Celebrate Christmas with light displays: 5 of the South's best

Looking for a holiday-themed Southeastern getaway with glowing appeal? Light displays string across the region, plugging in for all ages to enjoy.  

Multicolored wattage, often designed in seasonal shapes from candy canes to dreidels, can offer more celebratory spirit than spiked eggnog. Ponder the following suggestions when plotting a holly jolly vacation or a pit stop while road tripping home for the holidays.

Galaxy of Lights at Huntsville Botanical Garden

A tradition in Huntsville, Alabama,  since 1996, Galaxy of Lights owes its inspiration to a Georgia-based attraction. After members of the garden staff attended Fantasy in Lights at Callaway Gardens in Pine Mountain, they decided to try their hand at holiday illumination. A group of volunteers, who dub themselves the Galaxy Guys — some of them former U.S. Space & Rocket Center employees, spend an entire year designing, building and installing the one-of-a-kind displays. Santa Claus, nursery rhyme characters, the popular icicle forest twinkle in the garden. This year’s event began in early November. It kicked off with walking nights, which allow guests to experience the grounds by foot. They even designate some evenings as pet-friendly. Beginning the night after Thanksgiving, only vehicles can roll through the grounds for Galaxy of Lights. A pair of road races, a 5K and a 3K, wind past the displays Nov. 27 and 28, respectively, so no driving on those nights. If you want to dodge the crowds, organizers suggest visiting on weeknights or as close to 5:30 p.m. as possible. On weekends and Dec. 15-24, the experience can last as long as three hours from start to finish. Follow the signs for the special entrance on Phantom Road. The website has a map with directions.

5:30-9 p.m. through Dec. 31. $20-$25 for vehicles with as many as 10 passengers. 4747 Bob Wallace Ave., Huntsville, Ala. 256-830-4447, hsvbg.org.

RELATED: 7 locations in metro Atlanta and beyond for holiday light shows

The Pinnacle Speedway in Lights at Bristol Motor Speedway

Cruising along a NASCAR track continues to be a dream for many. Add approximately 4 miles of seasonal twinkle and you have a high-octane holiday. The bombardment of lights begins as soon as visitors roll through the Bristol Dragway entrance. Expect more than 2 million bulbs shining in the night. For some, the biggest thrill happens when taking a lap around Bristol Motor Speedway’s racetrack, the lights dancing to Christmas tunes. Blankets of bulbs have been known to cover portions of the grandstand. Light designs include a giant menorah, jumping horses, pit crews working on cars, and a team of reindeer pulling Santa’s sleigh. A holiday village can be found in the infield. Keep an eye out for the guy in the red suit. No, we’re not talking about Kyle Larson. On select nights, spring for the Jingle Bell Lane option, which allows guests to speed past long lines. Proceeds benefit children’s charities in the tri-cities region. Consider making a pit stop at the ice skating rink. It costs $5 to hit the ice, plus $2 for skate rental. The rink is open through Jan. 14.

6-10 p.m., Nov. 17 through Jan. 6. $15-$20 per vehicle. 151 Speedway Blvd., Bristol, Tennessee. Note: Enter at Bristol Dragway entrance on Highway 394. 423-989-6975, speedwayinlights.org.

Celebration in Lights in Newport News

The ticketed drive-through light show in Newport News Park is the longest running of its kind in the state, with more than 300 displays. For its 25th anniversary, the park is adding two giant screens of LED lights that will show moving holiday scenes. The park uses over a million lights for this annual event and since 2007 all new lights are LED. There are 43 arches and 3 miles of rope lights in the two mile drive. 

5:30-10 p.m., Nov. 23 through Jan. 1., $12 per car, intersection of Ft. Eustis Blvd. and Jefferson Ave. in Newport News, VA. 757-926-1400, www.nnva.gov/1762/Celebration-in-Lights.

Gatlinburg Winter Magic Trolley Ride of Lights

The mountain tourist town designates a fleet of trolleys to take guests on tours of its LED displays. The journey rolls along Parkway, downtown Gatlinburg’s main drag, nearby River Road and the triangle area of both. Display designs feature regional wildlife — think deer, rabbits, foxes and more — and holiday imagery from snowmen to rocking horses. Children ages 3 and younger ride for free as long as they’re nestling in an adult’s lap. Each trolley is enclosed and heated.

6:30, 7:30 and 8:30 p.m. Nov. 25-30; Dec. 2-23, 26-30; Jan. 6, Jan. 13, Jan. 20, Jan. 27. $5. 88 River Road, Gatlinburg, Tenn. 1-800-588-1817, gatlinburg.com.

RELATED: Christmas at Biltmore Estates near Asheville

Tanglewood Festival of Lights

Holiday light lovers can flash their gaze upon Clemmons, N.C., an approximate 10-minute drive west of Winston-Salem. Each year, an average of 250,000 visitors descend upon Tanglewood Park like Santa’s reindeer on a rooftop. Located alongside the Yadkin River, the sprawling public space plays host to nearly 5 miles of light displays, more than 100 in all. Organizers say the animated golfer display, a holdover from the event’s 1992 debut, continues to be one of the more popular visuals. Other displays rotate in and out each year, and all now feature LED lights. Pony up an additional $80 and as many as four people can experience the tour in a horse-drawn carriage, complete with your personal driver. The Gift Village promises interaction, including marshmallow roasting, and sessions with Santa and Mrs. Claus on select nights. On Dec. 31 when the clock strikes midnight, the season closes out with the Running of the Lights 5K.

6-11 p.m. Nov. 17 through Jan. 1. $15 per vehicle. 4061 Clemmons Road, Clemmons, N.C. 336-703-6400, forsyth.cc/parks/tanglewood/fol/.

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