Credit: JiaYing Grygiel
Is being cooped up inside making you climb the walls? Grab the kids, pack some snacks and head out for these cool seasonal adventures for families. Bonus: Most are free or low-cost. And don’t forget to pick up the 99-cent chocolate Advent calendar at Trader Joe’s!
Pack in downtown Seattle sights in a day
Downtown Seattle’s annual holiday special events are clustered together, which means you can hit them all in one fun and super cheap day. Most are free, and you can catch them in any order: the Teddy Bear Suite at the Fairmont Olympic Hotel, the Gingerbread Village at the Sheraton Grand Seattle, Macy’s display windows and the Westlake Park carousel ($4 suggested donation).
Next, head to the top level of Westlake Center and take the Monorail to Seattle Center ($2.50 adults, $1.25 kids ages 5–12). The ride alone is thrilling, especially the part where you cut through MoPOP. When you arrive at the Seattle Center Armory, check out the Winter Train & Village model train setup. You might even catch one of the frequent live musical performances during Winterfest.
Twirl on ice
Bring on your triple axels and double toe loop jumps … or cling for dear life to the rink side boards and shuffle along. Whatever your skill level, the abundance of pop-up skating rinks in November and December makes it easy to test your ice legs. Tacoma’s Point Ruston, Bellevue Downtown Park, Seattle Center and Redmond Town Center all put up temporary ice rinks for the season. The rinks tend to be small and the ice somewhat bumpy, so they aren’t suitable for the serious pro skater. (I literally saw a guy scraping the ice with a snow shovel in lieu of a Zamboni at the Seattle Center Fisher Pavilion rink.) You can rent skates and walkers; some places offer a slight discount for bringing your own skates. (See ParentMap’s full guide to local seasonal ice rinks here.)
Trip the lights fantastic
The only silver lining to it getting dark by 4 p.m. is that there’s more time to take in the holiday lights. Every year, the Bellevue Botanical Garden, Woodland Park Zoo and Point Defiance Zoo & Aquarium transform their grounds into a lit-up fantasy world after dark. We especially love Garden d’Lights at Bellevue Botanical Garden. It’s an affordable $5 entry fee for adults (children 10 and younger are free), and the flower-inspired light displays are truly incredible.
Enchant Christmas Seattle will be back this year with a light maze that covers the entire T-Mobile Park field. Tickets are an investment, though — last year’s prices were $33 per adult, plus extra for ice skates and parking.
For holiday magic on a budget, check out the inspired freelance (and free!) Candy Cane Lane in the Ravenna neighborhood. The 23 neighbors on Northeast Park Rd. deck out their homes with lights and blow-up decorations. Olympic Manor is another great neighborhood in North Seattle to see residential light displays. Or catch a free, floating light show, the Argosy Cruises Christmas Ship, as it sails up and down Puget Sound. Bring a thermos of hot cocoa and enjoy the impressive and beautiful displays that involved no work by you. (For a complete guide to holiday light displays around the Sound, go here.)
Make a free wooden toy at Home Depot
Home Depot’s kids workshops are the best bargain in town. The store provides all the materials and tools; kids take home a completed project. On Nov. 30 this year, kids can make a reindeer picture frame (aka the easiest grandparent gift ever) and on Dec. 7, they can build their own Christmas countdown calendar. The workshops are free and take place at every Home Depot from 9 a.m. to noon. Just listen for the sound of pounding hammers and you’ll know where to go.
Check out free holiday displays
We love visiting plant nurseries during the holiday season, all decked out in poinsettias and smelling like pine needles. Hello, photo ops! Molbak’s Garden + Home in Woodinville and Swansons Nursery in Ballard are annual favorites for my family. Tip: Swansons’ resident Santa is known for being extra easy to work with, and you can book a photo session to skip wait times.
Bellevue Square puts on a free holiday show every evening at 7 p.m., from the end of November through Christmas Eve. Bellevue Way is closed off between Bellevue Square and Lincoln Square for dancers and performers to take over. Toy soldiers, snow princesses, drummer boys and the old guy in the red suit make their appearance under gobo snowflake lights and faux snow bubbles. The show lasts 15–20 minutes. Be warned that car and foot traffic in the area will be heavily congested and spectators behave badly competing for a primo viewing spot along Snowflake Lane.
Play in the snow
Maybe we’ll get snow this year, maybe we won’t. The good thing is if the white stuff doesn’t make it to the city, we can always drive up to the mountains to find some.
The closest options are Hyak Sno-Park and the Summit at Snoqualmie, both about a 90-minute drive from Seattle and just off I-90. We like that both have heated, nicely maintained restrooms — this is key for a successful winter mountain adventure with kids.
Hyak Sno-Park is a great snow play area just east of the Summit. It’s well organized, with one side for sledding; another side for building forts and snowmen and throwing snowballs; and a trail for snowshoeing or cross-country skiing. You’ll need to buy a Discover Pass ($35 for an annual pass, $11.50 for a day pass) and a winter Sno-Park permit (available at the Snoqualmie Pass Visitor Center; $40 for an annual pass, $20 for a day pass). Make sure to get there early, especially on weekends. The parking lot will fill up and you don’t want to drive all the way there just to turn around and head home with disappointed kiddos.
Thrill-seekers should try out the Summit at Snoqualmie’s tubing center. After a wild ride down, you can even ride your tube back up the hill. There’s no minimum age requirement, but it’s recommended for kids ages 3 and older. Book your tickets online before you go ($8–$30 for a 2-hour session).
Take a road trip to Leavenworth
Winter is the most enchanting time of year to visit Leavenworth, a Bavarian-Alpine-style village in the Cascade Mountains. In about 2 hours, you can get from Seattle to a magical winter wonderland decked out in half a million lights. Most people come for the annual Christmas tree lighting, when there’s lots of other holiday cheer in town: handbell choirs, carolers, sleigh rides and costumed characters. Don’t forget your sleds and tubes to make the most of the snow. Plan on using the baby carrier instead of a stroller, which can be tricky to maneuver inside the small shops.
Don’t feel like driving in the snow? Various companies offer a daytrip shuttle to Leavenworth.
Visit the best Santa
It isn’t over until the big guy knows whether you’ve been naughty or nice. The gold standard for Insta-perfect photos is the Nordstrom Santa. Looking for someone special? Visit the Asian American Santa at the Wing Luke Museum or Black Santa at the Northwest African American Museum. (ParentMap readers share more of their favorite Santas here.)
Make your own salt dough ornaments
If we learned anything from Snowmageddon earlier this year, it’s that we always need to have a backup plan. When it’s too yucky out or if kids are under the weather, make the most of your time at home with this super simple salt dough ornament recipe: Mix 4 cups of flour, 1 cup of salt and about 2 cups of hot water (keep adding water until the mixture gets to dough consistency). After the kiddos shape and decorate their ornaments, pop them in the oven at 325 degrees for 45 minutes to dry and harden. This is a fun and easy way to keep the kids busy for hours!