Unique Midwest Light Displays to See This Winter
As dusk descends on a chilly evening in East Troy, Wisconsin, the village square dances with lights. They climb the facades of buildings, snake around tree trunks and curve into tunnels. Iron lanterns frame the town's bookshop and (real) snowflakes float down, adding to the magic of this quaint holiday scene.
Though it may sound like an old-fashioned Christmas, this downtown is rooted firmly in the 21st century. Here, you control the town's holiday lights displays using technology—a phone app and handheld devices shaped like candy canes. Participants flick the lights on and off, spiral them across buildings and send them spinning in a loop.
"It can be an emotional experience," says Vanessa Lenz, executive director of the East Troy Area Chamber of Commerce. "My mother-in-law was crying, because it really transports you." Like a light show controlled by a toddler, our search for holiday lights experiences zigzagged away from traditional offerings. Because while we love a classic drive-through display, we love it even more when a town or business adds their own sparkle. Open-air bus ride, anyone?
East Troy Lights, East Troy, Wisconsin
In this village of 4,000 residents, community is the word of the season. "We knew from day one that we couldn't accomplish anything without working together," says Vanessa Lenz. College and high school students built the mini computers that enable visitors to control the East Troy Lights interactively. Younger students wrote the programming for the (noninteractive) evening light shows. And it takes volunteers more than two weeks to install displays and string thousands of lights, climbing ladders to make the downtown square shine.
Anheuser-Busch Brewery Lights, St. Louis
Embrace holiday cheer in more ways than one at Anheuser-Busch's annual Brewery Lights event. The company headquarters glitters with more than a million lights. Walk through the spectacle and book an additional igloo or firepit package to stay awhile. If you're up for more, head 140 miles west to Warm Springs Ranch, where the famous Budweiser Clydesdales are raised in Central Missouri. The horses reside on more than 300 acres, and during the holiday season, visitors embark on DIY tours of the light-festooned facilities and grounds.
All Is Bright Tour, Inver Grove Heights, Minnesota
It's not a one-horse open sleigh, but Twin Cities Sightseeing Tours offers the next best option: an open-air bus adventure. Santa pilots the 13-seater to residential lights displays throughout the St. Paul suburb of Inver Grove Heights. Sing along to a holiday playlist, layer with blankets and don't forget your travel mug—we recommend a hot toddy or spiked cocoa—to take the edge off the chill. For those feeling less hardy, the company offers a similar experience in a traditional enclosed bus.
Related: Great Midwest Winter Weekend Escapes
Memory Lane Train, Comstock Park, Michigan
Twenty-five years ago, Bill Schrader gathered a handful of fellow veterans to build a holiday lights display on the parking lot of a baseball stadium in western Michigan's Grand Rapids' metro area. Armed with generators and extension cords, the crew created an instant tradition. Today, the Christmas Lite Show comes together with the help of more than 30 veterans (and a few nonmilitary folks) and eight semitrailers of lights. While visitors typically drive through the exhibit, the open-sided Memory Lane Train adds an extra sprinkle of magic. The wheeled train takes riders on a 2-mile loop under shimmering archways and alongside snowmen, baby dinosaurs, an American flag—and some 2 million other brightly glowing lights.
Holiday Lights Segway Tour, Chicago
With iconic window displays on State Street, a bedazzled Christmas tree in Millennium Park and gleaming glass ornaments at Daley Plaza's Christkindlmarket, Chicago glitters in December. See more of the city—on wheels—with Absolutely Chicago's Holiday Lights Segway Tour. "Chicago feels magical when it is illuminated with millions of lights, so we developed a tour to showcase it," says Brittany Cortina of Absolutely Chicago Segway Tours. "We made getting to and from the best holiday attractions part of the celebration."
World of Winter, Grand Rapids, Michigan
Chase lights into the new year at World of Winter, a free, two-month celebration of outdoor art and activities that launches January 6, 2023, in Grand Rapids, Michigan. This year's installations, commissioned from artists all over the world, include the following: An illuminated house of cards, with artwork from 35 visual and street artists; oversized, colorful wings with white halos where visitors can pose like an angel; two "talking heads" that use 4,000 LEDs to create countless facial expressions; and The Roaming Gnomes, giant inflatables who will stop by on their trip around the world,