Activities in SoCal to Feel the Holiday Spirit

So you're prepped to stay inside this December. You're ready to decorate like a demon, bake cookies, watch Christmas specials and share elaborate Zoom dinners with people you can't see in person because of COVID-19. Yet deep inside, you wonder: There must be some way I can get out this season and (safely breathe in some holiday spirit, right?


In Southern California, there are a number of safe holiday excursions for you and your family outside the home. Naturally, no matter where you go, wear your masks and check ahead in case pandemic restrictions have shut down the venue. 

Pay-to-see-light shows

In addition to the traditional neighborhood displays this year, due in large part to the pandemic, there are a slew of drive-through Christmas light shows that, for a price, you can view from the safety of your car. Make sure everyone in your car has their face coverings because if you roll down your windows, you’ll be asked to mask up.

Dodgers Holiday Festival 2020 celebrates the team’s World Series win this year with a light show, LED video displays, multiple interactive experiences toasting championship, fake snow, and Dodger Elves in the Dodger Stadium parking lot. The festival continues through Dec. 24, with tickets ranging from $55 to $115 per car, depending on when you visit (tickets get more expensive on weekends and closer to Christmas).

Holidays in Your Car at the Del Mar Fairgrounds in San Diego and the Ventura County Fairgrounds in Ventura promises more than a million LED lights, holograms, and lasers “animated to the tunes of holiday classics” daily through Dec. 24. Tickets are $49 a car for up to four people and $64 for cars with five or more. The producers are also offering live drive-in holiday shows at the fairgrounds to be viewed from your car. “Santa Saves Christmas” will be performed on Dec. 12 at the Del Mar Fairgrounds and Dec. 19 in Ventura, with shows at 4:30 and 7:30 p.m. “The Nutcracker” will be performed by the Ventura County Ballet at 5 and 8 p.m. Dec. 12 at the Ventura County Fairgrounds; City Ballet of San Diego will perform “The Nutcracker” at the same times Dec. 19 at the Del Mar Fairgrounds.

The Elf on the Shelf’s Magical Holiday Journey is billed as an “immersive drive-through experience” at the Pomona Fairplex, an original story with actors, songs, and special lighting. In this show, Santa is forced to land his sleigh at the fairgrounds during a test flight, due to a lack of Christmas spirit. Cars “shrink” to help the elves get Santa’s sleigh back in the air and save Christmas. Tickets start at $24.95 per person, with at least two and no more than eight people per vehicle. 

SoCal Wonderland is a drive-through show in Woodland Hills promising “millions of lights and themed decor,” plus menorahs, giant candy canes, “elaborate sets and immersive stories,” a “massive” holiday tree, and Santa, Mrs. Claus and elves. The drive lasts 20 to 25 minutes and costs $60 to $70 per vehicle with up to eight passengers or $65 to $90 for vehicles with nine or more passengers, depending on dates and times.

Holiday Road USA takes visitors through King Gillette Ranch in Calabasas, where the creators produced “Nights of the Jack” earlier this year. The holiday show runs daily Dec. 4-Jan. 10, except Dec. 25, 31, and Jan. 1. For $75 per car, visitors drive a winding trail through light tunnels and illuminated depictions of the North Pole, Gingerbread Lane, Elf Village, and a Christmas tree forest. Tickets and reservations must be made in advance online.

Electric Noel is another “drive-thru Christmas experience” at SilverLakes Park in Norco that includes a Santa-themed storyline and music beamed directly into your car via FM radio Tuesdays through Sundays, 5 to 10 p.m. from Dec. 3 to Jan. 3. Vehicles enter at Santa’s “command center and elf village,” then continue down Main Street and Mistletoe Lane surrounded by neon lights, high-tech mechanized “spectacles” and the unfolding story. Prices range from $39 to $49 per car, depending on the date and time. 

The Irwindale Speedway is hosting Santa’s Speedway Christmas Lights Drive-Thru, created by Mobile Illumination, the company that’s done holiday lighting for the Grove and Universal Studios, says spokeswoman Rachel Rogers. According to organizers: For $59 per car, participants get the thrill of driving on a real NASCAR race track (at slow speeds) through a 30- to 45-minute light show that includes scenes from Santa’s workshop, a 100-foot Christmas tree made of lights, and an LED forest of giant lollipops and other treats. 

Six Flags Magic Mountain in Valencia is opening its park to cars through Jan. 3, with its Holiday in the Park Drive-Thru Experience allowing visitors to drive a prescribed route through the park to admire the twinkling lights, seasonal music, and decked-out characters, including Santa and his elves. You can’t get out of the car. Tickets are $25 to $30 per person, depending on the day, with a minimum of two tickets per car.

