tallest freestanding drop tower in North America. Riders start at a height of 335 feet, pivot to a 90-degree angle – so they can look straight down – then plummet at 60 mph in a 5-second free-fall.

For a different kind of excitement, Christmas Town features a new penguin habitat, "Penguin Point," with frolicking African penguins, and the chance to visit Santa in his private study – where he’s working on that all-important list, no doubt. After making sure everyone’s in the “Nice” column, jump aboard the Christmas Town Express, a vintage-style steam locomotive that winds around the park’s Serengeti area while riders enjoy a holiday sing-a-long.

Other attractions in Christmas Town include the Jingle Bell Express, a train ride just for smaller visitors, and holiday cabins chock-full of gifts for giving. Be sure to check Busch Gardens’ calendar of events before you visit. Christmas Town is open select days through Dec. 31 and is included with general admission.

Not far from Busch Gardens is a wonderful opportunity to experience Florida’s unique ecosystem in a close and personal way. Canoe Escape helps visitors explore the Hillsborough River and Wilderness Park by offering rental canoes and kayaks for downstream river journeys. For a fee, the company provides basic instruction, if needed, along with paddles, life vests, maps and a shuttle service to return paddlers to their point of origin. Whether a 2-, 4- or 6-hour tour, the observant can expect to see alligators, herons, turtles, wild hogs and even migratory vultures during the winter months.

Photo credit: Tampas's Lowry Park Zoo - "Winter Wonderland"

At the Florida Aquarium, in downtown Tampa, visitors who plan ahead can enjoy Breakfast with Santa on Dec. 20. Because the elves will be busy with last-minute preparations, aquarium trainers and education staff will mingle with special animal guests. For the last week of December (Dec. 26-30), the aquarium hosts a "Holiday FantaSea," complete with light shows, holiday-themed activities, extended hours and – wait for it – snow. But because that snow is manufactured, guests can still take advantage of the aquarium’s Explore A Shore area, a 2-acre outdoor water adventure zone with water cannons, geysers and a pirate ship ready for capture.

Another great outdoor destination is Tampa's Lowry Park Zoo, hailed in 2009 by Parents magazine as the nation’s top zoo for kids. The natural outdoor exhibits encourage visitors to interact with inhabitants, whether by feeding giraffes or stingrays, or petting a goat, or walking with a wallaby. On Dec. 12, the primates will open their holiday gifts, selected by zoo staff and docents, and they are happy to have an audience. Throughout December, Lowry Park Zoo offers "Wild Wonderland," where visitors can meet Santa and his real reindeer, experience “Florida Flurries,” and marvel at more than 1 million twinkling lights.

A special holiday treat could be a visit to the Clearwater Marine Aquarium, just north of the Bay area. The motion picture “Dolphin Tale” originated at Clearwater, thanks to the rescue of a juvenile dolphin – named Winter – that had been caught in a crab trap. Because Winter’s tail was severely damaged, staff at the rescue and rehabilitation facility fashioned a prosthetic tail that would allow Winter to continue to swim – and Winter became a worldwide sensation, starring in both “Dolphin Tale” movies.

See the star of both Dolphin Tale movies at Clearwater Marine Aquarium. Photo credit: Walter

Winter Zone is home to the Atlantic bottlenose dolphins Winter and Hope as well as a featured location in the movies. Winter and Hope can be visited anytime during operating hours. More sets and movie props are on display in Winter’s Dolphin Tale Adventure, a location separate from the aquarium but accessible via free shuttle and included in the admission price.

A great way for younger family members to get in the spirit of the season is to visit "Santa’s Workshop" at the Museum of Science and Industry. The museum has transformed its Idea Zone – a do-it-yourself laboratory for kids – into a place where wishes and designs become stocking-stuffers and gifts for loved ones. Once that mission is accomplished, head to the third floor and experience the laws of physics which keep the longest high-wire bicycle in the United States – 30 feet above ground – atop its 98-foot-long cable. Then, find your zen place with fluttery butterflies in Flight Encounter, a butterfly enclosure where still guests may be rewarded with a visit from a colorful new friend.

Last, but far from least, the Tampa Bay area is chock full of glistening beaches. Time your visit at the Clearwater Marine Aquarium to end in the late afternoon, then head to Clearwater Beach at Pier 60 for nightly sunset festivities. Or visit Fort De Soto Park’s historic fort and learn about Tampa’s involvement in the Spanish-American War. Or find your way to secluded and often-overlooked Picnic Island Park, where children and dogs alike have designated play spaces.

