The Holiday Countdown: 12 days of Chicagoland holiday fun

Holiday cheer is everywhere. You might as well embrace it. Get out your calendar and find time for these 12 holiday activities that will bring joy to the entire family.

Count down to the holidays with these can’t-miss festive family adventures.

This year, instead of waiting in that dreaded long line to see “the big guy,” schedule your appointment and head for an exciting ride at Oakbrook Center’s Adventure to Santa. Created by DreamWorks Animation, the 15-minute journey to the North Pole with Shrek and his friends takes place in a magical 2,000-square-foot cottage with five rooms filled with fun and interactive activities. Your family starts by creating a sleigh and then embarking on an interactive ride that ends with a private visit and photo with Santa. Advance reservations require a pre-purchased photo package of $40-$74 per family.

DreamWorks Adventure to Santa

Choo-choo! All aboard for the Wonderland Express at the Chicago Botanic Garden in Glencoe. This is a stop for all ages with the combination of railroad garden, greenhouse extravaganza and light show. The kids will adore the trains that run through the impressively accurate miniature version of Chicago and everybody will love that it snows inside. Yes, it really snows inside! With drop-in activities on the weekends and month-long festive cheer, it’s a great place to spend a cold December day bringing the taste of the outdoors inside. Parking is $25-30, admission to the garden is free, Wonderland Express tickets are $10 kids 3-12, free 2 and under, $12 adults. Tuesdays are half-price.

Wonderland Express

Every holiday season should include Charlie Brown and his Peanuts pals. Make it extra special this year by bringing the kids to see Emerald City Theatre’s play, “A Charlie Brown Christmas.” It’s playing through Jan. 3 at Chicago’s Broadway Playhouse at Water Tower Place, which is the perfect size theater for all ages to enjoy the music, characters and the famous spindly tree. Top off the outing with a walk down Michigan Avenue to see the holiday lights. Prices vary.

“A Charlie Brown Christmas”

Nothing says holidays quite like music, from Jingle Bells to Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer to The Dreidel Song. And now the whole family can belt them out together at the Old Town School of Folk Music sing-along. The Playdate at Old Town: Winter Holidays Celebration is being held at the Lincoln Square location at 10 a.m. on Saturday, Dec. 12. It’s a spirited sing-along celebrating winter holiday traditions from around the world that will get your toes tapping. Leading the way will be Old Town favorites Jason McInnes, Lindsay Weinberg, The Young Stracke All-Stars and Young Voices. $6.

Winter Holidays Celebration

If you are looking for a truly unique ice-skating adventure, check out the ice rink in the Farm-in-the-Zoo at the Lincoln Park Zoo. Skate past ponies and glide next to the goats at this incredible rink with a stunning view of the city. The rink is open daily Dec. 1-Jan. 3, except for Christmas and Christmas Eve. The rink will be open only on weekends through February. Hours vary. With warm drinks and snacks available, this ice rink is a total hidden gem. $5 admission; $5 skate rental.

Ice skating

This year marks the 20th anniversary of one of the most popular winter attractions in the heart of the city. The Christkindlmarket located in Daley Plaza is a magical celebration of culture, community and holiday cheer. With almost 60 vendors selling everything from candles to nutcrackers to bratwurst, families can find something for everyone. More than half of the vendors are from Germany and Austria and have authentic goods for sale. With more than one million visitors annually, the Christkindlmarket is a must on your holiday list. It’s open from Nov. 20-Dec. 24. Admission is free.


If you haven’t yet made it a family tradition to visit the holiday windows at Macy’s on State Street and eat at the world famous Walnut Room, this is the year to start! It’s been a Chicago tradition since 1907. The Walnut Room is located on the seventh floor and the 45-foot grand Christmas tree is quite the sight to dine around. The Walnut Room doesn’t take reservations around the holidays, so plan ahead to get some shopping done while you wait for a table. Or better yet, dine during weekdays or at the early morning breakfast buffet to avoid the crowds. With a special children’s menu as well adult fare, it’s a meal that’s sure to bring that festive feel for your family.

Walnut Room

Back by popular demand for its 15th year is PNC Bank’s Winter WonderFest at Navy Pier. It is literally the biggest and best indoor winter playground you’ve ever seen. With 17,000 square feet of rides, slides, bounce houses, carousels and Ferris wheels, your family can easily spend an entire day at the fest. Don’t miss the Chicago Blackhawks indoor ice skating rink where you can lace up and glide around the magical wonderland. It runs the entire month of December and tickets can be bought in advance or at the door. Prices vary.

Winter WonderFest

Fa-la-la-la-la. Bundle up and head to Millennium Park to catch your favorite holiday carols. Every Friday night, Nov. 27-Dec. 18, some of Chicago’s best choral groups will be caroling for 60-minute sessions at Cloud Gate, fondly known as “The Bean.” Listen to the spirit of the season, and capture some amazing photos with the city as your background. And if you’re looking to make an evening of it, head over to Millennium Park’s McCormick Tribune Ice Rink for some nighttime skating. Free.

Caroling at Cloud Gate

This month, you’ll likely find the comedy holiday classic, “Home Alone,” on multiple TV channels. Experience the beloved movie in a new way with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra as they perform the score live during the film. It features composer John Williams’ delightful score, plus the CSO will be joined by members of the Deerfield High School and Highland Park High School Chorale groups. The “Home Alone: Film with Live Orchestra” plays in Orchestra Hall Dec. 11-13. It’s the perfect way to introduce the symphony to younger kids in your family. Prices vary.

“Home Alone”: Film with Live Orchestra

Brought to life by the Chicago Kids Company, the holiday classic “Mrs. Claus, A Holiday Musical,” is back for the 17th year. Performing at the Beverly Arts Center Dec. 3-Dec. 23, it’s live professional theater for the whole family. This colorful and musical show follows the new Elf Class of 2015 as they try to find the missing “list” in time for Christmas. The interactive storytelling engages the creativity and imaginations of young minds, while also entertaining the adults. $12.

Mrs. Claus, A Holiday Musical

Treat your family to a little culture, art and adventure at the Art Institute’s 34th annual Holiday Treasure Hunt and Tea Party on Sunday, Dec. 13. With four stops along the hunt and a day of museum exploration, this cultural holiday journey is sure to be a hit with kids. Once the hunt is complete, join Artie the Lion and his friends for a festive holiday tea party in the Modern Wing. Tickets are available online, with three start times available. $15 kids 2 and up, $35 adults.

Holiday Treasure Hunt and Tea Party

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