3 Great Family Christmas Activities In Portland, Oregon

3 Great Family Christmas Activities In Portland, Oregon
| 5 min read

The nights are growing cooler, the days are shorter, and the fall moisture (that liquid sunshine dropping from the sky) is returning. No doubt about it, the Christmas holiday season is just around the corner. Ready or not, regardless of what holiday you celebrate – Hanukkah, Kwanzaa, Christmas, or the Solstice – the message of community unity is constant in Portland.

Several events in Portland reflect that message and provide opportunities for families to engage in activities celebrating the season. Three of the most festive and well-known in Portland are the Christmas ships, Oregon Zoolights, and the Festival of Lights.

The Christmas ships

3 great family christmas activities in portland, oregon | the christmas ships

One dark night in December 1954, a single sailboat decked out in bows of greens and holiday ribbon paraded the local Portland rivers.

This lone sailboat from the Portland Yacht Club caught the attention of other boaters as she gently floated alone on the river. The next year other boats joined in on the nightly parade. The Christmas Ship Parade was born.

Flash forward sixty some years. The parade fleet now consists of 55 to 60 boats between the two rivers, the Columbia and the Willamette. The decorations onboard are much more elaborate. The unique displays include brightly colored lights which are visible from bank to bank along either river. Watercraft of all sizes participate in the fleet. Some include sculpted figures such as Santa’s sleigh, Christmas trees, and even classic cars (decked with lights, of course).

A parade is born

3 great family christmas activities in portland, oregon | a parade is born

Boat owners design their unique lighted Christmas display, as elaborate or simple as they desire. Several displays return year after year. New boats join the parade every year. Sometimes, displays are handed down from generation to generation. For many boat owners, this is an annual family Christmas tradition. A few owners invite friends onboard to join in the party – a real treat. The boat owner is responsible for all costs involved in participation.

The event runs for about two weeks every year. Most boats join the parade nightly, but some occasionally miss a night.

Enjoy great food while you watch

PSU Thu March 15, 2012 54
Source: Photo by user SupportPDX used under CC BY 2.0

Restaurants located along the river are generally packed with patrons during the event as people enjoy a meal with family and friends in the warm shelter of the establishment. Those with reservation systems may be booked up to a year in advance.

Hotels with river views also benefit from the annual parade. Rooms are booked well in advance for this time of year, many as early as mid-summer. Numerous corporate Christmas parties are planned to coincide with the parade schedule.

Regardless of the weather, wet or dry, and always chilly, thousands more gather along the banks of the rivers to watch the progression. Carrying flashlights, they flash their lights at the ships as they pass. Homeowners along the river flash their porch lights. Cars flash their headlights. All to say, “Thank you,” to the volunteer efforts involved in the performance.

Cost: Free

Christmas Ships Parade runs from December 4 – 20, 2015 on both rivers (the specific schedule is available on their website.

Oregon Zoolights

3 great family christmas activities in portland, oregon | oregon zoolights

The animals are tucked into their dens for the night as night encroaches on the west hills. Multiple strands of LED lights begin to illuminate, dimly at first but quickly becoming bright displays. Bundled in cold weather gear, families begin to wander the paved zoo paths occasionally pausing to take in the scenes created by millions of colorful bulbs.

Moving giraffes, elephants spraying water, monkeys swinging branch to branch, and even a bobsled driven by Santa himself are amongst the displays created by the talented, behind-the-scene, light technicians. Every year, the event seems to get bigger and better.

During the holiday season, beginning with the Friday after Thanksgiving and running through New Year’s, the Oregon Zoo lights up with a kaleidoscope of colorful LED lights.

Visitors walk the zoo trails around the animal exhibits (most of the animals are not visible) to see moving light displays. Thousands of lights create colorful archways and provide light to the path for visitors. Frequently musical groups provide live entertainment as well.

Sit back and relax on one of the trains

3 great family christmas activities in portland, oregon | sit back and relax on one of the trains

The Zoo Train is operating during the event. The trains, one a traditional steam train and one a diesel liner train, are decked out in holiday lights and decorations. The ten minute ride follows a loop through the Family Farm area and around the elephant lands exhibit providing riders with an opportunity to see several favorite seasonal characters.

Zoolights is an extremely popular Portland event and crowds should be expected. Opening nightly at 5 PM, the biggest crowds are generally between 5 – 7 PM. The train lines tend to be longest between 6 – 7 PM.

My personal recommendation is to go during the week, to walk the displays first and then enjoy the train ride if you want. You will get to enjoy the live music, see all the lights, and avoid most of the crowds this way. Avoid the weekends if possible.

Grab a bite to eat

Oregon Zoo 57
Source: Photo by user SupportPDX used under CC BY 2.0

Several café-style restaurants are open and available during the Zoolights exhibit. Restaurants include The Cascade Grill, Grill-to-Go, Black Rhino, BearWalk Café and AfriCafe. There are also a variety of food carts along the path serving hot chocolate, elephant ears, and popcorn.

Cost: 14.95 USD for adults (12 – 64 years old), 12.95 USD for seniors, 9.95 USD for youth (3 – 11 years old), and free for under two years old or zoo members (Check the website for special rates associated with vendor sponsorship to save money).

Parking is extra by the hour so take the Max Blue or Red line to the zoo (the stop is directly under the Zoo entrance) to save money. The parking lots are frequently at capacity early.

Zoolights run from November 27, 2015 – January 3, 2016

Christmas Festival of Lights

christmas festival of lights

The sounds of Christmas combine with the sparkle and scents of the season at this event.

Each night five local musicians/musical groups provide concerts in The Grotto’s world renowned chapel. The 600-seat chapel provides cathedral quality acoustics for amazing performances. Many of the performers are regional school, church, and civil choirs. Caroling, puppet shows, and a petting zoo area provide additional family entertainment in the outdoor plaza area. A walk-through light display requires about one-quarter mile of walking. Although fully accessible to those with disabilities, this path is uneven and dark.

The festival theme reflects the special season of hope that Christmas brings to thousands in the Pacific Northwest. There are opportunities for serene reflection and traditional celebrations at this event. Seasonal shopping, foods and beverages are available in The Grotto’s Christian Gift and Book Store.

Cost: $10.00 for adults, $9.00 for seniors (65 and over), $5.00 for children (3 – 12 years old), and free for under two years old

Festival of Lights runs November 27 – December 30, 2015 (The Grotto is located at NE 85th & Sandy Blvd in Portland)

Free parking is available.

In Summary

These are just three of the many holiday events to enjoy in the Portland, Oregon area. Get into the holiday spirit or just people watch as you relax and enjoy any of these events. Happy Holidays!

Disclosure: Trip101 selects the listings in our articles independently. Some of the listings in this article contain affiliate links.


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I love to write and take photos to capture my journeys. Traveling the world allows me to experience a variety of cultures, meet new people, and live life to the max. I have been to all 50 states in...Read more

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