Stay local this holiday vacation season. From theme parks to boat parades, the holiday fun for families doesn’t stop. Here are some of our favorites to keep your calendar full.
The fake snow is falling at scheduled times each day. The palm trees are all sparkly and aglow. Ice skaters glide along in shorts and T-shirts. The magical time of the year has arrived in Orange County.
The uniqueness of the Southern California holidays is something dreamed about by people around the country, but often taken for granted by locals. With travel costs up, take advantage of the local events and attractions — and the list we’ve compiled for you — because going local is the best bang for your buck.
Start with the classics. Though Disneyland Resort and Knott’s (Merry) Farm are often known for their rides and attractions, both have been evolving into foodie destinations, and put special emphasis on the holiday season.
“This is where we all come together to celebrate all different kinds of cultures. Where everyone is included and it starts with this festival,” says Disneyland Resort spokesperson Stephanie Graves. “The festival celebrates Christmas, Navidad, Three Kings Day, Diwali, Kwanzaa, Hanukkah through music and all the food.”
Graves says the foods are called “A Twist on Tradition” and “Merry Mashups” because “it’s all the foods we love from the holidays no matter what culture, with a little twist on it. We also have a lot of options for people who are vegan or vegetarian or have food sensitivities. Inclusivity doesn’t just mean different cultural things, it’s being able to taste things you otherwise wouldn’t.”
One of the key improvements this year is how the Disney app can help visitors.
“It will help them navigate their day,” Graves says. “You can mobile order all the food through the Disney app. We’ve added showtimes this year as well. We’re really finding new ways to get information out to you, that is accurate and in real time.
We’ve also added Genie+ [the service designed to organize and optimize visitors’ time at the parks] in the last year — it’s the first holiday season with it. But also holiday things like your Sip and Savor Pass, you can use for yourself or for a group. A family of four can pick two items and everybody gets to sample. It’s really a great way to make it a group experience and get bang for your buck.”
Disneyland Resort spokesperson Eddy Collins says the app helps maximize time with his teen.
“Last night we were here and she’s on the app and says, ‘Hey Smugglers Run is 25 minutes, let’s go there. Hey, we’re gonna go over and see Haunted Mansion Holiday after that. Hey, we’re gonna go see Pirates, get a hot chocolate, get a churro.’ We had an amazing time. Having all the information, you can manage your visit so well. We already knew what we were going to do before we went through the gate. Show them the app, give them the tools, tell them, ‘You plan it and tell us where to go.’ It’s a lot easier for the parents once the kids know.”
Collins’ other recommendation is eating at odd times and making reservations early. “That way I’m sure I’m not eating during the lunch rush. Also, there are a lot of people who don’t know about the reservation system. Go to Disneyland.com, look at the dates available, purchase your tickets, so then you’re set. It’s a smooth ride from there.”
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Knott’s is thinking local, too. And local adds value for families.
“Because we’re competing against a large entity, we’re never overpriced. You can get our holiday shirt and a pin for $19.99,” says Karl Busche, Knott’s merchandise manager. “Our food has always been one of our mainstays at Knott’s Berry Farm. We do jams, jellies and this year we’re big into cinnamon, but we’re trying to keep the pricing down, even though food pricing has gone way up. The difference is we’re California-based jams and jellies. Though it’s been harder to get some things — boysenberries have had a couple of bad years — we’ve been able to keep it going. Our stickers are made in Huntington Beach. We do a lot of California-based printers for T-shirts. Anything we don’t have to ship across the country is easier for us to do. A lot of our embroidery is done in California. Once we find a guy who can do it, we lean into it. The cotton candy is made three miles away. It’s a lot of small businesses and you can do a lot of things to keep local businesses going.”
Wilf Seymour, food and beverage director, says Knott’s really mixes traditional with modern this time of year.
“People would be really upset if we didn’t bring the Turkey Dinner on a Bun back to Boardwalk BBQ year after year,” he says. “The Turkey Ball is a turkey dinner in a ball. Very traditional but very different. Christmas time is also a really terrific tamale time. Fiesta makes the best chicken tamales. It’s like a little present in itself.”
