5 real-life wonderlands

Story highlights

White River National Forest in Colorado is the most visited forest in the country

Callaway Gardens' "Fantasy of Lights" in Georgia features more than eight million lights

For the global traveler, consider stopping by the "official home of Santa Claus" in Rovaniemi, Finland

CNN  — 

With presents to buy and families to visit, the holiday season can become an endless to-do list.

But take some of that vacation time to explore the holiday spirit in action. At these five wonderlands around the country and the world, you’ll find the wonder of winter, the wonder of shopping and the wonder of Santa Claus up close.

White River National Forest, Minturn, Colorado

This year, the White River National Forest is known for two things. It’s the most visited recreational forest in the country, a hub of skiing aficionados, thanks to nearby Aspen and Vail, and it’s also the home of the 2012 U.S. Capitol Christmas Tree.

Since 1970, the Capitol Architect has partnered with a different National Forest to choose a new tree for the Capitol lawn. This year it was White River.

“This was the first time that White River’s ever had the privilege of providing it, so it was a big deal for us,” said Bill Kight, a Forest Service spokesman.

The Capitol Tree tours the country during the holiday season before making its way back to Washington – and it offers visitors a chance to see a piece of the White River National Forest on the move.

Those who see the forest itself should expect a different experience than in the warmer months, according to Aurora Palmer, who works in public affairs and sustainable operations at the park.

During the winter season, the major attractions include skiing, snowmobiling and sledding, as well as other icy sports. The park even gives out permits for those looking to cut down their own Capitol Tree.

“Fantasy of Lights,” Callaway Gardens, Pine Mountain, Georgia

Callaway Gardens’ “Fantasy of Lights” is entering its 21st year. The resort hasn’t added a new scene to the massive lights display since 2000. And yet it has lost none of its holiday power.

“It’s amazing to see the faces of the people as they come through the gates, and they leave, and they make those Christmas memories,” said Callaway Gardens spokeswoman Rachel Crumbley.

The Georgia resort draws guests year-round. But “Fantasy of Lights” – which includes 8 million lights in 15 seasonal scenes, making it one of the largest displays nationwide – is special, Crumbley said, drawing both couples and families.

“It’s just on such a grand scale,” Crumbley said. “And with the music combined with the lights combined with the themes, I think it kind of resonates.”

Lake Placid, New York

Lake Placid and the surrounding Adirondack Mountains see the majority of visitors between May and October, but that doesn’t mean that the area is lacking when the weather gets colder.

Thanks to its proximity to the mountains, Lake Placid offers “just what the Adirondacks offer,” said Kim Rielly, spokeswoman at the Lake Placid Convention and Visitors Bureau. That means a variety of outdoor recreation, in a park that stretches across 6 million acres.

That’s equal to 6 million football fields, she said, although she says that’s a conservative estimate.

In the last 100 years, Lake Placid has hosted the Winter Olympic Games twice, and it remains a destination for the athletic. Still, Rielly called Lake Placid a “cool little alpine village in the middle of the wilderness.”

At the center of town is an old ski jump, while the surrounding wilderness of the Adirondacks holds multiple museums for exploring and 43 peaks for hiking. One of them, Whiteface Mountain, is paved all the way to the top, so that families can visit the peak by car.

And from December 7-9, Lake Placid will host a “Holiday Village Stroll,” featuring workshops, holiday story time, a “Jingle Bell Run” and more.

Mall of America, Bloomington, Minnesota

The Mall of America remains a destination for any holiday shopper, if only because of its size, featuring more than 500 shops.

But this year, the mall is adding to its seasonal appeal with the unveiling of the “HGTV Holiday House,” a life-size gingerbread house.

Guests can explore the space, which will feature demonstrations, meet-and-greets and regular appearances from HGTV’s stable of home décor and design personalities.

Beyond that, the mall is also hosting a Holiday Music Festival; and its multi-floor shopping selection, complete with an amusement park and larger-than-life Lego installations, dwarfs any other shopping experience as an indoor travel option.

Santa Claus Village, Rovaniemi, Finland

Last on the list is a wonderland across the globe, “the official home of Santa Claus,” at Rovaniemi in Finland.

It’s not just a title: one of the town’s main attractions is the Santa Claus Village. At the heart of the village is the Santa Claus Chamber, where Santa lives, ready to greet visitors.

One of the village’s biggest draws is the Santa Claus Main Post Office, said Sanna Kortelainen, managing director for Rovaniemi Tourism & Marketing.

“The Santa Claus Main Post Office is a real post office, which operates 365 days in the year,” she said. “That is the place where all the letters to Santa are sent. The letters are opened by post elves and read through.”

After that, guests can ride a sleigh or visit the reindeer farm or even explore the Arctic Circle, which begins at the edge of Rovaniemi.

The Christmas season is also the best time of year to visit, Kortelainen said. The season begins with a declaration from Santa on November 24 and goes into January, ending when the sun again begins to rise above the horizon.