A Holiday Visit to Atlanta
If you’re looking to be dazzled by holiday lights and big-city vibrancy, but you don’t want to face the icy weather forecasts of a Northern destination, consider the fair city of Atlanta, where you can enjoy a bit of down-home Southern hospitality along with world-class attractions. Families will find plenty to enjoy there for a weekend or longer at affordable prices.
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 Nov. 15-Jan. 4. The park is free and open daily 7 a.m.-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 rental. The ice rink is open daily during Holiday in Lights except for Christmas day, with varying hours depending on the day of the week. It can get a bit crowded with less-than-experienced skaters, so watch out for falling kids.
If your children prefer running and climbing to skating, trails and playgrounds at the park, including one accessible for all children, are good breaks during the day from the attractions in the area.
Across from Centennial Olympic Park is another open space, 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.
The new World of Coca-Cola pays tribute to the history and culture surrounding the popular brand. Like North Carolina’s own Pepsi, Coca-Cola was invented by a Southern pharmacist. John S. Pemberton developed the original formula in Atlanta in 1886.
The Coca-Cola Company 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, is the tasting area with more than 60 beverages, increased from the previous 40. Get a cup and try as many as you want. You’re bound to find a few you wish were available in the United States and several that you’re glad aren’t. Your kids will be amazed at how different people’s tastes can be. From Nov. 28 to Dec. 23, the beverage bar will serve specially blended holiday beverages, with take-home recipe cards if you’d like to duplicate them at home.
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. Both also are represented in the Pop Culture gallery during the holidays, along with other Steve Penley pieces.
Walk With the Fishes
A short walk across Pemberton Place is the world’s largest aquarium, which by itself is worth a trip to Atlanta. My son and I have visited several in major cities, and we were wowed by the 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 for all ages, 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 an African penguin exhibit where you can poke your head up into the middle of them. The Japanese spider crab is a show-stopper, as the largest known arthropod 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 live, along with crowd-pleasing Asian small-clawed otters. Walk down a 100-foot-long tunnel through the 6.3-million-gallon Ocean Voyager tank with whale sharks and other giant fish that usually live in the open sea. After journeying through the depths of the ocean, relax in Tropical Diver with one of the largest living reef exhibits in any aquarium where thousands of colorful fish dart while an overhead wave gently crashes. The gallery also has jellies, seahorses and “Nemo,” the clown anemonefish.
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, and the Inside CNN Studio, off the southwest side of the park.
Stone Mountain Park, beyond downtown Atlanta, rings in the Christmas season with more than 2 million twinkling lights in Crossroads, a re-created 1870s Southern town at the base of Stone Mountain. The attraction commemorates its 50th anniversary this year with its popular Stone Mountain Christmas, Fridays through Sundays Dec. 5-14 and daily Dec. 19-30 except for Christmas Eve and Christmas Day. Atlanta’s first snow park, Snow Mountain, debuts at the park Dec. 31.
During Stone Mountain Christmas, visitors can enjoy The Polar Express 4D Experience, complete with the delicious aroma of hot chocolate; Christmas musical reviews with a small-town flavor; and a 5-mile train ride around the base of the mountain that includes “The Gift,” 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.
For a big-city holiday show, check out one of the many seasonal performances including “The Nutracker” by the Atlanta Ballet (Fox Theatre), “A Christmas Carol” (Alliance Theatre) or “A Kid’s Christmas” featuring the Polar Express (Atlanta Symphony Hall at Woodruff Arts Center).
Snowfall in the South
If you want guaranteed snow this winter but prefer a destination that’s not too cold or rural, consider visiting Snow Mountain, which opens Dec. 31 with a 30,000-square-foot play area of real snow and a 400-foot tubing hill with 11 runs. Kids must be at least 43 inches tall to tube. Warming areas and bonfires ward off frozen fingers.
The snow is made from water borrowed from Stone Mountain Lake in a closed-loop system. Open through March 1 on weekends.
Snow also falls nightly through Dec. 31 at Atlantic Station, a retail and entertainment district with 20 eateries and 30 retailers where kids can ride a miniature train (through Dec. 21) or families can enjoy the magical glow of more than 250,000 lights and the Midtown skyline on a horse-drawn carriage. An open-air market sells unique holiday items, and an IKEA store is here as well.
