We just returned home from a short, but sweet, family road trip to Atlanta, Georgia. Last year, the Christmas season just didn’t feel as merry as usual. We all think it was the unseasonably warm weather here in Central Florida. So, we were determined to start out the 2017 holiday season with a bit of cold weather and a ton of festive family fun to get us in the proper spirit. So, we packed the SUV and headed six and a half hours north to Atlanta.
Now, anyone with kids knows that a road trip can either be super fun or hell on Earth. It all depends on what mood your little ones are in and whether or not you packed the proper mix of distractions and snacks! Spoiler: This trip turned out great!
We packed our favorite soft-sided cooler with fresh fruit, crackers and drinks. Little Dude was allowed some screen time to play Angry Birds and Where’s My Water? We also had some Star Wars Mad Libs and our Travel Bingo cards, which entertained us for a couple of hours. But, the best entertainment for Little Dude turned out to be a bunch of Hubby’s childhood Donald Duck and Scrooge McDuck comics. Little Dude just devoured them! Plus, we could mark off part of his reading requirement for school. I love it when things work out!
After a super smooth ride through Florida, we enjoyed the change of scenery once we hit Georgia. The palm trees gave way to cotton fields. Then, the cotton fields gave way to pecan groves. Then, the pecan groves gave way to patches of maples, oaks, hickories, and other trees still showing their fall colors. We don’t get fall colors in Florida, so this was a thrill for a couple of nature nerds like me and Hubby.
We ended up staying on the northeast side of the Atlanta metro area in Norcross. This was a budget trip for us and we’d found a good deal on the well-rated Hampton Inn Norcross, located on Jimmy Carter Blvd.
The neighborhood is nothing special, and getting in and out of the main entrance is difficult (there is an easier back entrance). But, the room was clean and quiet, and the beds were comfortable. The hot breakfast (included in the room rate) gave us a great start in the morning. The hotel also has a nice indoor pool and exercise room. And, best of all, there’s a cool little game room with a Foosball table and video game machine that had a ton of vintage games on it, no charge to play. Needless to say, we spent quite a bit of time in that game room!
Our planned attractions were all either in Midtown Atlanta or on the east side of town, so the hotel wasn’t too far away from any of them.
Garden Lights, Holiday Nights
After a quick dinner, our first stop of the trip was the Atlanta Botanical Garden. Despite several visits to Atlanta in the past, none of us had ever been here before! This time, we had a huge reason to visit. From mid-November through early January, the Atlanta Botanical Garden is transformed into a winter wonderland of twinkling lights! Garden Lights, Holiday Nights features millions of LED lights throughout 30 acres. We loved the synchronized lights in the Nature’s Wonders section that changed colors and danced to classical music. There were model train layouts to look at, as well as fire pits for roasting marshmallows. There was fun dance music playing by the Glow Bar, a tunnel of light to take family pictures in, and pretty poinsettia-covered Christmas trees.
The Garden Lights at the Atlanta Botanical Garden ended up being far above my expectations. In fact, we all enjoyed it and spent several hours here. It was a bit pricey – about a hundred dollars total, including parking fee and upgrading Little Dude’s ticket so he could have hologram glasses and hot cocoa. But, I can comfortably say it was worth the splurge. Buying tickets ahead of time from the Atlanta Botanical Garden’s web site, visiting on a “Value Night”, and having at least 4 people in your car will save you money, so plan ahead, if possible!
Fernbank Museum of Natural History
The next morning, we headed out to the Fernbank Museum of Natural History. This was another Atlanta attraction we had never been to, let alone heard of! The museum opened 25 years ago. It features a variety of permanent exhibits, some traveling exhibits, a cafe, and Atlanta’s largest IMAX screen.
The museum also had a festive exhibit of Christmas trees, which runs from mid-November to early January. The trees were decorated by the museum’s cultural partners to reflect holiday traditions celebrated around the world.
Their dinosaur exhibit, Giants of the Mesozoic, was really neat. It includes some of the biggest dinosaurs ever to roam the Earth! There was also an exhibit called Sensing Nature, where Little Dude had some hands-on fun with mirrors, lasers, bubbles, acoustics, and more. The kids play area, NatureQuest, has some great activities for children 9 and under. Little Dude spent a lot of time in there!
The rest of the exhibits at the Fernbank Museum of Natural History, unfortunately, were a little boring and not really geared towards a rambunctious 7-year-old. Thankfully, there was more to experience outside. Although the museum itself is relatively new, the land behind it is actually 65 acres of old-growth woodlands that were first preserved back in the late 1800’s!
The WildWoods area directly behind the museum building has trails and elevated walkways that lead to a play area for younger kids and a play area for older kids. You can also walk along the creek to view animal tracks and native plants. There are “bug hotels” in various areas, but I didn’t take a close look inside to see if any critters were staying there! Beyond WildWoods is the entrance to Fernbank Forest, which offers more than two miles of pathways through the trees.
