Holiday Light Shows 2018: Midwest Region


From the rolling hills of Ohio, to the crystalline waters of the Great Lakes region, to the fertile fields of the Midwestern breadbasket states, the warmth and goodwill of the holiday season is mixed with an abiding passion for community spirit, resulting in handcrafted light shows that are a treat for the eyes, while also championing civic engagement.

Above photograph © Nancy Tesdall, Winter Wonderland, Sioux Falls, South Dakota

As noted in our other stories on this subject, operating hours, dates, and admission costs for each venue vary widely, so please check event websites for specifics before planning a visit. As for cost, many of the venues have a primary goal to raise money for local charities. In such cases, consider the admission fee as a benevolent effort to spread some holiday cheer.

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Ohio’s Columbus Zoo and Aquarium is widely regarded as one of the best zoos in America, and its holiday Wildlights display (Sunday - Thursday, 5:00 - 9:00 p.m., 10:00 p.m. weekends, 11/16 - 1/6, closed 12/24 - 25) is equally beloved. Among the many elements dispersed throughout this huge park are two animated light shows in the Entry Village, a Holiday Rhythms Around the Watering Hole performance at Conservation Lake, and a Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer 4-D Theater Experience at Shores Park.

Southwest of Columbus, in the city of Morrow, 30 miles northeast of Cincinnati, the Christmas Ranch (Sunday - Thursday, 5:00 - 9:00 p.m., weekends until 10, 11/16 - 12/23) rings in the holidays with an old-fashioned family experience, featuring a million lights synchronized to music and topped off with blazing bonfires to chase away the chill. A series of small shops are filled with holiday knickknacks, while wagon and train rides allow visitors to view all the lights and decorations comfortably, spread across the five-acre property.

Northwest of Morrow, midway between Cincinnati and Dayton, Light Up Middletown (6:00 - 10:00 p.m. nightly, 11/23 - 12/31), brightens this city’s 100-acre Smith Park, with themed displays that include a floating sea serpent in the reflecting lake, a penguin village, Santa’s workshop, deer leaping over the roadway, and much more. Weather permitting, local hot air balloon pilots add to the display with a specially programmed Balloon Glow event to heighten the holiday cheer.

25 miles west of Dayton, the city of Eaton hosts the Whispering Christmas light show in Fort Saint Clair State Park (6:00 - 10:00 p.m. nightly, 11/23 - 12/31), a combined drive-through, walkaround experience, featuring two million twinkling lights, a Little Christmas Village, and refreshments served in Santa’s Cabins.

East of Dayton, in the village of Clifton, the legendary Christmas Lights of Clifton Mill (6:00 - 9:00 p.m., 8:00 p.m. on 12/24, 25 and 31, 11/23 - 12/31) has been brightening the season in this region for the past 31 years, with more than four million lights that illuminate the mill, gorge, riverbanks, trees, and bridges. Every hour, on the hour, all the lights are extinguished, leaving guests in total darkness, followed by a spectacular light show that highlights the old Covered Bridge, and features a dramatic crescendo, all synchronized to music.

30 miles north of Cincinnati, in Hamilton, Pyramid Hill Sculpture Park & Museum adds a creative touch to the festivities with Holiday Lights on the Hill (Monday - Thursday, 6:00 – 9:00 p.m., Friday - Sunday until 10:00 p.m., 11/16 - 1/1). Immersed in a landscape of rolling hills, meadows, lakes, and hiking trails, this annual holiday light show features a two-mile round-trip drive through a 300-acre park featuring more than 60 monumental outdoor sculptures.

Sherry Hopkins, Sherry Lachelle Photography

“The light displays were so unusual and spectacular, that I would pull over and hop out to capture a shot every few seconds,” says local photographer Sherry Hopkins, of Sherry Lachelle Photography.

For the above capture, Hopkins handheld a Nikon D750 and a Tamron 24-70mm f/2.8 lens, shooting at ISO 6400 for 1/40 second, and an aperture of f/5.0.

“You feel like a kid as you're driving along, surrounded by beautiful lights,” she exclaims. “Definitely a Christmas tradition not to be missed.”


