Balboa Park will don its gay apparel Friday and Saturday as San Diego officially launches the holiday season with its two-day extravaganza, December Nights.
Now in its 40th year, the free holiday festival has become one of the region’s biggest events, drawing 350,000 people last year.
December Nights will offer the usual smorgasbord of entertainment, ethnic foods, holiday shopping and lots of brightly colored lights — from the Plaza de Panama to the Botanical Building to the landmark Moreton Bay Fig Tree.
“This event provides the community of San Diego with an unparalleled opportunity to enjoy — for free — the full array of artistic and cultural experiences found year-round in our crown jewel,” said Tomas Herrera-Mishler, president and CEO of the Balboa Park Conservancy. “It’s a wonderful gift to San Diego and an important reminder of Balboa Park’s value to our region.”
The nighttime activities start at 6 p.m. at the Spreckels Organ Pavilion, one of the original 1915 structures, with greetings from Mayor Kevin Faulconer. The official tree lighting ceremony starts at 6:15 p.m.
Guests will find holiday happenings in almost every corner of the park. Here are some highlights:
- Park Boulevard South Activity Zone: Showcasing the active San Diego lifestyle, this holiday-styled area features food trucks, fitness challenges, skills competitions and active games, including ultimate bungee, rainbow extreme obstacle course, coconut palm tree climb, green zip line and swashbuckler mega zip line.
- Starlight Winter Marketplace: Sip and shop under the stars at the newly expanded community stage with themed retail and food offerings located on the Federal Lawn to the east of the Hall of Champions.
- The Entertainment Experience: The holidays just aren’t the holidays without a live performance of “The Nutcracker.” The San Diego Civic Youth Ballet will dance excerpts from the Christmas classic. Members of the San Diego Junior League will fill the air with renditions of traditional holiday songs and sea chanteys both nights. San Diego teen Cordelia Degher will sing Saturday night on the Swedish Women’s Education Association Stage at the Plaza de Panama. The Swedish-born American-Idol hopeful has been writing and performing her own songs since the age of 10. Her debut EP “Open Up to Me” was released in 2015 and features four of her own new songs.
- Family Fun Experience: Kids- and adult-friendly activities can be found throughout the park. The San Diego Zoo will run its Santa Express at the Balboa Park Miniature Railroad, which travels half a mile through 4 acres of the park, showered with holiday lights. The Marie Hitchcock Puppet Theater will offer a final performance of “A Christmas Carol” at 6, 7 and 8 p.m. Make a family memory with Santa at the many photo booths scattered about.
- The Date-Night-Done-Right Experience: December Nights is the perfect setting for that first date. To set the mood start with a tour of the lights. Every nook and cranny is elaborately decorated. Next, enjoy a drink and a cozy conversation at The Prado Pub beer and cocktail garden. End the evening with a ride of the Ferris wheel as you take in the picturesque view of the 1,200 acre park. Thinking of popping the question? Unveil the ring in the Alcazar Gardens with its ornate fountains, Moorish tiles and 7,000 vibrant annuals, for a guaranteed yes.
- The Foodie Experience: You don’t need a passport to enjoy a world of international flavors and spirits at the House of Pacific Relations International Cottages’ Christmas Festival. You’ll find aebleskiver (pancake balls) from Denmark, crepes from France, potato pancakes from Israel, chicken adobo and pancit from the Philippines, Viking pea soup from Norway, paella from Spain, sausages from Germany, Hungary, the Czech Republic and Slovakia; and much more. Feast from 4 to 11 p.m. Friday and noon to 11 p.m. Saturday.
- The Gifting Experience: For stress-free shopping, December Nights is the place to be. You’ll find that unique gift for everyone on your holiday list. Stop by the Artisan Marketplace with local handcrafted goods or visit the many museum stores and other Balboa Park shops to raise your gifting game.
- The Do-Good Experience: Want to keep December Nights going strong for another 40 years? Keep your dollars local and support the shops, restaurants, exhibitions and museums in Balboa Park. You can also donate to the Balboa Park Conservancy, where funds are used to manage and produce the event, along with maintaining the park’s landscape and infrastructure.
- Oldie but a goody: December Nights isn’t complete without a ride on the iconic carousel. Since 1922, the merry-go-round has entertained young and old with its menagerie of animals — from horses and frogs to cats and zebras — and military band music. It’s one of a few carousels in the world that offers the classic brass ring game. The carousel will operate during December Nights from 5 to 10 pm. Friday and from 10 a.m. to 10:30 p.m. Saturday. The cost is $3 per person.
- Participating Balboa Park museums will offer free admission from 5 to 9 p.m. both days, with each museum hosting holiday-themed activities.
- The Santa Lucia Procession, a Swedish celebration with candlelight and music, takes place at the Plaza de Panama at 6 and 8 p.m. nightly.
- The Del Cerro Baptist Church returns with its annual staging of the “Christmas Story Tree.” Since 1986, the choir and drama team has enlightened audiences with the story of Christmas in music and living scenes. Performances are 8:30 to 10 p.m. both nights at the Spreckels Organ Pavilion Stage.
“December Nights is one of the largest free holiday festivals in the country and serves as an annual opportunity for San Diegans to come together as a community, celebrate our diversity and share the holiday spirit in the cultural heart of our city — Balboa Park,” said San Diego Mayor Kevin Faulconer. “I encourage all San Diegans to come out and enjoy the lights, the music and the incredible food on Friday and Saturday.”
- Parking: The San Diego Zoo lot at 2920 Zoo Drive is the only free, non-permitted lot at the park. It fills very quickly, so arrive early.
- Disabled parking: There are 156 disabled parking spaces at the Fleet Science Center lot on Park Boulevard and Space Theater Way. The Federal lot at Park Boulevard and Presidents Way has 33 designated parking spaces.
- Paid parking: Optional preferred parking for $25 at the Natural History Museum parking lot and the South Carousel lot (both accessible from Park Boulevard and Village Place) and at the Inspiration Point parking lot for $20 (accessible from Park Boulevard and Presidents Way). These are the closest lots to the park. Cash and/or credit cards are accepted.
- Shuttles: December Nights shuttles run Friday from 3 p.m. to midnight and on Saturday from 11:30 a.m. to midnight from City College lots (1,500 parking spaces) at 16th Street and B and C streets, and downtown San Diego on Ash Street between Fifth and Sixth avenues. All shuttles drop off at the event on Sixth Avenue and Laurel Street. The last shuttles departs both locations at 8:30 p.m.
- Public transportation: You can reach Balboa Park by bus, trolley or train. Log on to the San Diego Metropolitan Transit System’s website at sdmts.com for schedule details.
- Rideshare: Lyft is the official rideshare sponsor for December Nights. They offer discounts for current and new users. You can download the free by using App Apple Store or Google Play.
- Bike: Get in and out of the park with no hassle by using the unattended bike racks located at Village Place, Park Boulevard at Presidents Way and Laurel Street at Balboa Drive.
- Walk: Leave the car at home and walk to Balboa Park. It’s a short jaunt from Hillcrest, North Park, Little Italy, East Village and other downtown neighborhoods.
When: 3 to 11 p.m. Friday; and noon to 11 p.m. Saturday
Where: Balboa Park