Once your kids reach a certain age, it becomes increasingly difficult to plan family vacations around their school and activity schedules. Many parents find themselves taking their kids out of school for vacations or planning short trips during school holidays. With most schools closing for nearly two weeks during the month of December, it’s prime time for a family vacation. It also happens to be a particularly exciting time of year, with all of the winter holiday festivities in full swing. Read on for a look at the best family vacations in December.
1. North Pole, NY
Yes, you read that right! Nestled in the Adirondack Mountains is a tiny hamlet that’s been christened North Pole. If your family enjoys the mountains and winter sports like skiing and snowboarding, the Adirondacks is an ideal destination any time in winter. But during the month of December, a visit to North Pole is particularly spectacular. A wonderful Christmas village themed park—complete with Santa’s Workshop—is central to the town and worth a day or two for those with small children. Visitors can see Santa and his reindeer, get treats from a bake shop and candy shop, visit the blacksmith where the reindeer’s magical shoes are made, and more. There are even live Christmas-themed performances each day and other rides and attractions including coasters, kiddie rides and a 24-foot train. There are a number of quaint inns and scenic vacation rentals in the surrounding area, and special package deals for the North Pole theme park and attractions are available on select weekends.
Recommended Hotel: Crowne Plaza Lake Placid
2. Quebec City, Canada
Quebec City has a cozy vibe year-round, but despite the typically frigid temps, it truly shines during the winter months. Since the region experiences cold, snowy weather most of the year, much of its tourism industry is centered around things people can do to enhance the winter wonderland experience. From tobogganing down a massive slide in the middle of the city to staying at an ice hotel, there are a number of novel and absolutely thrilling options for families. For a unique experience, take a short drive outside of the city to tour an authentic sugar shack and see how maple syrup is produced. You can also enjoy a traditional Quebecois meal and live music. If you’re in town during the world-famous Winter Carnival, it’s a must-do and no visit would be complete without spending a day in the charming Petit-Champlain district with its cobblestone streets, hidden passages and slew of fantastic shops and restaurants, many of which celebrate the local Quebecois culture. Petit-Champlain practically transforms into a Christmas village in December, making it an even more spectacular destination for a family photo op.
Recommended Hotel: Fairmont Le Chateau Frontenac
3. Yosemite National Park, CA
Though winter is low season for Yosemite National Park, a family vacation in December means you’ll experience more solitude and get to see the park in a way many others don’t: covered in a dreamy dusting of snow. Though not all of the park’s access roads are open this time of year, several are, allowing visitors to see Yosemite Valley and Yosemite Falls (which still flows lightly throughout December). There are even some open hiking trails throughout the winter months, perfect for more adventurous families. Plus, from mid-December onward, your family can enjoy skiing at Badger Pass Ski Area.
If you’re in town during the holidays, nearby Evergreen Lodge offers holiday packages and features a huge array of Christmas-themed daily and nightly activities including S’mores and a tree lighting to please the little ones, and wine tastings and yoga classes for grown-ups. There’s also an Old World-style Christmas feast and optional guided sightseeing tours of Yosemite.
Recommended Hotel: Evergreen Lodge
4. Seattle, WA
Winter is also low season in the Pacific Northwest, but if your family doesn’t mind getting a bit wet, the weather won’t put too much of a damper on your vacation—temps in the Seattle area rarely dip below the mid-40s during the day. Plus, there are great deals this time of year and Seattle and its surrounding towns positively explode with winter and holiday festivities. If you’re in town leading up to Christmas, check out events such as the Christmas Lighting Festival in the nearby German-inspired village of Leavenworth, go sledding, enjoy live music, and more. There’s also the Winter Solstice Night Market at historic Magnuson Park, which is hosted by the Seattle Farmer’s Market Association and features dozens of food trucks, shops, live music and an adults-only beer hall for parents who want to taste some local brews.
If you’re traveling during other weeks in December, you might consider making Suncadia Resort—about an hour-and-a-half outside of Seattle—your home base. The resort features an impressive annual Winter Fest with activities including winter craft sessions, nightly “Grinch & Elf” tuck-ins, ice skating, snow tubing, hot cocoa paint-and-sips, and much more.
Recommended Hotel: Suncadia Resort
5. Disney World, FL
While it’s pricey, a Disney family vacation in December is a once-in-a-lifetime experience your kids won’t forget. The parks are covered in extravagant holiday décor, there are festive live performances, special seasonal treats for purchase, and an incredible holiday-themed fireworks show at the Magic Kingdom. There’s also a nightly candlelight processional and retelling of the Christmas story at Epcot. Of course, if you stay at a Disney World Resort Hotel, the festivities won’t end at the park gates. From spectacular Christmas trees and holiday decorations to elaborate holiday feasts and special winter- and holiday-themed activities for children, there’s plenty to enjoy, even when you’re not park hopping.
