Leavenworth offers a true Bavarian winter wonderland

In the 1950s, there really wasn’t much significant about the City of Leavenworth. It was just another waning timber town in the center of the state – beautiful, but not really offering anything that makes it any more unique than anywhere else.

But city leaders and the local business community took the initiative to transform the town positively by adopting a Bavarian theme in everything from its signage to architecture. And it worked.

Today, Leavenworth is a thriving and picturesque community. Polka music is always playing in the town square, and there’s always some sort of gathering going on, from accordion festivals to one of the region’s largest Oktoberfests each fall. Even chain businesses like McDonald’s, Starbucks or Dairy Queen have been able to adapt their appearance to better fit the community style and standards.

A trip to Leavenworth has become downright wunderbar any day of the year, but a perfect way to see the community is to visit during the Christmas season.

For three weeks each December, Leavenworth becomes a true alpine winter wonderland.

All through the day on weekends, there is an almost storybook feel to the Christmas Lighting Festival, especially since winter weather usually comes with a pleasant amount – but not too much – snow, which makes everything look a little more fluffy and white.

More than 1 million lights are arranged on and around downtown businesses and public areas.

The lighting weekends include other fun touches such as carolers and Christmas characters walking around, and musical groups from the Northwest such as choirs and bands. One highlight of the daytime festivities is the traditional “Arrival of Santa” parade, where St. Nickolas shows up.

You’ll hear Christmas music planning all day long, and you can even buy hot cider and actual chestnuts that have been roasted on an open fire. Can’t get much more Christmas-y than that.

At dusk, there’s even more fun on tap when the lights are all illuminated in a memorable ceremony that includes a lot of spontaneous singing of Christmas classics.

Though the number of visitors to this event grows every year, visitors will say that the festival feels far from a crowded experience, mainly because everyone in the crowd is brimming with Christmas cheer and general good spirits. Standing shoulder to shoulder with someone while signing “Silent Night” definitely creates some wonderful holiday memories.

Leavenworth party planners recommend carpooling or even taking a bus for the occasion – parking is always at a premium, so it’s smart to leave that task to someone else.

Plus, one of the downsides of trying to take a trip to a wonderful wintry wonderland like this is, well, the winter. So rather than trying to navigate icy, snowy roads to get to this special destination, you and your friends or family members can put a group trip together for the occasion.

The BusBank can be an excellent resource for discovering the joy of the holidays in Bavaria – without having to travel too far for it.

North Dakota’s Dickens Village Festival pulls out all the stops in fun.


Dickens Festival Play

Upon first glance, there isn’t much in common between the rolling plains of the Dakotas and the urban squalor described by Charles Dickens.

His tales of waifish street urchins and mean London streets are the last thing that should be combined with beautiful scenery and warm, friendly people.

But when they do come together, you may get something wonderful like the Dickens Village Festival that takes place three weekends in Garrison, N.D., following Thanksgiving.

For more than 20 years, the town transforms itself into the England of yesteryear, minus all the unhappy things like short life spans, rampant disease, high pollution and poor dental hygiene.

Here, you’ll only see the good, happy, and cheerier aspects of Jolly Old England: English menus, high teas, delightful conversations and no one trying to pick your pocket for a few quid.

This event has become so successful that the state designated Garrison, population 1,500, “The Official Christmas Capital of North Dakota,” and it attracts thousands of visitors from nearby states and Canadian provinces.

Residents enjoy decorating their homes and helping host the event. Merchants dress up in Dickens-era clothing and conduct business at their shops or at a special English-Style market created for the festival. Festival organizers even pay $1 day for residents and festival guests who rock a Victorian outfit – and the favorite local and out-of-towner apparel takes home $50.

Throughout the day, visitors enjoy all sorts of music taking place, from local choirs to professional vocal quartets to strolling carolers performing classic Victorian-era carols throughout the day. There’s a fruitcake toss, a parade, a different Dickens community play (this year it’s “A Cricket on the Hearth.”)

Visitors can enjoy two authentic ways to get around town during festival days, whether your tastes run to present day or past modes of transportation.

The first option is a horse-drawn carriage ride around town.