In the capital city of the Hoosier state, the 152-acre campus of Newfields is home to the venerable Indianapolis Museum of Art, among other cultural treasures. To celebrate the magic of the holidays, The Garden at Newfields presents Winter Lights (5:00 – 9:00 p.m. nightly, 11/18 - 1/6), featuring 1.5 million lights that beckon visitors to stroll beneath 80-foot trees glowing to the tips of each tiny branch. From your entrance through the Snowflake Bridge, where glistening handcrafted snowflakes illuminate the sky above, to The Ice Storm Walk finale, which immerses guests into a digital snowstorm enhanced by dramatic music and the sounds of winter, the unique artistry and hand-crafted design of the many displays is sure to surprise and delight adults and children alike, around every turn.

For an authentic farmland holiday experience, Reynolds Farm Equipment features a drive-through holiday lights display (5:00 - 9:00 p.m. nightly, 11/20 - 1/1), at their store in Fishers, twenty miles northeast of Indianapolis.

Further north, in the city of Kokomo, a Holiday Light Display of more than 1 million lights illuminates We Care Park (5:30 - 9:30 p.m. nightly, 11/23 - 12/27). Now in its 24th year, this annual fundraiser to help families in need is a featured contestant in season 6 of the ABC show, The Great Christmas Light Fight.

Tai Trice

But, perhaps the most nostalgic expression of holiday cheer can be found in southern Indiana town of Santa Claus, where the 1.2-mile drive-through show Santa Claus Land of Lights (weekends, 5:00 - 9:00 p.m., 11/22 - 12/9, nightly 12/14 - 12/30, except 12/24-25), brightens the off-season at the Lake Rudolph Campground and RV Resort.

“There's something extra special about a Christmas light display located in the town of Santa Claus,” says area resident Tai Trice. “Visiting this display was a tradition I started with my children when they were babies. Now, at the ages of 12 and 14, they still look forward to driving through this light show and taking turns at reading the story of Rudolph.”

Trice snapped the above image from inside her car using an Apple iPhone 8. “Afterward, I edited the file simply with Instagram filters to brighten up the lights,” she says.


As the state widely identified as America’s car capital, it’s no surprise that many of Michigan’s holiday light shows feature a festive and immersive driving experience.

Twenty-six miles west of Detroit, Westland’s Wayne County Lightfest (7:00 - 10:00 p.m. weeknights, weekends starting at 6:00, 11/15 - 12/31), is reportedly the Midwest’s longest drive-through holiday show, at 4.5 miles. Now in its 25th year, this display comprises nearly 50 giant animated holiday-themed displays and more than a million lights.

Sixty miles farther west, in the city of Brooklyn, the Nite Lites animated drive-through (Sunday - Thursday 5:30 - 9:00 pm, weekends until 10, 11/22 - 12/31), has a new home at Michigan International Speedway. Featuring a 250-foot lighted tunnel, a forest of mega trees, and millions of dancing lights based around 65 different themes, this venue also includes a Winter Wonderland activities area, with entertainment such as train rides, a puppet show, and even real live reindeer to delight the kiddies on select nights.

In Western Michigan, less than eight miles from Grand Rapids, The Christmas Lite Show (5:30 - 9:30 p.m. nightly, 11/21 - 12/31) brightens the community of Comstock Park with nearly two miles of lighted tunnels and animated displays, boasting more than a million lights, plus a chance to reserve a seat for four nightly trips on the Memory Lane Train. Established as a residential display by Bill Schrader, in 1997, a portion of this show’s proceeds are donated to the Grand Rapids Home for Veterans.

Brian Edward, 22 North Photography

And north of Detroit, the city of Rochester is all aglow for the holidays with The Big, Bright Light Show (5:00 p.m. - midnight, 11/19 - 1/6), when every building in the downtown area is covered in more than 1.5 million points of glimmering light. As a post-holiday bonus, the lights continue to shine through Rochester’s Fire & Ice Festival during every weekend in January.

"Rochester, Michigan has a classic downtown, and they deck out all the buildings for about a mile,” says Brian Edward of 22 North Photography. “It’s a very walkable area with just about everything you could need, so it’s a great spot to visit during the holidays."

Using a Vanguard tripod to stabilize his Canon 6D and EF 24-105 f/4L lens, Edward set his aperture to f/16 for a 30-second exposure. “I always shoot at ISO 100 to reduce noise,” he explains. After capture, he stitched multiple images together using the Photomerge tool, in Photoshop, noting, “The 180-degree panorama is stitched together from about twelve 3:2 ratio images.”

