Hill Country Holidays: Top Ten Reasons to Visit the JW Marriott at Christmastime

Taylor received a one-night stay at the hotel to assist her in writing this review. All opinions are her own.

If you happened to read my summer staycation review, you probably already know I’m a huge fan of the JW Marriott San Antonio Hill Country Resort & Spa, which, during the holidays, hosts its very own Hill Country Christmas experience.

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My family and I had such a fabulous time in July that when the JW announced its special holiday rates back in August, we pounced on the opportunity. Having visited the resort multiple times during the summer, I knew my family and I would have a blast, but I’ll be honest: I wasn’t 100% sure that our winter stay would live up to our summer staycation. Would there be enough to do? Were there enough activities to keep my five-year-old daughter happy without overloading my husband and me? How could anything compare to July, when we spent 90% of our day lounging poolside, basking in the sun and sipping frozen cocktails while our daughter splashed around in the kids’ pool in between family floats down the lazy river?

Well, people, I’m not wrong often (my husband may beg to differ), but when I am, I admit it—and wow, I feel foolish for ever doubting the JW Marriott. Our winter staycation was, hands-down, one of the most fun-filled 48-hour periods my family of three has ever spent together. I feel like we’ve just returned from a fabulous—dare I say Disney-esque—vacation in some faraway place, when in truth, we were merely seven miles down the road from our own home. For a glimpse of our stay, kids’ holiday activities the JW has to offer, and what made our winter staycation so special, here are my top ten reasons your family NEEDS to check out the JW Marriott’s Hill Country Christmas this holiday season…

1. Experience the incredible “Illuminations” light show.

Where can you find thousands of twinkling Christmas lights perfectly synchronized to festive holiday musical favorites? Look no further than the lawn outside the Crooked Branch. Centering around a towering, three-story Christmas tree in the center of the lawn, “Illuminations” is an amazing light show experience for the whole family. Find a seat next to the patio-side fireplaces and cozy up with a cup of hot cocoa for this gorgeous display of lights and holiday fun. Illuminations lasts about five or ten minutes and occurs every 20 minutes from 6:30–10:00 P.M. nightly.

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Illuminations is a stunning sight for anyone!

Perfect for: The whole family! My husband and I sipped a glass of wine on the patio while Harper ran around dancing from tree to lighted tree. This complimentary activity is ideal for all ages, as even the youngest of children enjoy looking at Christmas lights. Plus, the duration of the program and short wait between showings make it easy to enjoy Illuminations with small children; they can run around and explore the lawn area in between shows without having to wait too long until the music starts playing again.

2. Become a Certified JW Elf.

This was, hands down, one of the cutest activities my child has ever participated in. Although most parents chose to drop off their kids for the hour-long “Making of a Certified JW Elf” class, I stuck around to see what exactly was involved in becoming a JW elf…

All participants were given an adorable elf hat and matching shoes and then instructed to choose their special elf name (Harper’s was “Gingersnap”). The elf leaders, four young 20-somethings dressed in precious elf costumes, urged all of the kids to sit on the floor in a circle while they introduced themselves and their line of work in the North Pole. The leaders then discussed what it meant to be a true JW elf, as well as the rules of elf-hood, which were pretty solid (e.g., “Treat every day as though it is Christmas,” “There’s always room for someone on the Nice List,” etc.). The leader elves even introduced the kids to a little code phrase that could be used if they happened to see each other around the resort after the Christmas season, and had very convincing reasons for their normal height and non-elfish ear size. The kids ate it right up.

The "Making of a Certified JW Elf" class = super cute and a blast for the kiddos
The “Making of a Certified JW Elf” class = super cute and a blast for the kiddos

After a story and some songs, the kids formed a line so that each could make a small gift—a little jar full of “Mrs. Claus’ special soup” (e.g., delicious hot cocoa mix with an included recipe)—for a special person of his/her choosing. Then, each child had to come up with his/her signature elf dance move, which the class then reenacted; after everyone had selected a move, the class combined them into an adorable little dance. At the conclusion of the class, the elf leaders—“Winter,” “Bells,” “Cinnamon,” and “Trouble,” respectively—presented each child with a certificate signifying the completion of elf school. A small graduation ceremony was held, wherein the children had to specify their elf names, elf ages, jobs in the North Pole, and special elf powers, accompanied by their signature dance moves. Harper had a blast in this class, and the leader elves did an amazing job of keeping the kids focused, comfortable, and happy.

My precious "Gingersnap," during the "Making of a Certified JW Elf"
My precious “Gingersnap,” during the “Making of a Certified JW Elf”

The “Making of a Certified JW Elf” takes place on Saturdays from 4:00–5:00 P.M. in the Texas Library throughout the month of December. Be sure to double-check the JW Experience Guide upon checking in, as times are subject to change. The cost is $30/child, and it is worth every penny.

