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Want to pack everyone in the car for a family holiday away from home? Depending on where you live, these state-by-state holiday road trip vacation ideas cater to COVID-19 restrictions.

By Melissa Klurman
November 24, 2020
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It's beginning to look a lot like Christmas, and we could not be more ready for a vacation. Although this is not the year for a far-flung vacation or a jet-fueled adventure (unless, of course, you have a private jet and access to a secluded island, Kardashian-style), there are still plenty of safe Christmas vacation ideas for 2020. The key is to focus closer to home this year.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the safest thing to do is stay home this holiday season. But if you feel the need to travel, road trips and driving vacations are the safest way to do it. And families are following the recommendations, with most likely to drive instead of fly on their next trip, according to research by VRBO. And travel experts at Travelocity found that Americans traveling this holiday season are staying within 250 miles of home.

Happy kids in car wearing sunglasses and santa hats
Credit: Getty Images

But driving doesn't have to mean a lackluster experience. In fact, we've found spots around the country, both well known and off-the-beaten-track, decking the halls and going full out with festivities while also keeping COVID-safe and socially distanced. Here are some of our favorite options for families:

Visit a Theme Park

For full "Lights, Santa, Action" Christmas cheer it's hard to beat the theme parks for holiday magic made real. And many of the most popular parks are shining bright this Christmas while still taking full COVID-19 precautions (note though that California theme parks are not open at this time). According to Becca Bides of Visit Orlando, "Theme parks and resorts have risen to the challenge to re-imagine holiday traditions in ways that are fresh, creative and in-line with the new world of travel. Families will still be dazzled and connect together, but in ways they feel comfortable and safe."

Our best tip: Reserve a timed entry slot well in advance since parks are operating at limited capacity in line with social distancing at all the parks.

If You Live in Florida

Holidays at Walt Disney World Resort: In addition to miles of garlands and Christmas decor, this year Santa makes appearances during surprise character cavalcades; Cinderella Castle at Magic Kingdom Park receives a festive look with new holiday projections; Epcot offers up tasty holiday fare from around the world during the International Festival of the Holidays; and in Hollywood Studios Anna and Elsa lead a holiday edition of "A Frozen Sing-Along Celebration." Check out this piece for a full run-down of how to do Disney safely.

Universal Orlando Resort: Festivities include the all-new "Universal's Holiday Experience featuring Macy's Balloons," with larger-than-life parade balloons and floats; holiday decorations and musical performances along the streets of Hogsmeade and Diagon Alley; and a character encounter from Dr. Seuss' The Grinch.

SeaWorld Orlando's Christmas Celebration: The park transforms into a winter wonderland sparkling with more than 3 million lights this holiday season; safe Santa greetings; Christmas, Hanukkah, and Kwanzaa celebrations with Sesame Street friends; and open air experiences including outdoor ice skating (yes, in Florida).

Give Kids the World Night of a Million Lights: The non-profit resort dedicated to providing cost-free vacations to kids with life threatening illnesses is closed to their usual guests right now, but is opening its doors to the public this holiday season for a walk-through, fully immersive holiday light spectacular with more than three million glittering lights, a chance to try out their private rides, and complimentary holiday treats. Bonus: Admission supports the resort's incredible cause.

Gaylord Palms: Not a theme park, per se, but this massive complex is a good option for a socially-distanced rainy day, and its "I Love Christmas Movies" holiday popup is tinsel-coated tribute to holiday joy. The whole fam can step into more than a dozen scenes from key moments in iconic Warner Bros. Pictures Christmas movies. Some of our favorites: Traveling with Buddy the Elf from Santa's North Pole workshop to New York City and taking photos in front of the Griswold's house adorned with thousands of Christmas lights. (Note: You can also find "I Love Christmas Movies" popups at Gaylord properties in Colorado, Texas, and Tennessee).

Where to stay: Although there are plenty of hotels to consider throughout Orlando, for safe social-distancing this season consider a vacation rental property. TurnKey is a vacation rental site that uses EPA certified COVID-19 cleaning products for their properties and has rentals with resort-like amenities. One Orlando vacation spot we're loving: A 5-bedroom, 5-bathroom house with a pool near Disney for just $215 a night.

If You Live in Tennessee

Dollywood's Smoky Mountain Christmas, named America's Best Theme Park Christmas event for a dozen consecutive seasons, Dolly Parton's namesake Tennessee theme park will glow brightly once again with more than 5 million lights this holiday season illuminating every inch of the charming streets and attractions. Special shows, including Christmas in the Smokies and Heart of the Holidays, are a highlight, as are seasonal culinary offerings (yum, cinnamon bread!), and the new "Merry & Bright" fireworks displays set to holiday tunes for a very "Dolly" Christmas.