“When shooting this kind of scene, you’ll have thousands of lights hitting your lens at slightly different angles, so even the best lenses will get some flare,” Edward says. “This often shows up as small specks in the sky or other solid areas of the image, so you’ll need to be skillful at using Photoshop’s spot-healing tools to get the best final product possible."


For the past 27 years, Chicago’s Magnificent Mile Lights Festival (11/16 - 11/17) has kicked off the holiday season by adorning the trees along North Michigan Avenue with twinkling lights. Yet, equally beloved is the 24th annual ZooLights display (4:30 - 9:00 p.m., Friday - Sunday, 11/23 - 12/2, nightly 12/7 - 1/6), which transforms the Lincoln Park Zoo into a sparkling winter wonderland, with more than 2.5 million lights and hundreds of dynamic displays. In addition to the lights, this free event features ice sculptors, strolling carolers, a carousel, a train adventure, other festive activities and sweet treats of all kinds.

Milosh Kosanovich

“ZooLights is an annual photographer’s favorite with more than 100 giant themed displays,” says local photographer Milosh Kosanovich. “The best shots of the lights are made with long exposures, from 30 seconds to 2 minutes, since the lights are flashing, and it takes time for them all to light up.”

Using his Gitzo Traveler tripod with a Manfrotto Junior Geared Head to stabilize his Nikon D800E and Nikon 24mm PC-E lens, Kosanovich made a total of 15 exposures over a 20-minute period to incorporate in an HDR image, using the shift in his tilt/shift lens to get everything in the frame. Back at his computer, he processed the files with Photomatix Pro, and merged them with AutoPano Pro.

Besides technical challenges, Kosanovich notes that the event’s huge popularity can make shooting difficult. “It gets really crowded, so try to get there early or better yet go on a member night,” he advises. “This year I’m going to an Adult Night that’s being offered, attempting to avoid the crowds.”


The Show-Me state offers ample opportunities to view holiday lights, from the big city glitz of Kansas City’s Country Club Plaza Lights (5:00 p.m. - 3:00 a.m. nightly, 11/22 - mid-January) to residential neighborhood lighting competitions such as St Louis’s Candy Cane Lane (unofficial times/dates beginning at dusk, through 12/31).

Ninety miles northeast of Kansas City, the city of Chillicothe kicks off its Festival of Lights with a lighting ceremony on the night of the Chillicothe Holiday Parade, which is followed a few weeks later by a festive drive-through light show, in Simpson Park (4:00 p.m. - midnight nightly, 11/17 - 1/1). New this year are two animated displays featuring ice-fishing penguins and a girl catching snowflakes on her tongue.

On the other side of the state, 35 miles north east of St Louis, the city of O’Fallon hosts the Celebration of Lights in Fort Zumwalt Park (Sunday, Tuesday - Thursday 6:00 - 9:00 p.m., 10:00 p.m. on weekends, 11/23 - 12/30, except 12/25). With more than 1 million colored lights decorating the trees and scenes along a one-mile route through the park, each display is designed and funded by local organizations, churches, and businesses. Although closed to vehicular traffic on Mondays, the route can be enjoyed by specialty rides on a city-operated train. Horse-drawn surrey and sleigh hayrides can also be reserved on other nights.

In central St Louis, the Missouri Botanical Garden’s Garden Glow event (5:00 - 10:00 p.m. nightly, 11/17 - 1/1) features such a plentiful and varied selection of lights it almost feels like a Christmas rave. New this year, a 24-foot pixelated tree greets visitors upon entry, and an interactive area allows visitors to bask in lighting that changes to the beat of music they can create on fanciful flower xylophones.

Robert Crowe

In suburban St. Louis County, the 75-acre Tilles Park is home to Winter Wonderland (5:30 - 9:30 p.m. nightly, 11/21 - 12/30, closed 12/24). While this is a drive-through display on most evenings, Mondays are reserved for the Winter Wonderland Walk, and Saturdays are restricted to carriage rides only.

“This annual display is a St. Louis tradition,” says area resident Robert Crowe. “Cars line up for blocks waiting to get through the gates.”

