It’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas in Southern California! There may not be snow on the ground, and the shining sun may make it feel like the perfect 75 degrees, but decorations are popping up at every corner and special holiday events are being held almost daily.
There are so many special Christmas events in Southern California! If you live here or are visiting, we hope you enjoy our guide to Los Angeles Christmas events, Orange County Christmas events, and holiday happenings in San Diego. Updated for the 2020 season!
Southern California Christmas Events
1. Holiday Boat Parades
Over a million lights twinkle on cleverly decorated boats floating through harbors and canals up and down the Southern California coast. Bundle up your kids, breathe in the cool marine air, and enjoy this quintessential SoCal event. Be sure to find out where the parade starts so that you know the approximate time of when it will float by your location.
The only boat parade still on in Southern California as of 11/24/20 is the Huntington Harbor Boat Parade which will take place December 12 & 13, 2020.
The Ventura Harbor Parade of Lights is saying private experiences are available in 2020.
The following are all cancelled for 2020: San Diego Bay Parade of Lights, Dana Point Boat Parade of Lights, Newport Beach Christmas Boat Parade, Long Beach’s Parade of 1000 Lights, Channel Island’s Harbor Parade of Lights in Oxnard, Ventura Harbor Parade of Lights, Marina Del Rey Holiday Boat Parade, Naples Long Beach Boat Parade, and the Oceanside Harbor Parade of Lights.
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2. Holiday Shows and The Nutcracker for Kids
Important note: All live theater performances are cancelled in 2020 due to Covid-19. Those listed below are from 2019 and will be updated again for 2021. Many locations are offering virtual experiences online. Check websites for details.
You’ll laugh, you’ll cry, you’ll sing – and then you’ll boo and hiss the evil queen! Sounds like a strange way to enjoy a holiday play but our friends in Great Britain have enjoyed the tradition of Panto for many years, and now thanks to the Lythgoe family, we can enjoy this family-friendly introduction to the theater here in Southern California.
Panto is basically an interactive musical theatre production using classic fairy tale stories with modern scripts and twisting in pop songs, dancing, and interaction with the audience, and then tying it up with a big red Christmas bow. In the 2019 holiday season, enjoy performances of “Peter Pan and Tinkerbell: A Pirate’s Christmas” at the Laguna Playhouse or “A Snow White Christmas” at the Pasadena Civic Auditorium.
Dancing Sugar Plum Fairies and sword battles with monkey kings will delight many children. However, it can be hard on kids who can’t sit still for long periods of time. If you have young boys like me who like to blurt out loud, “those tight pants look funny” in a quiet theater, you may enjoy one of these special Nutcracker performances for kids.
The Segerstrom Center for the Arts in Costa Mesa will be performing the Nutcracker for kids. Regular performances of the American Ballet Theatre’s production of the Nutcracker will take place on most dates in December.
The Festival Ballet Theatre will be performing full length Nutcracker shows at the Irvine Barclay Theatre, but the Nutcracker Tea Party might get the kids extra excited to be there. There will be tea sandwiches, treats, lemonade, tea, and champagne to enjoy. Photo opps will be available with Clara, Nutcracker Prince, and the Mouse King.
The San Diego Civic Youth Ballet presents the Nutcracker at the historic Casa Del Prado Theatre in Balboa Park . There are special dates for schools and scout groups.
All ages will be enchanted by the children performers of the Red Chair Children’s Production of the Nutcracker at the Alex Theatre in Glendale. Also at the Alex Theatre, the Los Angeles Ballet is presenting a performance of The Nutcracker.
3. Christmas in Southern California- Special Teas
Note: Holiday teas in Southern California are all cancelled as of 12/7/20 due to the governor’s Stay at Home Order.
A good friend of mine loves taking her daughters to a special Christmas tea every year. They have become holiday treats for families across the Southland. The Langham Huntington, Pasadena will hold their annual Teddy Bear Tea. It includes a story time, photos with Santa, and a marionette puppet show.
At the Great Wolf Lodge of Anaheim, there are several special events and experiences taking place for 2020. Check out our guide to Christmas at Great Wolf Lodge for more information.
Make a reservation for the elegant high tea served in the beautiful Rose Garden Tea Room at The Huntington Library of Pasadena or The Tea House on Los Rios in historic San Juan Capistrano. No matter where you take tea, enjoy the sights and tastes of a relaxing and beautiful holiday season.