Saving on Tickets
Consider the money-saving CityPass Ticket if you plan to see multiple attractions during one visit. 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; and either High Museum of Art (including “Louvre Atlanta”) or Atlanta History Center. Several of these feature special events or exhibits during the holidays.
www.atlantabotanicalgarden.org) features Moonlight & Merriment Friday, Dec. 12, with luminaries, live holiday music and light bites; Holiday High Teas are Dec. 26-28 from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m.; “Santa’s Missing Mail” puppet shows are Saturdays at 10:30 a.m. Nov. 29-Dec. 27; a ride-on train chugs around the garden weekends Nov. 28-Jan. 4; and seasonal displays include an 18-foot tree decorated with conservation-themed ornaments.
The Atlanta History Center (www.atlantahistorycenter.com) has a special holiday-oriented exhibit, “Norman Rockwell’s Home for the Holidays” Nov. 22-Feb. 15, as well as “Jim Henson’s Fantastic World” through Jan. 18.
The High Museum of Art’s newest special exhibition, “The First Emperor: China’s Terracotta Army,” Nov. 16-April 19 features 100 works including approximately 15 complete terracotta figures (www.high.org). “Tutankhamun: The Golden King and the Great Pharaohs” runs Nov. 15-May 22 at the Atlanta Civic Center (www.kingtut.org). A Treasures Fit for Kings” combination ticket provides admission to both for a special price (www.atlanta.net/treasures).
You also don’t have to pay full price to enjoy a theater, dance or musical performance at The Fox Theatre, Cobb Energy Performing Arts Centre, Center for Puppetry Arts or other Atlanta-area venues. 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 such as Atlanta Botanical Garden, High Museum of Art and Zoo Atlanta are sold at Underground Atlanta or Lenox Square. Both locations are accessible by MARTA, the city’s public transportation system (www.itsmarta.com).
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.
The Atlanta Marriott Marquis, at Peachtree Center MARTA station and decorated for the holidays, offers special deals that include King Tut and First Emperor packages, Georgia Aquarium and the Titanic Aquatic and Zoo Atlanta (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 hotel guestroom windows are extra bonuses.
If your family’s focus is Stone Mountain Park, look into package deals for lodging 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 plan to go, a helpful place to start when planning is the Atlanta Convention & Visitors Bureau, www.atlanta.net.
Holiday in Lights and Ice Skating
Centennial Olympic Park, Atlanta
Admission: $7 for 90 minutes and $2 for skate rental.
Hours: Park and skating rink open daily through Jan. 4 from 7 a.m.-11 p.m. except Christmas Day. Check Web site for rink times.
New World of Coca-Cola
121 Baker St., N.W., Atlanta
Admission Ages 3-12, $9; Adults, $15; Seniors, $13. Reserve tickets online in advance.
Hours: Open daily, closed Christmas Day. Check Web site for hours of operation, as they vary from weekdays to weekends.
225 Baker St., Atlanta
Admission: Ages 3-12, $19.50; Adults, $26; Seniors, $21.50. 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.
Hours: Open 365 days a year.
Winter Holiday Hours:
Dec. 20-23, 8 a.m.-8 p.m.
Dec. 24, 9 a.m.-4 p.m.
Dec. 25, 12 p.m.-6 p.m.
Dec. 26-31, 8 a.m.-8 p.m.
Inside CNN Studios
One CNN Center, Atlanta
Admission Ages 4-18, $9; Adults, $12 adult; Seniors, $11 seniors.
Hours: See Web site for available tour times.
Imagine It! Children’s Museum of Atlanta
275 Centennial Olympic Park Dr., Atlanta
Admission: Ages 2 and up, $11.
Hours: Open Monday through Friday 10 a.m.-4 p.m., Saturday and Sunday 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Closed Christmas Day.
Stone Mountain Christmas
U.S. Hwy. 78 East, Exit 8, Stone Mountain, about 16 miles east of downtown Atlanta.
Admission: Ages 3-11, $17; Adults, $20 adults; vehicle entry $8.
Hours: See Web site for holiday hours.
Stone Mountain Park
Admission: All ages, $25; advanced reservations recommended.
Hours: See Web site for operating hours and days.
Tickets: Ages 3-12, $49; Adults, $69 for six attractions.
Tickets: Sold at the Atlanta Convention & Visitors Bureau Visitor Centers at Underground Atlanta or the Lenox Square’s Simon guest services booth.
Metropolitan Atlanta Rapid Transit Authority public transportation system.
Crickett Gibbons is the editor of Carolina Parent in Durham, a sister publication of Piedmont Parent.