Perfect for: Kids ages 4–10. Children younger than four might have trouble understanding or keeping up with the pace of the class, but it was a wonderful fit for older preschoolers, Kindergarteners, and elementary school-aged kids.

3. Enjoy brunch with Santa & Mrs. Claus.

Q: Where can you enjoy a delicious brunch buffet AND visit Santa and Mrs. Claus without having to wait in line for hours?

A: At 18 Oaks, the JW Marriott’s elegant on-site restaurant overlooking the magnificent AT&T Oaks Course, one of two 18-hole TPC championship golf courses on the property.

The second we stepped through the door of 18 Oaks, we were greeted by a friendly balloon artist, who whipped up a giant red-and-white-striped candy cane balloon for our excited daughter. The host then led us to our table, and we were free to select whatever we wished from the exquisite buffet, which consisted of a waffle/pancakes/omelet station, bacon, sausage, scrambled eggs, biscuits and gravy, a cereal bar for the little ones, fresh fruit, and an array of the most delicious fresh pastries, rolls, and croissants you can imagine. (OMG, I don’t want to know how many calories were in the cream cheese-filled pastries, but they were worth every. single. one.)

Just a smattering of the delicious brunch offerings at Breakfast with Santa & Mrs. Claus
Just a smattering of the delicious brunch offerings at Breakfast with Santa & Mrs. Claus

Santa & Mrs. Claus were situated in a decorated nook to the right of the entrance to 18 Oaks, so we paid them a visit following our meal—no line, no time limit, no pressure, just us hangin’ with the Clauses. That, in itself, was a first for us, and it made so much difference in the entire experience of meeting and greeting Santa. And I have to say, the JW’s Santa was absolutely precious: sweet, accommodating, and exactly what you picture when you think of Santa Claus. He and Mrs. Claus spent several minutes talking to Harper about her Christmas list and her status on the Nice List before posing for a few (i.e., 15–20) pictures—first with just Harper and then with all of us as a family.

Santa & Mrs. Claus were ADORABLE!
Santa & Mrs. Claus were ADORABLE!

Breakfast with Santa & Mrs. Claus is held at 18 Oaks every Saturday from 8:00–11:00 A.M. until Christmas. You do not have to be a hotel guest to enjoy this experience, although hotel guests will receive first priority for reservations. To inquire about available time slots, call 18 Oaks at (210) 483-6622. The cost is $38 per adult and $24 per child.

Perfect for: Families with children of all ages, particularly those looking for a more personalized Santa experience.

4. Decorate gingerbread houses as a family.

What better way to get in the spirit of the holidays than to do a little family gingerbread decorating? During designated hours at the Range Rider Kids Club, you can take your pick between decorating a gingerbread house or gingerbread man cookies. Because Harper’s “Making of a Certified JW Elf” class took place directly afterward, we opted for the gingerbread cookies instead of the whole house. The cookies came in packs of two, so she got to decorate one cookie while I bedazzled the other with gumdrops, icing, and multi-color sugar balls (and while Daddy caught the end of his football game over at High Velocity, the JW’s on-site sports bar and grill). Helpful elves roamed around the Kids Club throughout the 35–45 minutes we were there, taking pictures upon request and ready to help us whenever necessary. It was such a simple activity, but we had the best time doing it together. As we were leaving, Harper made me promise that next time we could take on a whole gingerbread house!

Gingerbread cookies complete!
Gingerbread cookies complete!

Gingerbread Craft Workshops take place at the Range Rider Kids Club; check the Experience Guide for exact days and times, as these will vary from week to week. The cost is $45 for gingerbread house decorating and $15 for cookies.

Perfect for: The whole family! Personally, I would save the gingerbread house decorating for families with older kids (5+), unless you have the kind of young child who can remain interested in a single activity for about 45 minutes to an hour. By contrast, children of all ages can get involved with decorating the gingerbread cookies. Plus, the cookie option is perfect for parents of two kids, since there are enough cookies in a kit for each child to decorate one himself. We spent 35 minutes decorating our “gingerbread women,” as my daughter said, and it was the perfect amount of time for my high-energy Kindergartner to spend on this type of activity without getting bored.

5. Visit Santa’s Workshop.

During specific hours, the Texas Library transforms into Santa’s Workshop, where kids can come meet the JW elves, write and “mail” their Christmas lists to Santa, and draw a picture of their favorite holiday experience at the JW Marriott to be entered in a special contest—all for free! Winners of the contest will be offered a complimentary one-night stay during next year’s holiday season. Harper was quickly approaching the point of “hangry” when we visited Santa’s Workshop, so we didn’t bother to enter the art contest. However, she did write her own Christmas list to Santa and, with the help of one of the adorable JW elves, placed it in the Santa’s Workshop mailbox to ensure he received it. She was delighted when, later during our stay, Santa wrote back to her!

