Few things get us in the holiday spirit more than cranking up Mariah Carey’s “All I Want for Christmas is You” and driving around to take in the cheerful glow of holiday lights. That’s why we’ve prepared a list (and we’ve checked it twice) of the best light displays in town. Here’s the lowdown on where to go, when to go there, and even where to grab a bite to eat or some hot cocoa to-go before venturing out for yuletide merriment.
Jolly Holiday Lights
The granddaddy of Greater Des Moines light shows and biggest light show in the state, Jolly Holiday Lights celebrates its yearly fundraiser to support wishes for Iowa kids through Make-A-Wish Iowa. This essential holiday tradition includes a 2.5-mile stretch featuring more than 100 different light displays. Admission starts at $20 per car. You can also support the cause by shopping the online Wish Shop and arrange for your child to receive a personalized email from Santa.
Where: Adventureland, 3300 Adventureland Drive, Altoona
When: 5:30 – 10 p.m.; November 25 – January 2. Closed on Christmas Eve, Christmas Day, and New Year's Eve.
Tickets: Pricing is based on vehicle type/passenger capacity. Tickets are $25 per car - purchase online to save $5!
Where to eat: Burger Shed, 500 Bass Pro Drive Northwest, Altoona
Gingerbread Lane, Ankeny
Want to hear the story of the gingerbread boy? (Rhetorical question, of course you do.) Head over to Richland Court in Ankeny, where this suburban neighborhood transforms into a holiday lane, with each festively lit home having signage that tells the story of the gingerbread boy. Bring your best non-perishables, as every weekend, Santa and Mrs. Claus collect canned goods for Food Bank of Iowa.
Where: SE Richland Court, Ankeny
When: 5:30 – 9:30 p.m.; December 3 – 31
Where to eat: Fong’s Pizza - District at Prairie Trail, 1450 SW Vintage Parkway, Suite 120, Ankeny
Beaverdale Holiday Lights
More than 50 homes in Beaverdale do their best Clark Griswold impression, competing for bragging rights in this annual light show. Subtlety is not an option, as light displays, both cutting edge and classic, light up the neighborhood. There’s even a sign at the entrance that tells you what radio station to turn it to in order to sync up with the light displays.
Where: Ashby and Wallace Avenues, East and West of Beaver Avenue
When: 6 – 9 p.m. through December 31
Where to eat: Motley School Tavern, 1903 Beaver Ave, Des Moines, IA 50310
Historic Valley Junction
Not only can you enjoy more than 125,000 lights, but you can also get your holiday shopping done at Historic Valley Junction’s cool vintage and handmade stores, and then refuel at one of their unique bars and eateries. Check out Jingle in the Junction on Thursday, December 15 and 22 from 5 – 9 p.m. for extended shopping and in-store specials, mailbox to the North Pole, and a seasonal selfie spot!
When: 5 p.m. – Midnight through January 1
Where: Fifth Street and Railroad Ave, West Des Moines
Where to eat: Fire Creek Grill, 800 S 50th Street, Suite 110, West Des Moines
Boone and Scenic Valley Railroad – Santa Express
It doesn’t get much more magical than this! The Boone and Scenic Valley Railroad’s popular Santa Express train, named one of the 30 Best Holiday and Christmas Trains in the US, is a one-hour round trip journey to the quaint but festive “North Pole.” Along the way you’ll hear the story of Santa’s Scenic Valley Ride, sing Christmas carols and enjoy hot chocolate and cookies. This unique experience has become a memorable family tradition for families across Iowa. Pro-tip: Holiday pajamas are encouraged, no matter your age!
When: Santa Express trains operate on Fridays, Saturdays, and Sundays through December 18. Tickets are $22 - $46 per person.
Where: 225 10th Street, Boone, IA 50036
Where to eat: Whistle Stop Café, 1102 Story Street, Boone
SANTA'S ROCK N LIGHTS – DRIVE THROUGH LIGHTS SHOW
Living History Farms brings “Santa’s Rock n Lights – Drive Through Light Show” to Greater Des Moines. Visitors will travel through the mystical dinosaur world and over 700 feet of tunnels, including the techno rainbow tunnel. Tune your car radio to the station synced to the show lights for an immersive, full-sensory experience!
When: Open daily (hours vary) now through January 2. Tickets start at $29.99 per vehicle and must be purchased in advance online.
Where: Living History Farms, 11121 Hickman Road, Urbandale
Where to eat: The Machine Shed, 11151 Hickman Road, Urbandale
WINTER WONDERSCAPE WALK-THROUGH LIGHT SHOW AT REIMAN GARDENS
New this year, Reiman Gardens in Ames unveils “Winter Wonderscape” - a walk-through light show in the outdoor gardens. The gardens feature a variety of immersive light displays throughout 17 acres. Walk through brightly lit tunnels, meander through fantasy lights falling like stars, view massive disco balls twirling to laser lights, enjoy a 20’ wide fountain and a wide array of other sparkling wonders.
When: Thursday, Friday, and Saturday evenings, December 2 - January 1, 5:00 p.m. to last ticket sold at 8:00 p.m. Tickets must be purchased online in advance and start at $7.
Where: Reiman Gardens, 1407 University Blvd Ames, IA 50011
Where to eat: Hickory Park, 1404 S. Duff Avenue, Ames
Need to distract the kids on Christmas Eve so Santa can make his pit stop? Head over to the Waterbury neighborhood in Des Moines, where lighted luminaries line the sidewalks of Waterbury Road on Christmas Eve.
When: December 24
Where: Waterbury Road in Des Moines
Where to eat: El Fogon, 1250 8th Street, West Des Moines
Windsor Heights Lights
Around 120 homes participate in Windsor Heights Foundation’s annual holiday lighting contest each year. Nothing brings out the creative displays like a little friendly competition among neighbors.
When: December 6 — January 1 from 6 - 9 p.m.
Where: South of Hickman Road, Franklin Avenue, Marylynn Drive and 72nd Street
Where to eat: Simon’s, 5800 Franklin Ave, Des Moines
A new holiday tradiiton returns for Year Two, as the Drake neighborhood receives a colorful makeover with Dogtown Lights. The entertainment district in the heart of campus will have double the amount of lights as last year and the lights will change in appearance to recognize things like Lunar New Year and Black History Month.
Where: University Avenue between 23rd and 25th streets in Des Moines' Drake neighborhood
When: Through February 2023
Where to eat: Lucky Horse, 2331 University Ave, Des Moines, IA 50311