Winter Fest OC is an Old Fashioned Fair with a Holiday Twist

11/30/23 - By Meghan Rose

Costa Mesa's holiday tradition at the OC Fairgrounds, Winter Fest OC, is back—and better than ever. With a new Snow Play tent and an even better ice tubing hill, the traditional county fair with holiday flair is a blast for kids of all ages. There are plenty of rides perfect for the preschool pack, enough thrilling and upside-down rides for your teens, and then some rides that parents can't resist that offer up great photo ops, like the Merry-Go-Round and Ferris wheel.

Speaking of photo ops, there are enough throughout the fair grounds and in the North Pole Journey that you'll be able to grab a great family holiday card picture, too. With snow flurries, a holiday parade, and a holiday show, this throw-back to your childhood county fair is a perfect family outing for any of those myriad vacation days we have coming up!

For more holiday outings and adventures in the Los Angeles area from Santa meet-and-greets to dazzling holiday lights, visit our Guide to Christmas Activities and Holiday Events for LA Kids!


Rides for tiny tots are plentiful at the Polar Playground at Winter Fest OC.

Rides for tiny tots and those not so faint of heart!

Thrills for All Ages at the Polar Playground

The central attraction of Winter Fest is the Polar Playground, which is a classic traveling carnival set-up. With 20 rides plus a trackless train, inflatables for littles, and loads of carnival games, there are attractions for kids of all ages. Ride the carousel, Mini-Dragon, or Motorcycle Jump, all of which are perfect for preschoolers. My teen son and friends had a blast of the Tilt-a-Whirl, Vertigo, and Starship 3000. The Mirror Mazes and Ferris wheels are fun for the whole family. You can buy individual tickets, or get an unlimited rides wristband (more about tickets, passes and prices below).

Blizzard Bumpers Ice Bumper Cars were not open when we visited, but are now open for the rest of the season, and I'd definitely recommend hitting that attraction, which was one of our family favorites last year.

Make snowballs with real snow at Winter Fest OC.

Don't forget the hats and mittens!

Winter Is Coming...To OC

The wintery part of Winter Fest comes in the form of ice tubing, ice skating, and snow play. Unlimited tubing is included with admission, and timed entry to the updated Arctic Ice Trail (a new figure 8 of a skating rink, rather than just a big old blob of ice) is available for 45-minute sessions for an additional fee. Tubing and skating are fun for the whole family—there are ice skate helpers available to rent for beginning skaters—but the real draw for little kids is the Snow Play tent, which is filled with actual snow that kids can use to make snowballs, snow angels, slide on, or take a ride on mini-tubes. Bring hats, mittens, and jackets as it's real snow that gets real cold and wet! Also, come early in the day if you've got kids interested in the snow before it gets colder and the snow gets both harder and slushier!

I know I mentioned the ice tubing, but I'd be remiss in not mentioning it again as it's the #1 reason we go back year after year. Pull your tube—blue for big people, red for littles—up the steps, get set, and with the push of a button, the barriers come down and everyone wooshes down the 150-foot hill. It's just enough adrenaline to be fun, but it's not enough to scare off even the littlest members of the family. And then you can do it again, and again, and again. It's where we start and end our visits, every single year.

The Snowflake Summit ice tubing at Winter Fest OC is a blast.

Ready, set, GO!

Journey to the North Pole, Tree Lighting, and Shows

Right near the entrance, by the Holiday Market, you can visit the new North Pole Journey, which is a guided quest to become a certified elf. This is a 45-minute led-adventure, and groups are encouraged to stay together, so decide if your kids have the attention span to stick with it. Honestly, it was too long for my kids, and I'd skip it, in favor of just enjoying the tree lighting, meeting the Snowflake stilt walkers, and catching the stage show. The giant Christmas tree, which lights up each evening along with a flurry of snow, is a great place for pictures, as are lit-up ornaments and sleighs throughout the fairgrounds. There's also a parade twice a night.

The view from the Ferris wheel, with the moon rising, is stunning at Winterfest OC.

The moon rises, the Ferris wheel turns, and all is right in OC.

French Fries, Turkey Legs, and Deep-Fried Everything

As is the case with many outdoor festivals, food options are not cheap. On the plus side, portions are large, and sharing is easy. We tend to eat real, sustaining (and free) food at home before going, and then sharing a giant pile of fries and something sweet. While there are plenty of options available, pretty much everyone lines up for the BBQ, which is right next to the deep-fried sweets stand, which also prove pretty popular. Cocoa, coffee, horchata, agua frescas, and even beer, cocktails, and wine are available for purchase. You can't bring food into the fairgrounds, so unless you plan on spending a small fortune on artery-clogging foods, eat early and snack at the fair!

Go ice skating at Winter Fest OC. It's fun for kids big and small.

Ice skating is an add-on, but for a 45-minute session with skate rental included, it's a pretty good deal!

Tickets, Passes, and Add-Ons

Tickets to Winter Fest OC are available online, and run from $25.99 for a child's General Admission ticket on special nights to $82.99 for an Ultimate Experience Pass adult ticket. A few tickets are available at a slightly higher rate at the gate, but since tickets bought on site are limited and more expensive, it makes sense to purchase in advance. General Admission includes everything except rides at the Polar Playground and ice skating; so if your kids don't love the carnival rides, this ticket is just the ticket. If you want to ride just a few rides, you can purchase individual tickets; most rides cost about $4 per person.

However, if your kids like to ride the rides, it's worth it to spring for the Ultimate Experience Pass, which includes unlimited rides plus a VIP Snowflake Summit Ice Tubing Slide Pass. No matter which ticket you purchase, ice skating will cost you an extra $25 for a 45-minute session, plus $15 to rent a skate helper. You can also rent VIP Cabanas or Fireside Igloos for an extra fee (which does not include fair admission).

Parking is $12.

Sunset by the giant Christmas Tree at Winter Fest OC.

Sunset at the entrance to Winter Fest OC; no photo touching here!

My #1 Tip for Winter Fest OC

Come just before sunset. It's a spectacular time, and your family will be treated to incredible views from the minute you park. Then head straight to the Ferris wheel, where you can get a view of the whole fair, and watch as dusk settles over the fairgrounds. It's the throwback fun of a county fair from childhood, and watching your SoCal kids play in the real snow, go ice skating, watch a fake snow flurry, and go tubing minus the mountains adds a little special holiday magic.

Winter Fest OC is open at the OC Fair & Event Center in Costa Mesa on select dates through January 7, 2024. Tickets are available online.

Photos by the author

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