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Haul out the holly and fill up the stockings. We need a little Christmas!
Right now, even those who don’t celebrate Dec. 25 could use a little extra music, laughter and lights — we all could, as we get ready to ring out 2020.
It’s the year most of us can’t wait to get past.
With the COVID-19 health crisis still in full swing, and California state restrictions limiting our ability to move about in ways we normally would this time of year, drive-thru holiday lights displays have become practically a necessity for anyone looking for a little cheer.
We've never needed this type of safe and socially distant entertainment more.
Fortunately, the Regional Stay at Home Order does allow Southern Californians to get in the holiday spirit along with members of our households in our own cars — as long as we stay as close to home as possible and are home before the state curfew of 10 p.m.
So, whether you’re in a coastal community or inland, in the Santa Clarita or San Fernando Valley, or in Ventura County or San Diego County or anywhere in between, here are some of the best drive-thru holiday experiences in Southern California.
Turn off your headlights — and get ready for one of these events to make your spirits bright!
1. Holiday in the Park, Six Flags Magic Mountain, Valencia
The drive-thru version of “Holiday in the Park” at Six Flags Magic Mountain is, quite honestly, the next best thing to actually going to the theme park, which been closed because of COVID-19 since March. It’s a necessary pivot to the holiday lights attraction that Six Flags has hosted annually since 2014 — and the first time that the public has been allowed to actually drive through the 125-acre park. In between the light displays, you drive along shadowy paths that happen to be directly under rollercoaster loop-de-loops — which turns out to be quite a thrill.
From behind the wheel of your car, you maintain a safe physical distance from Santa and Mrs. Claus, as well as some live nutcrackers, wooden toy soldiers and even a snowy princess. Dance and musical performances keep the action going as you navigate around the perimeter of the park through lit-up environments like Merry Lane (located in METROPOLIS), Holiday Square and the Gleampunk District (located in the steampunk-themed Screampunk District).
Cars, SUVs, vans and pick-up trucks are allowed entry — but larger, high-capacity vehicles like buses, RVs, trailers and commercial vehicles are not permitted. Open-air vehicles like convertibles with the top down or motorcycles aren’t allowed either. Tickets are sold per person — each of whom must have a purchased ticket and a reservation for timed entry (which is free for those with active Memberships and Season Passes).
When you buy your tickets and/or reserve your time slot, you can also pre-purchase merchandise bundles and holiday snack packs to pick up upon arrival. You’re allowed to enjoy them in your car during the event, even with the windows down — but you must wear a face covering anytime you are approached by or interact with a staff member. Portable toilets are stationed outside the park’s entrance and exit, so plan your potty breaks ahead of time.
Open nightly 5:30 to 8:45 p.m. through Jan. 10, and then weekends only through Jan. 31.
2. Hikari – A Festival of Lights, Tanaka Farms, Irvine
As a follow-up to its drive-thru pumpkin patch this fall, Tanaka Farms has transformed its 30-acre property into a “festival of lights,” called Hikari (which, translated from Japanese, means “sparkle” or “shine”). Not only does it light up what Tanaka Farms is best known for — strawberries, which have been at the heart of this Orange County farm's operations and agritourism business since 1998 — but Tanaka Farms also takes the opportunity to teach visitors about new and more sustainable farming practices, its other agricultural crops and even its vintage farm equipment collection. This holiday light display offers visitors the opportunity to learn about global crops like sugarcane, which lines the aptly-named "Candy Cane Road" towards the end of the journey.
The farm is still run by the descendants of George Tanaka, a second-generation Japanese-American farmer who founded it in 1940. Along the one-mile drive, you’ll also find some Japanese traditions woven into the experience — like the field of wagasa, a type of paper umbrella that originated in China but became fashionable in Japan by the 17th century. All the while, you can listen to seasonal music through a free, downloadable smartphone app.
Give yourself about an hour and a half for the total experience, which includes a nightly Holiday Market Stand and, on weekends, a distant “meet up” with Santa. Limited concessions are available for purchase on your way in. Face coverings must be worn by every guest (except for children age 3 and younger) whenever interacting with a farm employee.
Open nightly 5:30 to 9 p.m. through Jan. 10, 2021.
3. Holidays In Your Car, Ventura County Fairgrounds and Del Mar Fairgrounds
Holidays In Your Car is a holiday lights spectacular from the producers of the summertime concert series, Concerts In Your Car, which brought live entertainment to drive-in audiences in both Ventura and San Diego this year. Now, both of those same concert locations — the Ventura County Fairgrounds in the city of Ventura and Del Mar Fairgrounds in the San Diego County city of Del Mar — are home to safe, socially-distant holiday programming that you can enjoy from the safety of your car (but no buses, limousines, RVs or sprinter vans).
In Ventura, you can experience a drive-thru light show that has a small-town feel with some major light technology — including laser beams you can drive through, animated projections and, of course, multi-colored tunnels. Seasonal music is broadcast through a custom FM transmitter that you can tune into on your car radio, but no onsite concessions are available for purchase. Tickets for timed entry are sold in advance online or, if available, at the gate via touchless transactions. Ticket prices are set per carload and are available at two different tiers — either up to four passengers or five or more passengers per vehicle.
In Del Mar, there’s also a nightly light show (with over one million LED lights) — with the added bonus of live stage shows performed “in the round,” like “The Nutcracker” presented by City Ballet of San Diego (Dec. 19 only) and “Santa Saves Christmas!” (Dec. 12), both of which are ticketed separately. When purchasing advance tickets, you’ll choose your date and time as well as which color-coded tier you’ll park in — priced per vehicle and according to the distance from the stage.
