No holiday season would be complete without seeing a light display. This year, we toted our family of five kids – ages 3 to 11 years to the drive-through City of Gaithersburg Winter Lights Festival located in Seneca Creek State Park just a few miles from the intersection of I-270.
Gates open at 6 p.m. When we arrived on around 6:15 p.m. on a Sunday night, several cars were already weaving their way through the display. There were only a couple cars ahead of us in the drive-through ticket booth. Cash and credit cards are accepted and a portion of ticket sales goes to local charities.
When you first enter the park, you pass the names of the festival’s sponsors in lights. Don’t let this discourage you because beyond you will find a treasure of more than 380 illuminated displays including 65 animated vignettes along a 3.5 mile paved route. The path is full of illuminated arches you drive under, only adding to the winter wonderland experience. Initially you will pass under quite a few that are decorated with snowflakes and other holiday scenes that prepare you for a magical journey through the themed areas – Winter Woods, Teddy Bear Land, Victorian Village and the North Pole, Toyland and Penguin Cove.
The entire drive was filled with holiday lights including Christmas trees, candy canes, lollipops, castle, snowmen, a ginger bread house, a train, a family ice skating on a pond, toy soldiers directing your path and of course, Santa and his reindeer. They have it all including a few unexpected displays such as an igloo with penguins and plenty of wildlife that you might find in the state park. We found displays of bears, rabbits, squirrels and acorns, a peacock, and fish, to name a few.
Some of the best displays light up in such a way as to show motion, such as a bunny hopping along. As we passed by the park’s 90-acre Clopper Lake, there was a beautiful on water vignette of a fisherman in his boat, swans, a sailboat and a sea monster that resembled the Loch Ness monster. This was one of our favorite displays. The in-water lights reflected beautifully and the kids kept wondering how the lights got in the water.
The path is well-marked and easy to follow. Once you pass Toyland, mid-way through, the cars loop back around through the first half of displays and continue on to new displays. Everything was clearly visible in both directions even for those displays that you pass by once. You are not allowed to leave your car for the duration of the ride. Depending upon the traffic, you can cruise at a nice pace. We had several cars in front of us and went slower than a previous visit when we arrived right as the gates opened. Our 40 minute drive this year was was full of “ooos and ahhs” from my children. Under more crowded conditions, expect a slower cruise. Pack diversions for kids that you know might have a difficult time waiting. We put on Christmas music for the drive and the light displays enchanted the children the entire time.
Besides the festival there are special annual Enchanted Evenings – including a dog walk, an open air trolley ride and s’more making, Wine Under the Lights and a 5K run/walk. These events are typically held on various dates in November and sell out quickly. Visit the festival website for complete details.
Nothing is more magical during the Christmas season than a holiday light display and the City of Gaithersburg Winter Lights Festival did not disappoint.
Good to Know
- The Winter Lights Festival is open nightly November 25 to December 31, 2016 (closed Dec. 25th). Hours are Sunday through Thursday from 6 to 9 p.m., and Friday and Saturday from 6 to 10 p.m.
- Cash, MasterCard, Visa, Discover, and American Express are accepted.
- Cars, SUV’s, Mini-Vans are $12 Monday through Thursday and $15 Friday through Sunday. Limos and 20-passenger vans are $20, mini-buses are $30 and buses (30 seats or more) are $70, regardless of the day of the week.
- Weekends are typically the busiest. If you attend on a weeknight, keep in mind rush hour traffic heading north on 270.
- Although the event is held RAIN OR SHINE, the City may make a weather related decision to close for safety reasons. If you are unsure, check the City of Gaithersburg website for updated information.
- The only bathrooms available are several port-a-potties by the entrance and exit of the park, and just past the admissions booth. Visitor center at park entrance is closed.
- No food is available but you will find several restaurants nearby including Dogfish Head Alehouse.
- A promotional video is available for viewing on YouTube.
Photos courtesy of the City of Gaithersburg.