Helping Harper write her letter to Santa in Santa's Workshop
Helping Harper write her letter to Santa in Santa’s Workshop

The Texas Library, on the left side of the main lobby, hosts Santa’s Workshop on select days and times in December. Check the Experience Guide for correct dates/times, which are updated weekly. Santa’s Workshop is free of charge to all hotel guests.

Perfect for: Children of all ages, although parents will need to help younger kids who are unable to write on their own.

6. Take the Polar Plunge.

Feeling daring this holiday season? While most of the water within the River Bluff Experience—the JW’s private water park—is heated to a comfortable 83°F for your enjoyment, you can “keep calm and plunge on” by leaping into the one resort pool that has been left at its natural, unheated temperature. I am not nearly brave enough to do this, but my husband and daughter are. With the assistance of some friendly JW elves, Harper and Jeff abandoned all sense of reason and dove into the 65°F water as I stood along the bank taking pictures. I regret nothing, but I am super proud of those two for facing their fears (although I’m not sure they would’ve been so eager had the hot tub not been merely a few feet away!).

Personally, I don't think I could "keep calm and plunge on," but I love that my hubby and daughter did!
Personally, I don’t think I could “keep calm and plunge on,” but I love that my hubby and daughter did!

The Polar Plunge takes place at the adult pool in the River Bluff Water Experience water park; dates and times may vary, so check the Experience Guide for the most up-to-date details. The activity is complimentary to hotel guests, and “keep calm and plunge on” tee-shirts are available for $15. Prizes are awarded for the wackiest plunge and any selfie shared on social media with the hashtag #jwmarriottsanantonio.

Perfect for: Anyone who enjoys a challenge! While the activity takes place at the adult pool, children are allowed to participate in the plunge when accompanied or overseen by an adult.

7. Roast s’mores.

Nothing says winter quite like roasting marshmallows by the fire. Get in the holiday spirit by making s’mores as a family. As you make your way to the private fire pit, JW staff members will be there to greet you and hand out the necessary s’mores-making supplies. Although I don’t typically start in with desserts in late afternoon, this was the perfect activity to hold us over for a few hours before dinner. The s’mores, made with Hershey chocolates, marshmallows, and bits of peppermint bark, were delicious, and the lush landscape and surrounding golf course views made it easy to relax and enjoy some quality family time outdoors in the brisk December weather.

Mmmm, s'mores!
Mmmm, s’mores!

S’mores-roasting is held on Friday and Saturday evenings from 5:00–6:00 P.M. at the North Fire Pit, weather permitting. This activity is complimentary to all hotel guests.

Perfect for: The whole family! Obviously, the fire pit includes an open flame, so parents will need to keep an eye on toddlers and young children.

8. Meet exotic animals—maybe even Santa’s reindeer.

Yes, really! Nothing was more thrilling to my daughter than to glance down from our hotel room balcony and see a real, live reindeer being led from his trailer to the main lawn right outside the Crooked Branch patio. I have to admit, I’m not really sure who bolted downstairs faster: me or Harper! Decked out in a red harness with holiday bells, “Noel”—“Rudolph’s mother,” as the handler explained—was precious and super calm amidst all of her adoring fans. Harper was even able to pose for a picture with her before we headed off to the fire pit to roast marshmallows. We missed the other exotic animals the JW had on site the next day—Harper had been so excited that morning that a nap was in order by mid-afternoon—but I have no doubt that it would’ve been an equally amazing experience. The good news is that the Zoomagination Wild Animal Experience takes place year-round at the JW, so if you miss them during your holiday stay, you can always check out the animals during a summer staycation.

Harper loved meeting "Noel" the reindeer!
Harper loved meeting “Noel” the reindeer!

Noel will be making appearances on the front lawn throughout the JW’s Hill Country Christmas season; the Zoomagination Wild Animal Experience takes place year-round at Crooked Branch, usually on weekends. Check the Experience Guide for specific dates and times as to when you can visit these amazing creatures.

Perfect for: The whole family, especially those who have a soft spot for animals!

