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California’s Great America WinterFest: Holiday Theme Park Family Fun

Special holiday events have become increasingly popular at amusement parks across the country. My home theme park in Northern California – California’s Great America in Santa Clara – has joined the ranks of celebrating the winter season with a special event of its own. The park’s holiday celebration, WinterFest at Great America, is only in its second year, but it already impresses in a big way!

Winterfest at Great America - Entrance at Daytime

This year, my family took the opportunity to visit the opening day of WinterFest at Great America on November 24, 2017. We were honestly blown away by the quality and presentation, especially for the very reasonable admission price. As a major Disney fan, I always have to temper my expectations when I visit other theme parks. Great America’s WinterFest brought the holiday magic in a major way – breathtaking decorations and lights, immersive theming, tons of open rides (both coasters and kiddie options), high-quality shows and performances, and seasonal food and merchandise galore.

WinterFest at Great America - Carousel at Sunset

California’s Great America is owned by Cedar Fair, the same company that operates Cedar Point in Sandusky, Ohio and Knott’s Berry Farm in Southern California, among many others. It’s clear that Cedar Fair is investing in a big way in this park and is interested in making it more than just a local or regional offering. With WinterFest, they are setting the bar very high.

Video highlights from Winterfest:

WinterFest at California’s Great America: The Basics

If you are considering a visit to Great America this holiday season, here are the basics you need to know about WinterFest.

Dates & Times: WinterFest is open most Fridays, Saturdays, and Sundays until the end of December 2017. It is also open for a few select weekdays immediately before and after Christmas when many kids are out of school. Most of the festivities run from 5:00-10:00 pm, although on two dates the park is open 6:30-11:00 pm to accommodate San Francisco 49ers games next door. For the complete WinterFest calendar, check here.

Winterfest at Great America - Holiday Lights and Theater

What’s Open: The majority of the park is open for WinterFest, although not everything. Open sections include the entrance area at Celebration Plaza, Orleans Place and All American Corners (to the left after entering), and Planet Snoopy. A special pathway called Candy Cane Lane connects Planet Snoopy more directly for guests coming from the Great America theater, which shortens walking times to the open sections of the park.

WinterFest at Great America - Peanuts Photo Opp

Peanuts adds an extra caroler – with a sense of humor!

Cost: The adult gate price for WinterFest is $34, although plenty of discounts are available. Online pre-purchased tickets are as low as $25 per adult and $21 per child under 48 inches. You can also get included admission to WinterFest in 2017 if you want to commit to purchasing a 2018 Gold Pass season pass. We found the price to offer a pretty amazing value for 5 hours of theme park access.

What to Do at Great America’s WinterFest

What is there to do at WinterFest? So much that you can’t possibly do it all, we found! Most of the activities offered are included with admission, so it’s possible to have a full evening of entertainment without spending a penny beyond the ticket price (although we certainly spent a bit more!). Here are the top things to do included with admission:

Live Performances

WinterFest at Great America - Its Christmas Snoopy Stage

The “It’s Christmas, Snoopy!” ice show at WinterFest is a can’t miss.

The highlight of WinterFest for our family was the live entertainment that got us in the holiday spirit. The flagship show is “It’s Christmas, Snoopy!”, a live ice skating extravaganza in the Great America theater offered three times a night at 5:30, 7:30, and 9:30 pm. Make sure to line up at least 15 minutes early because the theater can reach capacity! The show runs about a half hour and is ideal in focus and length for little ones (despite the slightly bizarre and out-of-place inclusion of Ricky Martin’s Shake Your Bon Bon just before Linus recites Luke 2:8-14 – don’t ask).

There are a number of other live performances throughout the park. Little ones will enjoy “A Peanuts Guide to Christmas” with Charlie Brown and his friends in the Planet Snoopy area of the park. The nightly tree lighting ceremony behind the carousel is also a must-see, and you can continue to see singing and dancing performances on this main stage throughout the night as well. Smaller singing groups like Jingle Jazz and the Holly Jolly Trolley singers are scattered throughout the park so you can stumble on a performance no matter where you roam.

Character Meet & Greets

Winterfest at Great America - Holiday Character Meet and Greet

Classic holiday characters come out for photos at WinterFest at Great America.

The characters and photo opportunities are out in full force for WinterFest. Kids can take a photo with Snoopy in his Santa hat back in the Planet Snoopy area of the park. A few Peanut characters make appearances there as well at Charlie Brown’s Christmas Tree Lot.

Classic holiday characters also are available for photos – the Gingerbread Man (“Gingy”), Ms. Candy Cane, Holly the Elf, and Jack Frost – look for most of them on Candy Cane Lane or roaming at Celebration Plaza. We had a lots of interaction time with these characters at the media hour before the grand opening and they are just fantastic. Like face characters at Disney parks, they stay completely in character and engage in banter with the guests that adds to the entertainment. The kindness that “Gingy” showed my son and the sharp wit of Jack Frost were highly memorable.

