This year has been anything but ordinary, with coronavirus concerns shutting down virtually every aspect of life as we know it. But the holidays offer some respite. While things will look a little different, most of Chattanooga's seasonal special events are still a go.
"People are wanting to get out, cautiously," says Steve Freer of the Tennessee Valley Railroad Museum, which resumed its schedule of daily rides in June with social distancing and other safety measures in place. "Even though we can't carry as many people, we've had strong ticket sales and good gift store and food and beverage sales."
With capacity reduced to less than 50%, TVRM's most popular ride, the seasonal North Pole Limited, is already sold out for many of the earlier time slots.
Rock City, too, saw better-than-expected attendance this fall, despite canceling its Rocktoberfest celebrations out of concerns for crowd safety in light of the live music that's a driving draw.
"Considering we are still operating at limited capacity, we were pleasantly surprised at how well-attended Rock City was during the month of October," says Public Relations Manager Meagan Jolley.
That doesn't mean anyone is out of the woods yet, however. With visitation reduced due to health guidelines and concerns, attractions including the Creative Discovery Museum and Tennessee Aquarium have reported a 50% drop in attendance compared to last year.
The holidays offer some hope for those struggling due to the pandemic — the city's iconic attractions included.
For TVRM, income from ticket sales is the greatest source of revenue, Freer says.
The special event trains are more about entertainment than education, he adds, "and they help bring people in that might not visit for any other reason."
If you're considering visiting one of the area's holiday events this season, read on for everything you need to know.
ROCK CITY'S ENCHANTED GARDEN OF LIGHTS
For its award-winning annual holiday transformation, Rock City's wooded landscape is decorated with over a million twinkling lights and 30 holiday scenes. While guests won't encounter costumed characters along the path this year, Santa will be hard at work in his brand-new workshop, and guests can visit and have their photos taken with him so long as they are nice and wear their masks.
» When: Nightly through Jan. 2, except Christmas Eve; 5-9 p.m. on weeknights, 5-10 p.m. on weekends and Dec. 21-23
» Cost: $16.95-$26.95 for adults, $8.95-$14.95 for children ages 3-12
» Extras: Gingerbread cookie decorating in on-site Big Rock Grill (also available to-go); concessions including beer and wine; photos with Santa through Dec. 23 (masks required)
» COVID-19 guidelines: Tickets must be reserved and purchased in advance, online only; timed entry; limited capacity; one-way path; masks required inside all structures and in outside areas where social distancing cannot happen.
» Good to know: Leashed pets welcome. Path not fully stroller- or wheelchair-accessible. A portion of each ticket sold benefits Ronald McDonald House Charities and its care of families whose children are hospitalized.
» Tickets: seerockcity.com/buy-tickets
TENNESSEE VALLEY RAILROAD'S NORTH POLE LIMITED
It's still all aboard for a trip to the North Pole, though the train will welcome only 175 riders throughout its seven cars. With Santa in the high-risk group for COVID-19, he will not be boarding the train and doing personal visits, but children can write to him on the provided letterhead and their notes will be hand-delivered once the train reaches the North Pole. Along the way, they'll be treated to refreshments and a recorded storytelling by local radio personality James Howard as they ride past lighted displays. Every rider will also receive a keepsake boarding pass and bell, and every family will go home with a commemorative ornament.
» When: Friday-Sunday through Dec. 20, plus the week of Christmas save for Christmas Eve and Day; 5:30, 7:15 and 9 p.m. nightly
» Cost: $35 per person
» COVID-19 guidelines: Face masks required while on the train; reduced capacity; socially distanced seating; walk-up ticket sales close 15 minutes prior to each departure; one-way foot traffic.
» Good to know: There are no upgraded ticket options this year, but all riders will receive hot chocolate, fresh cookies and a goody bag. Advance reservations are strongly recommended, especially for the more popular times of 5 and 7:15 p.m. If you are a party larger than six and booking separately, make a note in the comment section, including the names of the other parties you wish to sit with. Then, arrive at least 30 minutes prior to departure.