But dining is also about value and getting the most out of each meal. Seymour says the All Day and All Season Dining plans give families the best options.
Across the street from Knott’s, the annual Pirates Dinner Adventure holiday show “Pirates Take Christmas” returns with stunts, songs and a three-course feast. Further south, San Diego’s Safari Park, Zoo and SeaWorld all have holiday-themed events as well.
Live theater includes many local traditions — among them are South Coast Repertory’s long-running “A Christmas Carol” and Maverick Theater’s “Santa Claus Conquers the Martians.” One is heavy on tradition, one is heavy on laughs.
“If people are gonna spend their money on a holiday event, I think ‘Santa Claus’ is a good bargain,” says Maverick Theater in Fullerton director Brian Newell. “Kids get in for $15 and adults get in for $30. For a family of four, that’s $90 for two hours of entertainment with hopefully some laughs in it. Maybe do dinner at the Spaghetti Factory then come over here and do a family fun thing without it busting the bank.”
However, the two local theater traditions couldn’t be more different.
“Our show is based on pop culture from the ‘60s and a bizarre concept,” Newell says. “It’s kind of a hybrid of what America brought on as holiday entertainment, as opposed to what England did. They represent two different periods of time at the holidays. With our changes to the script and the improv, it’s a little unorthodox. That makes it a little more fresh and unpredictable at times. I think they’re a perfect tandem.”
By Shawn Price
Holiday Happenings Highlights
The park will be populated with four cool holiday zones (such as Peppermint Plaza, Santa’s Tinseltown, Wizard’s Winter Hill and Sweet Sugar Square), through January 8, featuring fun geared for children ages 2-12. Visitors also can enjoy meeting holiday characters, like the Toy Soldier, The Gingerbread Man, and (of course) Santa. Back again is the 30-foot Lego Christmas Tree, colorfully decorated with over 400 Lego ornaments and a daily Holiday Light Show with falling “snow.”
SeaWorld Christmas Celebration
Every day, through January 8, SeaWorld serves up a sensational selection of festive activities, live entertainment and holiday-inspired food and beverages for families to savor. The true “highlight” (in more ways than one) is the 320-foot SkyTower Tree of Lights. Meanwhile, further south in Sesame Place San Diego, “A Very Furry Christmas” (select dates only) contains a winter wonderland with Sesame Street character photo ops and a Christmas Dance Party.
Universal Studios Hollywood Holidays!
Universal Studios features a delightful duo of holiday experiences (through January 1). Muggles and wizards will gravitate (and “apparate”) to “Christmas in The Wizarding World of Harry Potter,” featuring the Hogwarts Frog Choir’s “holiday concert,” seasonal Potter-inspired treats and the dazzling nightly “The Magic of Christmas at Hogwarts Castle” light spectacular. Meanwhile, your Whoville favorites lead various holiday activities, and the Grinch hosts the nightly festivities around the lighting of the 65-foot-tall “Grinchmas” tree.
114th Newport Beach Boat Parade
Holiday lights will flood Newport Beach Harbor throughout December. Homes surrounding the bay will be adorned with holiday decor, and Ring of Lights cruises launch December 2-13 & 19-31 (tickets available online). The Christmas Boat Parade presents hundreds of colorfully decorated boats competing for awards. One of the oldest and largest of holiday boat parades, this Newport Beach tradition happens December 14-18 with three start times: 5:30 pm, 7:05 pm and 8:30 pm.
Dana Point Boat Parade of Lights
700,000 LED lights (give or take a few hundred) illuminate the themed displays in Dana Point Harbor, providing a brilliant setting for this 47th annual holiday boat parade. “Surfin’ USA” is the aquatic theme for this year’s event, which will be held December 9 (7 pm start time) and December 10-11 (6 pm start time). The decorated boats are competing for up to $10,000 in cash prizes. Harbor light cruises (https://danawharf.com/cruises-and-events) happen December 2-4, 16-18.
