Hampton Roads' holiday fun snowballs as December draws near

Once upon a time, Williamsburg's Grand Illumination was the Peninsula's undisputed champion of holiday crowds, pyrotechnics and merry-making.

Move over, colonials. Make room for Hollydazzle.

The Newport News celebration, happening Nov. 30 at City Center, is now so popular that organizers with the city's recreation department have been scrambling to figure out how to handle the crowds and the traffic.

An estimated 30,000 folks turn out to revel in Hollydazzle's blend of holiday music and explosions in the sky.

"The most important thing we're doing this year is adding more parking and more buses," said Renee Popernack, senior promotions co-coordinator for Newport News Parks and Recreation. "The event is so popular and keeps growing. We try to plan ahead and keep getting surprised with bigger and bigger crowds."

This year, organizers have added a second satellite parking area, at Todd Stadium on Warwick Boulevard, to handle the overflow.

Popernack says Hollydazzle's unique setting and state-of-the-art visual effects has made it a regional favorite. "We get a lot of people from Southside and from out of town," she said. "There's no place you can go to see fireworks like the ones you see at Hollydazzle. It's on par to something you'd see at Disney World, it's different from an ordinary fireworks display. It's completely unique. People love it."

As with any big holiday gathering, it's a good idea to plan ahead and prepare for a crush of humanity. "We encourage people to come early, go shopping or eat at the restaurants," Popernack said. "We anticipate the parking garages at City Center to be full by 6:30 p.m. ... Last year, people started arriving at 2 in the afternoon just to stake out their spots."

The example of Hollydazzle shows it's not too soon to map out some of your Christmas fun and frolic. To give you a head start on your planning, we've rounded up details about many of the region's top festivities.

Here's a closer look at the holiday events.

McDonald's Holiday Lights at the Beach. Nov. 21-Jan. 1. On the Boardwalk from 2nd Street to 33rd Street, Virginia Beach Oceanfront.

The "Fanta-Sea" of lights includes Santa, elves, and a 40-foot tall Christmas tree erected on the beach and in the parks along the boardwalk. Hotels offer special packages that include free tickets to the light show.

Hours: 5:30-10 p.m. Sunday through Thursday and 5:30-11 p.m. Friday-Saturday.

Admission: Cars, $10 Monday-Thursday, $15 Friday-Sunday and holidays; limos and mini-buses, $25; motor coaches, $45. Combo Ticket, $20, includes one-time entry to Holiday Lights at the Beach and Norfolk Botanical Garden of Lights (limited number of these tickets available).

Celebration in Lights. Nov. 22-Jan. 1. Newport News Park.

Virginia's first drive-through holiday light event opens for its 20th season on Thanksgiving night. The park will be transformed by over 800,000 individual lights creating animated holiday and fanciful scenes. This year, the event will add a new 300-foot-long animated tunnel of lights, new "light tubes" that will create the effect of falling snow, new grapevine light balls, and a 22-foot tree near the main entrance. On each Friday night, the first 500 vehicles will receive a free gift, while supplies last.

Hours: 5:30-10 p.m. nightly. 757-926-1400.

Admission: Cars, $10; Buses, $60.

Star of Wonder: Mystery of the Christmas Star. Nov. 21-Dec. 31. Virginia Living Museum, 524 J. Clyde Morris Blvd., Newport News.

Experience the journey of the Magi around you in the museum's state-of-the-art digital planetarium theater. Over the years, the scientific thinking has changed, archaeology has revealed new clues, and our understanding of who the Magi might actually have been has grown. The show was completely revised in 2008 to examine the latest clues and seek to understand the appearance of the Star of Bethlehem.