Where to stay: The Gatlinburg and Pigeon Forge area is one of VRBO's top trending locations for families according to a spokesperson. One reason vacation rentals here are so popular: Kitchens stocked with appliances and amenities so families can eat meals at home as well as flexible cancellation policies. Check out this great family option in the Smokey Mountains with incredible views, 4 bedrooms, 4 bathrooms, a fire pit, and a game room for $289 a night.

If You Live in Missouri

Nestled in the Ozark Mountains, the entire entertainment resort town of Branson, Missouri, transforms into a winter wonderland every Christmas with millions of lights, dozens of decorated trees, and special holiday shows. For this year, there are also plenty of COVID-safe driving tours to take in all the festive decor, including Let There Be Lights!, Branson's Lights of Joy and Trail of Lights.

Another top holiday experience here is An Old Time Christmas at the 1880s-style theme park, Silver Dollar City, which sparkles with more than 6.5 million lights covering nearly every inch of streets, buildings, walkways, and trees within the park. The park also has outdoor live shows, holiday foods, and the Rudolph's Holly Jolly Christmas Light Parade.

Where to stay: Club Wyndham's resorts provide families with spacious suites with separate living areas, bedrooms, full kitchens, and dining spaces that undergo rigorous cleaning protocols and offer full resort amenities, including several outdoor pools, a playground, and basketball court.

Get Off the Beaten Path

One way to avoid crowds is to explore destinations slightly off the main tourist paths. Here are a few to try:

If You Live in South Carolina

Where to go: Greenville

Holiday highlights: While this year may look different, there will be no shortage of Christmas in Greenville, with a downtown that feels like your own version of a Hallmark movie, with Christmas carolers harmonizing on the streets, dozens of giant trees bedazzled for the Festival of Trees competition throughout town, Santa's motorized sleigh gliding down Main Street with an elf in tow, and ice skaters spinning around a rink that's a mini replica of Rockefeller Center.

If You Live in Colorado

Where to go: Colorado Springs

Holiday highlights: With the snow-covered Front Range of the Rocky Mountains as the backdrop and plenty of holiday cheer, Colorado Springs is the perfect, cozy vacation or staycation—plus it's easy to get outside and socially distance. At the top of the itinerary is soaking in the festive décor at The Broadmoor hotel, enjoying Christmas tea at Miramont Castle Museum, and taking the kids to The North Pole—Santa's Workshop up by Pikes Peak.

If You Live in Virginia

Where to go: Middleburg, Loudoun County, Virginia

Holiday highlights: Middleburg's picturesque historic downtown looks like a scene from a Christmas Carol during the holidays. Washington Street is decorated with twinkling lights, antique wooden Christmas ornaments adorn the light posts, and a town tree glistens. This year, visitors can partake in a family-focused scavenger hunt around town, enjoy free hot cocoa at various stops around town, drop letters for Santa at the local post office, and giddyup on carriage rides.

If You Live in Southern California

Where to go: San Luis Obispo, California

Holiday highlights: Downtown San Luis Obispo is bringing the holiday cheer this December with highlights such as Light Up Downtown with Santa's house and a towering holiday tree surrounded by a 20-foot rainbow light tunnel and a glowing tree forest. And families can help Search For Santa Mouse, with a free scavenger hunt activity book where kids can win prizes.

Quick Hops from City Centers

You may be surprised how much the scenery changes, the stress drips away, and the holiday season glows with a road trip of 3 hours or less from major cities. Here are a few to consider:

If You Live in the Washington, DC Area

Where to go: Chesapeake Bay (drive time about 3 hours)

To avoid crowds, think of traditional summer getaways this winter such as Virginia's River Realm, where the Rappahannock River meets the western shores of the Chesapeake Bay. It includes 465 miles of shoreline, eight great small towns, and hundreds of unique attractions.

The region's premier resort The Tides Inn is located on a private peninsula on the Chesapeake Bay in a town with just 400 residents. For Christmas, the property will have holiday cookie decorating, pie baking workshops, gingerbread house making, and even a visit from Santa.

If You Live in the Chicago Area

Where to go: Lake Forest, IL (drive time about 1 hour)

Nestled in the snowy town of Lake Forest provides an idyllic wintry escape from the city of Chicago to enjoy winter fun like snowball fights, snowman making, and ice skating on an outdoor pond maintained by the town.

