Beyond the Mall: LA’s Best Under-the-Radar Spots to Meet Santa

Santa Claus is coming to town! While plenty of LA malls go all out for the man in red’s arrival (and require advanced reservations to boot), there are other ways to get your annual Santa pic. This year, consider a trip to a museum, the zoo or even the beach to meet Mr. Claus. Read on for all the LA Santa destinations (including a few of our favorite malls, just in case you’ve got enough holiday cheer to handle the crowds).

photo: Jenifer Scott

Holiday Time in Paleyland

Christmas is in full swing at the Paley Center. Celebrate the joy of the season with complimentary screenings of beloved holiday classics, arts and craft sessions, hot cocoa and candy canes and (of course) a visit from Santa to round out the holly jolly jubilee.

Cameras are a must here because this is a great opportunity for parents to take photos themselves, or purchase their high-end photo with a digital file for only $10 (best bargain around!) with Santa who hangs out in his beautifully decked-out North Pole village each weekend. Event details.

Holiday Roundup at Leonis Adobe

Calling all history buffs! Step back in time and celebrate the holiday season like the early American settlers did at the Leonis Adobe Museum in Calabasas. Feed sheep and goats, make crafts with the museum guides, enjoy live music with Craig Newton, see a real-life blacksmith at work, and take holiday photos with Santa in the Plummer House (known as the "oldest house in Hollywood"), on Sat., Dec. 7. With both sprawling vineyard backdrops and tons of ranch equipment on site, this location is sure to be a hit with frolickers of all ages! Event details.

Santa Monica Pier

Leave it to Santa Monica to bring a surfing St. Nick to town. As part of the area's Holiday Cheer on the Pier, a very SoCal Mr. Claus will be making an appearance on Sun., Dec. 8 for super unique photo ops. Event details.

Fillmore & Western Railway: Polar Express

All aboard for a vintage train ride that will whisk your festive family away for a holiday adventure not soon to be forgotten. Hop aboard the Polar Express (located in Ventura County), where the magic of the season will be out in full force. Come in your pajamas (yes, really do it) and be ready for one of the most unique events this side of the North Pole.

Set to the sounds of the Polar Express film soundtrack, you and your pint-size passengers will take a trip through the classic story for a one-hour trip to meet Santa. Once onboard, prepare to show your golden tickets before hot chocolate and cookies are served by dancing chefs. Once Santa and his elves climb onto the train, the merriment continues and they even hand out small gifts to all good boys and girls! 

Don't forget your camera as the photos ops here are endless! Be sure to make your reservations early as seats are assigned and sell out. Event details.

Christmas at the Farm

For two weekends only (Dec. 7-8 and Dec. 14-15), Santa makes a special appearance at Moorpark's Underwood Family Farms. Admission costs $8, and that includes your chance to get a pic with Saint Nick. While you're there, watch the animal shows and go on tractor-drawn wagons to the pick-your-own fields before heading home with a lovely smelling tree strapped to the roof of your car! Event details.

Holidays at Malibu Country Mart

You know things are going to be a little bit fancier in the ‘Bu. But if a little fancy helps to rev up your feelings of fa-la-la-la-la, take a trip to the Malibu Country Mart, which is transformed for the holiday season. Here you and the fam can take photos with Santa & Mrs. Claus, create festive arts & crafts, listen to carolers, write letters to Santa and drop them off in our North Pole-bound mailbox and enjoy winter-ready treats. And to really put a little jingle in your jolly, exclusively on Dec. 21, there will even be live reindeer!

Because of how cheery Santa's visits tend to be, it’s probably a good idea to arrive early so the young ones have lots of time to find out if they are on the nice list (or not). There is also great shopping here (win-win!) so you can finish up some of your holiday gifting all while kids play at the playground…by the beach. The way Christmas was meant to be celebrated. Event details.

Winter Wild Weekends at the LA Zoo

There is not a more perfect place for you and your little elves to go wild for the holidays this year than the Los Angeles Zoo! Come check out their Winter Wild Weekends where, in partnership with Odd Market, there will be handcrafted, one-of-a-kind items available for purchase, eco workshops, live music, holiday presents for the animals, and, of course, photos with Santa (for an additional fee)!

