NEW JERSEY - After days, weeks and months of preparation, depending on one's level of procrastination, Christmas Day passes in a whirl of wrapping paper, food and fun. However, when the much-anticipated day is over, school children are left with a week plus of winter break. The long stretch often leaves many parents wondering how to keep children occupied. Thankfully, the Garden State and nearby NYC offers a whole host of activities that the entire family will enjoy, many of which are free.
- Head to the Turtle Back Zoo in West Orange for a display of holiday lights. Entrance is free. However, donations of non-perishable food items, a new unwrapped toy or a gently-used winter coat is greatly appreciated. Walk through and enjoy the lights and displays throughout the zoo. It's open from December 26 through January 3 from 5 p.m. until 9 p.m.
- Enjoy a Festival of Trees at the Morven Museum and Garden at 55 Stockton Street in Princeton. The display will be available this week on December 28 and December 30 from 10 a.m. until 4 p.m. The cost is $10 for adults, $8 for students or $35 for a family of four.
- There are only a couple of days left to see the Cranbury Christmas Lights Display at 128 North Main Street in Cranbury. Holiday lights are timed to seasonal music. Visit from 6 p.m. until 9 p.m. on either December 28 or December 29. It's free to view the display, however, monetary donations for the local food bank are welcome.
- Go on a holiday scavenger hunt in a Winter Wonderland at the Frelinghuysen Arboretum at 353 East Hanover Avenue in Morristown. The cost is $10 per family and the hunt is open through January 3 except for New Year's Day from 9 a.m. until 3 p.m.
- Movies are a fun way to spend an afternoon or morning. If there are any Star Wars fans that havent seen the highly publicized seventh installment, "Star Wars: The Force Awakens," seats are available at area theaters. Younger kids may also enjoy the latest chipmunk sequel, "Alvin and the Chipmunks: The Road Trip."
- Lacing up the skates is an ideal way to spend an afternoon. New Jersey has many local rinks that offer daily public skates especially when school is out.
- NYC and all its holiday fun is only a train or bus ride away. Spend a day enjoying the Snoopy-inspired windows outside of Macy's, visit the city's signature tree at Rockefeller Center and sample the other fun windows along Fifth Avenue. Bryant Park is another fun holiday stop that also has a small skating rink that is free if you bring your own skates. Rentals are available if you don't. The New York Public Library is right by the park as well.
- Winter break is a fabulous time to enjoy the shore without the crowds. Cape May really decorates the town to the nines during the holidays and is worth the drive. Asbury Park, Ocean Grove and Spring Lake are great Jersey Shore towns to sample on a day off. They offer fun downtowns, picturesque beaches and boardwalks as well as delicious places to dine. For people that aren't shopped out, they have those too.
- Don't forget to check out the local library. Many have fun events happening for kids when school is closed.
- Unfortunately, New Jersey ski slopes are suffering this winter break due in part to one of the warmest Decembers on record, taking annual tubing, snowboarding and ski day trips off the agenda. Mountain Creek's mountain remains closed at this time, since temperatures aren't allowing for natural or artificial snow.
While kids enjoy the seasonal break from school, so do parents. With many sports and other activities shut down for the week as well, moms and dads can also get a respite from lunch-making, homework-checking and taxi driving. So, head out and savor the down time.