8 fun L.A. things you can do on Thanksgiving

Illustration of someone serving a turkey
Need to get out and do something this Thanksgiving? We can help.
(Ross May / Los Angeles Times; Getty Images)

Sometimes family holiday gatherings can feel too close when we’re all crammed inside. Screen time gets to feel like the same old same old, and aren’t we all tired of virtual events? So if you’re looking for a way to get outside in real time on Thanksgiving, here are eight ways you can get out of the house, stretch your legs and find things to (safely) do around Los Angeles.

As coronavirus restrictions ebb and flow, it’s wise to check any venue for closures before you go and don’t forget your mask. Also note that several of these activities require reservations or advance registration, so if you’re interested, act early.

For the record:

4:37 p.m. Nov. 18, 2020An earlier version of this story said GLOW at South Coast Botanic Garden covers about a mile of wheelchair-accessible trails, but it is mostly -- but not entirely -- wheelchair accessible.

1. Lend a hand
Volunteer opportunities abound during the holidays, and Thanksgiving is no exception. Some agencies have revised their Thanksgiving meal plans because of COVID-19 and won’t be using volunteers this year, but others need helpers for jobs like preparing meals, packing care packages or distributing food. Slots fill up quickly for Thanksgiving. We tend to want to help more during the holidays, but remember these agencies need help every other day of the year too.

Union Station Homeless Services, for instance, is celebrating its 50th Dinner in the Park event in Pasadena, providing meals on Nov. 18, 25 and 26, with helpers needed for each day.


Hollywood Food Coalition is partnering with Gobble Gobble Give for its annual Thanksgiving distribution of food boxes, hygiene kits and other essentials at the Blessed Sacrament Church in Hollywood, where volunteers are needed to assemble and pass out kits.

Contact organizations in your community for other opportunities or check Big Sunday’s Holiday List for volunteer jobs.

Welcome to our comprehensive gift guide for the 2020 holiday season.

2. Join a turkey trot

Almost all the traditional Thanksgiving turkey trots are virtual this year, but if you register for one of the various events, you can run or walk your own 5K or 10K route and help a good cause. For many organizations, Thanksgiving runs are a major fundraiser, so get in your steps (even on a treadmill) and support a good cause. Registration also allows you to record your time on their websites and add to your race T-shirt collection. Check out RunGuides or this L.A. Times list for virtual turkey trots around Los Angeles.

3. Get back to nature

Several botanic gardens are open on Thanksgiving. The pandemic has made 2020 a lean year for these gardens, which rely on visitors and memberships to stay afloat. So instead of just wandering the neighborhood on Turkey Day, why not take a stroll through a botanic garden and provide it with much-needed cash. Or better yet, become a member, which allows free entry year-round to you and, in several cases, children and guests. Note that all the gardens have limited attendance to enforce social distancing and require masks and reservations.

Gardens open on Thanksgiving include:

Ventura Botanical Garden, with 40 acres of plants from Mediterranean climate regions.

South Coast Botanic Garden on the Palos Verdes Peninsula, with 87 acres of of plants, from roses to California native plants. (There’s also an evening holiday light installation, see below.)

The L.A. Arboretum in Arcadia is a showcase of 127 acres of plants from around the world, enhanced by wandering peacocks.

Descanso Gardens in La Cañada Flintridge is featuring its Reflections art installations through Jan. 10, with floral arches, deer sculptures, a wishing tree made from a felled oak tree, and gold-burnished stones and logs in the oak grove.

“Full Bloom” is a new competition with a format similar to “The Great British Baking Show,” except these contestants are making eye candy with flowers.

4. Visit a light show

Most holiday light shows were canceled this year to stop people from crowding together but — for a price — a few venues are offering walk-through or drive-through light events on Thanksgiving, with safety protocols in place.

South Coast Botanic Garden is hosting its first holiday light installation called GLOW. We haven’t seen it, but according to organizers, it’s a night-time, ocean-themed installation using lights and a musical soundtrack that covers about a mile of mostly wheelchair-accessible trails in the 87-acre gardens. Reservations are required, with up to 50 people permitted to enter per time slot. Groups larger than 10 are not permitted. Admission is $24.95 per member and $34.95 for nonmembers. Children 4 and younger enter free.

