For kids, Christmas time is magical. The memories you make with them during this season may be among the best they’ll treasure for the rest of their lives. Spending the holidays together in the Smokies is the perfect way to make great memories, and it doesn’t have to cost your family lots of money.
In fact, we’ve compiled some of the best free family holiday activities, which can be found in the hustle and bustle of the Sevierville, Pigeon Forge, and Gatlinburg areas or in the serenity of the Smoky Mountains themselves. While these activities are no cost, we’ve also suggested a few additional low-cost ideas here and there that may enhance your experience.
- Get in the Christmas spirit with a local Christmas parade.
The 40th Annual Gatlinburg Fantasy of Lights Parade is as breathtaking as it sounds. With more than 100 floats, a dozen marching bands, giant balloons of all the must-see characters from Charlie Brown, The Grinch, Polar Express, as well as old Saint Nick himself, your family will experience the full spectrum of lights, sounds, sights and more! Scheduled for 7:30pm on December 4, the hour-long parade goes all the way through Gatlinburg, starting at traffic light #1A and ending at traffic light #10. Low-cost option: With more than 80,000 people expected to attend, you may want to consider reserving a bleacher seat for $20/person. Young children can sit on parents’ laps for free.
- Witness local artisans crafting Christmas gifts at the Great Smoky Arts and Crafts Community.
More than 120 working artists and craftsmen can be found on the 8-mile loop that makes up the Great Smoky Arts and Crafts Community. Located 3 miles from Downtown Gatlinburg, these shops, studios, galleries, and cafés feature unique crafts, gifts, and foods handmade by local artisans. Browse through at your own pace or stop and ask questions, as many of the craftspeople provide live demonstrations. Also, don’t miss the 2015 Christmas Craft Show, featuring many of these same artists. Held in Downtown Gatlinburg at the Gatlinburg Convention Center from November 30-December 6, this event is free and open to the public and is a great place to find the perfect Christmas gift for anyone on your list.
- Enjoy unique Christmas celebrations in the National Park.
On December 12, the Sugarlands Visitor Center will hold its 38th annual Festival of Christmas Past. The celebration will include old-time music, harp singing, storytelling and reminiscing, craft demonstrations such as quilting and basket making, historic toys and games, and children’s activities. A special feature of this celebration is the “Christmas Memories Walk,” where staff in period costumes lead visitors on a brief walk near the center and talk about mountain life during the holidays in the 1880s to the 1930s. The event allows families to relive Christmas in a simpler time. On December 19, the Oconaluftee Visitor Center will host a Holiday Homecoming. This old-fashioned Christmas celebration in the park will feature acoustic mountain music, hands-on traditional crafts and activities, and cookies and hot apple cider by the fire. Families will learn about and experience Christmas traditions of mountain communities in Appalachia.
- Take a drive to see all the Winterfest lights.
For approximately 25 miles, an estimated 12 million twinkling lights adorn the cityscapes of Sevierville, Pigeon Forge, and Gatlinburg from late fall through February. From simple, lighted snowflakes on power poles to elaborate and colorfully lit winter scenes along the roadside, there is something for everyone to enjoy. A must-see display is located near the Riverstone Resort and Spa, where beautiful lights are constructed over the Dollywood Lane bridge for a covered bridge effect. Low-cost option: Winterfest Trolley Tours are available in the evenings for as little as $5 per person so your family can enjoy the Winterfest lights along with a little local history in the comfort of an enclosed and heated trolley.
- Visit Santa at “Santa’s Wonderland.”
Forget “mall Santas,” the real Mr. Claus can be found at Santa’s Wonderland at Bass Pro Shops. Beginning in late November and lasting until Christmas Eve, Bass Pro Shops transforms their store into an exciting holiday playground, where you and the kids can enjoy hours of holiday family fun. Your kids can pen their Christmas lists in crayon on special paper and hop onto Santa’s lap to tell him all their wishes. Santa’s elves will snap a holiday portrait of your child with Santa and give you a free 4×6 print in a special commemorative card. They’ll even take an additional free picture of the whole family if mom and dad want to jump into the shot with the kids. Other scheduled daily activities include making free crafts, plush toy giveaways (while supplies last), driving model trains and remote-controlled cars through Christmas village scenes, foam toy and laser gun shooting galleries, a wildlife carousel, and more. The store will even give you a Bass Pass with a designated photo time with Santa so you don’t have to wait long hours in line to see him!
- Make your way to Ober Gatlinburg Ski Area and Amusement Park for winter mountaintop fun.
With a snowy layer generated almost daily, Ober Gatlinburg is a true winter wonderland during the holidays. Drive your own car up Ski Mountain Road to the Ober Lodge, where you can watch all those “adventurous types” doing indoor ice skating and outdoor skiing, snowboarding, and tubing. The people watching is free and can generate hours of fun observing all the snowy slipping and sliding from your warm perch in the lodge area, where food and shopping are also available. Relatively low-cost option: If you and your family can’t bear to simply watch, you can join in the fun on an ala carte basis or grab a wristband for multiple activities. Choose to ice skate for $9/3-hour session including skates or ride the Ski Mountain Coaster for $15/ride. Wristbands start at $22/adult and $19/kids age 5-11 and provide numerous activities—not all are available year-round. If you’d rather park your car down in Gatlinburg and experience breathtaking views on your way up the mountain, you can ride the aerial tramway for $12/adult and $9.50/child. Before you go, check out the Ober Gatlinburg website for a full listing of activities, tickets/rates, hours of operation, special exclusions, and weather disclaimers.
- Catch the Winter Smoky Mountain Tunes and Tales on the streets of Pigeon Forge and Gatlinburg.
As you’re window shopping and taking in all the festive lights and decorations, be watching for live characters and carolers who walk the streets of Pigeon Forge and Gatlinburg during the season. Every Friday and Saturday night beginning at 6pm along the Parkway, the Winter Magic Tunes and Tales entertainers provide singing and storytelling for all visitors’ enjoyment.
- Drive up into the park to experience nature in wintertime.
In winter you can see amazing wildlife and beautiful nature scenes in the national park. Stop by area visitor’s centers where staff are friendly and have helpful information and ideas for any excursion. Roads such as US-441 (Newfound Gap Road), Little River Road, and the Cades Cove Loop Road are open year round. Be sure to check the park’s seasonal road schedule first however, because some roads close due to icy conditions. Stop your car along a mountain stream and listen to the ice cold water rushing over the river rocks. Search for icicles hanging from tree limbs or tiny winter bird families nestled together in tree tops. Be very still and experience the quiet serenity of falling snow or catch snowflakes on your tongue. Glimpse white-tailed deer, black bears, wild turkeys, and other animals in their natural habitats. Collect stones, pinecones, berries, and sticks and take lots of family photos for making homemade Christmas crafts and gifts or a special journal to display all your family’s experiences of the season.
Bonus Idea: Enjoy some relaxing family time at Riverstone.
After you’ve seen and done it all, plan a “Christmas movie” night in your cozy Riverstone condo, sitting by the fireplace with a big bowl of popcorn watching all your family’s holiday favorites. You can also bundle up with some blankets and hot chocolate, sit in our rockers by the stream, and read the Christmas story. Talk about your children’s dreams for Christmas morning, their favorite memories of Christmas pasts, the Christmas traditions they’ll definitely be celebrating with their children someday, or discuss what the true meaning of Christmas is to them. You’re sure to make great family holiday memories they’ll never forget!