But the second is a ride aboard “Queen Elisabus,” an authentic double-decker bus directly from London, which takes passengers from the Information Center to the City Auditorium on festival days. You can also take a ride to the Fort Stevenson Guardhouse and Interpretive Center, or to the Kota Theater.

The bus was built in 1960, but ended up in LeMars, Iowa. But in 2005, Garrison officials thought having an actual British bus would be a perfect acquisition, and found this one. Though it wasn’t in the best shape, including a beehive, it was, as they say, bloody perfect.

So fund-raising began to in earnest. Once the bus was purchased and brought to its new home, another community fund-raising effort kicked off to patch up and spruce up Queen Elisabus. Seeing this bus in action and even scoring a ride is a big part of the experience.

One of the best ways to check out this special festival is aboard a charter bus. The BusBank can help you put a trip together for you and your friends – it will be like going back in time, at least a better version of it.

Get fired up for Colonial WIlliamsburg Grand Illumination

grand illuminationIf you’ve ever heard – or said — “history is boring” then it might be time to pay a visit to Colonial Williamsburg.

The Virginia city does more than celebrate its heritage – it lives it.

The community is a combination of classroom, museum, theater and, well, a functioning town. Visitors can learn about life in the time of the American Founding Fathers, walk along the same streets where many of these historic figures actually walked, hear actors talk about what life was like in those days, and have something to eat and drink. And guess what – just like today, people back then liked to have a cup of coffee with their friends or throw back mugs of beer with their buds.

It definitely has high interest for tourists who might be sort of interested in learning more about the early days of America, but it’s also a great weekend getaway for couples wanting somewhere off the beaten path, a fun family destination that’s sort of cultural, or a even a great group travel destination.

The town includes period locations like a blacksmith but also retailers and restaurants. You can immerse yourself in the past – and even take part in mock battles as a Redcoat or a Revolutionary. Or you can spend time at the golf course or the spa.

Williamsburg is open year-round, and there’s always a lot to see and do. City officials also organize seasonal events and activities as well to make it even more interesting. In the fall, for instance, there are ghost tours where you can learn some of the area’s spooky tall tales, and carriage rides, which also give visitors a chance to check out changing leaf colors.

December is extra special – Christmas decorations are put up at many of the homes and buildings, which are fun to see while walking around town.

Then, on the first Sunday of the month is the Grand Illumination, a commemorative ceremony involving, guns, fireworks from three locations and other various sundry explosions. Music also is performed on a variety of stages.

For centuries, illuminations were reserved for special occasions indeed such as the birth of a royal heir, victory on a battlefield or a change in local leadership. But organizers thought they would be a fun treat for visitors, so began staging an annual illumination 70 years ago.

The actual ceremony is just over two hours long, but the whole day builds up to the fun. For instance, the various restaurants will offer special dinners and entertainment, perhaps paired with certain wine to really get you feeling even more festive. This could be everything from a modern formal dinner to authentic tavern fare.

Fireworks are launched from the Magazine, Capitol and Castle areas, which means there’s not a bad place to see the show.

The BusBank can be a great help in putting together a group trip together to Williamsburg to see the Grand Illumination plus nearby significant historic sites such as Jamestown and Yorktown.

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Parade of Lights in Denver offers chills, thrills

denver parade of lightsOne of the benefits of winter parades is that no one really lingers.

During summertime celebrations, you’re likely to see parade members strolling, stopping to chat with friends and causing significant gaps in between entries. Sometimes they feel like they streetttchhhhhh along for hours in the hot summer sun.

But a winter affair usually takes place somewhere along the other end of the efficiency spectrum – you’ll still have happy memories, but the usual summer lollygagging is replaced by everyone hustling to get from the starting point to the end point as quickly as possible, and then head inside somewhere warm, with maybe hot cocoa or grown-up warm drinks.

Parade-goers also seem to appreciate this faster pace as well – though everyone loves a parade, not everyone loves worrying about frostbite from prolonged spectating. Though there are usually plenty of happy faces from the bundled-up masses, the applause can be subdued, mainly because gloves and mittens aren’t designed for effective clapping. On the bright side, the crowds are more manageable to wander through and find a good viewing spot.

