KANSAS CITY, Mo. — Much is made of how New York City dresses up for the Christmas season, but this city makes a strong case for its own brand of holiday cheer, and some of it continues year round.
Hallmark Cards Inc. has a lot to do with it. Despite a public relations setback this year for editing "gay" (as in "our gay apparel") off a Christmas ornament, the brand has become synonymous with the holiday and with this city.
Across the country, its Keepsake ornaments hang from the branches of countless Christmas trees each December. The packages underneath those trees may well be wrapped with Hallmark paper and embellished with Hallmark bows.
Then there are the cards. Americans buy an average of 37 million Christmas cards each day between Nov. 15 and Dec. 25. About 1.5 billion of those cards bear the Hallmark crown.
It all emanates from Kansas City. Credit Joyce Clyde Hall, who as a teenager started the Hallmark empire when, in 1910, he arrived here from his hometown in Nebraska carrying two shoe boxes full of postcards. The company has been based here ever since, headquartered adjacent to the Crown Center, an 85-acre shopping and entertainment complex first envisioned by Hall. It's a natural for visitors at this time of year.
As the holidays approach, people flock to Hall's Department Store, the anchor of the Crown Center (2450 Grand Blvd., 816-274-8444, crowncenter.com), browse the flagship Hallmark store, skate at an open-air ice rink and enjoy holiday music.
Adjacent to the mall and the corporate offices, the museumlike visitors center (2501 McGee St., 816-274-3613, hallmarkvisitorscenter.com) showcases Hallmark's role. Guests at the free attraction are greeted by decorations, garlands and wreaths fashioned from vintage cards.
The official White House Christmas cards sent by many American presidents, including Eisenhower, Johnson, Carter and Reagan — all Hallmark designs — are on display. Nearby are winter scenes created by noted artists such as Grandma Moses and Norman Rockwell, and also by a man known more for politics than painting: Winston Churchill.
In one striking gallery, more than a dozen unique Christmas "trees" — more like sculptures — are displayed, all presented as gifts to Hall before he died in 1982.
"There are 16 trees," said Regi Ahrens, manager of the visitors center. "One was made each year. Groups of artists would get together, decide upon a theme and then create these trees."
One features embroidered quilt patches, and another is adorned with ornaments crafted from Play-Doh. The artworks were created as presents from employees to the company founder, known to them as "J.C."
Since Keepsake ornaments were introduced in 1973, Hallmark has produced 8,000 varieties, many of them showcased in the visitors center.
Each year, during the first week of July, the release of the latest Keepsake ornaments draws throngs of customers to Amy's Hallmark in the Crown Center. The store also stocks hard-to-find ornaments sought by collectors.
The mall is unique. It has just two chain stores. The others are mom and pop shops selling everything from handmade soaps to pet toys.
It's not all about the shopping, though. Each November through March, Kansas City residents don their skates at the Crown Center Ice Terrace (2425 Grand Blvd., 816-274-8411, tinyurl.com/kansasice). Holiday trees surround the outdoor rink, creating a winter wonderland.
The centerpiece is the towering Mayor's Christmas Tree. A century-old tradition, the tree sparkles with more than 7,000 white lights. The 100-foot-tall Douglas fir, locals boast, also is one of the tallest Christmas trees in the country. The lighting ceremony will take place at 5:30 p.m. Nov. 29.
A much newer tradition, "A Spectacular Christmas," a musical extravaganza in its sixth year, draws repeat guests each November and December. The production is staged in the mall's Off Center Theatre (816-545-6000, (tinyurl.com/kansastheater). Tickets start at $17 for adults and $10 for students.
If you have kids in tow and can't sell them on the Hallmark museum, skating or the theater, you have an array of other possibilities.
Sea Life (2475 Grand Blvd., at Crown Center, 816-471-4386, visitsealife.com/kansas-city): More than 5,000 sea creatures, from jellyfish to rays and sharks to seahorses, can be viewed at this aquarium. Guests can hold a crab or touch a starfish at the interactive Rockpool Experience. (Admission charges apply.)
The Money Museum (1 Memorial Drive, 816-881-2683, kansascityfed.org/moneymuseum/includes/index.cfm): The Federal Reserve Bank, which operates the museum, describes it as "a billion-dollar experience." Where else can you lift a 27-pound gold bar (worth about $400,000) or see millions of dollars of cash stored in one of America's largest vaults? Admission is free.
Kaleidoscope (2501 McGee St., adjacent to the Hallmark Visitors Center, 816-274-8301, hallmarkkaleidoscope.com): Children (and their parents) use leftover materials from Hallmark's manufacturing processes to create their own masterpieces during 40-minute "family art sessions." Admission is free.
Legoland Discovery Center (2475 Grand Blvd., at Crown Center, 816-471-4386, legolanddiscoverycenter.com/kansascity): Children can create their own models using the attraction's 3 million interlocking Lego pieces. Miniland features Kansas City's most famous buildings, all created out of Lego pieces. There also are themed rides and a 4-D cinema. (Admission charges apply.)
Union Station (30 W. Pershing Road, 816-460-2020, unionstation.org/index.php): This is one for the adults too. Built as the city's train depot in 1914, Union Station continues to serve Amtrak passengers, but it also houses an amazing array of attractions, including a wealth of restaurants and shops, the Extreme Screen Theatre (showing films in 2-D and 3-D), Science City (a hands-on science center) and the KC Rail Experience ("a hands-on journey through the history of the American railroad"). There's no charge to wander through the beautifully restored station, but admission charges apply to the various attractions.
Visitors exhausted after a bustling day (and night) of holiday activities needn't go far to put their feet up. Two hotels, the Sheraton (2345 McGee St., 816-841-1000, sheratonkansascityhotel.com) and the Westin (1 E. Pershing Road, 816-474-4400, westincrowncenterkansascity.com), can be found at opposite ends of the Crown Center.
Holiday or no, you won't lack for things to do.