In Holiday Guide Commentary

Mickey and Minnie Mouse light up Michigan Avenue as they pass during the Magnificent Mile Lights Festival parade.

In Holiday Guide Commentary

Downtown Chicago is a winter wonderland. (Photo: ChooseChicago)

In Holiday Guide Commentary

Lincoln Park Zoo also comes alive for the holidays with ZooLights. (Photo: ChooseChicago)

In Holiday Guide Commentary

Kids love the Water Tower firehouse and playground. (Photo by Jyoti Srivastava.)

Holidays transform Chicago into a windy wintry wonderland

Some of my fondest childhood memories center around what I remember as annual trips on the subway with my parents to celebrate Christmas in Midtown Manhattan. We'd visit the impressive tree in Rockefeller Center, watch the skaters and look at the shops.

We'd pop into 30 Rock and check out the murals and I even remember checking out the latest models at an urban car dealership in the lobby of a towering office building near Central Park.

We'd head out onto 5th Avenue to be awed by the incredible shop window displays and we'd stop in at the holiday madhouse that was FAO Schwartz to look at toys we'd never own. That may sound sad, but we didn't see it that way. The whole day and evening felt festive, fun and full of holiday spirit.

Now, I adore Milwaukee, but the same experience cannot be recreated here. Few shops have the means to put the kind of creativity and cash into their windows for the holidays and while there are some lights displays and trees Downtown, there isn't a centralized location – like Rockefeller Center and 5th Avenue – where you can have it all, though Red Arrow Park is showing some serious potential.

So, I look to Chicago. A few years ago, we brought our eldest child there and he was so smitten that we return as often as we can afford. It was his first trip to the Windy City and despite the blowing snow and frigid temps, everything struck a chord. Another year, we returned for the holidays with two kids, and here is the little guide to holiday fun in Chicago that I've concocted based on our experiences.

We planned our trip to coincide with The Magnificent Mile Lights Festival in late November – this year it's on Saturday, Nov. 23.

We had a warm, comfortable view from a meeting room at The Peninsula Hotel, which hosted the viewing and the official after-party. Folks didn't need to be guests at the hotel to get in and enjoy the complimentary sumptuous spread, a visit from Santa, and cookie decorating, ornament-making and holiday card-coloring stations for kids.

The hour-long parade was led by Mickey and Minnie, who waved their magic wands to light the trees on Michigan Avenue as they passed, kicking off the festive season on Chicago's main tourist strip. The parade festivities also included live music out along Michigan Avenue and more.

Even after the parade has moved past, Chicago shimmers with holiday cheer, especially after dark when the lights transmit good vibes.

On Michigan Avenue, there are a few shops that won't likely escape your kids' must-see list. A full week before Black Friday, the Disney Store, 717 N. Michigan Ave., had a line streaming out the doors and up the street, and crowds at the LEGO Store and American Girl Place (with shops, a restaurant, a doll salon and more), which sit side by side at Water Tower Place, 835 N. Michigan Ave., were no smaller.

American Girl Place has a full slate of holiday events, which you can see on the Web site.

As always, Navy Pier is gussied up for the holidays and the Chicago Children's Museum is great fun for kids. But we opted this time 'round to give the kids some culture. They'd been to the Art Institute on a couple occasions and so we thought the Museum of Contemporary Art, just around the corner and a block up from the hotel at 220 E. Chicago, would be more fun. Plus, kids get in free.

If you think tots aren't going to have fun exploring an art museum, you haven't been to the MCA.

On the way over, we stopped to peek in the windows at the cool old firehouse across from the MCA and to decompress in the fun-as-all-get-out pair of urban playgrounds right behind it.

A gated toddler area has climb-on fire trucks and trains, swings and slides the adjacent gated area for somewhat older kids has a taller, more challenging play set. Even in the chill of a cloudy Windy City morning, our kids had a blast.

While the Mag Mile is one locus of holiday elan in Chicago, don't forget good old State Street, where the classic flagship Marshall Field's has long since morphed into a Macy's, which continues the tradition of holiday window displays and is always the scene of much lively activity.

Outside on State Street there's usually a traveling puppet show set up and the bucket drummers are often rocking crazy beats.

Inside, shoppers check out the great toy section, with giant stuffed animals and other things that will have you and your wee ones wide-eyed. Moms and dads will want to remember to check out the awe-inspiring Tiffany glass ceiling at the summit of the atrium side of the shop.

Nearby is the Christkindlmarket, a free German Christmas market, that sets up each year in Daley Plaza, between Washington, Clark and Dearborn Streets in the Loop.

The outdoor market – open daily this year from 11 a.m. until 8 p.m. (Sunday-Thursday; until 9 on Friday and Saturday), Nov, 26-Dec. 24 – offers a wide range of gifts and decorations, along with German food and beverages.


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