Free Light Displays

Rolling Hills Estates and California Water Service are hosting its 23rd Peninsula Parade of Lights on Dec. 5 with a twist: Entries will be stationary at Ernie Howlett Park and viewers will drive past in the safety of their cars between 6 and 9:45 p.m. A free ticket is required for entry, and attendees are encouraged to donate at least one unwrapped toy. Expect holiday music and a Santa sighting.

Altadena’s Christmas Tree Lane at East Mariposa Street and Santa Rosa Avenue is celebrating its 100th anniversary of “lighting the lane.” This year, however, the lighting ceremony and other events have been canceled because of the pandemic. In honor of the centennial, fans can share their memories, which will be posted on the yet-to-be-released Christmas Tree Lane app. (Details are on its Facebook page.) The opening day hasn’t been announced, so check the website for updates.

Pasadena’s Upper Hastings Ranch neighborhood association will continue its 69-year-old tradition of displaying holiday lights and decor from 6 to 10 p.m. Dec. 12 through Jan. 2 in the area of Hastings Ranch Drive and Sierra Madre Boulevard. Photos of what to expect are posted on the association’s Facebook page and website.

Torrance’s Seaside Rancho neighborhood, home to the popular Sleepy Hollow Christmas Lights, is going forward with its annual tradition despite the pandemic. Although it’s a private event, the city aims to discourage crowds by putting up no-stopping signs along the main display streets of Doris Way, Sharynne Lane, Reese Road, Carol Drive, and Linda Drive. Traditionally, visitors park and walk along the streets to admire the lights, but the city is hoping its no-stopping rules will reduce foot traffic this year. The city website notes that large gatherings are prohibited and urges visitors to socially distance, and wear masks. The lights are typically on from 6 to 10 p.m., starting around Dec. 11. 

Walk-by Decor

South Coast Botanic Garden is hosting its first holiday light installation called “Glow,” an ocean-themed evening display of colorful lights and music that covers about a mile of mostly wheelchair-accessible trails in the 87-acre gardens. Reservations are required, with up to 50 people permitted to enter per time slot. Groups larger than 10 are not permitted. Admission is $24.95 for members and $34.95 for nonmembers. Children 4 and younger enter free.

San Diego Botanic Garden’s Botanic Wonderland features live music by wandering musicians, lighted animal figures, lasers, and festive light displays in many of the 37-acre garden’s areas, including the Dickinson Family Education Conservatory, Toni’s Treehouse, the Rainforest and Waterfall, the Lawn Garden, Canary Islands/Cork Oak Grove and the Seeds of Wonder Children’s Garden. Hot beverages and food available. Open from 5 to 8:30 p.m. Dec. 2-6, 9-10, 12-13, 16-23 and 26-30. Reservations required. Tickets are $18 for adults, $12 seniors/military and $10 children (members pay $10 for adults and $7 for children). Masks required for all visitors.

Riverside Mission Inn’s Christmas Lights at the Inn is a scaled-down version of its usual extravaganza of vendors, Cinderella carriage rides, fireworks, entertainment, millions of lights covering the block-long historic hotel, and jabillions of people waiting in Disneyland-esque lines to take a tour. The extravaganza has been canceled this year, but the hotel still has exterior lights around three sides of its complex for people who just want to walk downtown and admire. If you’re more adventurous, and the facility hasn’t been closed over pandemic concerns, you can make a reservation at one of its restaurants or book a room for the night, allowing you to take in the decor inside, including a lavishly decorated 19-foot Christmas tree and a life-size gingerbread house made of real gingerbread and icing.

Beverly Hills has installed Visions of Holiday Glamour in the median of its famous shopping street, Rodeo Drive, to complement its usual lavish holiday decor. The new display, which runs through Jan. 3, features 10 mannequins dressed in elaborate gowns made from winter foliage, flowers, and metallic holiday ornaments, along with palm trees ablaze in white lights. You can cruise the street in your car, but if you want to do some window shopping or take selfies under the street sign, there are several lots nearby offering free two-hour parking. Wear your mask.

Holiday Photo Ops

Photos with a Penguin on Dec. 1 only at the Aquarium of the Pacific in Long Beach. The aquarium will be closed from 6 to 8:30 p.m. so individuals and families with reservations can spend five minutes posing with a penguin in a mobile penguin cart. (Translation: You can’t put a penguin in your lap). All participants ages 2 and older must be masked and must use their own cameras (a tripod will be provided). $25 per family up to six people. The aquarium will also have holiday decor and life-size cut-outs of its penguin and otter mascots for selfies around its outdoor exhibit, from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m,. daily from Dec. 5 to 23.

