Balboa Park will once again kick off the holiday season with its biggest event of the year: its famous December Nights.
The 40th edition of the holiday spectacular returns to the San Diego landmark on Dec. 1 from 3 p.m. to 11 p.m., and Dec. 2 from 12 p.m. to 11 p.m. More than 350,000 visitors are expected at the two-day event, which includes free admission to Balboa Park museums from 5 p.m. to 9 p.m.
With lights illuminating buildings and pathways, delicious food, street vendors, and performances by dancers, musicians and actors, December Nights will be a full-sensory experience. Each little nook of Balboa Park will offer something fun to do.
Beloved traditions, such as the International Christmas Festival at the House of Pacific Relations Cottages, as well as presentations from the San Diego Junior Theatre and the San Diego Civic Youth Ballet, are a couple of highlights.
“All of our cottages will be open and serving ethnic foods from their countries,” Mel Weekly, member of the executive board of the House of Pacific Relations Cottages, told NBC 7. “All the different countries will also be serving some of their favorite spirits from their cultures. The house of England will serve different English Ales, for example. So it will be a mixture of cultural spirits and foods.”
As more cottages are in the process of being built, several countries – like Peru – will be offering food and drinks in pop -up canopies set up for the occasion, Weekly added.
Some new bells and whistles at this year’s event include a section on Park Boulevard South and President’s Way that will showcase the active San Diego lifestyle, with a holiday twist. This zone will feature fitness challenges, skills competitions, games, health-related activations presented by sponsors and a stage where high-energy performances will take place.
Over on the Federal Lawn to the east of the Hall of Champions visitors will find the all-new Starlight Winter Marketplace boasting an expanded community stage and themed retail and food offerings.
Finally, families who make their way over to the famous Balboa Park Carousel during December Nights can enjoy rides for $3 per person, from 5 p.m. to 10:30 p.m. Friday and 10 a.m. to 10:30 p.m. Saturday. The historic attraction will be decked out in holiday decorations, too.
Arriving early and using the trolley to get to the event are best practices when it comes to enjoying the event, Weekly said. The San Diego Metropolitan Transit System will offer its trolley and bus services around Balboa Park, with some changes during December Nights.
Free shuttle rides to December Nights will also be offered from two locations: the City College parking lot at C and 16th streets, which has more than 1,500 free parking spaces, and from numerous parking lots on Ash Street between 5th and 6th avenues in downtown San Diego. The last shuttle leaves both locations at 8:30 p.m. on both nights of the event.
"There are so many ways to get to December Nights this year," said Tomas Herrera-Mishler, of the Balboa Park Conservancy. "We really went all out to make sure that it would be easy to get there."
If you drive, be prepared to wait for a parking space, as lots fill up quickly. The only free parking lot is at the San Diego Zoo. Otherwise, paid parking options will be offered at the Natural History Museum lot ($25 per car), the South Carousel lot ($25 per car) and the Inspiration Point parking lot ($20 per car).
December Nights started in 1978 as part of "Christmas on the Prado" in Balboa Park, a small holiday celebration put together by a dozen institutions along El Prado. The crowds and event grew over the decades and, in 2002, it was renamed December Nights.
Each year, it signals the start of the festive season in San Diego, drawing families from all over the county to the heart of the city. It continues to be the largest free community event in San Diego. For more information on December Nights 2017, visit the event website.