Rides

Winterfest at Great America - Swings

Quite a few of the regular rides are open during WinterFest. Coaster and thrill ride lovers can experience Gold Striker, Patriot, Flight Deck, and Delirium. In addition, Carousel Columbia, the Celebration Swings, Star Tower, Rue le Dodge and several other general interest attractions are operating. Plus, all of Planet Snoopy (the section with kids rides) is open this year for the first time ever.

WinterFest at Great America - Planet Snoopy Decorations

Planet Snoopy becomes Charlie Brown’s Christmas Town for WinterFest at California’s Great America.

Crafts & Free Activities

We have always found that taking a chance for some free play time is a smart idea with young kids, especially at theme park where the lines and crowds can create sensory overload. Great Amercia’s WinterFest has quite a few places where kids can take a break with some crafty fun or free play with no lines.

Sally’s Christmas Crafts were a highlight for my kids. Kids can color, create a small Christmas themed Peanuts scene, or make bead necklaces. It’s over in the Planet Snoopy area of the park. We also had a lot of fun letting them have playground time at Snoopy’s Construction Site. Look out also for giant glitter tabletop games of tic tac toe at Ruby the Reindeer’s station (closer to the front of the park) as well as the chance to write letters to Santa.

WinterFest at Great America - Sallys Christmas Crafts

Taking a crafting break at WinterFest at Sally’s Christmas Crafts.

Last but certainly not least… let it snow! The park has a number of strategically timed “snowstorms” in several locations. My 4 year old son loved nothing more than chasing spinning snowflake light projections in the square and waiting to be snowed upon. Simple but delightful!

Special Extras to Consider at WinterFest

There are a number of activities you can do at WinterFest for an additional cost. With so much free, you might not find the time, but here’s a few that are worth consideration. These paid activities may be particularly worthwhile if you have a season pass (so there’s no additional cost to coming several times during the holiday season).

Ice Skating

Winterfest at Great America - Carousel and Snowflake Lake

The reflecting pond in front of Carousel Columbia has been transformed into an ice rink, “Snowflake Lake.” For $15, guests can rent skates and take part in a 30 minute skating session. I saw Jack Frost out on the ice mingling with guests.

WinterFest at Great America - Snow Flake Lake Skate Rentals

Cookie Decorating

For $14, families can buy a four pack of giant sugar cookies in the Planet Snoopy area of the park and decorate them with Mrs. Claus. If you are looking for both a snack and a craft, this kills two birds with one stone!

Photos with Santa

For an extra fee, you can get your family photos with Santa completed during a visit to WinterFest. The line didn’t look long at all when we walked past at 8 pm on the evening of our visit, so this might be the chance to get that photo package without the long lines at your local mall.

Food & Shopping

Last but certainly not least, there is plenty to purchase in the food and souvenir department.

WinterFest at Great America - Frostys Shop

We were so interested in the rides and activities that we almost didn’t want to waste time eating at WinterFest! But if you come hungry, you won’t be disappointed. The signature meal opportunity is a buffet called WinterFeast with all the holiday trimmings. It’s just $16.95 and includes turkey, dressing, ham, potatoes, veggies, dessert, and more. Of course, there’s no shortage of hot cocoa, holiday baked goods, and standard theme park food available almost everywhere.

Winterfest at Great America - Candy Cane Cafe Sweet Shop

Shopping opportunities abound as well. Every open shop is completely themed for the holidays with all new seasonal wares – I really couldn’t believe the lengths the park went to to transform every space with new names and signage as well as merchandise. My kids of course made a beeline for the sweet shops at Candy Cane Cafe and Sugar Plum Sweets.

Tips to Make the Most of a WinterFest Visit

WinterFest at Great America - Entrance at Night

If you are headed to WinterFest, here are a few final tips to make your visit a holiday success!

  1. Have a plan: There is so, so much to do at WinterFest that you cannot even do half of it even if you spend the entire night there. Take a look at the attractions and offerings and make sure you know what you really want to do so you don’t miss out. Be sure to plan around show times because a few of those are can’t-miss!
  2. Arrive before parking opening: Just like I recommend you “rope drop” Disney parks, you should definitely do that for WinterFest. Plan to be parked and in line at least 20 minutes before gate opening to take maximum advantage of beating the crowds. Remember to leave time for security lines and get your tickets in advance. Rope drop is a great time to walk right on the thrill rides. My husband rode Goldstriker with no wait, but coaster lines got and stayed long as the night went on.
  3. Don’t pay full price!: California’s Great America is really good about offering a number of discounts to make a visit affordable for Northern California families. The easiest way to save some real money is by buying in advance on their website or opting for a season pass if you plan to visit several times (we have been both during the summer as well as during the fall’s Great Pumpkin Fest and the events year round are worth it). Remember also to pre-purchase parking in advance as well to save $5 off the gate price of $20.

Disclosure: California’s Great America provided complimentary media tickets to opening night at WinterFest for my family. All opinions are my own.

Top tips for WinterFest at California's Great America. What to do to celebrate the holiday season at this theme park in Santa Clara, near San Francisco and San Jose.

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