All of the above reasons could be why Denver’s 9NEWS Parade of Lights has remained popular for 40 years, and has become what’s considered the state’s favorite holiday tradition. Each year, thousands of locals come out, plus excited visitors from all around the country.

It traditionally takes place the first Friday and Saturday in December, and serves as the area’s unofficial kick-off to the Christmas season – especially since Santa always makes an appearance.

The 2-mile route through downtown also includes plenty of marching bands, floats, dancing groups and other fun touches. Along with all sorts of local celebrities, another special visitor is Major Waddles the Penguin.

Though there’s no charge to watch the parade anywhere along the route, you can “upgrade” to a limited number of grandstand seats which are located in front of the City/County building which provide you with a better view.

The Downtown Denver Partnership, which organizes the event, takes pride in never having to cancel it – not even rain, snow, sub-zero temperatures, or all of the above have reqiored it to be shut it down. Everyone is just encouraged to bundle up a little more.

So far, the coldest parade – and they keep track – was 3 degrees with a -15 wind chill in 1985. The weather in 2013 hovered right around 10-15 degrees.

For those who aren’t up to braving the cold – or it feels a little nippier than usual – you can stay in your hotel and watch the parade, which is also broadcast live on Channel 9.

Whether or not you ever seen a winter parade, you have to admit that this one sets the bar quite high.

Denver’s Parade of Lights is perfect for clubs or church groups up for a fun weekend outing and ready to get a jump start on their holiday cheer. The group travel experts at The BusBank can help you put a great travel trip together.

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Olgebays Winter Festival of Light includes plenty of catchy displays

Olgebays Festival of LightDon’t try this at home.

Well, we suppose you can get your neighbors to try to create something like the incredible Christmas lighting display created by the Olgebay Resort and Conference Center.

But it won’t be as cool.

We’re not saying this to be mean, and by all means, the world needs more visible displays of holiday cheer. Even the power companies will tell you “Go for it!”

But the staff at this resort in Wheeling, W.V., has been decorating so well and for so long that they have it down to a science and an art form.

Since 1985, the resort has been designing large-scale illuminated holiday displays for its Festival of Lights. Some favorites come back year after year but they also keep on bringing in new and exciting additions.

You’ll find traditional Christmas imagery like poinsettias, Christmas trees, and one display depicting “The 12 Days of Christmas,” plus fanciful displays like rocking horses and toy soldiers. The resort has received approval from the estate of Charles Schulz to use characters from the “Peanuts” comic in displays.

The Winter Festival of Lights started with only five displays, but now there are more than 80 which fill 300 acres of the resort. Visitors come from all across the country, especially now that Olgebay Resort has received national exposure.

Over the years, it has been declared one of the country’s Top 10 lighting displays by AOL Travel; a Top 100 event from Eventcrazy.com; one of the Top 10 holiday light and tree shows by HotelsCombined.com; in the Top 200 events listed by Discover America; and one of the Top International Events from the American Bus Association. It has also been featured on the Travel Channel’s “Extreme Christmas Celebration” which was a great way to see the scope of the whole spectacle.

Of course, seeing it on TV or reading about it online is no substitute for the real deal, especially this year, when some of the displays have to be seen to be believed.

One of the new attractions along the 6-mile festival route is a new 300-foot-long light tunnel, where you walk through and see all sorts of moving, bright images overhead and to the sides. A second tunnel created a few years ago is also still popular.

Along with the electronic displays that now use energy-efficient LED bulbs, the Winter Festival of Lights also offers a Gardens of Light tour that includes glass creations; more than 35,000 lights around the zoo area, which is also synced to music; a Christmas tree garden with 300 trees and 150 hanging baskets; and a life-sized Nativity for those who like to reflect on the true meaning of Christmas.

Olgebay Resort and Conference Center offers some handy dining and lodging packages during Festival of Lights, and also includes a variety of gift shops.

Group travel packages are recommended, especially since Olgebay charges by the car, not the person. Please discuss with The BusBank to put together a wonderful visit to remember.