Our walk through Fernbank Forest was lovely. We saw songbirds and a pretty creek. Most of the trees were still hanging onto their orange, yellow, brown and green leaves. It was amazing to think we were in a forest in the middle of Atlanta! While the exhibits inside were just okay overall, the outside experience at the Fernbank Museum of Natural History was excellent! If you’ve done all the top attractions in town and love nature, definitely check this place out.
Snow Mountain/Stone Mountain Christmas
Our final day in Atlanta was spent experiencing an attraction that was the main reason we decided to do this little road trip: Snow Mountain at Stone Mountain. Little Dude has never seen real snow, so we thought we’d give him a little taste of some (man-made, ice-like) snow before we planned a longer, more expensive winter trip. Our combo Snow Mountain/Stone Mountain Christmas passes were purchased a few days ahead of time through Groupon, which saved us $30. We also added on the $15 parking pass needed to enter Stone Mountain Park to our order and reserved a 10:30 am start time for our two-hour tubing access.
We arrived around 9:45 am, expecting only a short wait since we already had tickets. However, we were herded into the main ticket line and ended up waiting about 30 minutes just to get in. Only 2 or 3 ticket windows were open at a time. Those with 10:00 am tubing start times were upset at the long wait. Lots of grumbling. Thankfully, the tension disappeared once we got inside. We walked through Crossroads, a “village” that is essentially a bunch of stores and restaurants, to get to the man-made tubing hill. The whole area was decorated nicely for the Stone Mountain Christmas event, but most everything was still closed at this time of the morning.
The tubing hill was lots of fun. You can slide down together in a family tube, or go individually. We must have gone down about 12 times before we finally decided we were done. That took up about an hour of our two-hour tubing window.
We then headed over to Snow Zone, where two snow machines were constantly pumping out snow for everyone to enjoy. There were small tubing runs for the wee ones, as well as targets for practicing your snowball throwing. A large portion of the area had snowcastle-making tools, such as plastic molds and shovels, scattered around. Little Dude has so much fun building castles of various designs and then knocking them down. After about an hour, we were all tired and a bit chilled, so we headed out to lunch.
I’d heard a lot of negative reviews about the food at Stone Mountain, so we left the park to try out a local place, the Stone Mountain Pizza Cafe, located only 5 minutes from the park. Hubby and Little Dude had pizza and I had spaghetti with meatballs. The food was delicious, the service was very attentive, and the prices were reasonable.
Once we were warmed up and fueled up, we headed back to the park and took the Summit Skyride to the top of Stone Mountain. It was a lovely view from there and one of the highlights of the day!
Once we were down from the summit, Stone Mountain Christmas had already begun. This event features musical stage shows, a tree lighting, a parade, a sing-along train ride, storytelling, and more. It sounds like great fun, but in our experience, most of the attractions here fall short. Also, many of the experiences occur at the same time, so you have to really pick and choose what you do. We were only able to experience about a quarter of it.
We saw a very shortened version of the animated film Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, billed as a 4-D experience. However, no 3-D glasses were handed out, but it did “snow” soap bubbles from the ceiling. We saw the Christmas Tree Lighting Ceremony, where a small plastic/vinyl type tree was “lit up” by blurry projections on its surface. We saw the 5-minute long Christmas parade. Then, we rode the Sing-A-Long Christmas Train, where we were packed in like sardines and saw mostly darkness along the route while we sang along to a video of Christmas tunes. The train does stop at one point for a long presentation about the story of Jesus’ birth.
On the more positive side, we did get to visit with Mrs. Claus, and she was just lovely to Little Dude. Before we left, we visited the Skylights Spectacular, where Stone Mountain’s three-story ropes course is transformed with lights “dancing” to music, soap “snow”, and a fog machine. This was the highlight of Stone Mountain Christmas for Little Dude as he danced in the middle of all the lights. A great end to the day.
We headed home the next day. The drive was unfortunately a bit longer than usual due to multiple crashes on I-75. However, our trusty apps, Waze and Google Maps, helped us find a detour and saved us over an hour of extra driving. Despite our issues with Stone Mountain Christmas, we had lots of fun in Atlanta and look forward to visiting again in the near future!
Atlanta Trip Details:
Hotel: Hampton Inn Norcross, 5655 Jimmy Carter Blvd., Norcross, GA 30071.
Transportation: Our old, but trusty SUV!
Apps used: Waze for up-to-the-minute traffic reports. Google Maps for directions. TripAdvisor for restaurant reviews.
Attraction Tickets: Snow Mountain/Stone Mountain Christmas passes purchased through Groupon. Other tickets purchased on-site at attractions. If you’re staying longer than we did, consider purchasing the Atlanta CityPASS, which can save you up to 40% off admission to the Fernbank Museum of Natural History and 4 other top Atlanta attractions.
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