A roaring fire will greet you at the Deer Path Inn creating a cozy feeling as soon as you step through the threshold of this lodge-like property. In addition to Christmas cheer in the form of homemade Christmas cookies, hot chocolate, and a gingerbread replica of the Inn, you'll find top-notch safety precautions here, including rooms left empty for 48 hours between guests.

If You Live in the New York City Area

Where to go: Catskills (drive time about 3 hours)

Retreat to the snowy, secluded Catskills to enjoy spacious outdoor areas and easy skiing on the family-friendly slopes of Belleayre.

Enjoy an ultra-private holiday at kid-fantasy property the Roxbury at Stratton Falls. With eight individual Tower Cottages featuring bespoke designs and over-the-top themes—like Cinderella's Gown, transporting guests to another realm with an 18-foot ball gown doubling as a bedroom canopy and an enormous pumpkin morphing into a golden-carriage style bathroom—this feels like a truly magical get away. Guests can walk through the property's snow-covered private trails in between unwrapping gifts and sipping on steamy mugs of the hotel's special white chocolate hot cocoa. Cap off a jolly evening by admiring the property's technicolor Christmas lights.

If You Live in the Denver Area

Where to go: Estes Park (drive time about 90 minutes)

Although it's considered the base camp to Rocky Mountain National Park, this affordable mountain town doesn't get the winter crowds seen in Vail or Aspen, and we're fine with that. Instead, you'll be able to cross-country ski, skate, go horse back riding, hike, and enjoy the mountain air sans crowds.

Affordable mountain vacations for families are what YMCA of the Rockies does best, offering spacious cabins in a beautiful setting with wide porches and cozy fireplaces. And don't worry, just because it's a Y doesn't mean you won't be getting a full vacay experience, Lisa Eccles, Marketing & Communications Director, YMCA of the Rockies, says "We make it easy for our guests to have a relaxing winter getaway while creating lifelong memories for their families" with a new drive-thru Christmas light display, holiday craft kits to go, and dining options to go, including grocery delivery.

If You Live in the Los Angeles Area

Where to go: Pasadena (less than an hour)

Why go: It doesn't take long to get to Pasadena from downtown LA, but it feels like you've gone much further when you're gazing at the mountains or taking a hike.

The Langham Pasadena is amping up the holiday spirit for families with a Langham Kids Gingerbread Glamping package which includes a decorated tent in-room, a gingerbread house making kit, a children's Christmas book, and festive cookies and milk and reindeer headbands for the whole family to enjoy -- all in the comfort of your suite, many of which are freestanding villas with separate entrances.

Safety Tips for Holiday Travel

  • Book a vacation rental. Consider reserving aparthotels, extended stay hotels, and alternative accommodations like condos and vacation rentals, recommends Melissa Dohmen, senior brand manager at Travelocity. "These accommodation types have increased in popularity since the start of COVID-19 as many families opt to cook meals (and look for) social distanced accommodations such as cabins, lodges and inns."
  • Plan to be outdoors. The safest activities and interactions are held outdoors according to the CDC. While we love a good snowball fight and cup of cocoa, we're not super stoked about winter camping in the snow with the kids. That's okay, says Campspot, a booking site for camping, glamping, and RVs, there are plenty of sites in warmer climates, including near the national parks in spots like Arizona near the Grand Canyon and in sunny Florida and California. Campgrounds usually deck out with trees and lights for the holidays, and of course you can roast festive s'mores around the campfire while you wait for Santa to arrive.
  • Hit the road. The safest way to travel right now is by car according to our experts. Consider bringing your own snacks, groceries, and beverages to limit stops on the road trip. And pack masks and hand sanitizer, plus sanitizing wipes for times when you need to use public restrooms. "Seek out and support local businesses and providers and be sure to do research in advance to know what guidelines and safety and cleaning practices are in place," suggests Dohmen.
  • Do your homework. Check with local destinations about COVID-19 safety precautions and protocols and the CDC's latest recommendations, says Seema Sarin, M.D. director of Lifestyle Medicine at EHE Health,, and consider what the levels of COVID-19 are at your destination. "If community levels are high or if they've instituted a shelter in place order, that's a sign that levels are too high to risk and that you may want to stay home." Many destinations also have requirements and restrictions on who can travel there, so do your research. And of course consult the CDC's latest travel guidelines, says Dr. Sarin, wear a mask while traveling and to bring sanitation supplies.

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