Palm trees, late-night entertainment and all-around craziness don’t really conjure up thoughts of the holidays, but you’d be surprised how much there is to see and do during the season in Las Vegas.
Don’t let the desert and neon lights fool you. From magical garden displays to once-in-a-lifetime holiday shows, Vegas celebrates in style.
Ring in the season with a festive display
What do flying reindeer, a polar bear family, larger-than-life toy soldiers and a Shasta fir tree have in common? They are all components of the Bellagio Conservatory’s elaborate holiday display. Each year, the enchanting winter garden touches the hearts of visitors from all over the world.
“When you get into the Conservatory for this particular display, it’s like we become children again,” said Andy Garcia, director of horticulture for Bellagio Conservatory. “It really is one of my favorites.”
This year’s display includes a polar bear family made from white carnations. Comprised of 35,000 carnations, the bears’ “fur” is kept fresh by a specially designed water drip system.
The polar bear family is considered to be a favorite among visitors: “People have been asking for that, and that is one of the things we do,” Garcia said. “We listen to the guests and the people who are walking through the Conservatory.”
Just steps away, eight “flying” reindeer soar over a giant holiday card made of thousands of blooming flowers. Another fun animal addition is the 7-foot-tall rocking horse, placed right in the center of a working train display. This year, visitors can see snow falling from above the reindeer and polar bear displays: “When the snow comes down from the ceiling, I get moved by that,” said Garcia.
The Conservatory would not be complete without its towering, 42-foot Shasta fir tree. Dressed with thousands of shimmering lights, the breathtaking Christmas tree serves as the Conservatory’s centerpiece. The gigantic ornaments and the 15-foot-tall toy soldiers standing in front of the tree both add the perfect finishing touch.
According to Garcia, the most important thing is the visitors’ reaction: “Every year, we try to bring something different or change the position of the props,” he said. “We have to take care of the flowers every day and make sure they are looking perfect for the duration of the show.”
While it takes perfection to plan out the annual holiday Conservatory display, the horticulture staff’s love for the holidays makes it all worthwhile.
“I still have chills when I come in because of everything within the Conservatory,” Garcia said “It’s peaceful, whimsical, beautiful. When [we] see these things, we go back to how we celebrated the holidays in our homes or countries where we’re from. That says a lot to me.”
Mystic Falls a Winter Wonderland
The garden fun doesn’t stop at Bellagio. In addition to a 40-foot-tall Christmas tree, thousands of lights and snow-covered lampposts, Mystic Falls at Sam’s Town also features a video and laser show. The 20,000-square-foot indoor atrium, truly brings the holidays to life.
“I think the real attraction of this show is the setting,” said Mike Garms, vice president and general manager at Sam’s Town. “We have a specific video show and a laser light show that is geared toward the holiday themes and it’s just something unique, especially in a desert setting.”
The light show runs at 6, 8 and 10 p.m., and is about 14 minutes long. Guests can also see shooting water “dance” to traditional holiday music like “Frosty the Snowman,” “Let It Snow” and “The Nutcracker.”
Popular with tourists and locals alike, there are about 150-300 visitors per show. “It’s really enjoyed by a lot of different folks,” said Garms. “Everyone [can] come out and enjoy snowfall in the desert and our holiday presentation.”
Staying on the Strip? If you’d like to check out the show, there are buses at Harrah’s and the Riviera that do a continuous loop to Sam’s Town and back. The bus runs 10 times a day. The holiday presentation lasts until Jan 2.
Holiday Cactus Lights
Cactus and lights are two words that usually don’t go together, but Ethel M Chocolate Factory and Botanical Cactus Gardens makes it work. For almost 16 years, Ethel M has featured an outdoor holiday showcase with more than half a million twinkling lights. It takes more than a month to put the lights up but the results are worth it.
“Our cactus garden is really beautiful,” said Jennifer Gudgel, brand director for Ethel’s Chocolates. “It’s this kind of desert oasis that turns into a chocolate wonderland. It’s unique in its own way because in Vegas, there really isn’t anyone lighting a cactus garden.”
Through Jan. 1, guests can take a quiet stroll through the winding cactus-lined paths to witness the vibrant, colorful lights and approximately 300 different species of cacti. There are benches scattered throughout the garden, perfect for sitting and getting lost in the lights. During the weekends, local choirs and Santa come to visit.