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Pigeon Forge Winterfest creates wonderful memories

Pigeon Forge WinterfestOne of the fun things about Christmas light displays is that it’s easy to enjoy them, whether or not you put them up yourself.

Because some people go all out and pretty much coat their homes in blinking lights, moving reindeer and cheery tableaus.

Others think that idea sounds like a whole lot of work and involves dangling from a ladder in the cold, when it’s just as easy to wrap a string of lights around the tree and call it good.

Either way, it can be a Christmas miracle when both groups come together to enjoy someone else’s display. The go-getters among us can appreciate the hard work that goes into a fancy exhibition of lights, and the people who prefer the path of minimal effort can still enjoy something they don’t have to make themselves.

This is part of the reason why Pigeon Forge’s Winterfest is perfect for everyone. In this scenic part of Tennessee, you’ll be able to see displays with more than 5 million lights. The award-winning festival runs from November until the end of February, and attracts visitors from around the world.

Pigeon Forge is beautiful all year round, but seeing the Smoky Mountains in winter can even be more memorable. There’s sometimes snow, but even in more mild years, there are at least displays of snowflakes and lots of holiday cheer to go around.

Organizers of this seasonal event that spans multiple communities include much Winterfest fun beyond the intricate light displays, such as a chili cook-off, a literary festival, fireworks, and more.

One memorable way to see the displays is aboard the Trolley Tour of Lights, a heated, enclosed streetcar which shuttles visitors to different displays three nights a week. You can ooh and ahh all you want, and won’t have to worry about directions.

The trolley route begins and ends at Patriot Park, so you never have to worry about finding your way back to the starting spot and remembering wherever the car or bus was parked. (It’s likely right by the park, in a big parking lot especially for Winterfest visitors.)

Winterfest is a wonderful destination for group trips. Church groups, clubs, students, even neighbors, friends or family members can all enjoy getting together and checking out all the lights.

Make a holiday tradition by coming back every year, maybe staying at the same motel or cabin, going to the same shops or eating at the same restaurant. Or try somewhere new each season since there’s so much to see and do.

If you’re going to be here for awhile, be sure to check out some great entertainment at the many theatres in the area, including music, comedy, old time music and more.

There’s also no end to the shopping potential, including more than 300 retailers, boutiques, outlet stores and places to buy original handmade pottery and artwork.

For assistance in putting together your own great holiday group travel package to Pigeon Forge for Winterfest, be sure to consult The BusBank.

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The Great Gulfcoast Arts Festival shows that culture is for everyone

The Great Gulfcoast Art FestivalArt festivals can define a community, for better or worse.

In some cases, they’re a little on the folksy side, with more emphasis on local participation rather than any type of quality. Not that there’s anything wrong with toilet paper cozies and “good efforts” at paint-by-number paintings, but serious art fans may shy away from anything that doesn’t fit their definition of fine art.

Other art fests can be at the other end of the spectrum, where the show’s selections seem meant for more for elite art aficionados – a fancy-pants term for people who like fancy art. Here, giant paintings or massive sculptures with price tags larger than a house payment may appeal to a certain cultured segment but can ultimately reinforce the myth that art isn’t for everyone.

The ideal community art festival lies somewhere in between – a perfect blend of fine art without being too fine. You’ll find complex creations done by those with plenty of training and talent, plus genuine amateur efforts that still can be prized, especially if you know the owner or simply like what you’re looking at.

These styles of festivals better fit the definition of true art – whatever makes you happy, whether it’s a lump of clay painstakingly and precisely molded into a cool shape or achild’s interpretation of a fun day.

Plus, the better festivals have more than just art for sale –there’s music, food, even places to make your own artwork if you’re inspired with all the creativity.

One of the gatherings that have achieved this perfect balance is the Great Gulfcoast Arts Festival which takes place in early November in Pensacola, Fla. The free three-day event is considered one of the most popular and accessible events of its kind in the country.

Here, more than 200 painters, potters, craftspeople, jewelers, sculptors, photographers, graphic designers, glass artists and others show off their talents in historic Seville Square as part of the juried show.

Visitors will also get a chance to see the Heritage Arts area with the best of the best of other traditional crafts being created, everything from weaving to engraving, spinning to blacksmithing.

