Atlanta Sparkles During the Winter Holidays

For holiday lights and big-city vibrancy, without the blustery weather of the Northeast, consider the fair city of Atlanta, where you can enjoy Southern hospitality along with world-class attractions. Families will find plenty to enjoy and ways to save on attractions and lodging.

Downtown sparkles

Downtown Atlanta’s Olympic Centennial Park, a 21-acre year-round public space redesigned after the 1996 Olympic games, lights up with thousands of twinkling lights and displays during Holiday in Lights from mid-November 2008 through Jan. 4, 2009. The park is free and open daily 7 a.m. to 11 p.m., but if you want to take a spin on the seasonal ice rink, be prepared to pay $7 for 90-minutes of skating time with $2 additional for skate renta

The ice rink is open daily during Holiday in Lights except for Christmas Day. When my son and I visited the city December 2007, the rink could get a bit crowded. For information, go to www.centennialpark.com/events/ice.html.

If your children prefer running and climbing to skating, trails and playgrounds at the park, including one accessible for all children, are good ways to let off steam. Across from Centennial Olympic Park is Pemberton Place, home of the Georgia Aquarium and the new World of Coca-Cola. Pemberton Place also lights up during the holidays, thanks to the Coca-Cola Christmas tree and Holiday Caravan, a 64-foot-long truck decorated with more than 25,000 white lights.

Worldwide refreshment

The new World of Coca-Cola pays tribute to the history and culture surrounding the popular brand, which has grown into a worldwide enterprise with more than 2,600 beverages. A highlight of our visit to the recently expanded attraction — which is part museum, part mini-factory and advertising showplace — was the tasting area with more than 60 beverages. You’re bound to find a few you wish were available in the U.S., and several that you’re glad aren’t. Your kids will be amazed at how different people’s tastes can be.

The Coca-Cola polar bear, a mainstay of the company’s winter holiday advertising, makes an appearance for photo opportunities inside the attraction while Santa Claus greets visitors outside at the Holiday Caravan. Visit www.worldofcoca-cola.com for more information.

Walk with the fishes

A short walk across Pemberton Place is the Georgia Aquarium, which by itself is worth a trip to Atlanta. My son and I were wowed by the wide variety of creatures and creative, interactive exhibits. With more than 100,000 freshwater and saltwater fish and mammals and five galleries, visitors don’t just see aquatic life — you touch it, hear it and experience it all around you.

If you have little ones, consider waiting to see the Georgia Explorer gallery until mid-visit, or you may have a hard time getting the kids to leave the gallery’s large play area with tunnels, a whale slide, a simulated shrimp ship, and touch pools with horseshoe crabs, sea stars, stingrays and sharks.

Cold Water Quest has another touch pool as well as fun-loving sea otters, lazy California sea lions, huge beluga whales and African penguins that you can join courtesy of a plastic bubble. The Japanese spider crab is a show-stopper. These arthropods can grow to the size of a car and live 100 years.

Wind your way through tree trunks on the bottom of the river in River Scout, where electric eels and electric catfish reside along with crowd-pleasing Asian small-clawed otters. Walk a 100-foot-long tunnel through the 6.3-million-gallon Ocean Voyager tank with whale sharks and other giant fish.

After journeying through the depths of the ocean, relax in Tropical Diver with one of the largest living reef exhibits in any aquarium and where thousands of colorful fish dart while an overhead wave gently crashes. Go to www.georgiaaquarium.org for visitor information and tickets.

Two other nearby attractions that you might want to visit, depending on the ages and interests of your kids, are Imagine It! The Children’s Museum of Atlanta at the northeast end of Centennial Olympic Park, with hands-on, interactive exhibits for children 8 and younger (www.imagineit-cma.org), and the Inside CNN Studio, off the southwest side of the park (www.cnn.com/studiotour).

Christmas celebrations

Stone Mountain Park, beyond downtown Atlanta, rings in the Christmas season with more than two million twinkling lights in Crossroads, a re-created 1870s southern town at the mountain’s base. The attraction commemorates its 50th anniversary in 2008 with its popular Stone Mountain Christmas, Fridays through Sundays, Dec. 5-14, and daily Dec. 19-30 except for Christmas Eve and Christmas Day.

During Stone Mountain Christmas, visitors can enjoy The Polar Express 4D Experience, Christmas musical reviews with a small-town flavor, and a 5-mile train ride around the base of the mountain that includes a play about the Christmas story.

Santa Claus visits the park nightly, riding in a parade of five lighted floats and holiday characters, and the Snow Angel closes the evenings in Crossroads, waving her magic wand to create snow and fireworks. A Christmas laser show that illuminates the carving on the mountain is set to holiday music.

Atlanta’s first snow park, Snow Mountain, debuts at Stone Mountain Park Dec. 31, 2008, with a 30,000-square-foot play area and a tubing hill with 11 runs. Kids must be at least 43 inches tall to tube. The snow park is open through March 1 on weekends. Go to www.stonemountainpark.com and www.snowmountainpark.com for details.

