NEWPORT, Ky. - Jolly old St. Nick has been known to turn up in all sorts of places during the holiday season - posing for pictures at shopping malls, waving from floats in parades, ringing a bell on street corners.
But swimming with a tank full of sharks?
It's all in a day's work for Scuba Santa, the most popular seasonal attraction for the past six years at the Newport Aquarium, just across the Ohio River from downtown Cincinnati. From late November through Jan. 3, several times a day Santa dons a red-and-white dive suit and slips into a 385,000-gallon tank of sea water with tiger sharks, giant sea turtles, sting rays, and other denizens of the deep.
Floating near his magical sleigh and a team of oversized sea horses, Santa waves to aquarium visitors through a six-inch-thick acrylic window. And he talks to them, too, using a special underwater microphone embedded in his mask.
The aquarium's Scuba Santa is one of several holiday-themed attractions that help lure hundreds of thousands of visitors to Cincinnati and northern Kentucky each year in the weeks between Thanksgiving and New Year. "It's become a tradition for a lot of families at this time of year," says Linda Antus, president of the Cincinnati USA Regional Tourism Network. "They tell us they feel like they're coming home for the holidays."
Another unorthodox Santa can be seen each Saturday night before Christmas at downtown Cincinnati's Fountain Square. Accompanied by an elf and a reindeer, St. Nicholas rappels down from a 23-story office building onto the roof of Macy's department store, kicking off an annual holiday program called Downtown Dazzle, which includes strolling entertainers, seasonal music, story time with Mrs. Claus, and a fireworks show.
The square is also the site of a skating rink that, at 7,000 square feet, is comparable in size to the famous one outside New York City's Rockefeller Center. For $2.50, skaters can use the Fountain Square rink as long as they want, and skate rentals are also $2.50. (In New York, you'd pay up to $19 to skate, plus $9 for skate rental.)
Other popular seasonal attractions in Greater Cincinnati include a number of model train displays that have grown in size and complexity over the years. The oldest is in the main lobby of the Duke Energy building at Fourth and Main streets.
The free holiday train display there has had more than 9 million visitors since it started in 1946. This year it includes 50 engines and more than 300 rail cars that chug along 1,000 feet of track, past tiny mountain villages, through tunnels, and across trestle bridges. Volunteers walk through the lobby handing out sugar cookies to small visitors, and those who aren't so small as well.
Over at the Cincinnati Museum Center, housed in the city's huge, 75-year-old Art Deco train terminal, the Holiday Junction model train exhibit is in its 15th year. The four-level layout covers 2,000 square feet, and volunteer "train masters" chat with visitors about collecting and repairing electric trains and building model railroads.
Of more interest to kids are the play areas, craft activities, and especially the pint-sized train that takes them on a meandering ride through a wintry landscape of hills and snow-covered pine trees.
Across the river in Covington, Ky., the Behringer-Crawford Museum boasts what is probably the most interactive of all the area's railroad setups. The sprawling Holiday Toy Trains display is a virtual playland for kids, with more than 25 controls that let visitors raise and lower crossing gates, light up streetscapes, move people, and even operate the trains themselves.
At the Cincinnati Zoo and Botanical Gardens, the annual Festival of Lights has more of a "green" glow this year, figuratively speaking. One of the Midwest's largest holiday lighting displays, the zoo features 2.5 million lights and more than 100 displays.
For this year's 26th edition of its festival, the zoo has replaced hundreds of thousands of incandescent bulbs with LEDs (light-emitting diodes), a more energy efficient and environmentally friendly type of light.
In addition to the traditional light displays and ice sculptures, zoo visitors can stop in at Santa's Holiday Village, pet a reindeer, see many of the zoo's permanent residents, and catch a showing of the Polar Express 4D Experience, a motion-simulator movie in the FX Theater.
A very different kind of holiday experience can be found at the Creation Museum, a controversial place located a few miles west of the Cincinnati airport in Petersburg, Ky. The 18-month-old museum uses impressive high-tech visual effects and animatronics to present an account of the origins of the universe that rejects evolution and is based instead on a literal reading of the Bible's Book of Genesis.
An outdoor holiday presentation at the museum called "Bethlehem's Blessings" includes a live nativity scene, with human actors as well as sheep, donkeys, and camels from the museum's petting zoo. In addition to the nativity, other scenes feature a re-creation of the streets of Bethlehem as they might have looked 2,000 years ago.
Earlier this month the Creation Museum tried a joint promotional effort with the Cincinnati Zoo to offer reduced-rate tickets for Bethlehem's Blessings and the zoo's Festival of Lights. But the zoo canceled the arrangement after just two days when it began receiving angry calls and e-mails criticizing the partnership. Zoo officials said the callers questioned the involvement with a religious facility that denies evolution in favor of the theory of creation.
Several hotels in the area can be used as a base of operations during a visit. One of the more interesting ones is the Radisson Cincinnati Riverfront in Covington, right on the Ohio River. The cylindrical hotel, built in 1970, is a local landmark, and its guest rooms are shaped like pieces of a pie. On the 18th floor, the Riverview 360 - the largest revolving restaurant east of Las Vegas - provides a striking view of downtown Cincinnati, just across the river.
Another lodging option is the Sheraton Cincinnati North, which features the area's newest indoor water park, the Coco Key Water Resort. The 50,000-square-foot facility includes water slides, a play island, a lazy river, and several pools. Packages are available for guests staying at the Sheraton as well as at an adjacent Fairfield Inn.
The water park is one of nine Coco Key resorts in the country, including another in Ohio, at Cherry Valley Lodge in Newark.
Information: Cincinnati USA Regional Tourism Network, 859-581-2260 or cincinnatiusa.com; Northern Kentucky Convention & Visitors Bureau, 877-659-8474 or nkycvb.com.
Mike Kelly is a retired Blade travel writer.
Contact him at email@example.com -84.48956