Across the Golden State, the holiday season offers up a festive twist: entertainment you can enjoy from the comfort and safety of your own car. This long enjoyed tradition of driving around to see twinkling lights—and plenty of California’s holiday light displays are well worth a detour—was sparked by elaborate light displays of private homes, but it’s grown into a much bigger phenomenon. So load your household into the car for these fun holiday memories-in-the-making, many of which continue into the new year.
Dec. 10–Jan. 10: Night of Lights, Costa Mesa
This year’s incarnation of WinterFest (affiliated with the Orange County Fair) is a mile-long drive-thru of lights in Costa Mesa, featuring tunnels and big displays. You can order ahead for your hot cocoa and treats—from tamales to cookie buckets—and have it served at your car when you arrive. Admission starts at $40 per car.
Dec. 11–26: Christmas Tree Lane, Oxnard
Drive along F & G Streets in the Ventura County town of Oxnard to see its annual displays—then, cruise past the Plaza Park, with its pagoda and the tallest Christmas tree in Ventura County.
Through Dec. 27: Holiday Lights Drive-Thru, Santa Cruz
Drive the half-mile route through the fairgrounds to see displays of Santa, reindeer, and snowmen, as well as lighted tunnels and giant twinkling Christmas trees. Admission starts at $20.
Dec. 6–30: Annual Fantasy of Lights Drive-Thru, Los Gatos
First launched in 1999, this drive-thru of holiday lights in Santa Clara County covers 1.5 miles by Vasona Lake, enhanced by a radio soundtrack of music. The lineup of 50 LED-lit animated displays and tunnels includes a 90-foot tree, Santa, penguins, dinosaurs, and even pirates. Admission starts at $20 per car.
Nov. 26–Jan. 1: Christmas in the Park—Blinky's Holiday Drive-Thru, San Jose
This San Jose tradition dates back to the 1950s when a holiday display was set up in front of a local mortuary and then city hall. It’s expanded over the decades and will be car-oriented this year, based in the 14-acre History Park. See creative displays and hundreds of decorated Christmas trees alongside the park’s 32 original and reproduction homes, businesses, and landmarks of Santa Clara Valley. Admission $30 per car.
Nov. 18–Jan. 1: Magic of Lights, Indio
The Empire Polo Club in Greater Palm Springs—famously the home of April’s Coachella Music & Arts Festival—dazzles with holiday energy this time of year. Take a spin around the polo grounds that are now decked out with dozens of LED-light displays, including life-sized dinosaurs, a Monster Truck, and a giant Barbie, as well as illuminated canopies and digital animation. Admission starts at $25 per car.
Nov. 25–Jan. 1: Christmas in Color, San Dimas
Enjoy 1.5 million lights on this drive-thru outside the Raging Waters park in Los Angeles County. The pathway features light tunnels, giant candy canes, and snowmen. Fun add-ons include a Christmas Party Pack with accessories such as light-up wands, lightbulb necklaces, and Rudolph noses. Admission $35 per car.
Dec. 1–31: Fabulous Forties, Sacramento
Drive through one of the great original holiday lights neighborhoods: the East Sacramento area known as the Fabulous Forties, which shimmers from 38th through 47th Streets, between J St. and Folsom Blvd. Then, head about 25 minutes outside the capital city to Bayside Adventure (Nov. 19–Dec. 31) in Roseville, which has its own one-mile drive of lights. Both are free, though you need a timed reservation at Bayside.
Park and Ride Events
These two events aren’t technically drive-thru experiences, but they do allow you to ride around to see the sights.
Nov. 25–Dec. 30: Hikari Festival of Lights, Irvine
Park your car at Tanaka Farms for this annual celebration in Orange County (“Hikari” is Japanese for “shine”). Grab a hot cocoa then take the hay-ride-style wagon around the giant field of lights, delivering you to a festival area with walk-through light displays, petting-zoo animals, food vendors, and Santa photo ops. During the day, Tanaka Farms is also a great place to pick strawberries or other seasonal produce. Admission $25 per person, and $10 per car for parking.
Dec. 1–31: Santa’s Speedway, Irwindale
Check out a three-story high Christmas ornament, a 35-foot toy bear, and an 11-story Christmas tree with 100,000 lights at this giant Los Angeles County display where you can either walk or ride a tram or hayride wagon. Don’t miss the Rudolph’s Enchanted Garage filled with Racecar Reindeers, then stay for dinner with drinks, hot cocoa, and a photo op with Santa. Admission for adults $29, kids $19.