All tea events require reservations. Please see details on resort websites for ticket prices and reservations.
4. Theme Park Fun
Southern California is known for its world-class theme parks. Each one celebrates the holidays in grand style with extensive decorations and special events. Visiting these parks during the Christmas season can be twice as fun, extra special, and provide decorative backgrounds for really great photos of your kids!
Important Note: As of November 2020, theme parks are not able to open their rides. Some still have adjusted holiday experiences for 2020. 2020 special offerings are listed below.
Orange County Christmas Events at Theme Parks
On most years, visitors to Knott’s Berry Farm in Buena Park experience Knott’s Merry Farm. This event celebrates with the holiday spectacular, “Merry Christmas, Snoopy” ice show, plus parades, carolers and a special Christmas shopping village. This special event runs November through the beginning of January.
New for 2020 is Knott’s Taste of Merry Farm, a new food-focused event taking place Nov. 20, 2020 through January 3, 2021. It will feature several different food stations where you can sample over 60 different food and drink items using a pre-purchased tasting card. Knott’s Berry Farm shops will also be open.
The Disneyland Resort is normally the place to be for a full-fledged holiday celebration. Disney knows how to make memories magical during the holidays with decor, attractions, shows, parades, and fireworks which are sure to get you in the Christmas spirit.
Alas, 2020 has put a wrench in the fun and Disneyland is closed. Much of the Downtown Disney area is open, along with some stores in Disney California Adventure along Buena Vista Street if you want to get your Disney fix this year.
Los Angeles Christmas Events at Theme Parks
Note: Universal Studios is closed and will not be open for Holiday 2020.
Universal Studios Hollywood is the place to be in Los Angeles for holiday-spirited them park fun! From the magic of Christmas at Hogwarts to Grinchmas, there is so much to get excited about. We have a full guide to Universal Studios Hollywood Christmas attractions and experiences.
San Diego Christmas Events at Theme Parks
There are several exciting happenings at theme parks and zoos across San Diego County.
LEGO Santa, his reindeer, and elves are waiting at LEGOLAND California this holiday season for pictures and greetings! The LEGO Christmas tree will be lit each night and twinkling to holiday music. The tree is 30 feet tall and has 400 LEGO ornaments.
Santa, the Toy Solider, and the Gingerbread Man will all be around for pictures. Don’t miss the sleigh with a life-sized LEGO Santa. There will also be a new show to enjoy, Santa’s Top Elf.
Make a weekend out of it! Book your stay at the LEGOLAND Hotel.
Also, don’t miss the annual Kids’ New Year’s Eve! There are kids’ bands, party favors, fireworks and a 6pm giant brick drop!
Note: As of November 2020, the rides at LEGOLAND are still closed but Sealife Aquarium at LEGOLAND is open.
Santa is friends with the sea life of SeaWorld! At SeaWorld’s Christmas celebration families can still experience holiday fun in a safe and fun way!
Classic shows such as the Dolphin Island Christmas show and Clyde and Seamore’s Christmas Special are back for another year. There will also be holiday music-activated Tunnel of Lights, a sea-themed Christmas tree, lots of seasonal food and treats, and, of course, lots of sea life to enjoy.
This events run on select dates from Nov 13, 2020- January 4, 2021. SeaWorld had to close through at least December 28, 2020 due to the governor’s Stay at Home Order as of 12/7/20.
San Diego Zoo
As of 12/7/20, the San Diego Zoo had to close through at least December 28, 2020 due to the governor’s Stay at Home Order.
The San Diego Zoo gets into the holiday spirit during Jungle Bells, Hop aboard the Twinkle Light Trolley to see lighted animal sculptures throughout the zoo.
Meet Santa or enjoy Dr. Zoolittle’s fun version of “Twas the Night Before Christmas.” Watch acrobatic trampoline elves, walk through a lit up forest of winter-loving animals, stop to take pics with Santa at his igloo, and enjoy so many more fun holiday activities.
Read more about San Diego holiday events. We have a full guide to the fun!
5. Outdoor Ice Skating
Gliding over the ice, or rather, inching along with your clinging son at your side, can be a great event that creates memories through laughter and exercise. Ice skating outside is twice as fun with sparkling holiday lights and music.
