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Christmas in Wonderland

Courtesy Gaylord Opryland Resort

Pack your sweaters and gas up the motorcoach: Although summer has just begun, the time to plan your church group’s holiday travel has already arrived.

From coast to coast, hundreds of seasonal festivals take place between Thanksgiving and New Year’s Day, and many of them make for great group tour destinations. In recent years, hotels and resorts across the country have become the leaders in holiday celebrations, putting on elaborate six-week events for guests and groups alike. At major resorts across the country this year, visitors will find nationally known entertainers, multimillion-bulb light shows, Christmas-themed musical revues, elaborate ice sculptures and other over-the-top holiday festivities.

In honor of this growing tradition, we’ve highlighted five resorts that celebrate Christmas in grand style. So make plans to visit one of these sites on your holiday tour this year, and leave some extra room in your suitcase for all the gifts you’ll bring home.

Gaylord Opryland
Nashville, Tennessee
The venerable Gaylord Opryland has held its A Country Christmas celebration since the 1980s, mixing signature Southern warmth with high-profile entertainment and events.

“This will be our 28th year,” said Ken Groneck, Opryland’s director of special events. “I like to call it an iconic time to be here at Gaylord Opryland. It has the look and feel and philosophy that hasn’t changed — Southern hospitality and beautiful decor at Gaylord Opryland.”

The atriums and halls of the large resort are decked with lights, Christmas trees and other decorations for the holidays, and a large Nativity scene is set up on the front lawn. Visitors can take nighttime carriage rides to see the lights strung on the outside of the property or see “The Brightest Star,” an indoor fountain and music show that retells the Christmas story. Another popular component of the celebration, Ice!, features elaborate ice carvings of Christmas scenes and DreamWorks movie characters inside a climate-controlled structure.

For groups, the highlight of A Country Christmas often comes in the evening entertainment. The high-kicking Radio City Rockettes present a Christmas song-and-dance show, and country star Louise Mandrell, left, returns for her final year to host a Christmas Dinner Party.

“This is a party, not an upscale, formal affair,” Groneck said. “This will be a fun dinner in a great, festive atmosphere, followed by a 50-minute show.”

New to the celebration this year will be an area that re-creates a town square from the 1950s, featuring a drug store, a bakery and Coca-Cola memorabilia. The festivities wrap up on New Year’s Eve with a gospel concert by Legacy Five.

The Coeur d’Alene
Coeur d’Alene, Idaho
On the banks of a lake in beautiful northern Idaho, the Coeur d’Alene Resort has made a Northwest tradition of its Holiday Light Show.

“This is a festival that is now 25 years old,” said public relations director David Kilmer. “It started with just a few lights outside the entrance of the resort when it opened in 1986. The show has grown over time to include more than 250 displays. At last count, we had more than 1.5 million lights.”

The animated light displays depict a wide range of holiday images, from marching toy soldiers to prancing reindeer. Nautical-theme displays include boats and ski jumpers, and fairy tale castles and fire-breathing dragons add a dash of whimsy to the exhibit. The show is topped by a 155-foot Christmas tree, a grand fir strung up with 40,000 lights that dance in time with various Christmas carols.

For groups, the best way to experience the light show is on a boat cruise.

“They board a lit-up cruise ship, and that boat plies the waters of Lake Coeur d’Alene to view the lights,” Kilmer said. “The magical thing about seeing the lights from the boat is that you’re seeing twice the lights because all of the lights are reflected in the dark waters.”

Groups will also enjoy the “GI Holiday Jukebox” show, a nightly stage tribute to the USO tours of World War II. The show takes place every night from the day after Thanksgiving to New Year’s Day.

Grand Geneva Resort
Lake Geneva, Wisconsin
During the summer, Lake Geneva and the Grand Geneva Resort are an outdoor escape from the urban oppression of Chicago. During the holidays, however, the resort puts on a festive spirit for its Christmas in the Country event.

At the center of the celebration is “Hooray for the Holidays,” a live musical show.

“It’s a two-hour musical review,” said sales manager Heather Dalman. “They do some classic Christmas songs, and some originals. They have a six-piece live orchestra called the Mistletones, and 10 performers.”

The festivities begin with a kickoff celebration the Sunday before Thanksgiving that features an illumination ceremony with Santa Claus and Mrs. Claus, and a fireworks show. Throughout the holidays, the hotel restaurant offers Sunday brunches with Santa and a gingerbread house competition featuring some 65 creations for guests to enjoy. Outside on the resort’s grounds, 16 elaborate light displays reflect themes such as the Twelve Days of Christmas, Cinderella or the Grinch.

New for this year, the resort will add new components called “the Quilts of Christmas” and “Festival of Trees.”

“Area business will sponsor a tree and decorate it, and area quilters are going to make quilts that will be on display for everyone,” Dalman said. “At the end of the season, they will be auctioned off, and the proceeds will go to a local charity.”

Brian Jewell

Brian Jewell is the executive editor of The Group Travel Leader. In more than a decade of travel journalism he has visited 48 states and 25 foreign countries.