If there is anything that deserves to be called awesome, it’s spectacular displays of holiday lights.
Today’s high-tech extravaganzas have become a compelling mix of American art form, holiday tradition and irresistible tourist attraction.
It may be hard to imagine that Christmas tree lights were a 19th century innovation. In 1882, three years after Thomas Edison demonstrated his light bulb, Edward Hibberd Johnson, Edison’s business associate, decorated his Manhattan home with a Christmas evergreen — strung with 80 red, white and blue hand-wired bulbs.
Now cities around the world drape billions of holiday lights on plazas, through shopping districts, zoos and botanical gardens in a glowing gesture of civic pride.
In the Western U.S. there are plenty worth the drive or a weekend trip. Here are 10 of the best sparkly, twinkly holiday light displays sure to set your spirits ablaze.
Mission Inn Hotel & Spa, Riverside
The spectacle: In a class by itself, the free Festival of Lights at the Mission Inn has become a California experience. Seemingly every nook and cranny of the landmark inn is covered with lights and accented by glowing, glittering and gesturing elves, angels and carolers.
There’s more: elaborate Christmas trees, fresh snow, elf tuck-ins for hotel guests, horse-drawn carriage rides and three gingerbread villages made with 500 pounds of confections.
Best vantage point: You can’t take in all 4.5 million lights at once, so walk the block to view at street level.
Bonus experience: Among other holiday-themed packages, the $1,432Gingerbread Dreams Suite two-night package includes overnight accommodations, gingerbread cupcakes, a gingerbread cookie amenity at turn-down, and a $200 dining credit at the hotel’s restaurants.
Info: Through Jan. 7. 3649 Mission Inn Ave., Mission Inn Hotel & Spa
Waikele Lights, Waipahu, Hawaii
The spectacle: Hawaii may not have snow, but it has plenty of Christmas spirit with the Waikele Lights show.
In Waipahu, about 10 miles northeast of Honolulu International Airport, Keith Yoshida has for years coordinated a magical neighborhood display, mostly powered by solar energy. More than a dozen houses on Anapau Place are illuminated with lights synchronized to holiday music. Two 38-minute shows continue from 7 to 9:30 nightly.
Best vantage point: The street is blocked off to vehicles, so ride share or take a cab and stroll or sit to watch the show.
Bonus experience: The neighborhood was featured in the 2015 season of ABC’s “The Great Christmas Light Fight.” Season 4 continues on Mondays if you just can’t get enough of over-the-top residential light displays.
Info: Through Dec. 31. Waikele Lights
Holiday Lights at the California Living Museum, Bakersfield
The spectacle: More than 3 million lights decorate the zoo grounds of the California Living Museum. Favorite scenes include the Winter Wonderland (with real snow), an elephant herd, dinosaurs and even bighorn sheep in the California Wildlife section.
A display of lighted “jellyfish” heralds the opening of the zoo’s new jellyfish exhibit and touch tank next year. Also included in the ticket price is the Candy Cane Express train ride and the 40-foot merry-go-round.
Best vantage point: You don’t want to miss the amphitheater’s light show set to music, but selfies are a must at the Winter Wonderland.
Bonus experience: If you time it right, you can catch a meal at one of the region’s notable Basque restaurants, such as the Noriega Hotel, (661) 322-8419; Wool Growers Restaurant, (661) 327-9584 and Benji’s French Basque Restaurant, (661) 328-0400
Info: Through Dec. 31 (closed Christmas). 10500 Alfred Harrell Highway, Holiday Lights at the California Living Museum. $12 for adults, $10 for youth (ages 13-17) and $6 for kids (ages 3-12).
Disneyland Park, Anaheim
The spectacle: More is more at Disneyland, where every storefront, lamppost and rooftop is strung with festive decor — lights, wreaths, garlands and sparkle.
In Disneyland, expect parades, snowfall around Sleeping Beauty’s Winter Castle and special holiday versions of the nightly fireworks.
This year, California Adventure Park’s Festival of Holidays features an international array of food, music and dance.
Best vantage point: The must-see attraction is “It’s a Small World,” which is covered with thousands of lights. Inside, the 10 international scenes feature characters dressed in their country’s customary holiday attire.
Bonus experience: At California Adventure Park, Cars Land gets a holiday makeover and a 50-foot Christmas tree. World of Color, the nighttime, lighted water show, is recast as Season of Light, a new holiday theme that includes music and Disney animation.
Info: Through Jan. 8. Disneyland Park. From $95 for a one-day admission.
Glittering Lights, Las Vegas Motor Speedway
The spectacle: A chance, sort of, to drive on a racetrack, but visitors will want to circle the 2.5-mile display of 3 million LED lights at a crawl, the better to see 500 animated and sparkling displays.