Whatever you choose, you can’t go wrong! Tampa Bay CityPASS includes Busch Gardens Tampa, the Florida Aquarium, Tampa's Lowry Park Zoo, Clearwater Marine Aquarium, Chihuly Collection or the Museum of Science and Industry. The adult pass (ages 10+) is currently $99, and the child’s pass (ages 3-9) is now $84. You save almost 50%.

Photo credit: Tampa's Lowry Park Zoo - "Presents for Primates"


The Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade balloons come to life

When my kids were growing up, a favorite holiday tradition on Thanksgiving Eve was a nighttime stroll along Central Park West around the American Museum of Natural History to watch the Thanksgiving Day parade balloons come to life.

Laid out flat along the closed streets on either side of the museum in the afternoon, the deflated balloons would slowly grow as crews worked into the night, pumping them with helium and covering them with sandbagged nets to keep them from floating away.

A view of the balloon staging area. Photo credit: Joan Cirillo

It was a magical, up-close preview to the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade the following day. And it ushered in our annual round of Big Apple holiday rituals: watching the Christmas Tree Lighting (December 3) and ice skating at Rockefeller Center; visiting Radio City Music Hall for the annual Christmas show with the glamorous, high-kicking Rockettes; attending a performance of The Nutcracker at Lincoln Center; seeing Santa and the elves at the Macy’s Herald Square SantaLand; and walking down Fifth Avenue at night to take in the lights, decorations and festive department store windows.

But these days, our Thanksgiving Eve tradition has mushroomed into a major tourist attraction. “We expect about a million people to come and see the inflation,” explained Macy’s spokesman Orlando Veras. “It has grown over the last decade from about 250,000 to a million spectators.”

The balloon inflation is still free but the event is mobbed and structured with plenty of police, barricades, and a strict pedestrian traffic flow. The neighborhood braces for the street closings and waves of excited families and spectators.

Papa Smurf starts to wake up. Photo credit: Joan Cirillo

Despite the crowds, it’s a spectacle and makes for a great outing. Just don’t plan on eating anywhere near the viewing area, and take public transportation as parking and cab access is nearly impossible.

This year’s 88th annual Macy’s parade will feature 16 giant character balloons including six new ones, the most additions in any given year. The new balloons are Paddington, Pikachu, Pillsbury Doughboy, Red Mighty Morphin Power Ranger, Skylanders Eruptor and Thomas the Tank Engine.

Here are some tips and details about this year’s balloon inflation.

  • For descriptions of the balloons and all you need to know about the parade, go to www.macys.com/parade. On site, look for the signs beside each balloon with its name and year of origin.
  • The balloon inflation is open from 3-10 p.m. on Wednesday, November 26. Spectators should head north on Columbus Avenue towards 79th Street for the entry point.
  • Pedestrians are directed to 77th street, up to and along Central Park West, then west on 81st street alongside the museum, ending on Columbus Avenue.
  • If you’re meeting someone, convene several blocks away and head to the entry point together.
  • Dress warmly and bring drinks and snacks. Leave strollers at home since they’re difficult to navigate in the crowds. And hold on to your kids. They’re easy to lose track of, especially at nightfall.
  • If you go early, it’s less crowded. But the balloons don’t begin to take shape until around 5 p.m. Latecomers should plan on getting there by 9:15 p.m. to get through the route before closing.

Now that our kids are adults, we take advantage of the late night ambiance and (hopefully) thinning crowds. Illuminated by giant spotlights, the balloon characters take on a life of their own in the dark. And seeing them up close is still our favorite way of ushering in the Big Apple holiday season.

2014 Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade Inflation Map, courtesy of macys.com.

Chicago Architecture Tours: So Much to See!

By boat, bus, bicycle, foot, or even Segway, there is no shortage of ways to experience the country’s most celebrated architectural metro – Chicago, Illinois. Admired for creativity rather than longevity—the Great Chicago Fire in 1871 destroyed a majority of notable buildings—each tour, no matter the means, showcases the character, ingenuity, and groundbreaking methods that make up Chicago’s towering skyline. read more »

Must-See Exhibits for Kids at Boston’s Museum of Science

Kids love science like peanut butter loves jelly. So if you’re visiting Boston with kids, be sure to stop by the Museum of Science: “kid-friendly” doesn’t begin to describe it. The MoS’s exhibits – including over 700 interactive ones – are so hands-on, so beautifully geared toward the enjoyment and excitement of science, it’s a perfect fit for the curious kid in your life. Here are six of the must-see exhibits for you and the kiddos to enjoy. read more »


Follow our City Traveler blog for up-to-date, budget-friendly news and advice on the top activities, attractions, food, transportation and more in some of the most outstanding cities in the world.

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