Recommended Hotel: Disney’s Art of Animation Resort
6. Key West, FL
For a more low-key, but still unique December family vacation in Florida, a visit to Key West is a great option. Key West goes big for the holidays, offering locals and tourists the chance to experience a quirky and utterly enjoyable variety of festive activities and attractions. In fact, Key West puts on an annual Holiday Fest with different events throughout the month of December. They include The Harbor Walk of Lights at the historic seaport, with nautical-themed decorations; the “Bight” Before Christmas Celebration (a bight is a geographical feature of the shoreline); tours of historic inns decked out for the holidays; and holiday shopping at any of Key West’s unique boutiques and shops. You can even take a tour on a boat decorated for the season to see the holiday splendor from the water.
Recommended Hotel: Parrot Key Hotel & Villas
7. Puerto Rico
Like most of the Caribbean, Puerto Rico is full of tourists in December—and with good reason: it’s absolutely beautiful during the holiday season. Homes and stores are decorated, there’s celebratory music everywhere, authentic holiday meals featuring roast pork and other traditional dishes are served up in restaurants, and the beaches and rainforest are open and ripe for exploration. If you happen to stay in a more residential area, you might even get to witness the island’s legendary parrandas, which is essentially the Puerto Rican version of caroling. Sometime after dinner, people visit their neighbors with instruments in hand, merrily singing from house to house, with each family joining the parade as it reaches their home. Churchgoers should also look into attending a traditional Misa de Aguinaldo (daily mass leading up to Christmas) or a Misa de Gallo on Christmas Eve, to cap off their traditional Puerto Rican holiday experience.
Recommended Hotel: Sheraton Old San Juan Hotel & Casino
While Anguilla gets busier during the holiday season, this tiny Eastern Caribbean island is still more relaxed and less crowded than many of the Caribbean’s most popular destinations. It’s truly a place to unplug during the holidays. Early in the month, you’ll even enjoy low-season rates on accommodations. Families will revel in the pristine beaches and the many activities available, including sports and games like volleyball and cornhole, swimming, boating, fishing and other beachy diversions. During the holiday season, visitors will have the unique opportunity to participate in a number of community events honoring the season, including the Christmas tree lighting in what is known as “The Valley,” and various Christmas pageants that are held throughout the island. The islanders are also known to go all out with their holiday decorations, which can make for particularly fun drives and evening strolls with little ones. Don’t forget to find restaurants serving up traditional Anguillan holiday meals as well—even better if you can snag an invite from a local!
Recommended Hotel: Frangipani Beach Resort
9. Zurich, Switzerland
Zurich may not be the first European destination that comes to mind when planning a family vacation in December. But as the largest city in Switzerland, it’s a dynamic destination your family will love. Sure, the weather in December can be snowy, cold and gray, but the prices can also be more affordable. Plus, the city’s festive and charming atmosphere this time of year makes up for the cold temperatures. Zurich is full of history, world-class museums and lots of family-friendly attractions; it’s surrounded by rolling hills full of walking and hiking trails and of course, it’s close to the Alps, where some of the world’s best ski slopes are located. Kids will love exploring the University of Zurich’s Zoological Museum, the FIFA World Football Museum and the thousands of twinkling lights that decorate the National Museum in December. But the main highlight of any trip to Zurich in December should be a visit (or several) to the city’s incredible Christmas markets, including Christkindlimarkt at Zurich Main Station, and the markets around the Bahnhofstrasse, the city’s high-end shopping district.
Recommended Hotel: Gstaad Palace
10. Edinburgh, Scotland
Edinburgh is a scenic city year-round, but it truly sparkles with charm and coziness throughout the month of December. Strolling through the historic streets, gazing at its ancient castles as snow falls amidst twinkling lights is a special experience, especially for kids who still believe in the magic of the holidays. The traditional Christmas market that’s set up in Princess Street Gardens is a wonderful melding of German-style markets and true Scottish markets and gives families the chance to shop for gifts, sample authentic holiday treats, play carnival-style games and try out rides such as the Big Ferris Wheel and a Christmas train appropriate for all ages. A short distance from the Christmas Market is St. Andrew’s Square, where you can take your brood ice skating to burn off some energy. Beyond the holiday festivities, a visit to Edinburgh Castle is a must and if time permits, a trek out to the Scottish Highlands shouldn’t be missed.
Recommended Hotel: The Balmoral Hotel
Shayne is a freelance writer and editor who has been passionately covering all things travel, food, wellness and parenting for over a decade. Experiencing the world and its diversity of cultures through travel is one of her favorite things to do, especially alongside her adventure-loving kids and husband. More of her work can be found on SmarterTravel.com, CruiseCritic.com, MamasLatinas.com, VivaFifty.com, CafeMom.com and her personal blog, fitmamilife.com. Shayne’s work has also appeared on Huffpost, ABC News and BabyCenter.com.