The Irwindale Speedway is hosting Santa’s Speedway Christmas Lights Drive-Thru, created by Mobile Illumination, the company that’s done holiday lighting for the Grove and Universal Studios, says spokeswoman Rachel Rogers. We haven’t tried it, but according to organizers: For $75 per car, participants get the “thrill” of driving on a real NASCAR race track (at slow speeds) through a 30- to 45-minute light show that includes scenes from Santa’s workshop, a 100-foot Christmas tree made of lights, and an LED forest of giant lollipops and other treats.

The Pomona Fairplex is hosting the Elf on the Shelf’s Magical Holiday Journey. It’s billed as an immersive drive-through musical “experience” that lasts around an hour. As the story goes, Santa Claus lands at the Fairplex during a test flight and, because of depleted holiday spirit, he’s having trouble getting back in the air. Viewers are invited to join Santa’s elves to get the sleigh back in the air. Tickets on Thanksgiving are $40 for adults and $35 for children ages 3 to 12. Children under 3 are free. Each car must purchase at least two and no more than eight tickets.

Most turkey trots in Southern California are keeping the race tradition alive with virtual runs.

5. Do some themed shopping

Theme parks are closed because of coronavirus, but a few have opened their shopping areas outside the parks and will be decked out in holiday decor.

Disneyland’s Downtown Disney District and Buena Vista Street in Anaheim have restaurants and shops open from 10 a.m. to 9 p.m.

Universal Studio’s City Walk shopping and food area in Studio City is open noon to 8 p.m.

Knott’s Berry Farm is offering ticketed events through Jan. 3 with its Knott’s “Taste of Merry Farm,” which for $40 gives people a chance to sample five holiday foods and visit 23 stores featuring handmade, artisan merchandise. (Many days are already sold out, but Thanksgiving was available at the time this was published.)

6. Do some relaxed shopping

The Citadel Outlets outside downtown L.A. are offering a quiet retail fix on Turkey Day. All but six of the Citadel Outlets’ 130 stores will be closed on Thanksgiving, but this shopping center in Commerce has plenty of window shopping and festive decor, with a 100-foot Christmas tree, the world’s largest holiday bow and Santa’s house (which will be empty until Nov. 28 and then allow visits with Santa behind plexiglass).

The Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts in Beverly Hills has a free drive-by Visions in Light show that you won’t want to miss. The exhibit is projected on the center’s windows from 8 to 11 p.m. through Nov. 29, and features the works of 40 established and emerging artists. While you’re in the neighborhood, take a spin down Rodeo Drive to see the city’s new Visions of Holiday Glamour installation along the center median. It features 10 statuesque mannequins donned in elaborate gowns made from winter foliage, florals and metallic holiday ornaments, along with palm trees ablaze in white lights. The installation runs from Nov. 21 to Jan. 3. And if you want to do some tony window shopping, or see the Wallis exhibit more closely, there are several lots nearby offering free two-hour parking.

So you’re not traveling for the holidays. Here’s what to do in Southern California, including where to hike, play in the ocean and spend a day trip.

7. Hit the aquarium

The Aquarium of the Pacific in Long Beach has kept its outdoor exhibits open during the pandemic, and there’s still plenty to do and see, such as feeding cups of nectar to colorful lorikeets (birds from Australia) or brine shrimp to moon jellyfish as well as visiting the shark tanks, seals, sea lions and penguins. Admission is $19, and the aquarium will offer a boxed Thanksgiving-themed meal you can preorder online. Reservations are required, and every visitor 2 and older must wear a mask. Admission is $19 per person; brine shrimp, lorikeet nectar and meals cost extra.

8. Walk through the lights

The Mission Inn in Riverside attracted some 750,000 people last year for its monthlong Festival of Lights. This year there isn’t any special programming, vendors or lighting ceremony, but the block-long Mission Inn will be decorated with lights on three sides, along with the surrounding pedestrian mall for people who want to take an evening stroll. The inn’s lights won’t turn on until the day after Thanksgiving, but downtown Riverside will have trees and giant decorations installed if you want to take in holiday lights downtown. Note: the Mission Inn has more lights, a life-size gingerbread house and an elaborately decorated 19-foot Christmas tree inside, but because of COVID-19, those areas are open only to hotel guests or people with reservations at its restaurants. Check ahead before you go, since Riverside County moved back into the restrictive purple zone because of increased coronavirus cases, which could shut down restaurants and hotels.