Lighting of the Bay
For the 32rd year, Newport Dunes will be illuminated by more than 50 lighted holiday decorations and Christmas trees. Floating upon calm, waveless waters, this light installation creates a uniquely Southern California nighttime holiday experience. The Dunes’ public fire pits are available on a first-come basis, and s’mores kits can be purchased from the onsite market. The Lightings will take place through January 1.
Roger’s Gardens’ Christmas Boutique
Entering Roger’s Gardens through December 31 is like stepping into a sparkling Christmas Forest. This year’s “Bright & Beautiful” Christmas installation presents 21 themed trees all adorned with exquisitely crafted ornaments — over 800 ornaments in all. A holiday tradition for more than three decades, Roger’s Gardens welcomes over a million visitors each year to see the trees and other Christmas items. The Boutique is open daily (except Christmas day).
Skating Under the Stars
If you need to chill out after some heavy-duty holiday shopping, Irvine Spectrum Center has your solution — a convenient ice rink! It’s open daily, although there are holiday hours on December 24, 31 and January 1, and it is closed on Christmas day (check website for details). Not only can you rent skates, but you can also get a helmet, a locker and socks too.
Winter Fest OC
Ice bumper cars, a snowboard simulator, winter-themed bounce houses, an outdoor ice rink, a 30-foot-tall giant walk-through ornament, and a nine-lane, 150-foot-long ice tubing slide are a few of the reasons that make Winter Fest OC such a seasonal extravaganza. New this year is the immersive “North Pole Journey,” where you can meet Santa and help save the holidays. It is open at the OC Fair & Event Center for 26 select days through January 1. Tickets available online.
Santa Ana Winter Village
This special winter attraction serves up such family-oriented amusements as an outdoor ice rink, a trackless train and live entertainment. Mrs. Claus leads a storytime and you might spot Santa too. There will be food and shopping vendors too. The Winter Village will inhabit Santa Ana’s Civic Center Plaza from December 8-January 8 (check website for times), although the grand opening festivities happen on December 10 and include a 5 pm tree lighting ceremony.
Irvine Park Railroad’s Christmas Train
The Christmas Train keeps on rolling in Irvine Park through December 23. The perennially popular event takes riders to the North Pole, where there are photo ops with Santa. Santa’s Village is packed with activities from Blizzard Ball and Rudolph Racers to carnival games and cookie decorating (which require tickets). Make online train reservations in advance because times sell out. Hours are 4 pm-9 pm weekdays; 10 am-9 pm weekends.
The Aquarium of the Pacific will be all decked out in festive decor — and snowfall — during the holiday season (December 3-23). Festivities kick-off December 3-4 with the annual visit from Santa Diver, who will deliver holiday treats to fishes, sea lions and other Aquarium animals. December also holds a Kwanzaa celebration and Hanukkah storytelling, while weekends (December 3-18) bring photo opportunities with Santa. Advance reservations are required to visit the Aquarium.
Holidays at Casa Romantica
Casa Lumina illuminates Casa Romantica’s house and gardens with lovely lights and displays — along with live performances and holiday activities (like letters to Santa). These walks happen December 1-4, 10-11, 20-22 from 5 pm-7 pm (reservations: www.casaromantica.org/casa-lumina). Letters to Santa also happen at D. Yoder Family Sundays (10 am-4 pm, December 4). Kids (age 12 and under) can participate in a Cookie Decorating with Mrs. Claus class December 10 at 10 am (sign-up: www.casaromantica.org/event/cookie-decorating-mrs-claus/).
SCR’s “A Christmas Carol”
There’s nothing to “bah humbug” about with South Coast Rep’s original adaptation of this Dickens classic. Come visit with Tiny Tim, the Cratchits and the Fezziwigs, and join the Ghosts of Christmas past, present and yet-to-come in confronting the one-and-only Ebenezer Scrooge. Performances of this OC holiday tradition happen on select days through December 24; check website for details. This production is for ages 6 and older only.
Compiled by Michael Berick