Calling all snowbirds and fans of warm winter weather! Are you are spending your holidays in sunny and warm Southern Arizona? And are you looking for a bit of holiday cheer? If so, with the BEST Holiday Lights in Tucson, Winterhaven Festival of Lights is the place to visit!
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Winterhaven is a historic neighborhood located in central part of Tucson, Arizona. This neighborhood began the tradition of putting up Christmas lights in 1949 when the subdivision’s developer CB Richards purchased holiday lights for the entire neighborhood and held a contest for the best decorated house.
CB Richards also strategically planted the neighborhoods signature Aleppo pines alongside electrical connections so that each tree could have holiday lights. The festival has been running continuously with a pause in the 1970s due to the energy crisis and a hiatus in 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
One of the best things about the festival, it is FREE!! Beginning in early December and lasting until December 26th, the festival is open from 6-10pm every day.
In the center of the neighborhood, there are food trucks selling hot cocoa and kettle corn. The lines tend to get long, even on weekday nights. If you want a hot chocolate and a snack, we recommend arriving early. Or stop by a local coffee shop on the way and bring your hot cocoa with you.
And yes, prepare for crowds. It gets a bit busy, even during weekdays.
Buddy and I visit Winterhaven Festival of Lights together every year. This is a holiday tradition that we began way back when he was two years old. It is such a great destination, that we bring friends and family who visit around the holidays to experience Winterhaven. Together, we are sharing the Top 5 Things You will LOVE about Winterhaven Festival of Lights in Tucson!
Top 5 Things You Will LOVE About Winterhaven, the best holiday lights in Tucson
1. The Winterhaven Community
Unlike other light festivals that may be hosted at a zoo, botanical garden, or parking lot, Winterhaven is in a neighborhood. While walking around seeing the lovely, decorated houses, you will also see homeowners sitting on their front lawns around a fire pit roasting marshmallows or drinking hot cocoa.
Sometimes, you will see families from the neighborhood hosting holiday parties, or teens playing soccer in their front yards as community members walk by. Because Winterhaven is in a neighborhood, there is a warm feeling to the experience. It is as if the people of Winterhaven have invited you into their homes for the holidays.
2. The Creativity of the Neighborhood
The residents of Winterhaven to ALL OUT for this event. The houses are incredibly decorated. Here are some of the homes that we think you will love to see:
- The Disney Princess House
- The Polar Express House complete with a steam engine that makes steam
- The Space X inspired Santa X rocket that does a faux launch with smoke and a flame
- The Winterhaven Zoo
- Candy Cane Lane
- The University of Arizona basketball house
- The Penguin House. These penguins are made from recycled political signs and 10 of them are hidden around the neighborhood as easter eggs for visitors to find
- The National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation House
- The Harry Potter House that won this year’s President’s Choice award
- And the multiple Snoopy houses
You will also love the street where all the music and lights were synched together in a large display. Buddy says “That was my favorite. The synchronized lights.” That street won the Best Street award this year.
And there is much much more.
New this year was a COVID Christmas house, the Great British Bake Off inspired Great Winterhaven Bake Off House that won the Most Creative Award this year, and the Riding in a Scwhinn-ter Wonderland house that won the Most Artistic award this year.
In the past, there was a Nightmare Before Christmas house and a water and light display that was a neighborhood sized version of something you would find at the Bellagio in Las Vegas.
There was so much to see and do this year that we did not get a chance to do it all. Buddy’s grandma, who was visiting from out of town and accompanied us to Winterhaven this year said” I would absolutely go again. I would like to see the Elvis Blue Christmas House. I missed him.” We also missed the Cars House this year.
3. Winterhaven’s Performances, Movies, and Interactive Displays
Some Winterhaven homeowners pay local theaters and music groups for performances. For example, Buddy’s boys chorus sang Christmas Carols at the Brown house at Winterhaven this year.
Buddy’s grandma, who was visiting from out of town and accompanied us to Winterhaven this year said, “I especially loved listening to Buddy sing, especially when they sang my favorite song (Carol of the Bells).”
