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From Strange to Traditional, Six Places to Celebrate the Holidays

Griffith Park Holiday Light Train
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We may not live in a winter wonderland in Southern California, but we do a pretty good job of faking it.

Miss the snow? We can make some.

Not feeling quite so jolly? We’ve got our own holly (hence, the aptly-named Hollywood).

The truth is, you don’t have to shovel your way out of the driveway to get into the holiday spirit. Rejoice at the warm temperatures! Bask under the shining sun! And sing carols of sleigh rides, red noses, and jingling bells at the top of your voice – behind the wheel, driving with the top down.

True Christmas spirit comes from within – but if you’re having a little trouble appreciating how wonderful this time of year is, here are six great places to get you into the holiday spirit.
 

1. Enchanted: Forest of Light, Descanso Gardens

New this year to Descanso Gardens is a twinkling, light-filled experience that doesn’t throw Santa and reindeer at your face, but sure feels festive. Walk through the rose garden under an origami canopy of stars, towards an interactive display that will have you hopping and leaping to see a rainbow of colors explode underfoot. You’ll start your journey along the one-mile course at the multi-colored tulips and end it at the red lanterns in the Japanese Garden. In between, there are lots of photo opps, crisp winter garden scents, and even some snacks and drinks. It is, as the name implies, truly enchanting. For an extra-special experience, make a reservation at Descanso’s newly-opened restaurant, Maple, or just go all-out and get dinner with Santa. The sprawling garden is open during the day while Enchanted: Forest of Light is running at night, so why not swing by a little early and do both?

Enchanted Forest of Light (2)
Photo: Courtesy of Sandi Hemmerlein
Enchanted Forest of Light (1)
Photo: Courtesy of Sandi Hemmerlein
Enchanted Forest of Light (3)
Photo: Courtesy of Sandi Hemmerlein

2. Robolights, Palm Springs

Every year seems like it’s going to be the last for the towering, apocalyptic holiday creation by outsider artist Kenny Irwin, Jr. – who has taken over all exterior areas of his parents’ Palm Springs house, including the backyard, pool, and tennis court. He’s been building and running it for over 30 years, since he was just 13 years old, but this year might really be his last, if all of the citations he’s been getting from the City of Palm Springs are any indication. Photos don’t really do it justice – you’ve got to walk through it to believe it. It’s as though robots have taken over the North Pole in some kind of weird winter apocalypse. Electronics (microwaves, TVs, video game consoles), machinery parts, and toilets have been upcycled into herds of sleigh-pulling reindeer. A rag-tag group of multi-colored robots loom in an indescribable sci-fi spectacle of animatronics. Robolights actually was closed in 2013, but Irwin has managed to keep it running in the years since. Visit pronto, before he gets shut down for good and is forced to dismantle his oddball masterpiece.

Robolights (1)
Photo: Courtesy of Sandi Hemmerlein
Robolights (2)
Photo: Courtesy of Sandi Hemmerlein
Robolights (3)
Photo: Courtesy of Sandi Hemmerlein

3. Griffith Park & Southern Railroad Holiday Light Train, Griffith Park

This is one time of year when the Griffith Park & Southern Railroad offers rides on their tiny train at night – and boy, is it worth it to see everything all lit up. You’ll depart a 1960s-era train station on The Colonel Griffith, a 2-8-0 locomotive built in 1983, and travel along the 1/3 gauge track for about a mile -- passing a rooster, Snow White, and a water tower flanked by toy soldiers, as well as lit trees and candy canes. Then come the tunnels of light. In those dark moments between light displays, you can hear the bluster of ponies in the dark. And when you make your way around the north loop of the course, past the train barn, you’ll feel sad to see that you're already returning to the station. Unlike during the daylight operating hours, there are no pony rides or concessions offered at night – but you really don’t need them. As soon as they ring that bell and call out, “All aboard!”, you’ve got plenty to keep you occupied.

Griffith Park Holiday Light Train (1)
Photo: Courtesy of Sandi Hemmerlein
Griffith Park Holiday Light Train (2)
Photo: Courtesy of Sandi Hemmerlein

4. L.A. Zoo Lights, Griffith Park

Also in Griffith Park is your chance to wander around the L.A. Zoo at night, through its now annual light display. The display changes a bit every year, and this year the zoo promises even more lights than before – which is kind of hard to believe, given how elaborate the displays have been in the past. It’s kind of amazing to see the black-necked swans swimming around the Wishing Well at night in a dim, blue light – and this time of year, you can visit real reindeer at the zoo, even at night. (There are babies this year!) Your stroll through the zoo will include plenty of magical twilight and groves of trees from which baubles and ornaments have been hung. At some places along the path, it gets oh-so-quiet and dark, which is a real rarity anywhere in L.A. Since the zoo is celebrating its 50th anniversary, expect something special this year that you might not get to experience the next.

L.A. Zoo Lights (2)
Photo: Courtesy of Sandi Hemmerlein
L.A. Zoo Lights (1)
Photo: Courtesy of Sandi Hemmerlein
L.A. Zoo Lights (4)
Photo: Courtesy of Sandi Hemmerlein

5. Lights on Display, Sherman Oaks

While there are entire L.A. neighborhoods known for their collective holiday light displays – Candy Cane Lane in Woodland Hills, Sleepy Hollow in Torrance – there’s one house in Sherman Oaks that delivers a multimedia extravaganza of animated lights, song, video, a guitar-shredding Frosty, and lots of other holiday-themed animatronics. It takes owner and designer Mike Ziemkowski months to program the show (which lasts for several songs) and weeks to build it – and when it’s completed, the lights are synchronized to the music and video like magic. The “Lights on Display” house display is so elaborate that it has attracted a lot of attention from the media, including the reality TV competition “The Great Christmas Light Fight.” It’s free to visit, though the crowds tend to really gather here, especially the closer it gets to Christmas. Go early and stay for the whole show, which runs more or less on a continuous loop, another one starting right back up after the prior one ends. Stand close to Santa to catch snowflakes on your tongue.

Lights on Display (1)
Photo: Courtesy of Sandi Hemmerlein
Lights on Display (2)
Photo: Courtesy of Sandi Hemmerlein
Lights on Display (3)
Photo: Courtesy of Sandi Hemmerlein

6. Skypark at Santa’s Village, San Bernardino National Forest

Just in time for Christmas, we’ve gotten the long-awaited return of Santa’s Village, the beloved 1950s-era theme park near Lake Arrowhead that shuttered (but not for good) in 1998. Whether you still have a taste for Mrs. Claus’ Pixie Dip or you’re new to the idea of a “Santa park,” there’s plenty at the new Santa’s Village (rebranded as “Skypark at Santa’s Village”) to delight kids of all ages. A surprising number of original buildings, 18 in all, remain from the original park – including the Chapel of the Little Shepherd, which dates all the way back to the park's opening in 1955 (just six weeks before the opening of Disneyland, 75 miles to the southwest). In fact, most of what you see right now at the new Santa's Village is actually some version of what used to be at the old Santa's Village. Santa’s there all year and the park is open every day except, surprisingly, Christmas. During opening weekend, there was still snow on the ground – and, at 6000 feet of elevation, it was about 30 degrees colder in the mountains than it was at sea level. So bundle up, grab some gingerbread, and go explore our Southern California version of the North Pole.

Santa's Village (5)
Photo: Courtesy of Sandi Hemmerlein
Santa's Village (10)
Photo: Courtesy of Sandi Hemmerlein
Santa's Village (9)
Photo: Courtesy of Sandi Hemmerlein

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