New this year: a 40-foot pirate ship and a tribute to the United States featuring the Statue of Liberty and man on the moon.
Best vantage point: The tunnels of lights are designed to immerse visitors in the ultimate photo-op.
Bonus experience: See the show from the open-air Santa Tram, $35 per person. Includes snacks, drinks, photos with Santa, games and expedited access.
Info: Through Jan. 7. 7000 Las Vegas Blvd. N., Glittering Lights
Blossoms of Light, Denver Botanic Gardens
The spectacle: Though plants aren’t in bloom, the wintry garden comes alive with oodles of lights and holiday displays. Snow, ice and more than 1 million lights add wintry glitter to 17 acres of intricate gardens and architecture in the heart of Denver.
New this year: an interactive LED light show in the amphitheater.
Best vantage point: The experience gets psychedelic with HoloSpex glasses that transform the lights into sparkly, 3-D shapes such as snowflakes and candy canes.
Bonus experience: The Trail of Lights at outlying Chatfield Farms puts a rural twist on holiday lights with a winding path through the barns, covered wagons and rustic landscape. 8500 W. Deer Creek Canyon Road, Littleton, Colo.
Info: Through Jan. 1. 1007 York St., Blossoms of Light $13 for adults, $10 for kids ages 3 to 15.
Austin Trail of Lights, Zilker Park, Austin, Texas
The spectacle: The Texas capital celebrates 50 years of lighting the centerpiece of its holiday light festival, the 155-foot Zilker Tree, the nation’s largest man-made Christmas tree.
As you’d expect of Texas, superlatives define the Trail of Lights, which glows with 2 million lights and 41 displays. Tradition and innovation blend at the Groovy Grove, where visitors interact with music and lights.
Best vantage point: Take it all in at the top of the Ferris wheel or carousel.
Bonus experience: Buy the Platinum Access pass for $80 to $225 for valet parking and preferred entry to the exhibit, lounge and rides.
Info: Through Dec. 23. Austin Trail of Lights. $3 general admission.
Illuminate SF Festival of Light, San Francisco
The spectacle: A dozen neighborhoods host 35 temporary and permanent light-art installations by 31 artists. During the holidays, the festival organizes free nighttime light-art walking tours, Saturday museum tours, studio visits and artist talks. Several installations are in San Francisco International Airport.
Best vantage point: The city’s light-art centerpiece is Leo Villareal’s “The Bay Lights” on the San Francisco Bay Bridge, which in December is best viewed when the sun sets about 5 p.m.
Bonus experience: Look to the water and the streets for random sightings of “Urban UFOs” — artist Eric Staller’s “Lightmobile” VW Beetle and his floating, lighted dome, “Bubble Boat.”
Info: Through Jan. 1. Illuminate SF Festival of Light
ZooLights at the Oregon Zoo, Portland, Ore.
The spectacle: The 29th annual ZooLights — more like an immersive 3-D light show than a typical holiday display — re-creates animals and habitats in vivid strands of lights.
Look for hippos, crocodiles and even peacocks to shine brightly in the darkness.
Best vantage point: The experience of walking among 1.6 million lights can’t be captured in one look, but the bridge to Elephant Lands offers a nice view.
Bonus experience: Ride an old-fashioned miniature “steam” train and carousel, gloriously lighted for the holidays; $2.50 to $4. And there’s maple-bacon cotton candy and a hot cocoa cart.
Info: Through Jan. 1. 4001 S.W. Canyon Road, ZooLights at the Oregon Zoo. Adults $9.95-$14.95; kids ages 3-11 $4.95-$9.95.
Farolito Walk, Santa Fe, N.M.
The spectacle: Bask in the glow of Christmas lights, luminarias (small bonfires) and farolitos (votives in small paper bags) on the free Christmas Eve walk on Canyon Road.
The event, a Santa Fe tradition since the ’70s, attracts thousands of visitors to the historic, half-mile-long street lined with art galleries.
Best vantage point: A slow, steady stroll is the best way to navigate the crowds, said Santa Fe travel expert Billie Frank, who suggested keeping your eyes peeled for spontaneous displays of festivity — folks adorned with strands of lights, impromptu carolers or model train displays.
Bonus experiences: Glow, through Jan. 1, features thousands of lights throughout the Santa Fe Botanical Garden as well as a special laser light show. There’s entertainment every night, holiday music and kids’ activities. Kakawa Chocolate House brews historic and authentic elixirs, guided by traditions from 1000 BC to the mid-1900s. Get a hot cuppa there or take home a bag of the Aztec Warrior Elixir ($15).
Info: Farolito Walk. Glow. $9 admission, free for kids 12 and younger.