How to entertain out-of-town visitors to Peoria during the holidays
Whether you are brand new to the Peoria area and showing off your home for the first time, or have been here for decades, it can be stressful to host out-of-town friends and family in your home during the holidays. What can be even more panic-inducing is finding ways to entertain them if they’re here for an extended stay.
Luckily, the area hosts great options that allow guests of all ages and interests to stay busy, have some fun, and perhaps even experience something new. WCBU did some digging to find out what longtime residents and out-of-towners alike should be taking advantage of this holiday season.
For all events, be sure to check the organization's website for holiday operating hours, potential weather closures, and any admission fees.
You can also check out Discover Peoria’s calendar of events here.
For those looking for ways to get into the holiday spirit, look no further than East Peoria’s Festival of Lights. Currently in its 38th season, the festival has been a community staple for decades and features a variety of events that run through January 2nd.
Of particular interest is Folepi’s Winter Wonderland, which offers an award-winning drive-thru light display featuring dozens of life-sized floats. Kory Brown is the director of tourism for the City of East Peoria, and also serves as the festival’s chairperson. He recalled when the festival received some television publicity on ABC’s Great Christmas Light Fight in 2020.
“They found us and somehow, someway, we were lucky enough to compete against three other cities and win… so you can catch that on YouTube. That's the Great Christmas Light Fight presented by ABC and yeah, the trophies getting ready to go down to City Hall and we've got a float that mimics it and everything else too. So, something we're super super proud of,” said Brown.
$10 per vehicle will get you into the wonderland that runs every night from 5 p.m. to 9 p.m. Brown does recommend arriving as close to 5p.m. as possible to avoid long wait times.
Additionally, the Festival of Lights will also host a Get Lit New Year’s Eve celebration on December 31st. A non-competitive one-mile run/walk, in addition to other family friendly activities will make up the night.
“At 9:15 p.m. is when the fun begins,” explained Brown. “So there's areas that have fire pits, we have s'mores, hot cocoa, cider, things of that sort. So if you're not wanting to do the run walk thing in the cold temperatures, we certainly understand that, so you can come out, you can ride the trolley through the park that's lit up and see our beautiful display,” he said.
This event does require pre-registration.
And if your out-of-towners enjoy plants more than lights, you'll want to take them to Luthy Botanical Garden’s Winter Wonderland which runs through December 23. There will be a tree lighting ceremony at 6pm each night, along with crafts, refreshments and music at $5 a person or $15 for a family.
If you or your guests are looking to dive into Peoria’s historic arts and culture scene originating from the Vaudeville days, there are plenty of opportunities to do so.
Jenn Gordon is the Executive Director of ArtsPartners of Central Illinois. She noted there are over 180 arts and cultural entities within the Greater Peoria region.
“And so many of them make the holidays part of their own tradition and that lends to this greater holiday tradition in Peoria…Peoria is such a great place, and if you have people coming in for the holidays, show off your community. There are some great resources to do that,” Gordon said.
Her first recommendation is to check out the events calendar at ArtsPartners.net, where all arts organizations within the area are welcomed to submit their events year-round.
Checking out the Peoria Riverfront Museum is also high on Gordon’s list.
“They've got some incredible exhibits happening right now including their Mars exhibit…and then they have the new Nathan Gunn exhibit where it's all about opera, very, very cool. There's literally something for everyone. You can see…local artists, Preston Jackson with his 'Bronzeville to Harlem' collection that's on display there and also the incredible Andy Warhol exhibit,” explained Gordon.
If you’re looking to burn off a sugar cookie or two, the sculpture walks in Peoria and Peoria Heights are a great, free option to get some fresh air. Gordon also recommends connecting with local artistic spaces and galleries.
“The Contemporary Art Center...you can check out local artists, you know, stop by the Peoria Art Guild, check out some amazing local artists featured there, even Exhibit A Gallery in Peoria Heights, right? These are incredible local gallery spaces where if you have a couple hours off in the afternoon, just do a little tour of the local art studio scene here.,” she said.
But what if you or your guests want to not only admire the arts but take part in them as well? Don't worry, Peoria has you covered.
The Contemporary Art Center also hosts salsa dance nights. The next one is on New Year's Eve and will feature a dance lesson, party favors and champagne toast beginning at 8:30pm.
