One of my favorite holiday traditions is heading to Carowinds for the park’s annual holiday event – Winterfest. For six of the past seven years (we’ll let you take a guess which year was skipped), Carowinds transforms – not only from “Scary to Merry” following SCarowinds – but creating an entirely different energy around the park. With more than 5,000,000 holiday lights, live entertainment, special menu items, and more, a trip to Winterfest at Carowinds is the perfect way to get you into the holiday spirit.
We took a walk through Carowinds’ Winter Wonderland on opening night of Winterfest 2023, and here’s a little bit of what we saw, experienced, and, of course, ate – because calories don’t count during the holidays.
The Tacky Sweater Bar
Our night began in a new-for-2023 Winterfest Experience – the Tacky Sweater Bar. Located adjacent to Blue Ridge Country Kitchen, the Tacky Sweater bar goes full “Holiday Kitsch.” The decor is over-the-top, there are framed tacky sweaters on the walls, mid-century velvet couches, and cocktail tables filled with Christmas ornaments. I told a friend that walking into the Tacky Sweater Bar felt like “Christmas threw up” in the space, and I mean that 100% in the best way possible.
While the space is small, it’s the perfect place for a winter-themed cocktail. (For those of age, try the Icy Winter Breeze – A refreshing mix of Lemonade, Sprite, vodka, gin, rum, and blue curacao with a snowy rim. For those not of age, we recommend trying it anyway, because it’s also available as a mocktail.)
Tree Lighting Ceremony
Each night of Winterfest at Carowinds, the festivities truly begin at 5:30pm, when the 70-foot tall Winterfest tree is lit up during the tree lighting ceremony. Having visited Winterfest each of the past six seasons, the tree lighting ceremony is one of my annual highlights of the night, and a moment that I look forward to every year. The ceremony features a brief medley of holiday hits with accompanying choreography by a group of talented performers decked out in their winter’s finest (though during our visit, I imagine they might have been a little warm with temperatures in the low 70s!)
Each night, a Winterfest guest is welcomed on stage to flip the comically oversized switch to light the tree and officially begin the night.
As is the case with many special events at Carowinds, the park’s culinary team has crafted a series of special menu items that can only be found at Carowinds during Winterfest. The menu items can be found at dining outlets throughout the park, and range from the sweeter side (Pumpkin Spice Churros, Cinnamon Pull-Apart Bread, a wide array of Gourmet Hot Chocolate among the options) to the more savory side (Sriracha Maple Chicken Meatballs, White Christmas Chicken Pizza, Maple Bourbon Chicken Thighs, Country Ham Sliders). For those with more adventurous palates, there’s even a little bit of Sweet & Savory crossover with menu items like the Bacon Cinnamon Roll (Bacon on a stick wrapped in Cinnamon Roll dough and covered in icing) and the Candy Apple Turkey Leg.
However, we would be remiss if we did not mention what we felt was not only the best menu item at Winterfest, but perhaps the best thing we’ve ever eaten inside the park gates. (At a park with so many incredible culinary options, this is NOT an easy task.) At the “Snow Bird Diner” (Juke Box Diner, near Hurler and Fury 325) – Carowinds has created the perfect post-Thanksgiving meal sandwich in “The Gobbler.” The sandwich, which contains sliced turkey breast, cornbread stuffing, swiss cheese, cranberry mayo, and turkey gravy, was originally supposed to be served on ciabatta bread, but following an audible from Executive Chef John Loukas and his team, is now served on a freshly-baked roll that is baked daily in the park. The bread truly makes a difference, and the flavors come together in a way that complement each other perfectly. Bottom line: If you go to Winterfest, order this sandwich. Thank us later.
Millions (and Millions) of Holiday Lights
As the park transforms from Scary to Merry between SCarowinds and Winterfest, more than five million lights are installed around the park in preparation for the holiday season. Each area of the park has its own distinct theme and color scheme. The areas surrounding Carowinds’ Grand Carousel and Gazebo stage (along with Boo Blasters on Boo Hill!) are decked out with beautiful white lights. County Fair is covered in a red and white color scheme, while Camp Snoopy and Aeronautica Landing embrace more multi-colored lights. Even the trees outside of Fury 325 have their own special blue and green Fury lights!
It may not seem like the biggest decor difference, but these millions of lights are part of the reason that Winterfest has a distinctly different “feel” at Carowinds than a summer night would. It’s a fantastic way to get into the holiday spirit.
In addition to the millions of lights, there is holiday decor at Winterfest as far as the eye can see. Each year at Winterfest is slightly different, but between firepits, wreaths, giant inflatable snowmen, elves, and more, every where you turn at Carowinds, you’re going to “Step into Christmas.” And if you’re not looking for Christmas, there is even a corner of Winterfest that pays homage to other religious holidays and traditions from around the world.