9. Delight your kids with an “elf tuck-in.”

Remember being a little kid, when Christmas magic was still in full throttle? Now picture your little kid, answering the door of your hotel room in her Christmas jammies just before bed, only to be greeted by a pair of JW elves! This was such a cool experience, and Harper absolutely loved it. The elves arrived at our room at 9:45 P.M. sharp (yes, I’m a firm believer of pushing back bedtime during vacations and staycations alike!) and escorted Harper to bed, where they presented her with an adorable plush longhorn (huge bonus points from this burnt orange-blooded mommy!) and a letter from Santa (his “reply” to the letter she’d written in Santa’s Workshop that afternoon). Keeping up with the “certified JW elf” charade from earlier in the day, they referred to Harper by her “elf name” (Gingersnap) the entire time and made sure to note that Santa had been very impressed with her manners and behavior during her stay. Harper’s eyes literally twinkled, and her dimples were in full effect. The entire exchange lasted about 10–15 minutes, but I’d pay for it again in a heartbeat, just to see her reaction to Christmas magic in action.

Being tucked in by the JW elves
Being tucked in by the JW elves

“Elf Tuck-ins” are available to resort guests on Saturday evenings between 7:00–10:00 P.M. Reservations, which are required, can be made by visiting the concierge or calling (210) 483-6622. The cost for this experience is $20 per child.

Perfect for: Kids of all ages! Since bedtime can be a rough time for babies and toddlers, I might consider saving this experience for children 3+, but you know your kids best!

10. Participate in the Sunday Morning Duck Races.

Although the Sunday Morning Duck Races are a year-round activity at the JW Marriott, I included them on my list because they are simply the cherry on the cake after a weekend of holiday fun. I always hate the last day of a trip, mainly because it’s so boring: You get up, get dressed, pick up the hotel room, check out, and go home…and where’s the fun in that?! Cue the Sunday Morning Duck Races, which are the perfect way to break up the monotony of the usual check-out routine. After a morning snack at Starbucks, my family and I hiked over to the River Top Grill within the River Bluff Water Experience, where we each decorated a rubber duckie. Once all participants had finished decorating, the rubber duckies were released into the lazy river, where they “raced” to the finish line by floating along with the current. In a crazy twist of events, my rubber duckie somehow managed to careen in front of the duck that had been in the lead almost the entire race, so I ended up winning the Sunday Morning Duck Races, thereby crushing the hopes and dreams of about 25 small children. (Ooops.) Harper accepted the grand prize—a suitcase and activity set from Little Passports—on my behalf, and we checked out feeling grateful for the opportunity for one last family memory before leaving the JW Marriott to return home.

The Hendersons are ready to compete in the Sunday Morning Duck Races!
The Hendersons came to compete! BRING IT ON!

The Sunday Morning Duck Races take place year-round at the JW Marriott and are free to hotel guests. Check the Experience Guide for exact dates and times, as these may be subject to change depending on the season.

Perfect for: Everyone in the family! Kids of all ages will delight in decorating their own rubber duckie and watching as it “swims” down the lazy river.

Even my Top Ten list couldn’t include all of the reasons we fell in love with the JW Marriott at Christmastime. In addition to those listed above, my daughter also enjoyed stuffing her own gingerbread man, Build-a-Bear-style, during a special “Stuff ‘N’ Fluff” activity with the elves and surveying the absolutely incredible movie-themed gingerbread house village that greets you as you walk in the lobby doors. And one of our favorite family past-times included listening to the musician who sang and played the acoustic guitar in the “living room” in front of Crooked Branch every night. Jeff and I hummed along to the familiar tunes and sipped our glasses of wine as the Christmas lights twinkled in the background, while Harper created her own dance floor in the center of the room (and occasionally convinced us to join her on it). It was the perfect way to relax and wind down after a day of holiday fun.

A little father/daughter dancing in the "living room" after dinner
A little father/daughter dancing in the “living room” after dinner

It’s been three days since we returned home from our Christmas staycation at the JW Marriott, and my husband and I keep looking at each other and saying, “That was so. much. fun!” It was exactly what my family needed: to slow down, take a break from the hustle and bustle of the season, and spend some quality time together—not to mention experience a little Christmas magic—during an otherwise extremely busy time of year. Was it worth it? Absolutely. I feel like we made memories this past weekend to last an entire lifetime. In fact, I think it’s safe to say that this might be the start of a beautiful new Christmas tradition, at least for the Henderson family.

Want to experience the magic for yourself? Visit the JW Marriott online or call (210) 276-2500 to book your reservation today!

Taylor is a San Antonio native and stay-at-home mom to two daughters: Harper and Hayes. She and her Okie husband, Jeff, have been married 12 years despite their Texas/OU rivalry. Taylor is a former Clark Cougar, a devout Texas Longhorn, where she studied English, an active MOPS member, and often feels like a professional juggler. She relishes trips to the theater, loves embarking on new adventures with her family, and admittedly spends too much time on Facebook. A former contributor, Taylor’s posts center on parenting her tenacious, strong-willed first-born and the challenges she faced along the way to becoming a mom of two. She also served as ACM’s editor and resident proofreader, and as such, cares way too deeply about the use of Oxford commas.