Crowe snapped the above picture, handheld, from the passenger seat of his car, using a Fujifilm X-T2 and XF 18-55mm f/2.8-4 R LM OIS lens. With his ISO set to 6400, he racked his lens to 32.9mm and exposed for 1/35 second at f/5.0. He applied Macphun Noiseless CK in post due to the high ISO, and further cleaned up the image in Photoshop.

“My wife had just gotten me the X-T2 for Christmas and I was eager to try it out,” he says. “We decided to take our granddaughter, who was then four, along for the ride. She was as delighted as I was with the lights.”


At Botanica Wichita, the Illuminations display (5:30 - 8:30 p.m. nightly, 11/23 - 12/31, closed 12/24 - 25) will make you feel like you were transported to the Land of Oz. Wichita’s biggest holiday attraction features more than two million lights with displays that include a dancing light show in the main meadow, an underwater scene in the Shakespeare Garden, a strobe tree, and more.

Ann Lindstrom

Swedish photographer Ann Lindstrom found this event to be one of the highlights of her visit to the area. "Stepping into the magic of Christmas spirit at Botanica Wichita on a cold November night, I immediately turned into an excited little girl on Christmas Eve, playing with her camera and the illuminated scenery,” she says. “I was so inspired I could have stayed all night to capture the spellbinding atmosphere. I left the park with much joy in my heart and over 100 photos!" She made the photo above using a Canon 7D with a 50 mm f/1.4 lens.


A wide variety of holiday light shows brighten the long nights in the Badger state to tempt residents out of hibernation.

Milwaukee’s annual Holiday Lights Festival (5:30 - 9:00 p.m. nightly, 11/15 - 1/1) kicks off its 20th year, bringing a boost of holiday spirit to the downtown area’s three parks—Cathedral Square Park, Pere Marquette Park, and Zeidler Union Square—featuring colorful lights, animated displays, and chandeliers that decorate the thoroughfares of Wisconsin Avenue and Mason Street. Throughout the festival, the city offers 40-minute narrated bus tours aboard the Jingle Bus for $2 per person.

John December

Photographer John December captured a classic view of Milwaukee’s Cathedral Square Park, featuring the Cathedral of St. John the Evangelist, which is on the National Register of Historic Places. Working on a tripod with a Canon EOS 5D Mark II (Current Model: EOS 5D Mk IV) and an EF16-35mm f/2.8L II USM lens, he used a High Dynamic Range (HDR) technique to capture the range of luminance by making three bracketed exposures with exposure bias at -0.7, -2.7, and 1.3, for 20 seconds each. He then blended the files into an HDR image using Photomatix Pro software, before making final adjustments and correcting for perspective distortion using the GNU Image Manipulation Program (GIMP).

75 miles to the southwest, Janesville’s Rotary Botanical Gardens Holiday Light Show (4:30 - 8:30 p.m., 11/23 - 25, 11/30, then Thursday - Sunday, from 12/6 - 12/30) offers a seasonal escape into a winter wonderland of 500,000 twinkling lights and family-friendly fun. Bundle up for a stroll through the 20-acre, non-profit botanic showcase, and take advantage of a chance to visit with Santa on select nights.

And, now in its 17th season, the Oshkosh Celebration of Lights (nightly, 5:00 - 9:00 p.m., 11/23 - 12/31) blankets Menominee Park with 750,000 lights over a 1.2-mile drive-through route, featuring a 100-foot tree, and enhanced by colorful reflections on Lake Winnebago, all with the philanthropic goal to collect non-perishable food items for the United Way.

Eric Reischl

“Even with the cold Wisconsin weather, I enjoyed photographing something that produced so many ooh’s and ahh’s from my kids and me,” says photographer Eric Reischl. He captured the image above with a Nikon D40 and 18-55mm f/3.5-5.6 lens.

“We really enjoyed all the different displays encompassing the park,” he adds. “This has become an annual tradition.”


Billed as America’s largest free walk-through lighting display, the Bentleyville Tour of Lights (Thursday - Sunday, 5:00 - 9:00 p.m., weekends until 10, 11/17 - 12/26), invites guests to stroll under the glow of more than four million lights. From its start, in 2001, with Nathan Bentley’s decision to decorate his rural home with holiday lights, this homespun event quickly grew in popularity and scope, resulting in a 2008 offer from the Mayor of Duluth to host the event at its current location, in Duluth’s 20-acre Bayfront Festival Park.