The Fleet Street scarezone from SCarowinds has been repurposed into a Dickensian holiday village, and down at Aeronautica Landing, Carowinds’ homage to all things flight, penguins populate the area. (If you’re like me, you absolutely love the irony that the park’s flight themed area has been overtaken by flightless birds.)
Classic Winterfest Activities
Winterfest at Carowinds gives guests the opportunities to participate in a number of fun winter activities while at the park. From writing letters to Santa, to decorating cookies with his wife, to crafts, to roasting s’mores over an open flame, to ice skating on Snowflake Lake on the lawn outside of Intimidator, guests at Winterfest can get into the holiday spirit in any number of different ways.
There’s even a “scavenger hunt” of sorts in “Tinker’s Reindeer Roundup” – where guests can take photos and collect buttons for each of Santa’s reindeer. Note: Several of these activities – ice skating and cookie decorating – come with a nominal fee.
If you need a little Christmas, right this very minute, Winterfest at Carowinds has you covered. In addition to the tree lighting ceremony, the park boasts four more musical shows – The Down Home Duo at the Gazebo Stage, Jingle Jazz on the Harmony Hall Patio, Sounds of the Nativity in Blue Ridge Junction, and Cool Yule Christmas on the Celebration Plaza main stage. Carowinds also has two stage show productions – A PEANUTS Guide to Christmas in Harmony Hall, and Tinker’s Toy Factory in the Carowinds theater. If you’re looking for a dance party, the Polar Party in County Fair is the place to be!
For the first time ever, we saw Tinker’s Toy Factory during our visit. The show was a great show for families, and featured an incredibly talented cast. As a childless 30-something, I found myself identifying most with Santa moreso than the elves in the show, mainly because I also have a bad back and constantly just want to do my job without people worrying about my health. I won’t spoil the show, but there is also an appearance by what might be one of my favorite costumed characters at Carowinds. I’ll simply say that it’s not a crocodile or rhinoceros, and leave it at that.
There are also several “atmosphere” pop-up opportunities throughout the night Carowinds Winterfest in the form of TWAS: A Merry Mishap, an over-the-top retelling of “‘Twas the Night Before Christmas” by Carowinds’ midway merriment team!
Oh What Fun It Is To Ride…Or Not. Your Choice!
Believe it or not, during our visit to Winterfest at Carowinds, we didn’t ride one ride. We certainly could have – there are up to 28 rides available at Winterfest depending on weather and other factors. These include Air Racer, Air Walker, Gyrospin and Windstar in Aeronautica Landing, and Do-Si-Do, Zephyr, and Rock ‘N’ Roller in County Fair, along with select attractions in Camp Snoopy. For those looking to boost their coaster counts during a trip to Winterfest, the park has four roller coasters that are scheduled to operate during Winterfest – Fury 325, Copperhead Strike, Ricochet, and Kiddy Hawk.
For a full list of operating rides, click here. Just a reminder, rides are subject to availability during Winterfest due to weather and other factors. Keep that in mind during the planning of your visit.
Winterfest Wonderland Parade
With Grand Carnivale and two unique parades during SCarowinds, Carowinds is a park that is quickly becoming famous for their parades, and the Winterfest Wonderland Parade is no exception. Featuring eight ornate floats from world-class parade float builders Kern Studios, the Winterfest Wonderland parad, e is the perfect way to cap off an evening at Winterfest. If you’re a past visitor to Carowinds Winterfest, it’s worth noting that the parade route has flipped in 2023, and instead of emerging from Carolina Harbor and heading in a clockwise direction through County Fair, Thrill Zone, Carousel Park and ending in Celebration Plaza, the parade begins near Intimidator, and heads toward the back of the park. (Author’s Note: This change was made to better help with guest flow when leaving the park, and given our experience during our visit, it worked like a charm.)
Take a look at this year’s parade, filmed as the parade turned from Carousel Park towards Thrill Zone, in the video below!
In talking with Ryan Allen, Carowinds’ Director of Live Entertainment, he noted that he tasked his team to approach Winterfest through the eyes of their eight-year-old-selves. These touches are clearly found throughout the park, from the Tacky Sweater Bar, to Mrs. Claus’ kitchen, to even St. Nick’s Pics, where guests can take their photos with Santa Claus. It’s these little things and attention to detail that consistently make Winterfest my favorite time of year to visit Carowinds – and that’s even without getting in line for any ride during my visit.
I think my favorite thing about Winterfest is that it is steeped in tradition. Many families have their own holiday traditions, and Carowinds has developed their own traditions in the past six seasons. If you’re in the Charlotte area, and looking to get in the holiday spirit, look no further than Winterfest at Carowinds.
Carowinds Winterfest is open select nights (Friday-Saturday-Sunday through December 10, Daily December 15-23 and December 26-January 1) from 5:00pm-10:00pm. On Sunday, December 31, the park celebrates New Year’s Eve at Winterfest and the hours are extended from 5:00pm-12:30am. For more information, be sure to visit Carowinds’ website, and follow the park on social media: Facebook | Twitter/X | Instagram