Holiday Train and Light Displays

A train display from Christmas past at the U.S Botanic Garden

For kids young and old, some holiday traditions are just as anticipated as opening a huge pile of presents under the tree. Mini locomotives chugging around ornately decorated tracks and twinkling lights forming enchanting displays are easily two seasonal favorites.  If model trains and holiday lights are part of your family’s holiday repertoire, here’s where and when you can view them this year.  Some have already started, and many will be ready for viewing this week.  Enjoy!


Norwegian Train Display
Where:  Union Station
When:  November 23 – January 3
The giant Norwegian model train has enchanted visitors every December for 14 years, as it winds through the mountains and fjords of Norway. Each train is hand-crafted by an expert model builder and is a replica of a current or historic Norwegian train.  The display launch coincides with the regional kick-off for the 2010 U.S. Marine Corps Reserve “Toys for Tots” campaign on Tuesday, November 23, at 10am.

Season’s Greenings
Where: U.S. Botanic Garden
When: November 25 – January 2
The famous garden railway will feature world landmarks from the continents of Africa, Asia Europe and South America.  Along with the train display, the conservatory will contain the garden’s popular holiday exhibit featuring Washington landmark buildings all created with plant materials set amidst pathways and pools of blooming poinsettias and other holiday plants.  The Botanic Garden is open daily from 10am – 5pm, with hours extended on Tuesdays and Thursdays in December until 8pm. Admission is free.

Holiday Festival of Trains
Where: B&O Railroad Museum
When: November 26 – January 2
This is a venue dedicated to locomotives, so you know the holiday model train exhibit is going to be special. So much so, it changes throughout its run featuring new displays from various Model Railroad Exhibitors every few days.  The exhibit opens on Friday with the arrival of Santa in the Roundhouse at 10:30am. On weekends through December 18, guests can enjoy train rides with Santa and Frosty the Snowman along with crafts and choral performances. Admission is $14/adults, $12/seniors (60+), $8/children (2-120, free for B&O Members.  Train rides are $2/adults, $1/childred, free for B&O Members.  For more info and the exhibit schedule, visit the B&O Railroad museum website.

Winter Display and Train Exhibit
Where: Brookside Garden
When: November 27 – January 9
The Washington, Virginia, Maryland Garden Railway Society constructs their model “G” scale train exhibit inside the Brookside’s Conservatory Winter Display. Trains weave around evergreens, poinsettias, salvias, and other flowering plants as they travel trough towns and country-side scenes. Free admission during daytime hours from 10am – 5pm.  In the evenings with the Garden of Light Display, admission is $20/car on weekdays, $25/car on weekends.

Holly TrollyFest
Where:  National Capital Trolley Museum
When: November 27 – 28, December 4, 5, 11, 12, 18 & 19
Ride with Santa on the Street Cars 12:30 pm to 4:30 pm! Enjoy the model garden railway and holiday village inside the museum from 12pm – 5pm. Visit the website for directions.

Where:  National Zoo
When:  December 3 – 12 (Fri – Sun), December 17 – January 1 (nightly except for Dec. 24, 25, 31)
Explore a wintry wildlife wonderland of model trains set up inside the zoo’s special train station—the Visitor Center. Beginning December 4, children can enjoy a train ride on the Great Meadow across from the Great Ape House. Admission to ZooLights is free. Train rides are $2.

Holiday Trains and Planes
Where:  College Park Aviation Museum
When: December 18 – December 24
During the holiday season the College Park Aviation Museum gets ready for the festivities as miniature trains, villages, tunnels, and depots spark the imagination and bring history to life. The National Capital Trackers bring a fascinating and constantly moving display of model railroads.  Admission is $4/adults, $3/seniors, $2/ages 2-18, free for children under 2.


Christmas on the Potomac
Where:  Gaylord National Resort, National Waterfront
When:  November 18 – January 9
Discover the 60-foot glass tree and holiday decorations, be amazed by indoor snowfall and explore a walk-thru winter wonderland sculpted from ice.  For more details about this holiday wonderland, check out this post.

Symphony of Lights
Where: Symphony Woods
When: November 19 – January 5
Called a “woodland wonderland,” this beautiful display of more than 70 larger-than-life, animated and stationary light creations is a local holiday tradition for many. Cruise along the 1.4-mile route through the Symphony Woods in downtown Columbia and enjoy the twinkling lights as you go. Open 7 days a week, including holidays, from 6pm – 10pm. Admission is $20/car.

Where:  The National Zoo
When:  December 3 – January 2
Thousands of environmentally-friendly light and animal exhibits will transform the Zoo into a holiday wonderland.  The highlights are dozens of animal light displays, including a new one this year featuring Andean bears.  Guests can also enjoy entertainment and a special train ride for children, special talks by animal keepers, Zoo-themed model trains displays, and the gingerbread habitat contest entries on display in the auditorium.  The Small Mammal House, Great Ape House, Reptile Discovery Center, Think Tank, and Kids’ Farm will be open every night.  To top it all off, it’s free!  For details on hours and parking, see this post from a few weeks ago.

Festival of Lights
Where: Watkins Regional Park
What:  November 26 – January 2
This spectacular holiday drive-through event of more than one million twinkling lights has been dazzling holiday-goers for 24 years. This is great way to get into the holiday spirit from the comfort of your car – pop some holiday music into the CD player, turn on the seat warmers, and take in the illuminated scenes. New festival features include Santa flying a helicopter and driving a fire truck.  Admission is $5/car, free on December 25.

