Celebrate the season in McAdenville, Greensboro and Bryson City
BY KURT DUSTERBERG
Looking for a festive day trip destination this holiday season? Head west to experience Christmas Town USA, Winter Wonderlights and the Polar Express.
Christmas Town USA, McAdenville
No community in North Carolina takes Christmas more seriously than McAdenville. The Charlotte suburb, which winds through the South Fork Catawba River valley, is known as Christmas Town USA, and the community delivers on its name.
From December 1–26, more than 600,000 visitors will make their way to the town of less than 1,000 residents. All of downtown is decked out in holiday decorations and awash in red, green and white light. Even the local pond—appropriately referred to as Christmas Town Lake—displays the holiday spirit, with a dozen floating Christmas trees.
But the highlight is a 1.3-mile stretch of neighborhoods where homes are dressed for the holidays. Each night, a slow procession of cars makes its way through town all evening, but the neighbors welcome a more personal approach.
“I do recommend walking for a more enjoyable experience,” says Christy Gliddon, a human resources executive in McAdenville. “The driver has to pay attention to traffic rather than enjoy the lights.”
Setting out on foot has its perks. One home features a sleigh in the front yard, where Santa likes to settle in for pictures. And most of the residents seem to understand their responsibility to the Christmas season, with nearly everyone putting up lights and decorations.
“Especially on the route, I would say 98% of the people participate,” Gliddon says. “We start putting lights on the common-area trees around Labor Day. Most of the residents will start getting their homes prepped around Thanksgiving. People get pretty creative.”
The town lights up each night at 5:30 p.m. and the twinkling continues until 10:30 p.m. McAdenville may not be the North Pole, but it is prepared to host more than a half-million guests. If you plan to make an evening of your visit, Terra Mia Ristorante offers upscale Italian fare, and the neighboring towns of Cramerton and Belmont offer more dinner options. If you need a quick warmup after your holiday walk, Knowledge Perk Coffee Company has you covered with coffee, hot chocolate and pastries.
If you plan to visit Christmas Town USA, head out as early in the season as possible. The caravan of cars picks up closer to Christmas, so it’s a good idea to choose a weeknight early in the month. “And I always recommend that people come to town a little early—around 4 p.m.,” Gliddon says. “The town is very walkable.”
Christmas Town USA kicks off the season with a tree-lighting ceremony on Friday, December 1 at 5:30 p.m. and celebrates with a yule log parade on Thursday, December 14 at 5:30 p.m.
For more information, visit townofmcadenville.org.
Winter Wonderlights, Greensboro
If you can’t get enough of the holiday lights, plan a quick trip to the Triad for Winter Wonderlights at the Greensboro Science Center, which is also a zoo and aquarium. The grounds are decked with more than one million lights and a variety of holiday-themed interactive displays and activities. If you’re looking for memorable photos, this is the place to capture them.
“The peppermint walk is really popular,” says public relations coordinator Bekah Robinson. “It’s a bunch of peppermint projections on the ground, and spinning candy canes. That’s a really great area for pictures.”
An interactive light tunnel is also popular for the selfie set, along with the 18-foot-tall walk-in gingerbread house and 26-foot big blue bear. While most of the displays are outdoors on the 22-acre property, some displays are moving inside this year. The center’s dinosaur gallery will be converted to a dino disco. “We’ve changed the walls to look like lava lamps. We’ve got disco balls—and of course we’re playing disco music,” Robinson says.
Winter Wonderlights opens to the public on Wednesday, November 22 and runs through Sunday, December 21 from 5:30–10 p.m. General admission is $20, but Monday–Thursday tickets cost $16. The science center is open from 9 a.m.–4 p.m. during the day, but don’t count on seeing the zoo animals at Winter Wonderlights. “Some of the animals in the zoo have a bedtime, but you might catch a glimpse of them,” Robinson says. “It’s really more about the lights. You can easily spend 90 minutes to two hours here, especially with new interactives inside and the addition of our aquarium, which will be lit up.”
Visit shop.greensboroscience.org/#/specialeventscategory/wonderlights for more information. Group tickets are also available, but are limited, so head over to the website to book your visit.
Polar Express Train Ride, Bryson City
Make the Christmas season come alive for little ones on the Great Smoky Mountains Railroad’s Polar Express. Hop aboard an historic train car in Bryson City for a 75-minute round-trip ride to pick up Santa Claus.
The steam train journey brings to life Chris Van Allsburg’s 1985 book, “The Polar Express,” later turned into the 2004 movie of the same name. Today, the story of a boy’s journey to the North Pole is a Christmas classic. Once the train departs, guests will be immersed in a timeless Christmas story while enjoying hot chocolate and sweet treats. On the return trip to Bryson City, Santa visits each coach and gives each child a special gift: a silver sleigh bell.
The town is located in the mountains of western North Carolina, an hour west of Asheville. Seasonal rides begin on Thursday, November 9 and run through Sunday, December 31. Individual tickets run $44–$99, depending on the class of service. To purchase tickets, visit gsmr.com/the-great-polar-express-train-ride or call 800.872.4681.