Public Holiday Light Displays Worth Paying To See this Christmas

Biggest Christmas Lights near LA
The light show on Hogwarts Castle

An after-dinner drive to take in one of LA's classic neighborhood holiday light displays is a treat we all can and probably 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 gets the muggles singing, while Potter fans are watching Hogwarts light up.

Christmas in The Wizarding World of Harry Potter - Universal Studios
Through January 7, 2018
The newest addition to LA's holiday scene is the light display on Hogwarts Castle, which takes place a few times per evening throughout the season. Universal Studios first introduced its nightly light show this past summer, but the holiday version is a completely new show, with vibrant colors that pop off the castle walls and explode into the night sky (literally, with a dramatic fireworks display at the end), all timed to the John Williams score. Potter fans (in other words everyone, right?) will enjoy Weasley brothers gags and flying cars interspersed with rousing holiday themes. And not far away is Whoville, a holidays-only attraction where younger kids can meet the Grinch 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: Officially the first light show is at 6pm, but most nights there is an earlier show at 5:30pm—which, being unannounced, is slightly less crowded.

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

Enchanted: Forest of Light - La Cañada Flintridge
Through January 7, 2018
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 $24-$30 admission.

LA Zoo Lights - Griffith Park
Through January 7, 2018
For a walk in the park a little less rustic, 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-$20) the advantage of this photo-op rich walk-through experience is the reindeer. That's a great holiday perk.

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

Holiday Light Festival Train Ride - Griffith Park
Through December 30, 2017
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.

The Mission Inn - Riverside
Through January 6, 2018
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 some suggestions about where you could stay the night (and it's not a manger).

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

Winter Fest - Costa Mesa
Through January 7, 2018
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.

CHILL at the Queen Mary - Long Beach
Through January 7, 2018
The Queen Mary's holiday event has been a local tradition for several years now, but this year it has had a revamp that includes a whole lot more ice and a whole lot more lights. The ice sculptures of previous years are not part of the event anymore, but there are more ways to skate on, ride on, and play on ice than ever before, and the light displays this year surpass other seasons by quite a bit. Sunday nights (including Christmas Eve) also feature a fireworks display over the water to rival the ship's famous 4th of July event. 

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

Trolley of Lights - Santa Barbara
Through December 30, 2017
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 adavnce.

Waterfront Tour of Lights - Long Beach
Through December 28, 2017
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.

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