Garden of Lights
Where: Brookside Botanical Garden
When: November 26 – January 9
Visualize close to one million twinkling colorful lights shaped in imaginative displays throughout the gardens. Enjoy the four seasons illuminated as giant summer sunflowers, autumn leaves, winter snowflakes, spring flowers, rain showers, and more. Walk along the easily accessible paths and you’ll see what sets this light show apart from others; it’s the hundreds of wrapped trees and shrubs, beautifully lighted gazebos, cascading fountains, and the individually formed displays in the shapes of blooming flowers and wild animals. Look for moving displays such as a flock of geese, or an 11-foot giraffe covered with 9,000 lights. Open weekdays: 5:30 – 9pm, with last car admitted at 8:30pm, weekends (Friday – Sunday) 5:30 – 10pm, with last car admitted at 9:30pm.  Admission is $20/car on weekdays, $25/car on weekends.

Winter Lights Festival
Where: Seneca Creek State Park
When: November 26-27, December 3 – January 1 (nightly, except for all Mondays and Dec. 25)
Winter Lights features more than 380 illuminated vignettes and 65 animated displays in a 3.5 mile drive through beautiful Seneca Creek State Park. Theme areas include Winter Woods, Teddy Bear Land, Victorian Village, North Pole, Toyland, and Penguin Cove. Proceeds Benefit Local Charities.

Holiday Boat Parade of Lights
Where:  Alexandria City Marina
When: December 4
Alexandria’s harbor lights up when more than 50 illuminated boats cruise the Potomac River at the historic waterfront. Pre-parade festivities at the Alexandria City Marina begin at 4pm with Santa arriving by fireboat at 4:15pm. The boat parade begins at 6pm. Admission is free!  The Marina is located at ) Cameron Street in Old Town.


Filed under All ages, Annual, Christmas, DC, Festival, Holidays, Museums, Outdoor, Seasonal, Winter

8 Responses to Holiday Train and Light Displays

  1. This post is going to make this holiday season so awesome. Thanks for the info! My daughter and I are going to have a great time!

  2. ym

    Great site – we have a 3 yo and a 1 yo, so these ideas are great for us. We did the botanical garden train display the Friday after thanksgiving (got there early) and it was great. 10x better than the union station display for anyone who is choosing between the two.

    Also wanted to add a word of caution to folks re: “Christmas on the Potomac” at the Gaylord National Harbor Hotel. We went today and the entire setup and event is a complete debacle. We bought tickets for the 4:30 time slot and when we got there saw a snaking line of several hundred people. We were informed that it was running a bit late, and we’d have to wait about an hour and a half to get in (regardless of having purchased tickets for a specific time – and, yes Gaylord, standing with my kids for 90 minutes in a parking lot when it’s 35 degrees outside with a cold wind blasting us off the river sounds awesome!). We were able to salvage the afternoon there, but only in spite of the circumstances. The tree, etc. in the hotel are a lot less spectacular than advertised, and the hotel staff is incredibly inept. We walked into a restaurant that was 90% empty at 5 pm with the kids, and were told the wait was 45-60 minutes. At the restaurant next door (about half full) they were quoting a 1-2 hour wait. It should also be noted that these were both buffets (with about the type of sub-marriott food you’d expect). Anyway – we were seated after a 5 minute wait, but not sure why the huddle of 10 people manning the front station acted like they were manning an incredibly busy restaurant when there were literally only 3 other tables seated.

    Just wanted to throw that caution out there for other people considering the national harbor trip (since your link to your writeup on it appears to be broken)… If you’re going there, be prepared for big crowds, being herded like sheep, and high prices for very low brow quality.

  3. Thanks for your input on the Gaylord event – it’s always good to hear about others’ experiences. Wish yours had been better, though! I agree with you on the U.S. Botanic Garden vs. Union Station train display. The USBG exhibit is enchanting; it’s colorful and whimsical, constructed from lots of natural materials, and the mini world landmarks are quite impressive. It’s also nice that it’s right on the Mall, so you can make a day of it — check out the USBG trains as well as the holiday exhibit in the conservatory and the rest of the gardens, then head to another museum. The Union Station display is a good choice if you also have to do some holiday shopping to do or are in the area for another reason (ie, the trains alone might not be worth a special trip).

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  4. Pingback: Happy Weekend! | KidFriendly DC

  5. Marie S.

    YM – sorry to hear about your experience at ICE! and the National Harbor, but I think you just picked an unfortunately BUSY weekend to go. I went with my family just this past Saturday 12/4, and we had an AWESOME time!I know for a fact that the ICE! attraction was sold out that day, too, because my neighbor tried to buy tickets for that day and it was already sold out. It was very busy inside, but the line moved very, very quickly, so they seem to have worked it all out. We were there at 3pm Saturday, and our wait was only 20 minutes. Mind you, it’s not like the wait is a complete waste because it’s actually a very cool exhibit of Dr. Seuss artwork to look at. ICE! itself was AWESOME! Hard to believe they can make it look so amazing. We loved the ice slides and rode them several times. Afterwards, we did the ice skating and saw the snowfall in the hotel. Again, yes it was crowded, but it was a very “festive” atmosphere. So fun to be there with all the other families happily celebrating. It’s no different than going to the Mall during Christmas season. You know its going to be crowded and there’s going to be a wait at restaurants. No big deal. ‘Tis the season!

  6. Marie S.

    I also just found this other review of Gaylord’s Christmas & ICE! events that might be helpful:

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