If you are in the Los Angeles area, don’t miss ice skating by the beach at Ice at Santa Monica (November 1-January 20). You will also enjoy skating under the lights of Holiday Ice at L.A. LIVE. Cancelled for 2020.
Pershing Square ice rink in Downtown LA is another rink you don’t want to miss. Cancelled for 2020.
For families in San Diego, what could be a more beautiful picture of winter in California than ice skating next to the beach at the picturesque Hotel Del Coronado with its red peaked roofs and white sandy beach.
November 22, 2020 to January 5, 2021 Now cancelled due to the governor’s Stay at Home Order.
The Rady Children’s Ice Rink in Liberty Station (open November 14-January 5) is another San Diego skating spot you don’t want to miss. Cancelled for 2020.
Ice skate under the stars and the lights of the Giant Wheel at the Irvine Spectrum Center in Orange County beginning November 1. Be sure to check the schedule for Themed Thursdays. Come dressed in theme and receive $5 off! Note: Cancelled for 2020.
Explore more places to ice skate in Southern California.
6. Christmas in Southern California- Special Light Displays
All during December, I hear my little ones shouting in the back seat of the car, “Christmas Lights!!!” at the top of their lungs, just to make sure I see any and all of the twinkling lights that delight them.
We often enjoy driving around neighborhoods with hot chocolate or walking the streets with sticky candy canes to enjoy the lights of the season. Here are some extra special light displays to visit this year:
The Festival of Lights is held at the Mission Inn Hotel and Spa in Riverside. It is the most popular Christmas attraction in the Inland Empire. It is free and open to the public nightly from November 27 – December 31, 2020. Enjoy thousands of lights and decorations, visits to Santa, carolers, horse-drawn carriage rides, live reindeer, and more!
Per the event website: “The 2020 Festival of Lights will be limited to socially-distanced light displays and decor. There will not be a switch-on ceremony and no vendors, attractions or programming during the event.”
Los Angeles County
Don’t miss Christmas Tree Lane in Altadena. It has been recognized as the oldest large-scale outdoor Christmas display in the world. The trees on Santa Rosa Avenue, have been lighted annually since 1920.
In Griffith Park, enjoy LA Zoo Lights. Prepare to be surrounded by glowing animals, a disco ball forest, sparkling snowflakes, and a tunnel filled with twinkling, swirling lights. Hot cocoa and treats are available for purchase. The LA Zoo was ordered to close as of 12/7/20 due to the governor’s Stay at Home Order.
A towering LED-lit Christmas tree near the Giant Wheel of the Irvine Spectrum in Orange County will come alive with a choreographed light and music show every 30 minutes, from 5 pm until 11 pm throughout the Christmas season.
WinterFestOC has been replaced by Night of Lights OC for 2020. It is a drive-thru experience that will run December 10, 2020 through January 10, 2021. Advanced tickets are required for timed session from 5-9:30PM each night.
There will be one million lights to enjoy on the mile-long route. Music will be synched via a car radio or smart phone. Food will be available for purchase including hot cocoa, cinnamon sugar donuts, cookie buckets, brownies, and tamales.
San Diego County
The San Diego Botanic Gardens host Botanic Wonderland Holiday Nights on select nights in December. Enjoy a stroll through the wonderland of lights in the garden, a musical light show, snow mound, pictures with Santa, crafts, marketplace, and food trucks.
Seasonal festivities for the whole family along with beautiful lighting makes Balboa Park shine at December Nights – Dec 6 & 7 from noon until 11pm. There are several vendors and plenty of entertainment at this wildly popular event. Most of the park’s museums open their doors for free during the evening. This event has been cancelled for 2020.
Explore this list of Where to Enjoy Holiday Lights in Los Angeles.
7. Holiday Arts and Culture
Last December we attended the Sawdust Art Festival Winter Fantasy (cancelled for 2020) in Laguna Beach after hearing rave reviews of the annual summer festival. I’ve heard much of the fun crafts, art demonstrations, and beautiful displays that kids and parents enjoy, but what we enjoyed the most was getting to throw clay on a pottery wheel and watch the glass blowing demonstrations.
Los Angeles is a culturally diverse community and there are many ways to celebrate the holidays with kids.
