Remember the scene in “A Christmas Story” where Ralphie and his friends are looking in the department store Christmas windows? Kansas City returns to that magical 1950s Christmas every year with magical light displays and over-the-top holiday events. The end of November is the perfect time to make the trek to Kansas City (about five hours northeast of Oklahoma City) to kick off the Christmas season in a festive family-friendly environment.
Let There Be Lights
A hundred-thousand people are expected for Kansas City’s biggest Christmas event – turning on the Christmas lights on the Country Club Plaza. This 15-block area was the nation’s first regional shopping area planned for automobile traffic. Famous for its Spanish-style architecture, imported tiles, sculptures and fountains, the Plaza was only two years old when the first Christmas lights went up in 1925.
That year, one string of 16 lights was put above the doorway of the Nichols Company, the Plaza developers. In 1928, the lights were strung across the street to the newly-built Plaza Theatre. More lights followed and, finally, in 1930, the first official lighting ceremony was hosted. Now more than 80 miles of lights outline the towers and roofs of the district’s buildings.
Lighting this year will be on Thanksgiving Day at the Main Stage at Nichols Road and Pennsylvania Avenue. One child from the crowd will be chosen at random to throw the big switch that lights up the whole Plaza. Festivities start at 5 p.m. with entertainment and giveaways. The switch is flipped at 6:54 p.m. and followed by a concert. The lights will shine until Jan. 17, 2016.
Most people enjoy the lights while strolling along the sidewalks. Others take horse-drawn carriage rides. For a bird’s-eye view, take a helicopter tour over the Plaza with KC Copters. The choppers are small and limited to three guests per ride. The flights are expensive (regularly $349) but the ride offers an unbeatable view and tickets can be purchased at a discount ($299) before Nov. 21.
To see one of the tallest Christmas trees in the nation, head to the lighting ceremony at 5:30 p.m. Nov. 27 at Crown Center. The 100-foot tree sparkles with more than 7,000 white lights and a playground beneath the tree offers great spots for photos. Between the entertainment and the actual lighting, plan to stay one to two hours. For added holiday fun, stay and skate on Kansas City’s only outside ice terrace.
For a drive-through display, Christmas in the Park at Longview Lake on the city’s southeast side is a must. Kick-off is 5 p.m. Nov. 25 with entertainment and a fireworks display. Enjoy the drive-through displays through Dec. 31 with 300,000 lights and 175 animated figures synchronized to music. The event is free but donations are accepted.
On the north side of Kansas City, the lights go on at 6 p.m. Nov. 21 at Zona Rosa, a planned community with shopping, dining and entertainment venues built around a town square. Decorations pay homage to the Kansas City of the ‘50s with large crowns hanging over the streets. Santa and the holiday Fairy Princess will delight kids with a special arrival during the lighting ceremony.
Indoor Spaces and Fun Places
One of the grandest spaces in the city is Union Station, one of the largest railroad stations in the country. Holiday decorations here are gorgeous and their Holidays Come Alive celebration begins at 11 a.m. Nov. 21 with special programming and entertainment through the afternoon culminating with the lighting of the city’s tallest indoor Christmas tree. About a quarter of a million people will come through the station to see the decorations during the season. Special attractions include a miniature train ride and a model train exhibit. If you visit Dec. 16-20, enjoy Kansas City Southern’s Holiday Express, a festive train ride perfect for families.
Visitors to Union Station can visit with Santa and his elves and tour the inside of three of the decorated cars. Cars in the train include a happy tank car named “Rudy,” a flatcar with Santa’s sleigh, reindeer and a tiny village, a ginger bread boxcar, the elves’ workshop, the reindeer stable and a little red caboose. Each car is decorated with colored lights. There is no charge to tour the train.
The holidays are all about toys, so a trip to the National Museum of Toys and Miniatures is a must. The museum is recommended for ages 5 and up. Two Kansas City women merged their interests and collections to create the unique museum. Mary Francis liked antique dollhouses while Barbara Marshall preferred scale-model miniatures, the kind found in major art museums. Now the museum contains both along with a tremendous collection of toys.
The museum is located in an old mansion south of the Plaza. It gets decorated for the holidays and so do two of their amazing exhibits. The Coleman House is the museum’s largest dollhouse, standing nine-feet tall and seven-feet wide. Visitors can always look through the windows at the rooms but on Dec. 5, museum docents will open the house up so guests can get a better look inside.
In the miniature area, Twin Manor will be decorated with period-appropriate trimmings. This Georgian Colonial house was inspired by a number of real homes and is constructed with authentic materials including 18th century brick and wood.
For families, Nov. 27 will be an extra special day. On that day, the museum will provide a number of family activities carrying out the theme “A Victorian Christmas.”
Crown Center with its multiple buildings is a hotbed of indoor holiday fun. In the Crown Center Shops, you’ll want to stop at Santa’s Gingerbread Station for a photo with Santa. Nearby is a giant gingerbread display with houses scattered over icing-snow-covered mountains and three trains running through the exhibit.
Look for the EBT Laughing Santa, an antique, mechanical Santa who has delighted Kansas City youngsters since his first appearance at one of the city’s finest department stores, Emery, Bird, Thayer Dry Goods, in the early 1900s.
No Kansas City trip with children is ever complete without a stint at Kaleidoscope, a children’s activity center that’s part of the Hallmark complex. Multiple stations with paper, stickers, glue, crayons, chalk, ribbon – the list goes on and on – provide creative tools for kids. There’s bound to be lots of reds and greens at this time of year.
In the Spotlight
Don’t forget some of the excellent live performances available in town. The Coterie in Crown Center Shops presents “A Charlie Brown Christmas” from Nov. 17 to Jan. 3 while Musical Theater Heritage, also at Crown Center Shops, sings its way through the holidays with “A Spectacular Christmas Show.”
The architecturally-amazing Kauffman Performing Arts Center hosts one of the season’s most beloved and traditional offerings. A brand-new $2.5 million staging of Tchaikovsky’s “The Nutcracker” will be presented by the Kansas City Ballet in the Muriel Kauffman Theatre. Performances run from Dec. 5 to 24.
Probably tied with “The Nutcracker” for seasonal favorite is Dicken’s “A Christmas Carol.” This will be the Kansas City Repertory Theatre’s 35th annual production of the show. Hosted at the Spencer Theatre on the University of Missouri at Kansas City campus, the play runs from Nov. 20 through Dec. 24.
All these wonderful events would be enough to make even Scrooge smile. But you’re sure to find even more holiday merriment than we can mention when you visit Kansas City during the holiday season.
[Editor’s Note: Find more family-friendly Kansas City ideas in their regional family magazine, Kansas City Parent.]