There also is a variety of live music and lots of food vendors. The event is an excellent place for local schools and even some regional entertainers to demonstrate their skills at music, dance and drama.

To keep kids being bored while their parents browse the big-people art, there’s the Children’s Art Festival area, which includes some fun and free hands-on activities.

The GGAF is ranked No. 29 in the Top 50 of Fine Art Shows in the U.S. by Sunshine Artist magazine, one of the Top 20 events in the Southeast by the Southeast Tourism Society, and in the Top 100 Events in North America by the American Bus Association.

If art is your thing, then The BusBankcan help you put an easy group trip together for you and your friends. Even if it isn’t, who doesn’t love a good party?

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Oregon Shakespeare Festival makes the Bard’s writing accessible

Oregon Shakespeare FestivalIf you think you don’t like Shakespeare, maybe it’s because you haven’t heard enough of his material spoken aloud.

As any high school student can tell you, trying to muddle through the Bard’s prose by only reading the text is simply asking thouself for plenty of ye olde trouble, or at least some old-fashioned confusion.

But if you’re able to hear the dialogue spoken, then it usually becomes an entirely different experience. You can enjoy the rich texture of wordplay, the twists and turns of the stories, the detailed and memorable characters, and the raw emotion that emerges, whether comedy or tragedy.

“Hamlet,” for instance, can be downright dull and dreadful as a script about moody people unhappy about their family dynamics. But when performed – even by Mel Gibson — you can begin to understand the writer’s brilliance. Even movies that re-tell a Shakespeare story in modern settings, such as “Ten Things I Hate About You,” set in a 1990s high school, can become laugh-out-loud romantic comedies that anyone can appreciate.

For those who already enjoy Shakespeare or at least might be willing to give him and his works another chance, we encourage you to check out the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, a nationally-renowned repertory company located in Ashland, Ore., that celebrates The Bard all year round.

Since 1935, the OSF, near the California border on the Interstate 5 corridor, has offered a variety of performances from February to November. In recent years, more than 410,000 people have enjoyed 11 different shows each season. Half are usually by Shakespeare and others are usually more contemporary but still entertaining shows.

The shows are presented in three different theaters, some indoor and some outdoor in the traditional ‘in the round’ style like the original Globe.

These productions make Shakespeare accessible to all audiences, which he likely would be proud of, since he wrote his plays specifically to appeal to all levels of society, not just the elite.

When you’re done with the show, be sure to stick around and check out the City of Ashland. It isn’t necessarily a themed town in terms of Elizabethan architecture and everyone in period costumes, but a nicely laid-back community containing beautiful parks, fun coffee shops, unique stores and some great pizza.

Ashland and the Oregon Shakespeare Festival are perfect destinations for group travel. The festival offers several programs especially for high school and college classes, and even some for teachers who want to bone up on their Middle English or drama knowledge. Church groups or clubs might like a couple of days of culture.

A trip to Ashland could be a fun destination on its own merits, or a bonus stop on an longer excursion to Northern California like the Redwoods National Forest, maybe the Oregon coast or even Crater Lake, which are all popular attractions located relatively close by.

When planning ye old next group trip, consider The BusBank. It can make everything easier, even if it’s to step back in time.

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Annual Mountain Moonshine finds positive side of risky business

Dawsonville Moonshine FestivalWho’d have thunk that moonshining would be good for the community?

Though some Southern families have been making their own concoctions for generations, the practice always seemed something at best that was never discussed openly, and worse, something that perpetuated hillbilly stereotypes.

Some active families have kept their process secret for generations – and the location of their still an even larger secret. If things went right, they could make great home-made liquor, and if things went south, they could end up behind bars for years.

Shows like Discovery’s “Moonshiners” show us that modern moonshining hasn’t changed much – families still can reap big profits from their illegally made, illegally sold hooch, and still face big penalties if caught.

But it doesn’t have to be like that.

Just look at the community of Dawnsonville, Ga., called the Moonshine Capitol of the World by none other than the State of Georgia’s Tourism and Travel site.

