‘Tis the season: Desert transforms into a winter wonderland during holidays in Vegas

Las Vegas’ late-night partying, desert landscape and palm trees don’t normally conjure up images of the holiday season. But believe it or not, Vegas takes this season to another level every year with displays and attractions featuring everything from elaborate gingerbread houses and floral polar bears to a lighted cactus garden and plenty of winter-themed events. The holiday spirit in this city is alive and well.

Bellagio Conservatory

Bellagio-Conservatory---WinOne of the biggest must-see holiday attractions in Vegas is the Bellagio Conservatory winter display, which opens Dec. 3.

“There’s nothing else like it,” said Andres Garcia, executive director of horticulture for the Conservatory. When you walk through the Conservatory, you know it’s the month of December. During the holiday season, we see a lot more people because the Conservatory really sets the mood for the winter.”

For the elaborate display transformation from fall to winter, there will be more than 100 horticulture staff members
working in shifts around the clock. The display features a large decorated tree and what a lot of visitors don’t know is that Garcia (along with the Conservatory manager) flies to Mt. Shasta to choose the tree.

Originally standing at 70 feet tall, the tree has to be trimmed down to 42 feet so it can fit into the Conservatory. The difficult part comes when the staff has to measure the base and height of the tree, especially once the star needs to be placed on top.

“I am always nervous during this time because it’s such a huge task,” he said. “[But] I have a great team and I am confident.”

Once the Shasta fir tree is settled in, the staff dresses up the green beauty with thousands of shimmering lights. Other
features for this year’s display include nine different types of plants including white and red poinsettias, white mums, white roses and holly, to name a few. There will be a total of 16,000 flowers and plants in the display at one time, with more than 43,000 used throughout the run since they are changed every one to two weeks.

Bellagio-Conservatory---polIn addition to the vast number of plants, there will be 1,200 ornaments, pecan-encrusted reindeer “flying” around the tree, 28 penguins (including 13 animated ones), oversized toy soldiers, a train and a 7-foot-tall rocking horse.

And of course, the Conservatory wouldn’t be complete with the beloved mother and baby polar bears. Comprised of 35,000 carnations, the bears’ “fur” is kept fresh by a specially designed water drip system.

This attraction is complimentary to the public and open 24 hours. And if you visit, stop by Jean-Philippe Pâtisserie, located right next to the Conservatory. Here you’ll find a 240-pound dark, milk and white chocolate Santa dressed in a suit of sugar icing.

Holiday Cactus Lights at Ethel M

_BMP8215For more sweets, head down to the Ethel M Chocolate Factory and Botanical Cactus Garden in Henderson. Located 15 minutes away from the Las Vegas Strip, Ethel M’s 17th Annual Holiday Cactus Garden is well worth the trip. Here you can enjoy festive chocolates, hot cocoa and see one of the most beautiful outdoor holiday displays in town: a
three-acre cactus garden adorned with bright lights in every color imaginable.

“Visitors are amazed at how beautiful cactus and other Southwest plants are when they are decorated for the holidays,” said Jennifer Gudgel, director of gourmet chocolate for Ethel M. “Guests can [also] come out and enjoy the factory tour, sample our chocolate, see Santa Claus and listen to local choirs.”

ethelThis year, Ethel M invites visitors to experience the Holiday Cactus Garden like never before – in 3-D. Visitors can
purchase 3-D glasses inside the Ethel M store located next to the garden. And since there will also be more LED lights this year, the garden will light up even more.

With more than a half million lights on display at the garden, it takes about six weeks to put up, but the planning started in August. The end result? A colorful display all ages can enjoy.

“At each turn throughout the garden, there is something different to see,” Gudgel said.

Stroll through the garden’s illuminated pathways and enjoy the sights, smells and sounds of a chocolate wonderland from 5 p.m. to 10 p.m., seven days a week. The cactus garden display is free of charge and open to the public through Saturday, January 1. Local school choirs perform holiday favorites in the garden and kids can see Santa on Friday, Saturday and Sunday evenings through Dec. 23.

While you’re here, make sure to hang out at Ethel’s lounge inside the factory and sip on some hot cocoa. You can also do some Christmas shopping and choose chocolate flavors like eggnog, pecan pie, cranberry pie, pumpkin pie and white chocolate peppermint bark. Tease your palate with a free sample of the seasonal chocolate. The factory is open daily from 8:30 a.m. – 6 p.m. The garden is open until 10 p.m.

The Gingerbread Village at Four Seasons

fourseasons_jeffreygreenThe Four Seasons’ Gingerbread Village is another display that kids and kids-at-heart can enjoy. Located in the lobby inside the Four Seasons hotel, you’ll see stunning gingerbread houses created by the hotel’s pastry chef Jean-Luc Daul. The gingerbread and chocolate display is available for all to see until Christmas

Created by Daul and his talented team, the 12th annual village display features 20 gingerbread properties and a life-sized, working carousel. Each gingerbread house takes an entire day to create.

“There are six people on the pastry team,” he explained. “We typically start in September and work to maintain a steady pace until Thanksgiving.”

Making the houses is a two-part process. The team first creates honey dough, which consists of boiled honey and flour. The dough actually takes several months to mature. Once the honey dough matures, the team turns it into gingerbread dough.

“To do this, we add eggs, sugar, a leavening agent, more flour and the most important part, a cocktail of spices like cinnamon, clover, anis, cardamon, and nutmeg,” Daul explained. “This gives the gingerbread its unique fragrance.