Both locations are open nightly 5:30 to 9 p.m. through Jan. 2, 2021.
4. WonderLAnd, Westfield Topanga & The Village, Woodland Hills
The sequel to Hauntoween, the 2020 Halloween-themed drive through attraction, is WonderLAnd — which kicks it up a notch with millions of flashing and animated lights and festive décor, starting with the Snowflake Tunnel and continuing through “Light & Motion Ave,” the North Pole and Santa’s Workshop. Enjoy driving past a village that celebrates “Holidays Around the Globe” — which represents every holiday of the season, from Hanukkah, Kwanzaa and Christmas to Chinese New Year.
There are photo opportunities galore — so it’s a good thing your driving speed is limited to 3 mph! Look for polar bears, wooden toy soldiers and live stilt walkers; and listen for holiday tunes of nearly every genre being piped in and synched up to the light show. At the end of your journey, you can donate an unwrapped gift or non-perishable food items (which go to Los Angeles Mission) to one of Santa’s elves — and you’ll even get a goodie bag in return.
Face coverings are required while your car windows are down — and trust me, you’ll want to keep your windows rolled down for this one. All COVID-19 safety and sanitizing protocols are being followed, but each guest must digitally sign a waiver and release of liability form before attending.
Technically, the address is 6100 Topanga Canyon Boulevard — but you’ll need to follow the signs to find the exact point of entry to get checked in. Make sure you’ve got the QR code from your timed entry ticket pulled up on your phone to be scanned by one of the staff members.
Open nightly 5 to 10 p.m. through Dec. 30 (except Christmas Eve, Dec. 24 and Christmas, Dec. 25).
5. Night of Lights OC, OC Fair & Event Center, Costa Mesa
This past summer, the annual OC Fair was canceled due to COVID-19 for the first time since its WWII-era closure from 1942 to 1947. Fortunately, the gates have reopened for the holidays — with a holiday drive-thru from the producers of Winter Fest OC, called Night of Lights OC. You can even get a little taste of the county fair, with fair snacks available for pre-order and pickup upon arrival — including options like kettle corn, hot sandwiches, family and kids’ meals and more. Arrive 15 minutes prior to your ticketed time slot (no ticket sales at the gate) to allow for contact-free pre-ordered food pickup.
This “winter wonderland” drive-thru experience, which is priced per vehicle, features over a million magical holiday lights throughout different themed environments, including “Shadow Elf Village,” “Icicle Playground,” “Falling Star Alley” and “The Snowglobe,” with the flurriest snow storm you’ll find in all of Orange County. Plenty of dazzlingly costumed characters complete the experience, as they bring the holiday soundtrack (which you tune into with your FM radio) to life with energetic performances and even some jolly dance moves. Beware of strobe lights.
Due to the height and length of the light tunnels, any vehicles over eight feet tall or over 19 feet long (like buses, RVs or sprinter vans) won’t be allowed. And while motorcycles, golf carts, bicycles and pedestrians aren’t permitted to enter, you may keep your vehicle windows rolled down — as long as all passengers and the driver are wearing a face covering. (Wear your most festive mask for the photo opp at the end of the mile-long drive.) You must remain in your vehicle at all times except when visiting the restroom, which is available at the beginning and the end of the experience. COVID-19 safety measures that are being followed can be viewed on the event website.
Open nightly (except Christmas Eve, Dec. 24) through Jan. 10, 5 p.m. to 9:30 p.m. Mondays are discounted for community heroes like teachers, first responders and military personnel. Tuesdays are College Nights. Sunday, Dec. 13 and Jan. 10 are Classic Car Nights.
6. Heritage Holiday "Cruise By" Lights Tour, Long Beach
Long Beach Heritage has suspended its annual Victorian Christmas event for 2020, but in lieu of it, the preservation-minded nonprofit presents a calendar of other unique and historical offerings that can be enjoyed at home or at a safe distance, called “Heritage Holiday.”
Heritage Holiday’s marquee event this year is the "Cruise By" Lights Tour — a self-guided driving tour of Long Beach’s historic homes that are decked out for the holidays. The grand finale of the holiday lights cruise is the historic Bembridge House, whose exterior is all lit up (the interior has been closed to the public in response to the COVID-19 pandemic since March 2020). Also included on the tour are two locations of Wilmore City Heritage Association’s annual Gingerbread Village. Both are on Pine Avenue — one at MADE by Millworks and the other at The Pie Bar.
A free Google Map (available online) helps navigate drivers to more than a dozen sites — and counting! Long Beach residents are invited to add their own festooned homes to the map by sending details to Long Beach Heritage either on its social media accounts or by email.
Runs nightly 6 to 10 p.m. until Jan. 1.
There are even more drive-through excursions you can experience throughout the holiday season in Southern California (prices, dates, and times will vary). Click through to some of the other options below, and tell us in the comments which one was your favorite!
Happy Place – The Drive-Thru, Westfield Century City, Los Angeles
Dodgers Holiday Festival, Dodger Stadium, Los Angeles
Holiday Road, King Gillette Ranch, Calabasas
Santa’s Speedway, Irwindale Speedway, Irwindale
Electric Noel, SilverLakes Park, Norco
Jingle Terrace Park, Brengle Terrace Park, Vista
Top Image: Two rows of colorfully lit Christmas trees at Hikari – A Festival of Lights at Tanaka Farms. | Sandi Hemmerlein