Christmas Fun in Chicago and the Suburbs During Covid

Starting the day after Thanksgiving, I am usually taking my kids to all the local Christmas events and major activities of the city and suburbs.  They were starting to age out of many of it, so my focus was going to begin to change to museums, theater, and Christmas concerts, but then Covid did not go away in time.  We still managed to get out once or twice a week to see what the outdoor lights of the city and suburbs had to offer.  Here is what we have done, a few things we decided to skip because my kids were complaining they were tired of seeing lights, and a few things on our list.

  1. Illumination. The Morton Arboretum.  This is one of our favorite events, especially if you have a not so crowded and good weather day.  Normally it is a beautiful walk through wooded areas filled with lights that offer music, touch, and changing colors or effects.  This year they spread out many of these shining winter exhibits for an outdoor drive through experience.  It was lovely, but not quite the same.  They are currently sold out, although extra later hours have been added each Monday.  It is definitely worth it if it is one of the few things you do this year.  $27 +
  2. The New Lenox Commons.  Or any town or park district lights and events.  We live in this area so we have gone twice so far.  The lights and largest light up Santa in the U.S. along with a mailbox for letters to Santa are there every night.  But on Saturdays and Sundays before Christmas there are food trucks, socially distanced Santa visits, market vendors, skating and carriage rides.  Check their web site for skating hours.  If you want to see Santa or go on the carriage, lines are long so get in line right at 4:00.  These are not your usual lights.  There is a tunnel and a lighted sleigh and gingerbread house for photos so it is lovely on any evening.  There is only one weekend left for the events.  Nearby towns like Orland Park also have lights in their park and smaller displays in towns like Mokena.  Free.
  3. The Lincoln Park Zoo Lights.  I used to live in Chicago and only once went to see the lights. I can’t handle the crowds, although at that time I could walk there.  When I moved to the suburbs, I never wanted to deal with the parking until last year when a friend was in town and we met her family there.  I used park Whiz to make sure I had parking ahead of time and I found a close inexpensive spot.  It was lovely, but packed.  This year we went on a rainy night the first week the opened.  The rain stopped just for us and it was empty.  We loved being able to reserve a time and visit with no crowds.  We had to wait for Santa’s long dinner break, but there was no line when he returned.  Tickets are sold out for most times, but see what you can get.  Free-$5
  4. Aurora Festival of Lights by Phillip’s Park Zoo.  I have not gone this year because I read that lines could be 1-2 hours to drive through, although better on week days.  We went last year after visiting Blackberry Farm for a Christmas event so we were close.  It had wire framed images in lights and was cute, but I didn’t think I needed to go again with a long wait and long drive.  Free.
  5. Let it Shine in Northbrook.  I am not attending this because my kids are tired of lights, but I have seen several friends post that they have gone and enjoyed it.  Expect it to only be 10-20 minutes long if you have a long drive and know it is lighted tunnels and figures in a parking lot.  But with not a lot to do from the safety of your own car, it is an option and continues a couple weeks after Christmas.  $29-39 plus tax.
  6. Cosley Zoo.  Our Cub Scout pack had a tree here so we went to see it in lights.  It only took us 15 minutes to see all the lights.  The animals were not out at night and they served hot chocolate.  It is worth it if you are close since it is free or if you want to see something with no crowds, but not enough to do for a long drive. Free.
  7. Holiday in the Park at Great America.  I loved this.  Since no rides are offered this year, I thought we would just walk through part of the park to see some lights and maybe it wasn’t worth the drive or the $20 each.  But it was.  I didn’t do my research ahead of time so we walked into a winter wonderland with a musical performance with characters and a tree lightning that happens frequently.  The carousel lit up to the tune of different holiday songs.  There were multiple musical performances throughout the park.  Some have limited show times so plan your night well.  But even if you just walk by the music shows, there are ongoing light shows throughout the whole park.  One of our favorite parts was when Scrooge engaged with us and asked us questions.  There were also smore areas.  I believe they now offer drive through days if you are avoiding crowds.  That was my only problem.  They distanced seating and staff and most people wore masks, but some people still refused since it was outside and it was more crowded than we expected.  Go an earlier time if you can. $20.
  8. Zoolights at Brookfield Zoo.  Growing up in Brookfield, I love this event.  We haven’t made it yet this year due to weather, but I understand that anything indoors is closed and some of the usual displays now prevent crowding.  But they have added things like a tunnel.  We will be returning this week. Free.
  9. Summerfield Zoo.  This is on my list and a bit further north.  There will be Santa, the usual animals and reindeer.  I keep reading it is fun, but it doesn’t look the same.  This was one of the only places open after things started to get better after the quarantine. $12
  10. Fair Oaks Farm in Indiana.  Even if you do not do the sold out Santa event or rent an Igloo to eat in, you can still walk through the lights.  This is also on my list to attend before Christmas. Free for lights.
  11. Downtown Chicago (MiIllenium Park, Maggie Daley Park, and Macy’s).  We were sad when the mayor shut down indoor dining and our first and second reservations at the Walnut Room were cancelled as this would have ben our third year.  But we decided to go anyway and take a photo by the Macy’s tree.  That was one good thing.  No crowds and more space for the photo.  Santaland is virtual this year so we just took a photo by the fake mailbox.  We also visited the Macy’s windows.  They weren’t as fabulous as in the past and didn’t tell a story, but it was bright and colorful and still worth a visit.  Then we headed to the big tree in Millennium, park for photos.  We went early on a week night and there were no crowds.  Then we headed to Maggie Daley Park for ice skating on the skating ribbon since the Millennium Park skating was not happening this year.  You must reserve ahead of time, but it looked like people were still registering when we got there.  You can rent skates or bring your own.  It is a large ribbon and I ran around the outside of it following my inexperienced kids.  One son loved it.  The other isn’t a huge fan of skating.  It was lovely to spend a warm night outside skating while looking at the red and green lights of the city.  There was probably more we could have done, but this was a nice two hour night out. Free.  Skating $7-16
  12. NaperLights. Downtown Naperville around Water Street is lit up for the season.  This is on my list to just walk through.  Parking can be difficult. Free.
  13. Goebbert’s Christmas Lights Show at Goebbert’s Pumpkin Patch.  It is around $25 to drive through the lights.  I have not been and not sure I will, but it is another option for lights if the others are sold out or seem more crowded. $25 +
  14. Local events and lights.  Check for local store or town events.  We have gotten photos with Santa and an old fire truck and photos with Santa at a local candy store. Look on local Facebook pages for Christmas lights on houses.  We went to a great one in Manhattan with music and movies projected on the house.  We have skipped the Tinley Park House for now due to crowds and long waits.
  15. Online performances.  If you prefer to stay home, keep an eye out for local performances such as the Goodman Theater radio show of A Christmas Carol.

So it is not like the past and I am sad for what we can’t do this year, but we made the most of it and took advantage of all the outdoor activities and fun.

Filed under: Exploring Illinois

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