The Grinch’s Grotto at Westfield’s Century City shopping center allows up to five people at a time to meet the Green Meanie himself in his decorated cave and pose for holiday photos in front of 12 catchphrases such as “You’re a Mean One 2020,” “How the Grinch Stole, Well, the Whole Year,” or on a more positive note, “The Grinch Still Can’t Steal Christmas.” No selfies permitted. All photos must be taken by the on-site photographer (the $50 admission fee includes a photo). Participants get about 10 minutes with the Grinch, but no physical contact is permitted. Open daily through Dec. 31, except Dec. 25. Advance reservations recommended. The event created by Kilburn Live and Dr. Seuss Enterprises has a gift shop with all-things Grinch, including T-shirts, wrapping paper, and masks.

Citadel Outlets in Commerce claims the largest holiday bow in the world, a steel structure 36 feet wide and 21 feet tall, covered in half a ton of red glitter, with 18 giant loops and 75-foot “tails” trailing off the side of the shopping center, a unique photo op for people who pose against the outside wall. The center also offers a decorated 100-foot Christmas tree, visits with Santa (across a table, separated by plexiglass), and “snow flurries” daily at 5, 6, 7, and 8 p.m.

Christmas on the Farm at Underwood Family Farms in Moorpark includes visits with farm animals, tractor-drawn wagon rides, a mailbox for letters to Santa, and Christmas trees, wreaths, garlands and mistletoe for sale. On weekends, the farm offers sleigh rides behind draft horses (for an additional fee) and free photo ops with Santa from 6 feet away. A tripod is provided and “elves” will help with photos, but you must use your own camera. Santa visits available through Dec. 13; trees available through Dec. 20. Admission $5 on weekdays, $8 on weekends; seniors 65+, military, veterans and emergency first responders get a $2 discount. 

Photos with Santa are still possible this year, as long as you understand that he’ll be waving from the background, at least 6 feet away, and likely separated by some transparent barrier. Don’t expect any physical contact with the jolly old elf or close-up selfies, but desperate times call for creative solutions, such as South Coast Plaza’s plans to put Santa in his sleigh behind a sheet of glass, allowing admirers to pose in front. He’ll also be riding a trolley at the Grove shopping center in L.A.'s Fairfax area and at its sister center the Americana at Brand in Glendale, amid the center’s daily “snow” flurries at 7 and 8 p.m. He’ll be moving slowly enough that you should be able to get some decent selfies. For other options, check out The Times’ list of Santa ops.

Outdoorsy Holiday Events

Biking With Santa Family X-Mas Ride is the first beginner-level 15-mile ride (mostly) along the Long Beach Bike Path from 2:30 to 6:30 p.m. Dec. 19 at the city’s Leeway Sailing Center. Decorating bikes with lights and wearing Christmas costumes is encouraged by the hosts, Adventures With Friends, but not required. Prizes will be awarded to the best kid's bike and best overall decorated bike. Participation is free, but you must bring your own water and plan to stay with the group. (No racing permitted, and if you have time constraints, please don’t attend.) Expect your temperature to be taken before the ride and practice social distancing and mask-wearing before and during the ride.

Hike with Santa — Family Christmas Hike, hosted by Hiking-With-Friends, is a 2.5-mile beginner-level hike at 1 p.m. Dec. 13 at Ascot Hills Park in El Sereno. The event is expected to last three hours. Participants must reserve tickets in advance; the fee is donation only and children with adults participate for free. Water, good walking shoes, and face masks are required. Strollers not permitted; leashed dogs are OK.

Cut your own Christmas tree at one of several tree farms around Southern California (check out The Times’ handy list). This is a fun adventure for those who want to wander a “forest” in the “cold” to find and cut their special tree. Wear Santa hats and bring a thermos of hot cocoa. Please note, however, that if your heart is set on, say, a noble fir, you’ll probably have to purchase a pre-cut tree, since farms in Southern California are pretty much limited to native Monterey pines.

Venice Electric Light Parade Ugly Sweater Ride is a combination ugly sweater contest and 10-mile bicycle ride in the dark with bicycles wrapped in LED lights, from Venice to the Santa Monica Pier, back along Abbot Kinney Boulevard, and other Venice streets to Marina del Rey. The free bicycle parade is every Sunday at sunset, but the Ugly Sweater ride is Dec. 20, with the contest judging starting at 4 p.m. and the ride beginning at 5.