Nearly 50 years ago, the community of Dawsonville decided to turn its moonshining heritage into something positive. It threw the first Mountain Moonshine Festival and made it not just a gathering of mash enthusiasts and underground entrepreneurs but a celebration of life in the country.

Over the years, the Festival has grown into significant regional event that takes place toward the end of October. The 25th and 26th of 2014.

The itinerary now includes a car show, music, arts and crafts, lots of food and much fun. Even better, proceeds benefit Kare for Kids, a non-profit organization that helps area youth.

The fun begins with a parade led by moonshiner and revenue cars, a visible symbol that shows old adversaries can come together to benefit everyone.

Festival organizers intend the festival to be a free family-friendly event with more emphasis on people coming together and having fun with their neighbors and less emphasis on the purpose of ‘white lightning’ which was a cheap and relatively easy method to get yourself dangerously drunk.

It also has become a great draw for tourists from around the country who may want to know a little more about this underground hobby but don’t necessarily know where to start.

A trip to Dawsonville can be downright cultural and educational, especially if you’re not all that sure what moonshinin’ is really all about.

Some visitors like to start their journey with a stop at the Dawsonville Moonshine Distillery, a legitimate, legal enterprise that uses family recipes that more than 150 years old but in a modern, safe brewing process that delivers high-quality hand-crafted corn whiskey.

It’s free to visit the distillery and receive a guided tour.

Dawsonville is also home to the Georgia Racing Hall of Fame, where you can get info about top drivers of the past and present and learn that today’s racing scene had its roots in the pursuits between bootleggers and law enforcement.

The BusBank can help you put a memorable group trip together to learn the ins and outs of moonshining – you and your pals can legally drink your fill as well.

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New River Gorge Bridge Day

base jump new river gorgeThe New River Gorge Bridge is something that West Virginians can be proud of.

It was built in 1977 and, at 876 feet, is considered the third highest bridge in the U.S. Only the Royal Gorge in Colorado (955 feet) and the Mike O’Callaghan/Pat Tillman Memorial Bridge in Nevada (890 feet) are taller.

The New River Gorge Bridge is, however, the country’s longest steel arch bridge. It also was designed using high-strength weathering steel, which saved money and also doesn’t need to be painted or touched up regularly, unlike other structures like the Golden Gate Bridge.

The bridge is cool in that it made it simple to connect communities on both sides, rather than the hair-rising, life-risking, mountain goat-style journey down and up that took at least an hour – plus plenty of white knuckles.

But what’s even cooler is that it’s now fun to jump off of.

Don’t take our word for it – listen to the happy screams of thousands of BASE jumpers, rappellers, highline climbers and bungee jumpers, who keep coming up with new ways to fling themselves into space.

Since 1979, mass jumps have coincided with New River Gorge Bridge Day, an annual celebration which takes place the third Saturday of October. The 18th of October this year.

During the festivities, the bridge is closed to vehicle traffic, and pedestrians take a stroll from one side to another, or about 3,030 feet, or less than a mile. Organizers also celebrate all weekend, including the traditional WOAY Taste of Bridge Day, one day prior to the main event.

The Bridge Day fun always draws a crowd – more than 80,000 people have come out in the past few years, and 800 BASE jumpers took the plunge.

If you’re into that extreme sport, you need to first be comfortable and competent with basic jumping, including have completed a certain number of from planes. You also need to register, starting July 1.

Since this could be a once-in-a-lifetime experience, jumpers can make as many jumps as they want in a six-hour period.

If youdon’t have enough solo jumps under your belt, you’re allowed to do tandem jumps with a professional.

Rappellers use ropes that are 700-850 feet long, and enjoy zipping along controlling their descent. Teams can start signing up in June, and are required to have some level of experience.

Because it has become such a popular event, people are encouraged to car pool. Free shuttles are available from several locations in Fayetteville, Oak Hill and Smales.

Visiting the Bridge Day celebration can be a great group experience. You can come with a club, fellow recreation enthusiasts or sports club members, school groups, even engineers to check out the impressive structure.

People wanting to attend the 2014 action should consider the services of The BusBank, which offers a smooth way to get to and from the New Gorge. While some visitors will be cursing the traffic with everyone converging in one spot, you’ll be riding in style.

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