Gingerbread Yoda and Skydiving Santas Highlight This Year’s Quirkiest Christmas Events
From Florida to Washington, see how different states pump up the holidays their own way.
While there are plenty of quaint holiday towns for that postcard-perfect photo, if you're looking for something truly unique, you’ll need more than wreaths and mistletoe. Sure, you’ll probably see Santa at these offbeat attractions, but he’ll be catching a wave, wearing a cowboy hat, or wielding an ax. There are Christmas trees galore, but they're made out of goose feathers or sand or high-heeled shoes.
And it's all so festively over the top, that whether you're ordering hot chocolate from a 16-foot-tall gingerbread house or looking down at Tim Allen’s head, bearded and nestled on a bed of snow, you're bound to feel the holiday spirit. Every Christmas should be one of a kind. These 10 places guarantee it will be.
See Burning-Man level electric art at Camp Christmas
Camp Christmas is a tinsel-fueled fever dream—giddy, campy, and slightly surreal. Walk-through installations take over Heritage Lakewood Belmar Park every winter, tricking out its mid-century buildings with every decoration you can think of, along with several you never would. In the latter group are electric sheep projections, an owl with flaming wings à la Burning Man, and a beauty salon with 27 headdresses of Seussical proportions, piled high and nested with bows, elves, gifts, feathers, and forests.
As you traipse through the Lisa Frank-esque fantasyland, you can scan QR codes throughout the camp to earn Merry Badges (get it?) or marvel at the art, like the gaudy yet gorgeous Gift-O-Rama and the blindingly Instagrammable Pink Room. Then grab some hot buttered rum from one of the three bars and take a spin on the carousel—just not at the same time—as you ponder the meaning of it all. And don't forget to swing by the gift shop for those essential stocking stuffers such as ranch-flavored candy canes.
Admire Christmas worlds sculpted of sand at Sandi Land
West Palm Beach, Florida
If any place had a 700-ton sand tannenbaum, it would be South Florida. Welcome to Sandi Land, where a massive, sand-sculpted Christmas tree hosts nightly light shows synchronized with music and spurts of water from the Centennial Fountain nearby. Sandi has grown over the years, from a slim 400 tons in 2012 to her current size and fame—she’s even got her own Instagram. And this year, you can admire her from above as you ride the new 65-foot-tall Ferris wheel billed as her long-lost cousin.
There's another 100 tons of smaller sand sculptures scattered about the waterfront, such as a flamingo, a mermaid, and a walrus playing a guitar. The month-long Holiday in Paradise festivities hold several special events, including the usual pancake breakfast with Santa and the not-so-usual fire dancing.
Walk through mini and life-size candy houses at the National Gingerbread Competition
Asheville, North Carolina
Sure, there are perfectly traditional gingerbread houses at the National Gingerbread Competition, all gumdrop lanes, peppermint windows, scalloped icing, and gabled roofs. But the confections get increasingly creative, from a medieval castle to a carousel to a forest. And for this year's 30th anniversary, the organizers upped the ante with new awards for such culinary feats as “Best Use of Sprinkles” and “Most Unique Ingredient.”
Stop by The Omni Grove Park Inn to stroll past more than 200 sugary sculptures, each at least 75% gingerbread and 100% edible. Winning entries include a St. Nick/Yoda mashup, a mountain scene with a raccoon stealing Santa’s hat, Vecna’s lair in the Upside Down, and a typewriter where you can actually read the names on the naughty and nice list. Not impressed? Try the life-sized Great Gingerbread House, made of 400 pounds of sugar, 160 pounds of flour, and 64 pounds of egg whites.
Have a cowboy Christmas at Santa’s Wonderland
College Station, Texas
It's time to make a new yuletide tradition—like riding a mechanical bull or snapping a selfie with a seven-foot snowman named Marshall Frostbite who carries candy canes in his holster. Those are just two of the options at Santa’s Wonderland, claiming to be the largest Christmas park in the country. Across 150 acres, you can go snow tubing, take a hayride through over 3 million lights, see an Old West town bedazzled for the holidays, and pose for your Christmas card pic atop a lifelike longhorn. You’ll also meet the Man in Red himself, though his getup looks a little different with a cowboy hat and shiny, Texas-sized belt buckle.
Beyond the obligatory petting zoo and live nativity, there’s also wine tasting in a rustic-chic loft and a jumbotron in the barn playing nonstop holiday films for when you just want to hunker down with a plate of brisket. Close the night out with a concert—Feliz Navidad and dueling fiddles are all the Christmas cheer you need.
Let a stuffed animal cradle you at the Teddy Bear Suite
Some people deck the halls with boughs of holly. The Fairmont Olympic Hotel does it with teddy bears. Their annual Teddy Bear Suite is just about as cute as you'd imagine. The corner room is filled with nearly 100 plush bears, little ones six inches tall and big ones over six feet, meaning a grown-ass adult could nestle in the stuffed animal’s lap, and you absolutely should.
