From the giant Christmas tree in the Atrium to the more modern Polar Express, French Lick Resort has some of the grandest holiday activities and displays in Southern Indiana. In fact, people from all over the country visit the resort every winter to check out its jaw-dropping lights and family-driven events set in Hoosier National Forest.
Both the French Lick Springs and West Baden Springs hotels are historic. They were built in the mid-1800s and used the area’s mineral springs to attract visitors, but today the resort is well known for its celebrated golf course, indulgent spa, and for going all out for Christmas. The hotels’ unique history plays a role in how the holidays are celebrated every year.
The resort’s most famous Christmas decor is its breathtaking tree display in the Atrium. A half-million twinkling lights are scattered around the room, which also features a life-size gingerbread house, Christ- mas carols, and a special holiday light show after the tree is lit on Nov. 12. Looking at the incredible tree, you wouldn’t know that West Baden once fell into a state of complete disrepair. Part of the hotel had collapsed and previously never could have housed a 45-foot-tall tree ushering in the splendor of the holiday season. Despite its beguiling architectural design, the space beneath the beautiful 200-foot dome — the largest in the world until 1913 — was uninhabitable.
It took a partnership between Indiana Landmarks, the largest nonprofit preservation group in the nation, and the late Bill Cook and his wife Gayle of the Cook Group, to turn things around. Their efforts led the hotel to be recognized as a National Historic Landmark. Guests to the Atrium today can appreciate the work it took to save this structure.
The railway is another important part of Christmas traditions at the resort. Service to the hotels started in 1887, and the Monon Railroad was the line responsible for bringing in guests from all over the region.
Since the hotels mostly were only reachable by horseback, this railway helped the hotels grow their number of guests and remain open year-round.
Now, during the holidays, this railroad transports guests to the North Pole to see Santa through “The Polar Express.” The 80-minute interactive experience sees the conductor punching tickets as dancing chefs offer hot chocolate and other sweets. “Travelers” are given the first gift of Christmas, a silver sleigh bell, as an enduring keepsake of their time at the resort. The popular event tends to sell out every year, and guests are encouraged to buy their tickets without delay if they don’t want to miss this must-see event.
There is so much to see and do in the French Lick Springs and West Baden Springs hotels that sleigh rides, projection light shows, and cookie decorating with Mrs. Claus are just the start. Still, perhaps nothing is more memorable than how the resort successfully weaves history and the holidays together through its popular seasonal attractions.