Saving on tickets

If you plan to see multiple attractions during one visit, consider the money-saving CityPass Ticket (www.citypass.com/city/atlanta). The ticket covers admission to six attractions:

  • Georgia Aquarium,
  • World of Coca-Cola,
  • Zoo Atlanta,
  • Inside CNN Atlanta,
  • Either Fernbank Museum of Natural History or Atlanta Botanical Garden,
  • Either High Museum of Art or Atlanta History Center.

Several of these feature special events or exhibits during the holiday.

You also don’t have to pay full price to enjoy a theater, dance or musical performance. Stop by one of the city’s two AtlanTIX booths, similar to the TKTS program in New York City, where same day, half-price tickets to performances and attractions are sold at Underground Atlanta or Lenox Square (www.atlantaperforms.com). Both locations are accessible by MARTA, the city’s public transportation system (www.itsmarta.com).

Lodging options

While downtown hotels are often more expensive than ones farther afield, staying downtown shortens commuting time to the city attractions, and some hotels are within walking distance of either a MARTA station or the attractions. Several also offer package deals with attraction tickets.

We stayed at the Atlanta Marriott Marquis, conveniently located at Peachtree Center MARTA station. For hotel packages check www.marriott.com/hotels/hotel-deals/atlmq-atlanta-marriott-marquis. The exhilarating rides on the indoor glass elevators, 21 plasma screens at the sports bar and downtown views from the guestroom windows are extra bonuses.

If your family’s focus is Stone Mountain Park, look into lodging deals there, including a Snow Mountain and campground package and family packages with attraction tickets and breakfast at the Marriott Evergreen Conference Center (www.evergreenmarriott.com).

Atlanta offers family fun and entertainment regardless of the time of year you visit, but the holiday attractions add to the vibrant feel. The Southern flavor combined with top-notch attractions makes this city a draw. Since it is a major city, try to time your travels into and around the city to avoid rush-hour traffic congestion.

Whenever you go, a helpful place to start when planning is the Atlanta Convention & Visitors Bureau, www.atlanta.net.

(Note: This article was published in 2008.)

Attraction Details

Holiday in Lights and Ice Skating: Centennial Olympic Park, Atlanta. www.centennialpark.com/events/ice.html. Through Jan. 4, 2009. Open daily to view the lights 7 a.m.-11 p.m. Skating rink open daily except for Dec. 25. Admission is $7 for 90 minutes and $2 for skate rental. Open daily except closed Christmas Day. Check Web site for times.

New World of Coca-Cola: 121 Baker St., N.W., Atlanta. www.worldofcoca-cola.com. Admission $9 ages 3-12; $15 adult; $13 seniors. Near MARTA stops N1 (Peachtree Center) or W1 (Dome/GWCC/Philips Arena/CNN Center). Reserve tickets online in advance.

Georgia Aquarium: 225 Baker St., Atlanta. www.georgiaaquarium.org. General admission $19.50 ages 3-12, $26 adult, $21.50 senior; 4-D Theater $4-$5.50, and family behind-the-scenes tours $50 additional. Reserve tickets in advance online and plan to spend from two to four hours at the Georgia Aquarium. Allow time to get through security (no chewing gum or outside food and drink allowed). The lower level houses the Café Aquaria Food Court.

Inside CNN Studios: One CNN Center, Atlanta. www.cnn.com/studiotour. Admission $9 ages 4-18, $12 adult, $11 seniors for a 50-minute guided walking tour inside television news.

Imagine It! Children’s Museum of Atlanta: 275 Centennial Olympic Park Dr., Atlanta, www.imagineit-cma.org. Admission $11 for ages 2 and older. A 30,000-square-foot space with interactive and educational exhibits for children age 8 and younger.

Stone Mountain Christmas: U.S. Hwy. 78 East, Exit 8, Stone Mountain, approximately 16 miles east of downtown Atlanta. www.stonemountainpark.com. Admission $17 ages 3-11 and $20 adults; vehicle entry $8.

Snow Mountain: Stone Mountain Park. www.snowmountainpark.com. Admission $25 adults and kids 3-11; timed entry. Must be 42 inches or taller to tube. Advanced reservations recommended. Package deal with campground reservation available.

Atlantic Station: www.atlanticstation.com for directions, directory and more. Snowfall weeknights at 7:30 p.m. and 6-9 p.m. Friday and Saturday through Dec. 31. Children’s train operates noon-8 p.m. weekends through Dec. 21, 2008; $3. Horse and carriage rides 6-8 p.m. Saturdays through Dec. 21; fundraiser for Make-A-Wish Foundation.

CityPass Tickets: www.citypass.com/city/atlanta. Admission to six attractions; $69 ($119 value) for adults and $49 ($89 value) for ages 3-12. AtlanTIX – www.atlantaperforms.com. Tickets sold at the Atlanta Convention & Visitors Bureau Visitor Centers at Underground Atlanta or the Lenox Square’s Simon guest services booth.

MARTA: www.itsmarta.com. Metropolitan Atlanta Rapid Transit Authority public transportation system.

Categories: Family Fun, Food + Fun, Seasonal, Seasonal Fun, Things To Do, Travel

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