GINGERBREAD WORKSHOPS AT CREATIVE DISCOVERY MUSEUM
You can still create sweet memories with your loved ones at this kickoff to the holiday season, though no more than three people will be allowed at each house's creation station and each session is limited to 10 houses.
» When: Saturdays and Sundays, Dec. 5-20; Saturdays at 10:30 a.m. and 1 p.m., Sundays at 1 p.m. and 3:30 p.m.
» Cost: $55 per house (up to three people)
» COVID-19 guidelines: Reservations required in advance; health screening including no-contact temperature check prior to entering the building; masks required for everyone age 5 and up; social distancing; limited capacity.
» Good to know: Admission to the museum is included for non-members participating in the workshop. Current members save 20% with discount code WINTER20.
» Tickets: cdmfun.org/event/gingerbread-workshops
HOLIDAY LIGHTS AT THE CHATTANOOGA ZOO
While basking in the fresh air, guests can see the zoo festively transformed for the holiday season, visit the animals and watch them open their presents, and go on a (scavenger) hunt themselves. Spotting the elusive Elf on a Shelf offers a chance to win a family membership. Santa will be front and center offering rides on the Polar Express and take-home crafts.
» When: Dec. 10-12 and 17-19; 5-8 p.m. nightly
» Cost: $16 for adults, $12 for children ages 3-12 (half-price for zoo members)
» Extras: Snacks, beer and wine
» COVID-19 guidelines: Tickets sold online only; staggered entry times; masks or face coverings required.
» Tickets: chattzoo.org/events/holiday-lights
"THE POLAR EXPRESS 3D" AT THE IMAX
The tradition of seeing this beloved tale come to life on a towering six-story screen will be even more special this year, as the 400-seat theater's audience will be capped at just 65 viewers per showing. When a doubting young boy takes an extraordinary train ride to the North Pole, he learns that the wonder of life never fades for those who believe — an especially relevant message for 2020.
» When: Daily through Dec. 27; multiple showtimes per day
» Cost: $11.95 for adults, $9.95 for children ages 3-12
» COVID-19 guidelines: face masks required; reduced capacity; socially distanced seating; separate entrance and exit.
» Tickets: tnaqua.org/imax/the-polar-express-3d
ICE ON THE LANDING
The Southside's iconic landmark, the Chattanooga Choo Choo, will again play host to its seasonal landmark, an 120-by-40-foot ice rink. "We've given it careful consideration and feel like the format of an outdoor, open-air ice skating rink with manageable attendance at any one time does lend itself to a safe and controlled way to have fun this winter season, even while being very mindful of everyone's protection from the virus," says Carla Pritchard of host Chattanooga Presents.
» When: Daily through Jan. 25; 2-9 p.m. Monday-Thursday, 2-11 p.m. Friday, 10 a.m. to 11 p.m. Saturday, noon to 9 p.m. Sunday, with expanded or restricted hours on holidays and during Winter Break (Dec. 18-Jan. 3)
» Cost: $10 for adults, $8 for children age 12 and under (includes skate rental); $100 for individual season pass, $200 for family pass; group rates available for parties of 20 or more
» Extras: Concessions, with liqueurs available for hot drinks on weekends
» COVID-19 guidelines: Reduced capacity; no more than 75 skaters allowed on the ice at any one time; timed entry on weekends (75-minute skate timeframe); frequent cleanings of handrails and rental equipment; revised tent setup with more outdoor access.
» Good to know: A Basic Skills skating course is offered each Saturday from 9-10 a.m. Weekly promotions throughout the season include Family Night, UTC Student Night, Charitable Wednesdays, Pajama Night and more. Birthday and other parties offer pizza and cupcakes in the Choo Choo's arcade room prior to skate time.
» Tickets: iceonthelanding.com
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