Philip Schwarz

“It’s a wonderful experience walking through millions of Christmas Lights on the shores of Lake Superior,” says photographer Philip Schwarz. He captured the image above with his Nikon D7100 and Tamron 11-18mm lens, handholding his gear for a 1.3-second exposure at ISO 400.


Civic engagement takes center stage in the Hawkeye state, with community light shows that are locally constructed and sponsored by area businesses.

Twelve miles north east of the capital city of Des Moines, the city of Altoona hosts the 2.5-mile drive through Jolly Holiday Lights at Adventureland Park (nightly, 5:30 - 10:00 p.m., 11/23 - 12/29), a fundraiser for Make-A-Wish® Iowa, featuring more than 100 magical displays.

Tucked into the banks of the Mississippi River in the state’s southeastern corner, the city of Keokuk puts on City of Christmas at Rand Park (Sunday - Thursday, 5:00 - 10:00 p.m., weekends until midnight, 11/22 - 12/26). Now in its 29th year of existence, nearly all the displays are locally built, with many hours devoted to construction, decoration, and upkeep.

45 miles north of Keokuk, in the city of Mount Pleasant, the Festival of Lights illuminates the 60-acre Old Threshers Campgrounds (5:30 - 9:00 p.m., Thursday - Sunday, 11/15 - 12/9, then nightly from 12/12 - 12/31). During several weekends in December, the North Pole Express adds to the festivities, bringing the classic children’s storybook to life in an ideal family event for the holiday season.

In Northeast Iowa, the city of Sumner celebrates the season with Lights in the Park (nightly, 5:00 - 9:00 p.m., 11/17 - 1/2), an animated light display filled with variety, from a lighted Ferris Wheel, to the 12 Days of Christmas, an elf house and, new this year, Santa’s house.

Twenty-two miles northeast, the West Union Festival of Lights (nightly, 5:00 - 10:00 p.m., 11/23 - 12/31) celebrates its 11th year with an expanded display of nearly four acres at the West Union Recreational Complex. For a unique winter evening, stroll or drive through the Enchanted Forest wrapped around a scenic pond.

Kylie Neuhaus

On the state’s eastern border, where Iowa intersects with Wisconsin and Illinois, local businesses donate to the drive-through charity event Reflections in The Park (5:00 - 10:00 p.m., 11/21 - 01/01) in the city of Dubuque.

“More than 80 elements make up the light show, with light shapes that reflect the nature of the different companies,” explains photographer and blogger Kylie Neuhaus. “While the route is open to walk around during the opening night, all the other evenings you have to stay in the car.”

Neuhaus captured this photo with a Canon Powershot SX700 HS using the open window frame of her car to help steady the camera. With her aperture set to f/4 she exposed the shot for 1/10 second, “using the 10-second self-timer to help eliminate shake when pressing the shutter button,” she adds.

“Reflections in the Park is an all-around sensory experience, complete with a radio channel playing Christmas music, and candy canes distributed for visitors to enjoy during the drive,” she notes. “My favorite element is a 200-foot tunnel of lights.”


The Omaha Holiday Lights Festival (5:00 p.m. - 1:00 a.m., nightly, 11/22 - 1/6) is a favorite holiday tradition in the Cornhusker state. More than 40 blocks of the city dazzle with delicate white light, which has its center downtown at the Gene Leahy Mall.

Colleen Laughlin

“The park is always popular, but the holiday lights give it extra sparkle,” says photographer Colleen Laughlin. “I took this picture with my Nikon D80 and 18-135mm kit lens when I was quite new to digital photography. I remember going downtown that evening to work on my long-exposure techniques, which has become one of my favorites.”

North Dakota

In the city of Fargo, Holiday Lights at Lindenwood Park (5:30 - 10:00 p.m., 11/30 - 12/31) adds a festive touch to the park’s Roger Maris Drive, near the banks of the Red River, with more than 65 holiday light displays sponsored by local businesses and organizations.