Just steps away, guests enter chocolate heaven. Inside the Ethel M factory, you can see the making of chocolate, as well as a chocolate waterfall flowing onto pretzels and gummy worms: “Everything’s done in store, so guests can see fresh product being made,” noted Gudgel.
Purchase a hot drink at Ethel’s lounge and souvenirs or holiday gift boxes in the gift shop. This year’s festive chocolate flavors include eggnog, pecan pie, pumpkin pie and white chocolate peppermint bark. As always, guests receive a free sample of the seasonal chocolate.
While this is an off-Strip attraction, it still gets it share of attention from locals and tourists alike.
“For me, it’s a great free thing to do over the holidays,” Gudgel said.
The garden is open nightly from sundown to 10 p.m. The chocolate factory is open daily from 8:30 a.m. – 6 p.m.
Have a Twisted Christmas
If you think cacti and lights are quite the combination, then heavy metal Christmas music will blow your mind.
From Dec. 15 – 17, Twisted Sister brings “Twisted Christmas” to the Las Vegas Hilton. Not only will the band perform hits like “We’re Not Gonna Take It,” “I Wanna Rock,” “The Price,” and “You Can’t Stop Rock ‘N Roll,” they will also rock the stage by putting an interesting spin on all your favorite Christmas songs from their album, “Twisted Christmas.”
Infusing heavy metal with Christmas seems unorthodox, but it worked out for this ’80s hair band.
“It was kind of a happy accident,” explained Jay Jay French, lead guitarist and co-founder of the band. “We were all sitting around rehearsal one day and the words ‘Twisted Christmas’ kind of rolled off my tongue. Turning heavy metal songs into Christmas songs will either destroy our career or boost it. And what did we have to lose?”
The band, in fact, had everything to gain.
“We started a trend and we’re really proud of it,” said French. “What happened was the record became a huge hit. It is the biggest-selling heavy metal Christmas album in the last few years. Now, every single heavy metal band started recording Christmas songs when they all thought that we were crazy three years ago.”
Owning the “Twisted Christmas” album is one thing, but seeing the band live is another. What started out as a small East Coast gig four years ago is now making its way to Vegas.
“It’s a fun show and that’s really the entire inspiration,” he said. “We have a lot of fun with it. When people come and watch us and hear these songs, it brings shock and surprise and they have a great time. The show has really taken a life of its own.”
Even the stage has a bit of a “twist” to it: “The stage looks like Santa Claus’ workshop in hell,” said French. “It’s a beautiful stage and it really helps create the entire mood.”
One may wonder if the wild holiday celebration continues off stage. “Well, we all have kids now, so you can imagine what that’s like!” French joked. “We’re all held hostage by the next generation.”
With the original five members delivering passion on stage like they did years ago, you might consider adding the show to your holiday schedule.
“Nobody thought that we’d be out there doing it, but you know what? It keeps you young!” French said. “You have to find reasons to go and have a good time. And we put as much energy in it today as we did 30 years ago. We love our fans, and we love this whole concept, it’s great.”
Mr. Christmas Andy Williams comes to town
Dubbed “Mr. Christmas,” Williams will be performing in Vegas for the first time in years. He didn’t originally intend to do a show in Las Vegas, but a little convincing from his wife did the trick.
Williams is no stranger to Christmas songs. With six Christmas albums and 12 years of Christmas TV specials under his belt, he has also traveled with symphonies and orchestras for his live Christmas shows.
“I’ve been doing Christmas shows, seems like, all my life,” he said. “I like doing them. Beautiful music, beautiful sounds from the orchestra, great lights, Christmas trees, children laughing.”
With his love for the holiday, it’s no surprise he opens the show with his favorite song, “Most Wonderful Time of the Year.”
“It was written for me in 1963 and I’ve done it ever since then,” Williams explained. “It’s a great song – very happy [and] perfect for the weather.”
No matter how you choose to spend the holidays, celebrating the season in Las Vegas will leave you with a vacation you’ll never forget.
Other Vegas holiday shows and attractions
Andrea Bocelli: Saturday, Dec. 12 at 8 p.m., MGM Grand Garden Arena. Boccelli will perform his hits and songs from his highly-anticipated album, “My Christmas.”
Wynonna Christmas: Saturday, Dec. 19 – Sunday, Dec. 20 at 8 p.m., Las Vegas Hilton. Wynonna Judd does holiday hits, country style.