That’s right: It’s open season on teddy bear snuggles. There are bears piled on the four-poster bed, bears under the Christmas tree, bears above the fireplace. And if that’s not enough to delight your inner child (or the actual ones you might bring with you), the whole place looks straight out of Frozen: walls draped in white, icicles, ornaments, and silver garlands everywhere. Blue lights glimmer in the windows, while snowflakes swirl overhead. And to top it off—for the most Christmas spirit of all—any donations benefit the Seattle Children's Hospital.
Watch Santa jump from a helicopter into the ocean and other stunts at Surfing Santas
Cocoa Beach, Florida
If you think Christmas Eve is for hanging your stockings by the chimney with care, Cocoa Beach begs to differ. Maybe it's the average winter temp of 70 degrees or being home to the world’s largest surf shop, but this beach town kicks off the holiday every year with hundreds of surfing Santas. And if that sounds too humdrum, there are also Santas on jet skis, riding boogie boards, and jumping out of helicopters into the ocean.
After you’re done watching Kris Kringle hang ten, you can dig into a boozy breakfast buffet. Be sure to wear something festive—most of the 10,000 spectators do—or go all out and enter the costume contest. The quirkier, the better, although if you’re thinking of going as a snow globe, a skunk ape, or Santa riding a shark, it’s been done already.
Wear your PJs on the original Polar Express Train Ride
What do you get when you cross a beloved children’s book with an old Colorado rail town? If you answered the most adorably nostalgic holiday ride of your life, you’d be right. Every winter, the Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad carries passengers aboard a vintage steam locomotive to the North Pole for The Polar Express™ Train Ride. While there are more than 30 Polar Express trains around the country, this one is the original, recreating the story experience right down to the golden ticket and dancing chefs.
It takes about an hour—recommended attire is pajamas and snow boots—and on the way, you can watch reenacted scenes from the movie as you snuggle up with a warm mug of cocoa. At the North Pole, dazzling with thousands of lights, Santa boards the train to give each passenger the first gift of Christmas (IYKYK: it’s a sleigh bell). And then everyone sings carols all the way back to the depot, where you can visit with Santa, tour the free train museum, and meet live reindeer.
Hunt for elves at the Nisse Adventure
You may have heard of the 12 days of Christmas. What about the 12 nisser hiding in a whimsical California town less than an hour from Santa Barbara? Under two feet tall, beared, and wearing pointy caps over their eyes, these Danish gnomes are known for sneaking into people's houses to leave presents and play pranks, and finding them is a cherished tradition for the Danish-founded city of Solvang.
Pick up a set of rhyming clues at the visitor’s center. Then, once you’ve successfully located all of the dozen dolls, return to claim your prize: your very own tiny trickster to hang on your tree and blame for any holiday gaffes. The scavenger hunt is a popular part of the annual Julefest, which rounds out your experience with music and light shows, a parade, candlelight tours, and more hygge than you can shake a peppermint stick at.
See what lurks beneath the water on the Creepy Christmas Boat Tour
Bay St. Louis, Mississippi
An hour east of New Orleans are the silent backwaters known as the Devil’s Swamp. Also called the Hancock County Marsh Coastal Preserve, these mist-shrouded and mysterious waters are prime habitat for the rougarou, a werewolf-like creature from Creole folklore. Every December, he teams up with a bad Santa—“who sees you when you're sleeping”—for a hair-raising ride through the bayou on the Creepy Christmas Boat Tour.
Your guide, Mystic Molly, spins a macabre holiday fairytale with riddles, song, and a few characters, like Skully, the skull-topped Christmas tree. There’s a coffin in the boat, and the surprise ending is a bit gruesome, so maybe leave the kids home for this one. Regroup afterward at the bonfire as you roast s’mores and commune with fellow travelers about the things you've seen.
Carole with a giant yeti, golf with aliens, and wander through winter scenes at Castle Noel
Filled with hundreds of Christmas movie props, thousands of toys, and something called Santa’s Chimney Squeeze, Castle Noel celebrates the season in the most oversized, exuberant way—and they do it year-round, in case you want to hang out in Whoville or sing Jingle Bells with an animatronic yeti in August.
The artist behind the attraction, Mark Klaus (you read that right) is always adding to his collection, which runs the gamut from Arnold Schwarzenegger's Turbo Man suit to the Grinch’s sleigh. A guide takes you through it all, including the Barbies and Furbies of the “I Had That” toyland exhibit and the elaborate NYC holiday store window displays, carefully reassembled and set in motion with spinning cakes and dancing Nutcracker ballerinas. At the end, ride down a slide on a faux snow mountain just like Ralphie.
What’s in the basement, you wonder? A fluorescent, 3D mini golf experience that follows Santa and a gaggle of friendly aliens through ancient ruins and outer space. Of course.