Eighty miles north, in Grand Forks, the Lions Club hosts the annual Christmas in the Park fundraiser (5:30 - 10:00 p.m., 11/30 - 12/31), in Lincoln Park. Visitors can drive through the loop to view all the displays, or if you don’t mind a little winter chill, cross-country skis and snowshoes are available to rent from the Lincoln Park warming house, allowing you to take a gliding tour of the lights.

Clear across the state, in the city of Williston, the Spring Lake Park Holiday Lights Drive (5:30 - 9:30 p.m., 11/28 - 12/31) offers up thousands of lights in more than 60 displays, and other activities and entertainment on select dates, including movie nights, visits with Santa and an outdoor skating rink adjacent to the lights.

Jeremy Siembida

But the most dynamic holiday light show in the Roughrider state is the transit of the Canadian Pacific Railroad’s Holiday Train. About 1,000 feet in length, and with 14 brightly decorated rail cars sporting hundreds of thousands of LED lights and holiday designs, the train’s Midwestern US route begins in Illinois, on December 2, and traverses the states of Iowa, Missouri, Minnesota, Wisconsin and North Dakota, before ending in Weyburn, Saskatchewan, on December 16.

When photographing the train’s visit to Minot in 2016, Jeremy Siembida staked out his photo location 90 minutes before the scheduled arrival time. “This is a well-anticipated event in my small city, as well as all across the northern plains,” he says, “so there was quite a throng of excited people anxious to see the performance. In fact, people were still circling and trying to find parking when the train departed for its next stop.”

Using a Canon Rebel T5 and 18-55mm f/3.5-5.6 lens, Siembida took a 1-second exposure wide open, using a basic tripod to steady his setup. He has since upgraded to a Canon 7D Mark II, 24, 40, and 50mm EF/EF-S STM primes, as well as a 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6L lens.

“Even with beginner gear, you still can get good pictures,” Siembida points out. “Kudos to Canon for designing gear anyone can use and get great results.”

South Dakota

In South Dakota’s largest city, Sioux Falls, the non-profit Dakota Holidays features an annual Christmas Lights and Lanes portal on its website, which identifies locations for more than 40 area light displays, in addition to listing holiday charities and other seasonal events.

One notable venue on the north side of town, Grasslands Christmas (weeknights, 6:00 - 10:00 pm, weekends beginning at 5:00 p.m., 11/23 - 1/1), was founded with the goal of raising funds for the local Humane Society. This residential show features a projected animation and more than 5,000 lights, operated by four controllers through 48 channels. Watch the lights from the comfort of your car, while listening to music from the Trans-Siberian Orchestra.

But the biggest show in town takes full advantage of the state’s northern latitude and inclination for frigid weather. In Falls Park, along the quartzite banks of the Big Sioux River, the spectacular Winter Wonderland light show (5:00 p.m. - midnight, nightly, 11/16 - 1/6), boasts a total of 355,926 LEDs and lights, multiple animated features, 270 decorated trees, 275 light poles, more than 25 miles of light strings, half a mile of rope lights, a mile of garland, and 400 wreaths, and every year it seems to get a little bigger. The five-story tower in the Visitor Information Center is the perfect location to catch a 360-degree view.

Nancy Tesdall

“You can also stroll along the path, cross the bridge to get around the falls, or drive through the park,” says Sioux Falls photographer Nancy Tesdall. “If you’re driving, you can enhance your holiday experience by tuning your radio to a dedicated channel of holiday music.”

Shooting from a vantage point on the west side of the falls, Tesdall secured her Canon 5D Mark III and EF 24-105 f/4 L IS II USM lens to a Feisol CT-3442 tripod and Really Right Stuff ball head, and racked her lens to 35mm to make a 20-second exposure at f/22 and ISO 800. A Vu Sion Circular polarizer in a Vu Filters Mounting Ring attached to her lens helped to minimize reflections from the lights.

And for those seeking an even more cathartic view of the falls, Tesdall suggests, “If you feel a little more adventurous, a local vineyard provides chartered nighttime helicopter flights over the light show from their vineyard.”

Click below to read the companion articles in this series, Holiday Light Shows Northeast, Holiday Light Shows Southeast, Holiday Light Shows Southwest, Holiday Light Shows Northwest and West Coast

Do you have a favorite Holiday Lighting event not mentioned above, or a cherished memory at one of these sites? Tell us about it in the Comments section, below!