After the performance, the Brown family who hosted the chorus at their house announced that a quartet would also be performing at their home later that week. We have also seen local theater groups performing A Christmas Carol in front of a few homes in years past. As well as different bands and local singers spreading the cheer with holiday music.
Additionally, some Winterhaven residents set up large movie screens and play holiday movies and festive cartoons as apart of their holiday light display. In the times before the pandemic, some homes set up viewing areas with chairs, pillows, and blankets so visitors could sit and watch a bit of the movie or cartoon.
Another favorite you will love are the interactive holiday displays. For example, one cul-de-sac has a large walk-in pink igloo where families can venture in and take photos. We filmed some of the Movement Postcard in the pink Winterhaven igloo.
Other interactive holiday decorations include the wishing tree, where visitors can write their wish on a piece of paper and attach it to the tree. The Christmas Story house where children can visit a cut out of Santa from the movie then slide down a small slide. The Christmas Story house won Most Interactive Display this year! There are also multiple places set up for photo ops around the neighborhood. And even a giant recipe card as a lawn decoration!
But perhaps best of all is the house that offers the experience of Tucson snow!! As it doesn’t snow often in Tucson, children absolutely love this house. You can hear shouts of joy from kiddos as they near the area. Buddy too especially liked this house when he was younger. Gathered near a large lawn decoration of Elsa from Frozen, large crowds of visitors huddle together to experience the Tucson snow. Don’t worry. It isn’t real snow, and it isn’t cold either. It is dish soap.
4. Getting Around
There are so many fun and festive ways to experience Winterhaven. Here are some of your options:
- Winterhaven Hayrides
Formerly powered by horses, currently powered by jeeps, Winterhaven Hayrides will take you on a loop around the neighborhood to see the lights. Some visitors on hayrides sing carols as they drive through the neighborhood. Others just take in the lights. There are families of all ages on the hay rides. If you are interested in a hay ride, reservations are recommended.
- Arizona Party Bikes
If festive holiday music and some peddling is your thing, seeing Winterhaven on a party bike with family or friends is the way to go. This is probably not the best option if you have young children or elders in tow. Reservations are recommended.
- Tombstone Trolley
If you are visiting Winterhaven with a large group, consider a private trolly tours. Perfect for Christmas parties and other large groups, this private trolly will take you around Winterhaven. Reservations are required.
- By Car
Some years there are drive through only nights where visitors can take in Winterhaven from the comfort of their car. This night usually takes place December 26th, but double check the website.
And lastly, our favorite way to see Winterhaven. By foot. The majority of visitors experience Winterhaven on foot. That is our preferred way to visit the neighborhood because it allows us time to really take in the houses and decorations. Plus, we have the option to spending all the time we want to engage in the interactive and to engage in some of the interactive decorations that we encounter.
Walking is a great way to take everything in!
5. Winterhaven Festival of Lights supports the Local Community Food Bank
I am all about supporting local businesses and communities as much as I can when I travel. The same is true for our staycations. Winterhaven Festival of Lights supports the local community foodbank with drop boxes for food or cash donations at each entrance.
Each year, Buddy and I either bring food to donate or make a cash donation to support our local foodbank. It is a great way to give back to the community while experiencing holiday cheer.
Bonus tip: Bring cash for parking
During the Festival of Lights, Winterhaven is closed to outside traffic. As such, you will need to park in an area adjacent to the neighborhood. Local organizations, such as the community food bank, churches and local residents around the area will charge between $5-$10 for parking at select locations. The majority of parking spots is cash only.
Sometimes there are traffic cops directing the flow of vehicles and pedestrians traffic. Other nights there are not. Please be careful crossing the major streets like Ft. Lowell when entering the neighborhood.
Buddy and I love Winterhaven Festival of Lights! We visit every year. If you are in Southern Arizona to experience a warm winter this holiday season, we highly recommend visiting Winterhaven. And keep a look out! You might see us there filming a Movement Postcard or serenading visitors with a Christmas carol.
Have you visited Winterhaven Festival of Lights in Tucson? What is your favorite holiday light display? Let us know in the comments below.
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