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, the BEST place to celebrate the holiday season in Tucson is Winterhaven Festival of Lights!
Every year, families flock to the neighborhood of Winterhaven in Tucson, Arizona to experience one of the largest and most spectacular holiday light displays in the Southwest. Winterhaven Festival of Lights is an annual event that features many of decorated homes, with over a million Christmas lights on display.
This free public event is open to all and is a great way to get into the holiday spirit! So whether you’re a Tucson local, a Southern Arizona snowbird, or just passing through, be sure to add this favorite Christmas tradition to your list this year.
Buddy and I visit Winterhaven Festival of Lights together every year. This is our favorite Christmas tradition that we began way back when Buddy was two years old. Winterhaven Festival of Lights is such a great experience, 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!
Winterhaven 2023 is December 9-25 from everyday from 6pm-10pm
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Winterhaven Festival of Lights: The details
Winterhaven is a historic neighborhood located in central part of Tucson, Arizona. The Wintherhaven 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.
Fun fact! CB Richards also strategically planted the Winterhaven neighborhood’s signature Aleppo pines alongside electrical connections so that each tree could have 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.
Tucson Electric Power or TEP is a sponsor of Wintherhaven Festival of Lights. The power company donates 11,550 feet of LED holiday lights to the event each year. TEP employees even help hang the Christmas lights every year!
One of the best things about the festival, it is FREE!! In general, beginning in early December and lasting until December 26th, the festival is open from 6-10pm every day.
During the Festival of Lights, Winterhaven is closed to outside traffic. As such, you will need to park in an area next to the Witherhaven neighborhood. Some local organizations will charge between $5-$10 for parking at nearby strip malls. 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 or Country Club when entering the Winterhaven neighborhood.
Food & Drinks
In the center of the Winterhaven neighborhood, there are food trucks selling hot chocolate 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 chocolate with you.
And yes, prepare for crowds. It gets a bit busy, even during weekdays.
Top 5 Things You Will LOVE About Winterhaven
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 Winterhaven neighborhood hosting holiday parties, or teens playing soccer in their front yards as community members walk by. Because Winterhaven Festival of Lights 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 decorated homes for the holidays.
That said, please be considerate of the residents who live here – do not walk on people’s lawns or touch any of the displays.
2. The Creativity of the Winterhaven Neighborhood
The residents of Winterhaven to ALL OUT for this event. Each year, new Christmas decorations are added and old favorites are brought back, making the festival even more fun and magical for everyone who attends. The houses are incredibly decorated. Here are some of the decorated 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 Winterhaven neighborhood as easter eggs for visitors to find
- The National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation House
- The Harry Potter House
- And the multiple Snoopy houses
You will also love the street where all the music and lights were synched together in a large amazing display. Buddy says, “That was my favorite. The synchronized lights.”
And there is much much more.
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 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 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.
3. Winterhaven’s Performances, Movies, and Interactive Displays
What a great way to get into the holiday spirit than Christmas lights and live holiday season performances! Do you like plays and live music? Well then you are in luck! 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 two years in a row!
Buddy’s grandma, who was visiting from out of town and accompanied us to Winterhaven 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 decorated 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 decorated 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 amazing 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 fun 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. 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. Fun ways to get 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 Christmas lights. Some visitors on hayrides sing carols as they drive through the neighborhood. Others just take in the Christmas 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.
Best of all, this year all profit from Arizona Park Bikes Winterhaven rides will be donated to the Community Food Bank of Southern Arizona.
- Winterhaven Trolley Tours
If you are visiting Winterhaven with a large group, consider a trolly tour. Perfect for Christmas parties and other large groups, this trolly will take you around Winterhaven. Reservations are recommended and they do sell out!
- 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.
UPDATE: There are no drive through nights this year!
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 Christmas decorations. Plus, we have the option to spending all the time we want 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
Winterhaven Festival of Lights supports the Community Food Bank of Southern Arizona. Volunteers at the event accept both cash donations as well as donations of canned goods at the event. Given that the event is free, bringing a donation for the community food bank is a great way to give back to the community while celebrating the season. So make sure you bring canned food donations!
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.
What to bring to Winterhaven
After years of attending this Southern Arizona event (it is a family favorite Christmas tradition) to get into the holiday spirit, this is what we recommend.
- Comfortable walking shoes
Unless you are hitching a ride on a trolley or party bike, to experience Winterhaven Festival of Lights, you will be walking the Winterhaven neighborhood. And the Winterhaven neighborhood is big! If you are walking Winterhaven, make sure you wear comfortable walking shoes. I recommend these shoes from adidas for all the moms out there, and Buddy recommends these adidas sneakers for teens.
Although winter in Southern Arizona can be mild compared to other places in North America, the Sonoran Desert does get chilly after the sun goes down. So, you never know how cold it will be for an evening at Winterhaven. Come prepared by dressing in layers. An adidas hoodie is perfect for a visit to Winterhaven, especially on a warmer night. Buddy loves his adidas hoodie and wears them even during the hot Arizona summers!
- A donation
Support the Tucson Community Food Bank with a donation of canned food or cash. You can drop off food donations at the entrance of the festival. Volunteers also collect cash in buckets near the entrance. A donation to the food bank is a great way to give back at this free community event.
- Your dog!
Winterhaven Festival of Lights is dog friendly! Dogs must remain on a leash and you need to bring baggies to clean up after them.
- A camera
There are many great photo opportunities at Winterhaven Festival of Lights. Some houses even set up holiday themed photo booths in their yard decorations! So come with camera in hand and be prepared to capture some moments of holiday cheer!
Is Winterhaven worth visiting?
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.
The Winterhaven Festival of Lights is a fun-filled event that is perfect for families or anyone looking to get into the holiday spirit! With the whole neighborhood on display, this free public event is not one to miss! So come on down to Tucson, Arizona this holiday season and experience a little piece of Christmas magic.
Have you visited Winterhaven Festival of Lights in Tucson? What is your favorite holiday light display? Let us know in the comments below.
Do you have questions about family travel or traveling with teens? Feel free to reach out! We are happy to chat and share our experiences! We look forward to connecting with you.
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