Travel the world in one night at San Diego’s first Global Winter Wonderland


Sleigh bells ring in the distance

SDCCU Stadium will soon be glistening

Brightly colored lights will shine Sunday night

Strolling through a global winter wonderland

Not since 2013 has San Diego hosted a large-scale holiday lights attraction with the Holiday of Lights at the Del Mar Fairgrounds. After nearly two decades, the popular drive-through holiday display went dark to make way for a $5 million racetrack-widening project.

Now families can start a new tradition at San Diego’s first Global Winter Wonderland. Seventeen acres at SDCCU Stadium (formerly Qualcomm Stadium) will be transformed into a land of enchantment Sunday with millions of LED lights and 100 handcrafted lanterns of all shapes and sizes.

“Holidays Around the World” is the theme of this year’s inaugural event, which runs through Jan. 7. At least 16 life-sized structures will transport visitors to countries from around the globe — including Germany, Italy, Mexico, China, Thailand, England, France and India, each featuring a distinctive landmark like the Taj Mahal, London Bridge and Eiffel Tower.

“It’s really something that we wanted to bring a regional attraction to,” said Shane Karimi, spokesperson for Global Winter Wonderland. “If this is something that happens every year, ideally it becomes a tradition — people from Orange County come down, people from Los Angeles come down — it becomes this thing that people know is happening in San Diego.”

The holiday attraction has been spreading cheer since 2011, debuting in Santa Clara. It became so popular, organizers said, that it expanded to other cities: Atlanta, Tulare and Sacramento, where attendance reached 400,000. San Diego is the fourth California city to host this multicultural production.

Karimi said she believes that Global Winter Wonderland has the potential of becoming that kind of regional tradition because San Diego doesn’t have anything like this — not on this scale and not with this kind of cultural root.

“People from the border and Mexico can drive (here),” Karimi added. “Plus, it’s centrally located. Everybody knows where Qualcomm is.”

Produced by Fremont-based International Cultural Exchange Group (ICEG), Global Winter Wonderland is centered around large, luminescent, handcrafted lanterns. Lulu Huang, president of ICEG and founder of the event, brought the concept to the United States because she wanted to share the beauty of the lantern festivals she experienced growing up as a child in China.

“When I moved to the United States and had my children, I realized there are people in the U.S. from so many different areas of the world,” Huang said. “I wanted to create an event where people of all cultures and backgrounds could come together to celebrate family, friends and the holiday season.”

Constructing the lanterns is a painstaking process. It starts with an in-house design team. They create illustrations of the lanterns seven to nine months in advance of opening day. Artisans and engineers review the concepts, tweaking throughout the process, until a construction plan is finalized. As construction begins, electricians and engineers walk the area and talk about how to maximize the beauty of each lantern.

It takes a team of five people — designer, welder, electrician, silker and painter — to construct one lantern. The larger displays — up to 60 feet tall — require a team of 15 to 20.

One hundred artists are needed to complete a production of this size. Forty-seven were flown in from China eight weeks ago to begin construction. Nothing is prefabricated. Every part of the structure is handmade — from the steel rods to air brushing and hand painting the silk. For example, an elaborate peacock lantern display 108 feet wide by 24 feet tall was constructed at a cost of $100,000.

“They’re pretty good at what they do,” Karimi said. “There’s no learning curve. It’s not like they need to learn how to do it. Each family has hundreds of years of tradition in this type of work. It’s a labor of love.”

The event will feature Circus of Light, an action-packed show with Cirque du Soleil-level performers from Africa, China and Europe. Acrobats, contortionists, hula-hoop dancers and fire dancers are all part of the show. Multicultural theme days and special events on the holidays will be showcased.

Journey over to the North Pole display, where you can write a letter to Santa or whisper in his ear and tell him what you hope to find under your tree this year. There’s an interactive craft center with DIY projects, holiday-themed activities, interactive games and more than 35 carnival rides. Mascot Penny the Penguin and Santa will welcome guests and pose for photos.

Traditional carnival food, including cotton candy and popcorn, will be available, as well as international cuisine from 15 vendors offering Chinese, Thai, Korean, Italian and German fare.

“A mother was driving through the Global Winter Wonderland area of SDCCU Stadium’s parking lot recently,” Karimi said. “Her son, about 4 years old, was in a car seat in the back. When the mother stopped to ask what was going on — her son, bouncing his arms and legs up and down — asked, “Is this WOW Land?!”

Global Winter Wonderland

When: Opens Sunday at 4:30 p.m. Continues Monday through Nov. 26; Dec. 1-3, 8-10, 15-27, 29-31 and Jan. 1-2, 5-7. Check the website for details.

Where: Lots B2 and B3 at SDCCU Stadium (formerly Qualcomm Stadium), 9449 Friars Road, San Diego.

Tickets: $22 adults; $19 seniors 62 and older and children 4-12; $36 unlimited ride wristband; season passes available. Rides and attractions are not included with general admission.

Parking: $10 per vehicle; $5 per motorcycle. Cash only.