The Houston Zoo’s Zoo Lights

Although most of the real animals will be fast asleep during this eighth annual extravaganza, life-size LED creatures will abound, along with a 30-foot tree, a special Texas-themed light display, and many other awe-inspiring decorations. The zoo’s Lauren Wappler says it’s “the perfect setting to enjoy the sights and sounds of the season,” and that “this year’s event promises to be more spectacular than ever.” We hear Santa might stop by, too. 

When: Through Jan 10.
What: Loads of lights and LED displays, presented by TXU Energy.
Best For: Walking off the ham and ’nog.
Kids Will Love: Seeing Santa (the animals will mostly be asleep).
Bring: Face Masks, required for entry.
Prepare for: Social distancing and timed ticketing to control crowds.
Cost: $12–$29.
Where it’s at: The Houston Zoo at Hermann Park.

Quincannon Lane’s Candy Wonderland

Visitors are asked not to stop or get out of their cars when driving through this sprawling, twinkling, candy-themed wonder—complete with Christmas trees, music, and a countdown to the big day—set up across three lots in a Spring Branch cul-de-sac. Of course, that just means you have an excuse to drive through it again and again, which is exactly what area resident Lindsay Ellis and her three children do every year. “It really is one of our favorite Christmas traditions,” Ellis says. “It’s a kid’s paradise.” Part of the fun is figuring out which decorations are new: “One year it was the little gingerbread house,” she says, “and one year it was these little macaron sculptures.” 

When: Until first week of January-ish.
What: Candy Land, Christmas edition.
Best For: Oohing and aahing: these folks spend thousands to pull this off.
Kids will love: The sweetness.
Bring: A bag of candy to snack on. 
Prepare For: Visitors must stay in their cars.
Cost: Free.
Where it’s at: Quincannon Lane, off of I-10 and Gessner Rd. in Spring Branch.

River Oaks District's Lights Up

Bring your child to ROD, and she can put her Christmas list directly into a special mailbox, to be sent to the North Pole. Afterward stop at gelato shop Amorino for a hot chocolate before taking photos with two impressive Christmas trees, which—for the first time—will be illuminated during a ceremony to kick off the holiday season. And that’s not all: “We will be revving up our light display,” says ROD’s Rachel Boyd, “with fresh new designs,” including—because River Oaks never does anything halfway—a number of immersive Instagram experiences. 

When: From Thanksgiving through January 6, max.
What: Regal homes drenched in bling.
Best For: Oohing and aahing: these folks spend thousands to pull this off.
Kids will love: The sheer grandiosity of it all.
Bring: The selfie stick; matching outfits.
Prepare For: Getting out (and waiting) to snap that festive pic.
Cost: Free.
Where it’s at: River Oaks Blvd.

Image: Mark White

Prestonwood Forest’s Nite of Lites

For four decades now, this northwest Houston neighborhood has pulled out all Christmas stops, with neighbors on each block coordinating elaborate themed decorations and competing for awards: Best All-Around Home, Best Cul-de-Sac, Best Block, Best Mailbox, and more. “I love the camaraderie,” says longtime Prestonwood Forest resident Chris Collins. For the past five years she and her neighbors have put together The Zoo on Brinkworth, with her yard sporting a large wooden elephant—and, of course, plenty of lights. “It’s neighbors helping neighbors to create a magical environment for folks who come from miles away to enjoy our Christmas wonderland.” Dec. 14–29. Prestonwood Forest, near 249 and Cypresswood Dr. Free.

When: Every weekend in December.
What: 700+ homes dressed up for Nite of Lites.
Best For: A festive drive outside the Loop.
Kids Will Love: Falling asleep on the ride back.
Bring: Money for hot cocoa (Starbucks, 19607 Tomball Pkwy).
Prepare For: “Mom, I have to pee.”
Cost: Free.
Where it’s at: Prestonwood Forest Dr (off Tomball Pkwy).

The Lights of Shepherd Park Plaza

Each year Houstonians arrive in droves for this neighborhood’s over-the-top displays, according to resident and civic club president Courtney Selinidis. “Our neighbors put an incredible amount of effort into decorating every year,” she says. Residents really get into the spirit, hosting Christmas-light arch-building parties and competing for awards including Best Lighting, Best Door, Best Window, Most Original, Best Overall, Most Religious, and Best Cul-de-sac. 

When: Until first week of January-ish.
What: GOOF’s preeminent holiday lights ’hood.
Best For: A joyful drive with the fam.
Kids will love: The inflatable minions, of course.
Bring: GPS—how are these streets so confusing?
Prepare For: Brief waits at the light shows programmed to radio. 
Cost: Free.
Where it’s at: Start at Thornton Rd. at Ella Blvd.

Moody Gardens Festival of Lights

This Galveston tradition—a mile-long trail illuminated by 2 million(!) lights—celebrates its 18th year as new attractions, like the four-story Noel: the Dancing Tree of Light, make their debut alongside old favorites like animals, nutcracker figures, a train, and a toy factory. PR coordinator Alexis Shelly says she especially loves her job at this time of year. “You can’t help but go outside and see the joy in people’s faces as they’re walking around and really getting into the holiday spirit,” she says. “We’re really looking forward to being that again for people.” 

When: Through Jan 2.
What: A mile-long trail of two million lights and holiday cheer.
Best For: A weekend escape (Moody Gardens Hotel, from $194).
Kids Will Love: Train rides and the slide—attractions are open.
Bring: Comfortable shoes; dollars to spare.
Prepare For: Social Distancing + safety measures.
Cost: From $20.
Where it’s at: Galveston Island.