Mannheim Steamroller: Sunday, Dec. 13 at 7:30 p.m., Orleans. One of the largest selling Christmas artists of all time.
X-107.5 X-Treme Radio Holiday Havoc 09: Friday, Dec. 11 and Saturday, Dec. 12, 8 p.m., The Joint at the Hard Rock. On Friday, Alice in Chains will perform. Smile Empty Soul and Chester Bennington’s Dead By Sunrise open the show. On Saturday, Muse will perform. Cage the Elephant, Paper Tongues and Afghan Raiders open the show.
The 7th Annual Brian Setzer Orchestra Christmas Rocks! Extravaganza: Wednesday, Dec. 23 at 8 p.m., The Joint at the Hard Rock. Brian Setzer brings his Christmas rock show to Vegas, featuring his 18-piece big band rocking out to classics from his “Christmas Rocks!” CD.
Legends in Concert Holiday Show: Daily through holiday season (dark Wednesdays), 7:30 and 10 p.m., Harrah’s. Celebrity impersonators belt out popular holiday tunes.
Michael McDonald This Christmas: Wednesday, Dec. 9 at 8 p.m., Star of the Desert Arena at Buffalo Bill’s Resort & Casino. Michael McDonald sings his hits and adds his R&B touch to popular Christmas classics.
“The Polar Express 4-D” motion ride at the Excalibur: Through Jan. 6, 2010, Excalibur, 11 a.m. – 11 p.m. weekends, 11 am. – 10 p.m. weekdays, $15 or holiday pass (good for “The Polar Express 4-D” and “Spongebob Squarepants 4-D”), $17.95. Based on the popular movie, this journey to the North Pole comes alive in an unforgettable 4-D experience.
Ice Skating Rink: Through Feb. 15, 2010, MonteLago Village at Lake Las Vegas, noon to 9 p.m. weekends and holidays, 3 – 9 p.m. Monday – Friday, $15 for adults and $12 for children 12 and younger. Skate on a floating ice skating rink atop Lake Las Vegas.
Believe in Magic Holiday Show: Starts Nov. 27 for a five-week run, Fashion Show Mall. Features a 35-foot Christmas tree, dancers, artificial snow falling from the ceiling and Santa. For times, call (702) 369-8382.
The Gift of Lights: Through Jan. 3, 2010, Sunset Park on Eastern Avenue, between Warm Springs and Sunset roads, 5 -10 p.m. Fridays, Saturdays and holidays, 5 – 9 p.m. Sundays – Thursdays, $15 per car Fridays, weekends and holidays; $13 Mondays – Thursdays. Drive-through more than 400 animated holiday LED light displays.
Magical Forest at Opportunity Village: Through Saturday, Jan. 2, 2010 at 6300 W. Oakey Blvd., between Torrey Pines Drive and Jones Boulevard, $9.50 for adults, $7.50 for children 3-11. Passports (which include rides) are $16 for adults and $14 for children. Guests must purchase tickets at any CVS pharmacy. Festive trees, holiday displays, Santa, train rides and other winter theme attractions.
Annual Gingerbread Village: Until Dec. 25, Four Seasons Hotel, 24 hours. See 20 gingerbread houses and a working carousel made completely from chocolate and sugar.
Santa in the Shipwreck: Dec. 21 – 24, Mandalay Bay’s Shark Reef, from 10 a.m. – 4 p.m., $16.95 for adults and $10.95 for children. Children may take pictures with Santa with Santa Jaws swimming in the background. Pictures are free with admission.
Winter Lights Festival: Dec. 11-13, 18-24, Springs Preserve, 5 – 9 p.m., $8 for adults, $4 children 5-12, 4 and younger free. Enjoy half a million LED lights shining in an 8-acre garden while listening to carolers and enjoying holiday refreshments at the Springs Café by Wolfgang Puck.
Christmas tree lighting: Dec. 12, M Resort, 5 – 9 p.m., free admission. See the lighting of the nation’s tallest Christmas tree. Bring the family and enjoy hot chocolate, cookies and live performances by local school choirs.
Arctic Display opening: Dec. 9, Palazzo, 5 p.m., free admission. Located at the Palazzo’s waterfall atrium, the Ice King and Queen will pour 225,000 cranberries into a water feature. The holiday garden will also feature a 16-foot-tall polar bear mom and her 6-foot-tall baby polar bear, both made of white poinsettias.