Christmas in Orange County: 29 Mostly FREE Things to Do with Kids (2023)
I don’t know if there are truly best things to do around Christmas in Orange County because what is BEST for one family may not be BEST for another.
Instead, I like to highlight the family-friendly and mostly freethings to do during the holidays. You know, those things that might become Christmas family traditions (or at least they have for our family!). I’ve also included lists and information about experiential gift ideas!
I am so excited to finally have ALL my holiday places to go and simpleholiday gift ideas in one spot on the blog. They are currently scattered amongst my social media and annual blog posts, but hard to find in one place until now!
I’m always trying to find playful things to do that don’t require much of you. Things that don’t only happen on one night, but you can enjoy over the whole holiday season.
The things to do on this Christmas in Orange County list are things I have personally experienced doing with my family or friends who have encourage me to try them out.
In fact, I used to make a December advent calendar of winter activities — yes, California winter — with the kids and now that they are grown they are making them for the family (and including all the traditions throughout the years!).
Here’s the lists! Make sure you click through to the blog posts and websites for more information. And always check official sources to make sure the hours haven’t changed.
Make sure you go all the way to the end of the post for a FREE printable!
Free & Low Cost Family Christmas Traditions in Orange County (+ Gift Ideas)
There are so many lists of how to spend money at this time of year, that I wanted to create a list of free or low cost experiences for Orange County families that are perfectly fine on their own or you can choose to add to them. I'm not saying that paying makes them better, though. They are fine just as they are. I tried to highlight the costs so it's easy for you to figure out.
You can stroll through ALL the lights at Dana Point Harbor for free. If you can, support the Harbor businesses when you go! We love the M-F 4pm-7pm Happy Hour menu on the patio at Harpoon Henry's. Or try Coffee Importers Scoop Deck for coffee or cocoa and desserts like ice cream and incredible baked goods.
You'll definitely want to read this one, because it's a bit hard to navigate if you've never been. You'll have to park across the street in the Los Trancos parking lot and make your way down to beach via shuttle or walking.
COST: Parking is $5/hour with Yodel app or $15-$20 per day. Or use your CA State Parks Annual Pass for free access (you can check one out at the library for free). If you choose to take the shuttle it is $2 per person each way for adults -- kids under 12 free with a paying adult.
This one is a favorite, but it has gotten more and more popular over the years. It happens 2 weekends in December. The first weekend is called the "Candlelight Walk" and it has entertainment and vendors. The second weekend is called "Holiday Lights" and it's got the same beautiful lights, but not the entertainment or vendors.
FREE! Holidayz at the Park in Irvine is an outdoor light display with fun free photo opportunities.
I knew about the outdoor part, but did you know there is a Pop-Up of INDOOR photo backdrops??? I counted about 7 indoors and there are tons of opportunities with the lights outdoors!
Inside the Pop-Up are super friendly staff and volunteers who will help your little one write letters to Santa and put them in one of the red mailboxes. They are also available to take family photos so everyone can be in the picture! We had so much fun discovering this festive spot with friendly helpers!
COST: FREE. Only potential cost would be the carousel which is lit up at night ($3/ride or $10/day pass).
PARKING: FREE (park near the carousel at Great Park).
PARK ADDRESS: 8000 Great Park Blvd, Irvine (but this address is really general - you will want to park near the carousel and Great Park balloon).
HOURS: Outside lights on display each night. Holidayz Pop-Up photo ops open WEEKENDS only from 5pm-9pm on Fridays and Noon to 8pm on Saturdays and Sundays. So cute - and not crowded at all when we went on a Friday at 5:15pm!
TIP: Look up on the Hangar roof to see a sleigh and reindeer!
This is absolutely a must-see for my family every year.
Newport Dunes Waterfront Resort is also introducing its first Fire & Ice Festival with an outdoor ice rink. Runs Nov 24th-Jan 1st. The Fire & Ice Festival is free admission and open to the public. Ice skating, concessions, and holiday trees will be available for purchase.
COST: FREE - Go see the lighted trees floating on the bay. Least busy nights will be Mondays & Tuesdays - because the festival isn’t happening then, but the bay will be lit up. Park for under 30 minutes and it’s free. (30 minutes to 2 hours is $10). NOT FREE: Ice skating, concessions, and holiday trees will be available for purchase.
This is another one that has gotten popular. I was shocked being there at night last year with the Christmas Train crowds after dark. It is FREE to go to Santa's Village. And Mrs. Claus still has storytimes! But I have seen the strategy of going around 4pm on weekdays!
Santa's Village Hours: Weekdays 4pm-9pm and Weekends 10am-9pm.
COST: Free to get into the village, but it does cost $3, $5, or $7 for parking at Irvine Regional Park.
The Snoopy House at Costa Mesa City Hall has a themed light display, but also free nightly events. Only runs Dec 15th-22nd. Thanks to Jill at @popsicleblog for her info on the event! It has been a family tradition for her and her kids over the years.
50 NIGHTS OF COASTAL LIGHTS at Fashion Island in Newport Beach happens nightly every half hour from 5:30pm-8pm in the Neiman Marcus - Bloomingdale’s Courtyard.
We were there on a Monday night and there were only a few families there enjoying the early shows. My dad was at The District with us and then also there on this night - he called this one “like The District, but bigger.”
He’s right, too. This one has smoke and snowfall effects, plus at least 4 or 5 songs. The kids just LOVED it!
It’s a FREE nightly experience running through January 5th.
