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There is nothing more magical at Christmas than going out to see the holiday lights. As a youngster, I would pile into the car with my mom, dad and younger brother after the sun had gone down. The air would be chilly but our excitement would warm up the car as we rolled through different neighbourhoods in Toronto to see who had done the best decorating job. These days, there are lots of bright, organized events outside the city to cruise through, some overflowing with small-town charm and others sparkling with extravagance. Here are a few of my favorites in southern Ontario.

Gift of Lights, Kitchener
Nov. 17- Jan. 6, Sun.-Thurs. 5 pm – 9 pm, weekends and
Dec. 24-30th , 5 p.m. – 10 p.m.

Launched last year, Gift of Lights is the largest drive-through display in Southwestern Ontario. Located at Bingemans, a family activity centre, campground and waterpark in Kitchener, the special entrance off Bingemans Centre Drive takes visitors directly to the Gift of Lights. Driving along the two km pathway, families enjoy more than 30 animated and static displays (reindeers, sleighs, elves and the big man himself, Santa), get wide-eyed in the iconic light tunnel and thrill to one million twinkling lights. “We’re very excited to have visitors once again experience all of the magic at Gifts of Lights and create some wonderful family memories together,” says Mark Bingeman, president of Bingemans. “We’re coming back bigger, better and brighter than before.”

Photos credit: Waterloo Regional Tourism Marketing Corporation

Photos credit: Waterloo Regional Tourism Marketing CorporationTickets for a single vehicle (up to eight passengers) can be purchased online for $18 or at the gate for $25. As you are dazzled by the winking lights, you can hum along to seasonal favorites by tuning into Gifts of Light Radio at 100.1 FM. The route takes approximately 20 minutes, speed limit is 10 MPH and stopping is not permitted. For more information: giftoflights@bingemans.com

Simcoe Christmas Panorama River of Lights
Nov. 25-Dec. 31st, 5:30 p.m. – 11 p.m.

Photos courtesy of Simcoe Panorama
Photos courtesy of Simcoe Panorama

Every year, thousands of lights and themed displays transform Simcoe’s downtown parks into a winter wonderland. Located around two hours west of Toronto close to Lake Erie, Simcoe loves to roll out its red carpet and invites visitors to enjoy its small town hospitality.  Stroll the parkland at your leisure or step aboard the horse-drawn trolley available most weekends in December.

The annual event was launched in 1958 and was the first light show of its kind in Ontario. Now, 90 per cent of the lights on the displays have been converted to LED technology. There are more than 60 displays, but they still must fit into one of the three original categories – religious, traditional or fantasy. Many of these exhibits are three dimensional structures lovingly built by volunteers and are reminiscent of the delightful department store windows that used to mesmerize crowds back when Eaton’s and Simpsons ruled retail. The display is very popular with bus groups that can register for a 45-minute tour and receive a step-on guide who illuminates the history and beauty of the “River of Lights” show. If you need to warm up, there’s a welcome centre that serves hot drinks and a gift store that features 30 local merchants for last minute shopping.

Another holiday tradition is to drive around and admire individually decorated homes. A Lights of the County tour map is available so you know where to go. Free family events and a great New Years Eve celebration bring the spirit of Christmas to life in this charming town. For more information: simcopanorama.ca.

Ontario Power Generation Winter Festival of Lights,
Niagara Falls, ON, Nov. 18th – Jan. 31st, 5 pm – midnight.

Photos courtesy Niagara Parks

Celebrating its 35th season, the festival features an eight km illumination trail that winds through the striking landscapes of the Niagara Parks, Dufferin Islands and surrounding tourist districts. A popular holiday tradition, more than one million visitors from around the globe come to take in spectacular light displays, the Fallsview Sound and Light Show, and Holiday Lights tours. No matter what the weather is like, crowds flock to see more than two million lights displayed in the area.

Founded in 1982, the festival is Canada’s largest illumination event. There is no admission fee but donations are accepted by festival ambassadors at the Dufferin Islands exit. The money is used for ongoing maintenance and refurbishment of displays as well as to purchase additional illuminations.

In the past few years improvements have included illumination of the Toronto Power Generating Station with a choreographed sound and light show, a new interactive display of reindeers leading Santa’s sleigh and 50 fully wrapped trees in Dufferin Islands. Plus, there’s the 3D projection mapping show on the Oakes Hotel, a 15-minute show that is projected onto the façade of the hotel.

In addition to the driving route, there are 25 four-minute fireworks shows put on by Fallsview Casino Resort . Every Friday night at 9 p.m. the sky lights up and bonus fireworks shows are planned from December 23rd to the 29th. For more information: wfol.com.

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Maureen LittleJohn

Maureen Littlejohn is Culture Magazin’s executive editor. She is a Canadian award-winning journalist who has practiced her craft around the world including in the United States, Africa and Vietnam. Currently based in Toronto, she has a keen eye for detail and has a deep appreciation for the “East Meets West” approach of Culture Magazin. Travel is her passion and she is happy to be able to share her adventures on a regular basis with the magazine’s readers.