Must-See Holiday Light Shows Worth Paying or Driving for this Christmas

Biggest Christmas Light Displays near Los Angeles

An after-dinner drive to take in one of LA's classic neighborhood holiday light displays is a treat all families should indulge in. It's an easy, cheap way to get in the Christmas spirit (or just enjoy someone else's). Of course, counting on other people to decorate their lawns is only so reliable. To be sure of a full evening of light and good cheer, sometimes it's worth splurging on a pay-to-play light display. Several local destinations indulge us in our desire to see grand-scale holiday lights, from Zoo Lights to walks in the woods. The bigger the group you can round up, the more festive—but also the more expensive it can get. It helps to know which of LA's big public light shows are worth the ticket price this holiday season.

Grinchmas lights up nightly at Universal. Photo by Mommy Poppins

Christmas in The Wizarding World of Harry Potter - Universal Studios
Through January 6, 2019
The holiday light display on Hogwarts Castle is a feast for the eyes which takes place a few times per evening throughout the season. Universal Studios adds a nightly light show into the mix at certain times of year, and the holiday version is a delight of vibrant colors that pop off the castle walls and explode into the night sky, all timed to the John Williams score. Potter fans (in other words everyone, right?) can enjoy the full gamut from Weasley brothers gags to fireworks. Meanwhile, over in Whoville, another holidays-only attraction lures younger kids to meet the Grinch (and his dog) and sing along around a Seussian Christmas tree all day long. Theme park admission may be more than we'd usually pay to see holiday lights, but the whole Universal experience rises to the occasion; and, after all, a trip to Universal is a great way to spend a day over winter break. Our tip: The first light show of the evening is a good one to catch, then enjoy the Wizarding World rides while everyone else watches the next show.

What's more enchanting than lights in the forest? Photo by Cal Bingham

Enchanted: Forest of Light - La Cañada Flintridge
Through January 6, 2019
We've written about this experience elsewhere, but it bears repeating: Descanso Gardens' holiday light show is an experience like no other. It's a magical walk in the woods, sipping hot cocoa and encountering groves of light and music along the way. And in our opinion, as long as you have a warm coat, it is worth every penny of the $23-$30 admission.

Moonlight Forest - Arcadia
October 26 - January 6, 2019
The Arboretum has concocted a seasonal light display with an Asian twist, offering a walk through the botanic gardens featuring a variety of illuminated lanterns depicting exotic animals and flowers. All of the imagery is taken from Chinese legend, and the displays are augmented by performances as well. Tickets run $20-$25.

Lights in the zoo: an easy sell for most kids. Photo by Jamie Pham

LA Zoo Lights - Griffith Park
Through January 6, 2019
For a walk in the park a little less rustic than Descanso, the LA Zoo Lights have taken over the role of lighting up Griffith Park, replacing the old DWP lights some parents may recall. While not free like the old park display (this one costs $15-$22) the advantage of this photo-op rich walk-through experience is the reindeer. That's a great holiday perk.

Holiday Light Festival Train Ride - Griffith Park
Through December 30, 2019
A much lower key option in the park for little ones is this gentle $4 train ride at Griffith Park and Southern Railroad. No walking required; toddlers can take a little turn around the lights before bed.

See Santa riding through the fireworks at WinterFest. Photo courtesy of WinterFestOC 

Winter Fest - Costa Mesa
December 20 - January 6, 2019
Orange County families have several options for taking a drive to see private holiday lights, and at the other end of the scale, of course, is Christmas in Disneyland. A compromise between the two would be Winter Fest at the OC Fairground. The annual festival offers a variety of wintery activities, faux snow, reindeer, and nightly holiday lights around an enormous, Claus-tended Christmas tree. Tickets range from $10-$25.

Holiday Lights at the Reagan Library - Simi Valley
November 10 - January 6, 2019
The presidential library offers Angelenos a new holiday tradition with a festive light display throughout the museum's campus. Walking the entire event takes an hour or more, with colorful photo ops at every stop along the way, including an eye-popping tunnel of light. Tickets cost $17 for adults, $12 for kids.

Santa Barbara Trolley of Lights tour. Photo courtesy of Santa Barbara Trolley

Trolley of Lights - Santa Barbara
December 9-22, 2019
Santa Barbara has plenty of home light displays, and the Trolley of Lights takes the guesswork out of finding them. Be sure to book tickets in advance for the evening tours, then bundle up and enjoy letting someone else drive while the cool SoCal air sets the mood for oodles of home light shows. Tickets cost $15-$27 and generally sell out in advance.

Waterfront Tour of Lights - Long Beach
December 6-30, 2019
Another trolley ride, this one takes in the famous floating Christmas trees of Alamitos Bay and the hard to catch lights of Naples Island (hard to catch without living there, anyway). Letting someone else do the driving is always a treat; this ride costs $20-$30 but is generally available on discount sites once the season is underway.

The Queen Mary has decked halls—and the decks. Photo by Mommy Poppins

Queen Mary Christmas - Long Beach
Through January 6, 2019
The Queen Mary's holiday event has been a local tradition for several years now, but this year it's had a revamp that moves the entire event to the decks of the ship itself. That includes ice skating, gingerbread house making, visits with Santa, and several visually delightful light displays, all on board the vintage ocean liner. Depending on how many activities you add, tickets range from $15-$70.

The Mission Inn - Riverside
Through January 6, 2019
When a hotel puts two million lights and 250 full-size animated characters on its walls and balconies, then tosses in some Victorian carolers and carriage rides to boot, a little attention is merited. While this display is free, the drive to Riverside may feel like an investment. And once you've driven out there, add-ons like a lighted carriage ride or even dinner inside the hotel (so that you don't get rushed through the lobby with the other non-paying tourists) help make the experience more of an occasion. The Mission Inn even has an obvious suggestion about where you could stay the night (and it's not a manger).

There are also plenty of opportunities to view extravagant home light displays at some of the Southland's Holiday Boat Parade events, some of which operate in reverse, inviting passengers to buy tickets to ride on the boats as they sail past brightly lit waterside communities.

Originally published December 19, 2011

Trolley of Lights
22 State Street
93101 Santa Barbara , CA 34° 24' 45.8712" N, 119° 41' 23.6436" W
The Mission Inn
3649 Mission Inn Ave
92501 Riverside , CA 33° 58' 59.2608" N, 117° 22' 21.828" W
Descanso Gardens
1418 Descanso Drive
La Cañada Flintridge , CA 34° 12' 4.8636" N, 118° 12' 35.4996" W
Ronald Reagan Presidential Library
40 Presidential Drive
93065 Simi Valley , CA 34° 15' 35.5212" N, 118° 49' 11.2404" W
Universal Studios Hollywood
100 Universal City Plaza
91608 Universal City , CA 34° 8' 11.544" N, 118° 21' 6.0516" W
Queen Mary
1126 Queens Highway
90802 Long Beach , CA 33° 45' 10.2348" N, 118° 11' 22.92" W
Los Angeles Zoo
5333 Zoo Drive
90027 Los Angeles , CA 34° 8' 56.544" N, 118° 17' 2.5764" W
Los Angeles County Arboretum
301 North Baldwin Avenue
Arcadia , CA 34° 8' 41.5176" N, 118° 3' 3.078" W
OC Fair & Event Center
88 Fair Drive
92626 Costa Mesa , CA 33° 40' 6.6756" N, 117° 54' 16.812" W
Griffith Park and Southern Railroad
4400 Crystal Springs Drive
90027 Los Angeles , CA 34° 7' 19.1928" N, 118° 16' 24.672" W