“Hotel guests often comment that they can smell the aroma of the gingerbread from across the lobby and that it helps them get into the holiday spirit,” Daul continued. “I love to hear that.”

fourseasons_larryhannaThe different themes include everything from the Swiss Alps to the whimsical “Whoville” as well as Las Vegas and the Rocky Mountains. The houses are beautiful and mostly edible.

“About 80 to 90 percent of the holiday village is edible,” Daul noted. “Some parts must be reinforced with wood
[and] foam board simply because we can’t achieve the strength required in specific places with food ingredients alone. A good rule of thumb is that everything your eyes can see is always edible,” he said.

After the holiday season is over, each house may be purchased or sponsored by an individual or company. All proceeds go to the Nevada Cancer Institute, a non-profit cancer research and care center in Southern Nevada.

“We even have people who purchase houses a month or two before the village is actually displayed,” he said.

The Gingerbread Village is free and open to the public.

“While the village is up and running, I love to watch kids and even their parents,” Daul said. “They point out every minor detail and take pictures, just to make sure that they haven’t missed anything. Every time someone stops, looks and smiles, it gives us the greatest joy. That is what the holidays are truly about.”

Addtional holiday shows and attractions



Stroll through the Sam's Town atrium and see a festive holiday display.

Sam’s Town: Located southeast of the Strip on Flamingo Road and Boulder Highway, visit Sam’s Town Winter Wonderland with six animated holiday scenes (some with animals), a laser projection show and even a snow-filled sky.

Four Seasons: Kids ages 5 – 12 can enjoy a holiday cooking class on Saturday, Dec. 4th from 3 p.m. – 5 p.m. Children will wear aprons and paper chef’s hats as they work in small groups to build replicas of the hotel’s Holiday Village, as well as design their own Christmas cookies. Adult supervision will be provided. The class is $30 plus tax, with proceeds benefiting Nevada Cancer Institute.

Mandalay Bay Shark Reef: Kids can share their last-minute wishes with the traditional Santa in the aquarium’s Santa’s Shipwreck exhibit. Jolly St. Nick will have a little help again this year from a rather large and toothy holiday helper – Santa Jaws. Throughout the day, Santa Jaws will happily “swim” by to join in for photo opportunities. Santa’s Shipwreck is available from Dec. 21 – 24 from 10 a.m. – 4 p.m. Pictures with Santa Jaws are complimentary with paid admission.

Springs Preserve: Springs Preserve holds its annual holiday spectacular with thousands of colorful, eco-friendly LED lights, festive arts and crafts for kids, photos with Santa, cookie decorating, train and “reindeer” pony rides, live entertainment and even snow. Admission is $8 for adults and $4 for children ages 5-12. Children 4 and younger are free. Event dates are Dec. 4-5, 11-12 and 18-23, from 5 p.m. – 9 p.m.


The Springs Preserve features thousands of eco-friendly holiday lights.

The Palazzo: This year, the holiday display at the Palazzo’s waterfall atrium captures the feeling of the great outdoors. Starting Dec. 8, take pictures of all the glittery and iridescent snowflakes hanging from the ceiling, thousands of fresh poinsettias, holly and amaryllis and frosted trees up to 20 feet tall.

Ice Skating at Montelago Village: Through Feb. 13, 2011, you can skate on a floating ice rink atop Lake Las Vegas. 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.


Presented by the Nevada Ballet Theatre, see the 2010 holiday production of “The Nutcracker,” showing at 8 p.m. from Dec. 17 – 26 at the Paris Théâtre des Arts inside Paris Las Vegas.


See "A Very Terry Christmas" at the Mirage.

See Terry Fator’s “A Very Terry Christmas” now through Dec. 25 inside the Mirage. Catch his heartwarming performances Tuesday – Saturday at 7:30 p.m.

Through Jan. 9, 2011, Marriage Can Be Murder” offers a special holiday-themed show (with a not-so innocent Santa and a ton of “who-dunnit” twists) at Fitzgeralds hotel. The show plays daily at 6:30 p.m.

Superstar Andrea Bocelli sing his hits along with Christmas songs on Saturday, Dec. 11 at the MGM Grand Garden Arena. Show starts at 8 p.m.

Beatles fans can enjoy “An Abbey Road Christmas” starring The Fab inside the Cannery’s The Club on Saturday, Dec. 4 at 8 p.m. The Fab will sing all the hits from the Beatles’ Abbey Road album as well as timeless Christmas songs. Admission is $10 and complimentary candy canes will be provided.

See Lee Greenwood’s “Tennessee Christmas” playing inside the Orleans on Dec. 5 at 8 p.m.

A show sure to warm the hearts of all ages is the legendary Andy Williams, who brings hisChristmas show to the Las Vegas Hilton on Dec. 23 – 24 at 8 p.m.

(Please note a lot of the permanent shows in Las Vegas may be dark during this time. Make sure to check VEGAS. com to see if your favorite performances will be available during this holiday season.)


Most folks take their Vegas jackpot winnings back home, but my dad decided to stay here instead. That’s how I left Seattle almost 20 years ago. I moved from greenery and rainy days to hot summers, palm trees and desert. As much as I love my hometown, I decided to stick around Vegas. This city just has so much to offer. You don’t even have to be a gambler, bar hopper or an all-night partier. I love Vegas for its awesome vegan-friendly spots, concerts, swanky hotel suites and spas so big, they’re like castles. The pool scene is not too shabby either, which is why I love taking stay-cations. Besides living it up -- Vegas style -- I’m hanging out with my handsome hubby, adorable baby girl, two cats and super-fluffy Shih-Tzu. I’m also a huge fan of '90s music, shows and movies. You can find me on Google+ and Twitter.