Before we get to the best light displays in Houston this season, we want to give you a couple of tips to make your visit hassle-free. One, figure out where you're going to park before you get there. Even with ample parking lots and closed streets, parking in Houston takes some planning. Two, dress according to the weather and according to the forecasts, even if the two seem to be unrelated. Translation: Yeah, it might be just cool in the afternoon, but it might be cold just a couple of hours later. If the weather station says it's going to freeze the day of your outing, believe it. And three, take some cash. Not lots, but some. Street vendors and carnival booth operators may not accept credit cards. (Scandalous, we know, but still a reality.)
Oh, and one more thing — the following holiday light attractions are presented in no particular order.
The Moody Gardens Festival of Lights and ICE LAND: Ice Sculptures with SpongeBob SquarePants is an absolute must for families. The festival of lights runs the gamut from walking around looking at pretty lights (there are more than 100 sound-enhanced, animated light displays) to swooshing full speed down the 100-foot-long Arctic Ice Slide in an inner tube.
Ice carvers and technicians have been working furiously for the past six weeks or so getting the SpongeBob exhibit ready. There are more slides, towering characters and holiday displays with a Bikini Bottom vibe. (Yes, everything's made of ice. And yes, it's very cold in that area.)
As always, the Moody Gardens Aquarium Pyramid, Rainforest Pyramid, Discovery Museum along with 3 and 4D theaters are also open. Ditto the very nice restaurant at the Moody Gardens Convention Center and Hotel next door.
A big reason we like Moody Gardens' holiday celebration? The complex is open 365 days a year. Yep, on Christmas Day, you can stuff your visiting relatives in the car and take them over to see SpongeBob SquarePants. Check out package ticket deals. You might save a few bucks.
See the Festival of Lights 6 to 10 p.m. daily. Through January 10. Moody Gardens, 0ne Hope Boulevard, Galveston Island. For information, call 800-582-4673 or visit moddygardens.com/holidays. Festival admission is $10. 95. Times and prices vary for other attractions.
The 52-day Magical Winter Lights makes its debut in Houston this year. Organizers have taken over Sam Houston Race Park and installed not only supersized Chinese lanterns (think huge illuminated movie sets), but a carnival, a full food court and a busy schedule of live performances. There are several scaled replicas of famous landmarks from around the world, including the Taj Mahal, Eiffel Tower, Mayan pyramids and Roman Colosseum, among them. The lineup also includes dinosaurs that move and roar. (Those are set off in the nearby woods for an extra WOW factor.) A few Houston sites also made the cut: the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo, the space shuttle, a couple of sports icons and the [Gerald D. Hines] Waterwall.
Organizers have poured $10 million into the festival, the largest of its kind ever in the United States and one of only a handful of light festivals being held in America this year.
Yeah, the festival lost a couple of points with us when it failed to meet its November 20 opening date, but it's open now. And to be fair, it was a monumental undertaking. Hundreds of workers have spent months assembling the lighted structures in China before traveling to Houston to complete the work. Once a structure was about 80 per cent complete, it was shipped to Houston, completed and installed. Altogether, there are acres and acres of attractions, carnival rides and attractions.
5 to 10 p.m. Mondays, Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays; 1 to 11 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays; 1 to 10 p.m. Sundays. Through January 10, 2016. Sam Houston Race Park, 7575 North Sam Houston Parkway West. For information, visit magicalwinterlights.com. $16 to $27.
Some 4,550 frosted spheres, illuminated by fiber optics, top flexible stems in the Bruce Munro's Field of Light installation currently at Discovery Green. (Workers spent more than 200 hours over a three-day period installing the creation.) The changing colors and the soft sway of the lights create an enchanted garden. The park's century-old oak trees form a canopy for much of the installation.
You might remember this attraction from last year. Yep, it's the same artist but not quite the same installation. One, stems aren't planted on a strict grid and the placements embrace randomness. Two, a pair of bridges connecting the Brown Promenade to a deck in one of the fields have been added, giving visitors an even more up-close view of the lights. (And making for a cool selfie!)
While you're at Discovery Green, take a spin around the ice rink (requires paid admission), watch an outdoor movie screening or enjoy the almost continuous entertainment and activities planned through the end of the holiday season.
See Bruce Munro's Field of Light installation dusk to 11 p.m. daily. Through February 21, 2016. The park is open 6 a.m. to 11 p.m. daily. Discovery Green, 1500 McKinney. For information, call 713-400-7336 or visit discoverygreen.com. Free.
The 28th annual Lights in the Heights is a favorite with locals. It's certainly a favorite with us. To be honest, we're kind of bummed it only lasts three hours, but gosh, it's a spectacular three hours. The streets are closed, allowing visitors to wander around looking at the holiday decorations. Homes along the route, big and small, are decorated to the max. There's lots of entertainment and loads of displays. What makes this celebration special is the fact that it's being put on by the neighborhood. There's a friendly hometown feel to the night.
One word of caution: Yes, there are some open houses and some parties on porches. No, you are not automatically invited. Ask before you grab a drink or pull up a chair.
6 to 9 p.m. December 12. Woodland Heights, Euclid and Woodland, from Studewood to Houston Avenue. For information, visit woodland-heights.org. Free.
The TXU Energy Presents Zoo Lights at the Houston Zoo has something none of the other attractions on this list have: the possibility of hearing a live lion roar in the night. Through January 9, the zoo closes at 5 p.m. When it reopens at 6 p.m., it has a completely different atmosphere. Trees and shrubs that had been regular green and brown just an hour before are suddenly covered in holiday lights. Where unremarkable "Monkeys This Way" and such signage had been the only thing to distract visitors from the zoo animals before dark, free-standing holiday lights displays dot the lawns and walkways.There's an illuminated art car or two, and the cafe starts serving up holiday fare. Toy trains go zipping around the base of an oak tree and it's "Merry Christmas" everywhere. The zoo becomes a holiday wonderland.
A holiday wonderland with lions. And monkeys. And bears.
True, you're there to see the lights and most of the animals are sleeping after 6 p.m., but every once in a while, visitors get lucky and a rumbling roar rolls across the zoo.
TXU Energy Presents Zoo Lights at the Houston Zoo 6 to 10 p.m. daily except December 24 and 25. Through January 9. Houston Zoo, 6200 Hermann Park Drive. For information, call 713-533-6500 or visit houstonzoo.org/zoolights. $14.95 to $19.95.
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See that tent in the middle of the photo above? It's standing over an ice rink. Technically, it's an outdoor ice rink, but it's not so outdoorsy as to be affected by rain or cold weather. The rink is just one of the attractions at Donoho's Jewellers' Winter Wonderland. It's a conspicuously long title, but hey, there's lots to do.
The Winter Wonderland pretty much strings lights and decorations on anything that isn't moving. One of the really good things about the Woodlands holiday lights display is that it covers a lot of ground. Even with throngs of people, it never feels crowded.
Woodlands Outdoor Ice Rink, hours vary daily. Through January 18. Donoho's Jewellers' Winter Wonderland 3 to 9 p.m. daily. Through January 18. Ice Rink admission is $9.50 to $10.50.