Chicago’s 3 Best Winter Festivals for Cold-Fashioned Fun


It’s plenty cold out, but Chicago is far from hibernation mode. The city’s annual winter festivals are up and running, beckoning you and the kids out of your homes and into winter- and holiday-themed fun during all of December and into January. These magical wonderlands are custom-made to burn off your kids’ energy — and they’re pretty enjoyable for you, too. Here are our 3 favorites.

Winter Wonderfest: A Carnival on Navy Pier – Through Jan. 11

With a name like WonderFest, it’d better be wonderful – and it is. Your kids will go from shivering to cheering about 30 seconds after walking through the gates of this indoor winter festival on Navy Pier. The littlest ones will be clamoring to take the Arctic Plunge – an inflatable penguin-and-polar-bear-themed slide – and your older kids will be begging to go on the Cliff Hanger, a thrilling hang glider ride that will fly them up to 40 feet in the air before swooping low and doing it all over again. There are 25 rides here, and kids of all ages are laughing and shouting in every seat of every single one of them. By the end of the day, you will all have decorated (and probably eaten) your own sugar cookies and taken a souvenir photo inside a giant snow globe. This by far the best no-mittens-needed, over-the-top winter carnival experience to be had in Chicago — maybe anywhere.

So Much Christmas – Through Jan. 4

If your kids are laser-focused on the presents they’ll be getting this season, broaden their horizons at Christmas Around the World at the Museum of Science and Industry. Wander among a forest of Christmas trees and displays, learning all about the fascinating ways other cultures celebrate Christmas. The museum’s 50 different trees are incredible to behold from a distance and delightful to examine up close, but the real showstopper is the most enormous tree of all — a 45-footer with over 30,000 twinkling lights. You’ll have to crane your necks to check out all the ornaments, which feature some of Walt Disney’s most beloved characters. As you recover from the Christmas tree overdose, you’ll love exploring the Disney exhibit here, which includes some fabulous costumes and an installation about the making of last year’s hit film Frozen that will definitely get the attention of your kids.

A Brilliant Night at the Zoo – Through Jan. 4

If you’re willing to wear mittens and up for staying out after dark, then you’ll love Zoo Lights at the Lincoln Park Zoo. This festival is all about combining glorious sparkling colored light displays and the grunts, snorts, and cuteness of live zoo animals. Near the Wild Things gift shop, you’ll watch the ice chips fly while arctic artists carve intricately-detailed animals out of giant blocks of ice. Then, between the flamingo pond and the gorilla and chimp house, a musical light show will dazzle and amaze your kids. You can also engage in a little bit of holiday craft-making in the lion house (that’s right, you’ll be making art with lions, no big deal), and of course, get in some ice skating among the farm animals. End your night by visiting Santa and some of his favorite monkey helpers at the Helen Branch Primate House, or with a Holiday Wagon Ride that takes you past bears and llamas – all looking their festive best under twinkling, sparkling lights.

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