New York City is magical during the holiday season. However, if you're looking to experience some holiday happenings not too far from home, we've rounded up great options for family day trips, where kids can see Santa, dazzling Christmas lights, and even a North Pole village.
From right-in-our-backyard picks to rustic Christmas fun in Mystic, Connecticut and the Hudson Valley, here are a dozen holiday outings—listed roughly from nearest to farthest from Midtown—worth a drive or train trek this holiday season.
Bergen County’s Winter Wonderland at Van Saun Park – Paramus, New Jersey
Fridays–Sundays, November 23–December 23; Daily from Monday, December 24–January 1; Closed Christmas Day
30 minutes to 1 hour from Midtown, depending on traffic
Van Saun Park, already a favorite destination for New Jersey families, will once again be turned into a Winter Wonderland for the holidays. For the price of one general admission ticket, visitors can enjoy open-air ice skating, a mini train ride, Santa visits, admission to the zoo, unlimited carousel rides, and more family activities. There's also a synthetic skating rink for kids, which is great for beginners because it has more friction than regular ice. Adults might enjoy the food trucks and beer tent! Kids 3 and under are FREE.
Westchester's Winter Wonderland – Valhalla, New York
Friday, November 23–Monday, December 31
45 minutes from Midtown by car, or 1 hour via Metro-North's Harlem Line to the Valhalla station (11-minute walk from the park)
Westchester's Kensico Dam Plaza Park comes alive with holiday happenings at this aptly named attraction. Visitors can enjoy carnival rides, an ice skating rink, holiday circus, face time with Santa, twinkling holiday lights at Candy Cane Lane, as well as light shows choreographed to holiday music. New in 2018: FUNderland Village, where families can enjoy a bigger and brighter light show, six new rides, and nightly magic performances. The best part: All this fun (skate rentals, too!) is included in the price of admission.
Drive through a tunnel of lights at Jones Beach. Photo courtesy of Magic of Lights
Magic of Lights – Jones Beach State Park, Long Island
Friday, November 16–Sunday, December 30
1 hour from Midtown by car
You'll need a car for this trip, but you'll stay toasty inside as you cruise along more than 2 miles of holiday lights at this festive display. This year's display includes crowd favorites such as “The 12 Days of Christmas" and “The Night Before Christmas,” as well as new, colorful creations. Don't forget to stop into the Holiday Village, where guests can walk through a winter wonderland of hot cocoa, fireside s’mores, holiday music and movies, a hay maze, and pictures with jolly ol' Santa. Visitors who bring two canned food items during the week receive $3 off admission—donations are shared with local food banks.
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Meet Santa aboard this New Jersey Polar Express.
The Polar Express – Whippany, New Jersey
Saturday, November 17–Sunday, December 30; check website for full schedule
1 hour from Midtown by car
There are many lovely Polar Express and Christmas-themed train rides near NYC, but this magical train ride takes rail fans on a storybook-inspired, one-hour journey that's just barely outside the city. Once aboard the Polar Express, expect a visit from Santa who makes a stop in each car to hand out silver bells to every child. There is a reading of the classic book and kids are encouraged to come in pajamas, toting their own copies to read along. Hot chocolate and plenty of photo ops with the man of the hour are included. If you're looking for a truly indulgent (and more expensive) experience and don't mind traveling farther, the North Pole Express in Essex, Connecticut, is definitely worth the drive, but mostly sold out by this date. We've also really enjoyed the Saratoga & North Creek Polar Express in Saratoga Springs, and it has a bit more availability.
Skylands Light Show – Augusta, New Jersey
Friday, November 16–Sunday, December 30 (closed on certain days)
1 hour and 15 minutes from Midtown by car
Head to Skylands Stadium to drive this one-mile route illuminated by more than 2 million twinkling lights. Once you've navigated the spectacular show in your car, visit the new outdoor Christmas Village (November 23–December 30) for photos with Santa, arts and crafts, holiday-themed performances, an ice rink, and a stop at the S'mores Station to roast marshmallows over a fire pit.
Quiet Valley Farm – Stroudsburg, Pennsylvania
1½ hours from Midtown by car
Saturdays and Sundays, December 1, 2, 8, 9
Experience an old-fashioned Christmas on the farm. Visitors are transported back to a time before the bright lights and toy commercials and taken on a candlelit tour of the farm as it would have been in the 1800s. Witness a Victorian family preparing for Christmas, a living nativity, caroling, and traditional Pennsylvania German scenes. Groups go out every 15 minutes from 3pm to 7pm, with the last session starting at 7pm.
After a walk through the "forest of lights," enjoy holiday cheer at Kevin McCurdy's Holiday Spirit Festival.
Kevin McCurdy's Holiday Spirit Festival – Wappingers Falls, New York
Weekends, November 30–December 29, plus December 21
1 hour and 40 minutes from Midtown by car
This annual celebration of the holidays is beloved by local families and visitors alike. The Holiday Spirit Festival features an enchanting forest of lights, a walk through a North Pole village, a 60-foot-long holiday train display, live entertainment, including magic shows, music and, of course, the opportunity to meet with the big guy himself—Santa Claus. New this year: the interactive Elves Workshop Mix Up, where guests assist Santa's zany helpers in getting things squared away for the Big Day.
Riverhead Light Show – Calverton, New York
Weekends, November 16–December 29
1 hour and 40 minutes from Midtown by car
This brand-new drive-through holiday light show lets you and the kids enjoy the sparkle of the season, without any of the shivering. The 1.5-mile, half-hour drive takes you through an illuminated wonderland with more than 60 displays, including reindeer, an ice castle, snowflakes galore, and even a sea creature in a Santa hat.
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Meet your favorite friends at Sesame Place's A Very Furry Christmas celebration.
Hit the Theme Parks — Pennsylvania and New Jersey
Mid-November until the end of the year
If your first thought is that amusement parks are for sunny summer days, think again. Several spots get dressed up for the holidays, offering over-the-top lights and decorations alongside those can't resist rides. Sesame Place's A Very Furry Christmas brings classic holiday cheer to the 'hood, along with Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer this year. And in Langhorne, Pennsylvania, Hersheypark transforms into Christmas Candylane from November 16 to January 1. If you'd rather head to New Jersey, the Holiday in the Park at Six Flags has more glitz and blitz than you could possibly imagine. (Trust us.)
Step back in time at Lantern Light Tours.
Lantern Light Tours – Mystic, Connecticut
Weekends Saturday, November 24–Sunday, December 23
2½ hours from Midtown by car
The most distant destination from NYC on our list, Lantern Light Tours at Mystic Seaport, the Museum of America and the Sea, offers a festive, historic holiday experience. Part walking tour, part live performance, visitors are taken on a 70-minute showcase through the museum's historic buildings and vessels. Tours start at 5pm and continue in all weather conditions. Guests walk or stand for most of the experience, so it's probably best for school-aged kids. Spend the day exploring the exhibits at Mystic Seaport or visit the Mystic Aquarium just five minutes away. Of course, no visit to Mystic would be complete without dining at the famed Mystic Pizza.
Find more nearby holiday fun on our Long Island, New Jersey, Westchester, and Connecticut Mommy Poppins websites.
Photos courtesy of the festivals/venues
This article first published in November 2015, but has since been updated.