Holiday Train The Chicago Transit Authority brings festive flair to typical El trains, but the rides don’t cost a penny more than the usual $2.25 fare. On select weekdays and all weekends before Christmas, Santa dashes through the city in his sleigh (atop a flatbed car) pulled by decorated, peppermint-scented passenger coaches. At certain stops, jolly El conductors dressed in elf costumes take photos of kids with Santa and hand out candy canes; on some days, the train delivers food baskets to charitable organizations. Holiday music plays throughout the six cars, which are tricked out with holiday-patterned upholstery and tinsel garland-wrapped poles. Check the website for the schedule. (312) 836-7000; transitchicago.com
Brookfield Zoo’s Holiday Magic Neon laser light shows brighten winter nights with pulsing beams projecting animals rocking out to a catchy mash-up of Christmas tunes. Stroll past 100 trees decorated by community groups, warm up in animal exhibits, and pose for photos with Santa and Mrs. Claus. Dickens-period carolers, ice sculptors, magicians and almost 1 million holiday lights lift spirits here, 10 miles west of the Loop, on December weekends. Admission charged. (708) 688-8000; czs.org/events
Butch McGuire’s A generation ago, mostly singles shopping for company in the bar scene along Rush and Division streets saw Butch McGuire’s whimsical Christmas decorations dangling from the ceiling. But today, families also enjoy the 51-year-old bar’s holiday trains chugging around the double-decker, twinkling track during a burger lunch or weekend brunch. Fun holiday memories never get old. (312) 787-4318; butchmcguires.com
Cuneo Mansion’s Holiday Light Show Yes, Grinches complain about the line of traffic waiting to get in. But try a weeknight visit to suburban Vernon Hills (40 miles northwest of the Loop), where a drive-through display wraps around the 75-acre estate’s gardens originally designed by Jens Jensen. The dazzling 2-mile route passes dozens of light sculptures, snowy scenes and a life-size Nativity in front of the Italianate-style villa built in 1918. The show runs November 23 through December 31, 2012 (closed December 24–25). Admission is $5 per car Mondays–Thursdays, $10 per car on weekends. (847) 362-3042; cuneomansion.org
North School Park The light display isn’t huge but the subjects and level of detail in the figures in suburban Arlington Heights (30 miles northwest of the Loop) make it worth the trip. The designs change every year, but in the past have included a three-masted Spanish ship, a spinning windmill and revolving carousel. The scene opens November 23, 2012, with the town’s tree lighting; all of it is free. (847) 577-3000; ahpd.org
Still want to see more Christmas lights? Check out Mary Edsey’s book The Best Christmas Decorations in Chicagoland for more places to visit (christmashouses.com).
(A version of this story appeared in Midwest Living® November/December 2012. Prices, dates, and other details are subject to change, so please check specifics before making travel plans.)