And if you’re not much of a dancer, perhaps you could pick up pottery or glass blowing. Gordon says J. Draper Glass in Peoria is the place to go if you’re wanting to make a glass ornament or plenty of other things. And Wheel Art Pottery offers hands-on classes for those wanting to throw some clay on the wheel.
Of course, it wouldn’t be right to talk about Peoria without mentioning the expansive theatre scene in the city. You can head over to Peoria Players at 7:30pm on New Year's Eve, or 2pm on New Year’s Day to catch their holiday show, Return to the Opry.
“If you are a fan of like Dolly Parton, Loretta Lynn, Kenny Rogers, all those grand Ole Opry performers, make your way to Peoria Players Theatre, they're going to have a really, really fun show for you,” said Gordon.
While most annual choral and music events have already passed for the season, Gordon says you can typically find them all on YouTube or the organization's website. WCBU also hosts a Friday night Presents series that sheds light on some of these arts organizations within Greater Peoria through broadcasts of their performances. You can view the full Presents schedule here. The next one airs Friday, December 23 at 8pm and features Bradley University Department of Theatre Arts’ production of A Christmas Carol Radio Play. This is one of Gordon's personal favorites.
"I've listened to it every year that you've had it, multiple times...and it is just super fun," she said.
So, grab your cookie baking supplies, throw on the radio, and immerse yourself in the arts from the comfort of your own home.
If your friends and family have children, they likely will be joining the holiday festivities as well. Melissa Sierra is the Director of the Peoria Playhouse Children’s Museum, which is an obvious choice if you have children who need to burn off some steam after being at home on holiday break.
“All of the exhibits and interactive activities are open ended,” said Sierra. So, littles and adults alike can use their creativity building, moving, playing. We have everything from a water table to motion commotion where there's balls that go up pneumatic tubes and fly across the room and it's very exciting,” she said.
The Playhouse features three floors and a gift shop. There’s also some unique programming parents or guardians can take advantage of.
“We've got a couple of our winter workshops coming up. During the last week of December and the first week of January, school aged children are invited to come and work on a story in our Open Art Studio...and then we also have our home health classes that will be starting in January. So we've got the winter workshops, parent baby social time, and then as usual, our tot time is every Thursday. That's just a themed, fun program…and there's song and fingerplays and just a good time for everyone,” Sierra explained.
The age demographic of the Playhouse is for children ages two to eight, though everyone is welcome to come in and play. The museum also has some throwbacks to some of Peoria’s historic features, like the Hubcap House and a train exhibit modeled after the Rock Island line.
After a trip to the museum, there’s some other kid friendly activities the Peoria Park District hosts, like ice skating at the Owens Center, or a winter hike courtesy of Forest Park Nature Center.
“And then Camp Wokanda has an awesome winter program, including a DIY syrup making class, and that's held by Chilly Billy and visitors can come and try their cast iron cooking skills and ice fishing and just explore the outdoors during winter,” Sierra said.
Another great place to find children’s programming? Sierra recommends checking out your local libraries.
“I just want to give a shout out to the Peoria Public Library system is amazing, but then there's all these other little libraries tucked away. The East Peoria Fondulac, Chillicothe, Illinois Prairie, and Dunlap. Those are all amazing places…so just do a tour one weekend and see what you can find,” said Sierra.
Another notable children’s event happening in Peoria is the 2022 PNC New Year’s Eve Kid’s Countdown being held at the Peoria Civic Center. There will be indoor activities for all ages starting at 3pm. Parking and admission are free.
Regardless of what your family decides to do, Sierra said the important part is doing something in the first place.
“Winter break can also be a time that, you know, learning becomes arrested…so in order to keep that stimulation going and to keep their minds growing, it's really important that they have something that challenges and engages them on multiple levels,” said Sierra. “Maybe try something you've never done before. Maybe your kiddo is not used to going outdoors, so this would be a great opportunity. Get out to Detweiller, you know and just walk around. There's tons of things to see that's just beautiful this time of year.”
When searching for the perfect holiday gift, you may be tempted to head straight to the Internet. But there are some gifts that aren't possible to find on Amazon. Fortunately, Greater Peoria has a thriving small business and gift shop community, offering a wide range of items for your loved ones and even your furry friends.