Las Posadas, a nightly tradition of acting out the journey of Mary and Joseph through the streets of Nazareth takes place at Olvera Street in Los Angeles nightly from Dec 16-24. Live music begins at 5:30, the procession at 7pm, along with pinatas for children, free sweet bread, and live entertainment. Note: This is event is cancelled due to the Stay at Home order.
“Christmas Around the World ” is a great exhibit at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library . It features 26 decorated Christmas trees representing the 26 countries President Reagan visiting while in office. This event has been cancelled for 2020.
Other cultural events occur at the Skirball Cultural Center’s Hanukkah Family Festival and the Japanese American National Museum’s Oshogatsu Family Festival celebrating the Japanese New Year. The Skirball Center is closed through the duration of 2020.
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8. Enjoy History
Celebrate the holidays at historical sites in SoCal and let an old-fashioned Christmas come alive for your family.
Beginning December 3rd, Mission San Juan Capistrano will host Capistrano Lights. It involves a nightly tree lighting and live musical program. It continues through January 3, 2021. Check out their website for more info and tickets. As of December 7, 2020 this event has been cancelled due to the governor’s Stay at Home Order.
Christmas comes to Heritage Hill Historical Park in Lake Forest with the annual Candlelight Walk on Dec 13. There will be more than 1,000 luminarias lighting the park’s pathways. Strolling carolers and musicians help set the holiday scene. This event is cancelled for 2020.
The Holiday in the Village, A La Mesa Tradition transforms the historic downtown streets of La Mesa into a holiday wonderland. There are Victorian decorations and special events on December 4 and 5, 2020.
Book a room or take a tour of the historic Queen Mary, docked in the harbor of Long Beach to be transported to a Christmas of yesteryear. Light displays and holiday carolers will be on deck to delight guests as well as family-friendly activities and visiting the new captain – Santa! Note: The Queen Mary is closed in 2020 due to Covid-19.
9. Train Rides to Visit Santa
Visiting Santa is often at the top of most family’s checklist for the season. How much more fun to visit him on a farm or at the end of a train ride!
Take a Polar Express ride to visit Santa Claus and then enjoy live entertainment, crafts, a living nativity, and more. Hop aboard the Christmas Train on the Irvine Park Railroad to visit Santa from Nov 27 – Dec 23, 2020.
Kids will be delighted to find Santa at the North Pole after their nighttime ride on the train through the park. This event will sell out early!
Near Santa Clarita, take the North Pole Express to Santa’s Village on the Fillmore & Western Railway Co or the “Sugar Plum Express” to pick out your perfect tree while Santa rides onboard to visit with everyone. Advance purchase is required and reservations are limited.
Down south in Campo, reserve a ticket on the Santa Train North Pole Limited and bring kids dressed in jammies for a trip to see Santa at the Pacific Southwest Railway Museum. As 11/2/20 this event has been cancelled. It appears as though alternative events may be scheduled. Keep checking their website for updates.
Take the train to Santa’s Workshop at the Southern California Railway Museum in the Inland Empire on select dates in December. Kids can enjoy singing songs on the train, visiting Santa and Mrs. Claus, making crafts at Santa’s Workshop, and so much more. Check their website. At last glance it was only mentioning the 2021 holiday season…
Make reservations for a train ride to Santa today as many of these events book up in advance.
10. Experience the Rose Parade
The Rose Parade has been cancelled for New Year’s Day 2021.
The biggest holiday event in all of Southern California is the world-famous Tournament of Roses Parade. It is held every January 1 in Pasadena. Every year that I watch the parade and see the sun shining down on the beautiful floats covered with flowers, I am reminded of the blessing of living in sunny SoCal.
Our family hasn’t been able to make the commitment of spending the night on the street, yet. We did drive down Colorado Blvd. two days before New Years and our kids were fascinated with the preparations for the grand parade. Take you family to the Showcase of Floats at the end of the parade to see the amazing structures up close.
See more of the Top 10 Southern California Holiday Events
This article was the winner of a 2015 Visit California Eureka! Award for travel writing and multimedia. Congratulations to Michelle McCoy (author) for this awesome recognition.
Find more Christmas events near you! Trekaroo has guides for dozens of cities across the country.
Lead image by: Michelle McCoy
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