Kids will love the snowfall twice daily in the holiday village while parents get the chance to shop a unique holiday gift bazaar featuring expert crafters (perfect gift opportunities for that person who has everything!). If the littles can handle staying up past bedtime make sure to check out LA Zoo Lights for some serious yuletide magic. Event details.

Hike with Santa

If the thought of waiting in another long mall line with wiggly wee ones to get a picture with St. Nick isn't a jolly one, try an experience that is a bit more off the beaten path. On Sun., Dec. 15, join Santa on a 2.5-mile family hike around Ascott Hills Park, just east of downtown LA. Here you can get some photos of your brood with the big guy against a Los Angeles city backdrop, while getting some fresh air and exercise! With free parking, free admission and views for days, this could be that unique holiday event you and the fam have been craving. There are limited spots available so make sure to RSVP. Event details.

Plus The Top Mall Santas

So you want the traditional mall Santa experience? Here are our top picks for where to go.

The Americana at Brand

For more of an East-side feel, this upscale, outdoor shopping center is decked out for the holidays and, like it’s sister establishment The Grove, features a massive tree covered with thousands of twinkling lights.

The Santa House here is nothing short of magical and, in fact, will have your darling dreamers seeing visions of more than just sugar plums (make sure they bring their lists so Santa can check it twice!). Also, reservations to sit with St. Nick are recommended (he books up fast) but not required.

When: Nov. 15-Dec. 24

889 Americana Way
Online: americanaatbrand.com

photo: Jenifer Scott

The Grove

Smack dab in the middle of the city is a winter wonderland dreams are made of complete with an adorable life-sized gingerbread house fit for Mr. Kringle himself. To say Christmas at The Grove is stunning can be a bit of an understatement so naturally, there is a wait to see Santa. Avoid the lines and make advance reservations online for your tiny tots to see the big man or take your chances and grab a number to be called for your special moment (perfect time to grab a meal or do some shopping while you wait!).

And this Santa is worth the wait as many say he’s one of the best in town. He talks with the kids and makes them feel like he is the real deal, commenting on new glasses or how much they’ve grown! Be sure to take a ride on the trolley while you’re there or walk through the Farmers Market to enjoy all the delightful sights and smells (peppermint latte anyone?) the holidays have to offer.

When: Nov. 18-Dec. 24

189 The Grove Dr.
Online: thegrovela.com

Baldwin Hills Crenshaw Plaza

If it’s the quintessential mall Santa experience you crave, Baldwin Hills Crenshaw Plaza is just the place. In the center of the mall, a little North Pole is carved out just for Santa who’s in town from Thanksgiving weekend through Christmas Eve.

Word on the street, however, says that he’s also going to make an appearance at their Holiday Winter Wonderland celebration on Dec. 14 (sledding and snow play inside a mall in Los Angeles? Yes please!) When the wait to see the man of the hour works up an appetite (and you want to look beyond the food court), check out the delicious Cajun fare at The Kickin' Crab or local food taken to the next level at Post and Beam.

When: Nov. 30-Dec. 24

3650 W. Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd.
Baldwin Hills 
Online: baldwinhillscrenshawplaza.com

photo: Jenifer Scott

Santa Monica Place

Even Santa gets stressed so it makes sense he’d be spending some time seaside (in such beautiful surroundings) to relax and meet with his fans before his big night of deliveries. Visit him at the ocean-adjacent Santa Monica Place’s Center Plaza and get that priceless photo-op while you finish up some last-minute holiday shopping!

This location also has several fun events (like photos with your pet on Dec. 11 and Dec. 18 from 5 – 8 p.m), but if you’re just in the market for a plain old Santa snap, make a fast pass reservation although not required.

When: Nov. 21-Dec. 24

395 Santa Monica Place
Santa Monica
Online: santamonicaplace.com

-Jenifer Scott

featured photo: Unsplash


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