Discover Peoria CEO J.D. Dalfonso says shopping local is what helped some businesses survive the pandemic.
“You could shop at the big box stores, in some cases,” he said. “But our small-town retailers have been through the worst of times. Coming out of that we can’t ignore how great it is to support local. You get to see and interact with the business owners and see products that are typically made by hand provided for all customers.”
Dalfonso also says local businesses pride themselves on offering something unique.
“These boutique stores have so much pride and self-respect for themselves,” he said. “You really want to go out and see the smiles on the customers' faces and really the business owners’ faces. That’s critical.”
One of those businesses is Relics in Peoria. Located on Sheridan Road, owner Deb Opyd has been in business for 14 years. She also recently expanded to an East Peoria location.
“We started out selling mostly vintage, but we’ve morphed over the years,” said Opyd. “We sell lots of new and handmade and Midwestern made products. And a lot of Peoria-centric products.”
Products is really the only way to describe the wide range of gifts. Relics is stuffed full of crafts and curiosities from Central Illinois.
Shelves are lined with books by local authors, nestled next to handcrafted jewelry, paper cranes dangle from the ceiling and a wide variety of houseplants fill the store with green.
“We do lots of things that are, like, fun to Central Illinois,” said Opyd. “We try to bring happiness and fun to Peoria.”
Where the fun comes from is also very important to Opyd. Lots of Relic's items come from makers within the county.
“Our makers are right here in your community,” said Opyd. “So they’re recycling things, they’re upcycling things, they’re hand making things. So it’s your neighbor, it’s your brother, it’s all the people around you and you’re supporting all those people.”
If you're on the other side of the Illinois River, you might want to visit The Picker's Daughter on Washington Street in East Peoria on your Christmas shopping spree.
Owner Tammy Smith opened three and a half years ago. She was between jobs and saw the right timing for something she'd always wanted to do: provide a space for local vendors to get their products on shelves.
“It happened, literally, within a month,” said Smith. “I found the place and started renting out booth spaces to vendors and we opened up. We survived COVID, it was about six months before all that started, and we made it through all of that. We just expanded to a whole other room a week ago.”
Smith says Picker's Daughter started with 24 vendors, now they're home to 91. Like Relics, there's a wide range of gifts. The cozy store is packed with everything from Amish popcorn to jellies and jams, honey, purses and bags, handmade clothing and hats, unique items like chalk paint and more.
“There’s just so much in here, which that’s what people love,” said Smith. “They come in here for the first time and they’re shocked at how it just keeps going on and on and on. You know, there’s just something for everyone literally here.”
Smith says it's not only important to her to keep her inventory wide, it also provides a snapshot of the talented creators and crafters in Greater Peoria. Many of the vendors’ spaces include business cards and contact information.
“They can contact that person individually if they like a certain scent, or we have someone that crochets baby blankets or stuffed animals or whatever,” said Smith. “They have a special request, so they can reach out to that person and get something even more personalized for a special gift.”
However, if you're looking for a Christmas gift for the four-legged family in your life, there might be no better place than Bear's Bites Boutique in Peoria Heights. Owner Samm Hutchison is a certified animal nutritionist.
“I started making treats for my dogs about fifteen years ago because they had really bad food allergies,” said Hutchison. “Now we’ve been in business for about four and a half years now with Bear’s Bites.”
Eventually, customers started asking Hutchison for a boutique location to buy Bear's Bites from. She took the opportunity to open her Seiberling Avenue store where she sells hormone free, steroid free, organic treats, as well as toys and all-natural flea and tick medicines.
Hutchison says Greater Peoria has a strong support network for small businesses.
“With all the help that we get and the support from our customers and the support from other businesses, it’s an amazing place to have a business,” she said.
Opyd from Relics says another benefit of being a small Peoria business is all the people you meet.
“I get to meet so many wonderful people. Wonderful people in my community, wonderful artists,” she said. “I really get involved in my community and different grassroots things. Peoria’s just such a special place, I think it’s a very All-American place. I love it here.”
So, as you finish your last-minute Christmas shopping, why not try an unusual storefront? Look for shelves full of art by names you don't recognize and food from farms you could visit in your county. You might just find the thing that makes you love it here and impress your out-of-town guests in the process.