I also loved the Santa house here and on the same night only had one family in line. We took selfies with my sis, my dad, and me from outside. I heard from a reader that they love the Santa here.
PARKING: I would park outside the Barnes & Noble and go in through The Atrium. Bear to your left, walk past the escalator, and you will end up outside at the Koi Pond. The Santa House is just past the pond and then you will see the 90 foot tree beyond that. If you wait on the grassy turf area and look at the tree just before the hour or half hour, the show will start and the kids will be surprised by the music and snowfall!
FOOD: There’s a food court on the bottom floor of The Atrium if you want to grab dinner while you are there.
TRY THIS: Drive by Rogers Gardens on your way home because all the pine trees lining the property are glowing in gold and green lights!
A NEW HOLIDAY TRADITION for our family! We started this past holiday season and it was just as fun and MELLOW and NOT CROWDED this time around!
Thanks to The District Tustin for this festive show that’s fun for all ages. It runs every half hour from 5pm to 11pm nightly in the AMC Courtyard. ONE SONG each half hour so you can get there a little before 5pm and get the 5pm, 5:30pm, and 6pm shows! [No one invited us for this experience - we paid our own way and I thought up these options just for you!]
We like going M-F because Bar Louie has Happy Hour from 4pm-7pm and you can sit on their patio to enjoy yummy food (50% off select Bar Bites and Flatbreads) and watch the FREE light shows.
OR you can get a pizza from Sal’s Pizzeria and hang out at the outdoor tables.
OR go for dessert only and grab a huge serving of Dolce Gelato (the same popular shop in Laguna Beach is here, but parking is easier - especially if you show up before 5pm)!
I love the simplicity of this tradition and there are tons of other restaurants right here to choose from! But those 3 options I mentioned are the ones that allow you to eat WHILE enjoying the show.
You can also add in an afternoon movie that gets out before the light show starts!
We didn’t rush and just enjoyed our time. Our server and the food were both excellent. They even turned down the outside restaurant music a notch for us early birds so we could hear the show. And turned on the patio heater for the grandparents. So nice of them!
The District has other photo and seating options throughout the area with giant walk-inside ornaments.
PARKING: We like to go in off Tustin Ranch Road and park outside the theater as close as we can to the entrance.
This is everything you need to know about gifts of experiences. Send this post and the one above (#8) to your loved ones and let them choose the experience! It can be a surprise and they can feel like they are gifting you with something you can use all year!
I have never seen this list ANYWHERE else and it doesn't get much traffic because no one even knows to search for it. But what if you could go play somewhere and do your gift shopping at the gift shop that benefits the nonprofit while getting some unique items for your loved ones? I am always adding more places to the list, but don't forget these little shops!
I will continue to add to it as we are out enjoying the season, but it’s a good start for now!
The reason I don’t have too many EVENTS on my list is because I don’t believe kids need more SCHEDULED activities. I’d rather highlight opportunities for play or open-ended visits to holiday lights. I also included some daytime ideas. We do a mixture of all these things as we go through every day in December.
The first 9 options in the list below have more details in the posts above! Here are 20 more classic family things to do in December that don’t take an event or much planning!
29 Mostly Free Things to Do with Kids at Christmas in Orange County
Dana Point Harbor Holiday Lights (and Boat Parade)
Beach Christmas Tree at Crystal Cove
Candlelight Walk & Holiday Lights at Heritage Hill Historical Park in Lake Forest
Holidayz at the Park (Great Park in Irvine) with weekend photo backgrounds pop-up
Newport Dunes Lighting of the Bay
Santa’s Village at Irvine Regional Park
The Snoopy House Holiday Display at Costa Mesa City Hall
Fashion Island – 50 Nights of Coastal Lights (Multiple Nightly Lighting Shows with Snowfall)
Holiday Light Show at The District Tustin (Nightly)
Drive by Roger’s Gardens in Newport Beach to see the green & gold lights on the pine trees surrounding it (go inside if parking allows to see the holiday model train)
Check your city or community center for light displays that last all month
Check out library books about the holidays or winter season
Make and mail a card to someone you are thinking about this season
Get a peppermint frosty at Wendy’s (the junior size is only $.99) or a peppermint chip milkshake to share at Chick-fil-A for $6 (or soft serve ice cream with peppermint chips)– or some other inexpensive holiday treat at your favorite spot
Meet friends you haven’t seen all year at a park for playtime
Try a soup picnic on a chilly night
Early (4pm-5pm!) beach sunset viewing
Start a new holiday tradition with your family! Make one up! When I was 5 years old, my dad unwittingly started the tradition of taking me and my younger sister out to go Christmas shopping for mom followed by dinner (now that I’m older I see the reason was so that mom could wrap presents). It turned into something we do every year!! It’s the only night all year my sis and I have our dad to ourselves and it’s the BEST! We’re at 40+ years and look forward to it!
Ideas for Paid “Worth It” Splurges
Basically, I think you CAN get away with going through the holidays spending less than $20 to see & do some pretty cool stuff (see that list above!). Many of the FREE things are available multiple nights or throughout the season so you won’t miss them.
Some of the paid events we like continue on even after Christmas. You do not need to do a paid event to enjoy the holidays!
Our system? We pick and choose our free things every year depending on everyone’s mood and energy level. It’s OKAY if we miss out on some events. And then we sometimes pick ONE paid thing to do. Tickets usually sell out, so we have to commit early.
How to decide? I like to spend my dollars where they do good. So, we’ve invested in experiences at: