Envision the perfect Nutcracker experience with children—a crisp December afternoon of festive fun and togetherness. You arrive to see the Opera House beautifully decorated, the dancing sublime, and a ballet that’s both charming and heart-warming. Their young eyes shine with delight as a magical story unfolds onstage. It’s a holiday experience they’ll always remember.
And yet—and we’ve all been there—that dream of a memorable holiday outing can take a decidedly less magical turn when the children fall apart during the quietest moment of the Waltz of the Flowers. Never fear! A bit of advance planning (and our best insider tips) can help set the stage for a wonderful experience with kids at Nutcracker.
1. Decide Who’s Coming
When is a child old enough for Nutcracker? You know your kids best: Can they sit quietly through a two-hour show (with one intermission)? It’s a judgment call: we recommend that children be at least 5 years old, and require that everyone be at least 3 years old (and have their own ticket). If you’re unsure, we have questions to help you deciding whether your child is ready for the ballet. When considering who to bring, keep in mind that while ballet is often thought of as an activity for young girls, there’s lots for boys to enjoy too, especially at Nutcracker.
2. Choose the Best Performance—for Everyone’s Schedule
Matinee or Evening?
Consider the kids’ daily routine. Matinees start at 2 pm and evening performances at 7 pm (except for Christmas eve and the last day of the run, when there are matinees at 11 am and 4 pm). Children who are sleepy before 9 pm would most likely be better at a matinee, while those who have a mid-afternoon lull might better appreciate an evening performance.
INSIDER TIP If you’re driving to an evening performance, consider putting a pillow, blanket, and pajamas in the trunk for the ride home.
Before or After Christmas?
Attending Nutcracker in the lead-up to the holidays is a special experience and a joyous escape from the holiday bustle. But did you know that Nutcracker performances continue after Christmas? The post-Christmas performances tend to be less crowded, with the same holiday magic but less pre-holiday stress in the air.
INSIDER TIP The 4 pm performance on Christmas eve has added poignancy and a festive air, with the orchestra playing carols post-performance.
Extra-Special Nutcracker Experiences
- Passport Performances are a great option for children—the first 500 children (ages 12 and under) who come into the Opera House are handed a plush toy. You’ll have an opportunity to take photos with costumed characters, and you’ll receive a special keepsake passport that you can use to collect different stamps from stations around the opera house. There are also complimentary treats and beverages for everyone at intermission.
- For an upscale Nutcracker, VIP Box Experience provides seats on the elegant box level, as well as a private reception at intermission with complimentary sweets, beverages, and special gifts. If you order 6 to 8 seats, you can even have your own private Box Suite (book early so seats are still available).
- For a truly one-of-a-kind experience, the Nutcracker Benefit Luncheon involves a beautiful lunch (and meeting the Sugar Plum Fairy), crafts, a performance, and much more.
3. Find the Best Seats—for You
When going to the ballet with children, look for seats on or near an aisle. Then if you need to slip out—for any reason—during the show, you and your child won’t have to crawl over disgruntled seatmates in the darkened theater to exit.
You also need to choose a seating section. Nutcracker is special in that you see something different from each area of the Opera House. Want to see production’s intricate details and the performers’ expressions? Choose seats closer to the stage. On a budget? The seats high in the balconies also have a unique view: you’ll see choreographic patterns in the “blossoming” of the Waltz of the Flowers and in the swirling snowflakes.
The seats on the two balconies (Grand Tier, Dress Circle, and the Balconies) are more steeply raked (stacked) so that it can be easier for children to see over those seated in front of them. That said, if you’re seated in the orchestra section, there are a limited number of booster cushions available in the back of the lobby for children. Ask an usher to help you find them.
INSIDER TIP If you blanche when a child leans on a high railing, don’t choose a seat in the front row of the Grand Tier, Balcony Circle, or Boxes.
4. Learn a Little Before You Go
Read the Story and Listen to the Music
You can read the story of SF Ballet’s Nutcracker before the show. And listen to our Nutcracker Spotify playlist to get to know the music. To delve deeper, Explore Nutcracker has a wealth of information—ranging from how the blizzard in the snow scene is created to backstage photographs to the history of this, America’s first Nutcracker.
INSIDER TIP Our downloadable Nutcracker Family Guide has great information on how children (and adults!) can get the most out of watching a ballet, plus reflection questions for after the performance (and much more).
Talk it Through
A little advanced prep can go a long way—especially for kids coming to a ballet for the first time. Set aside a moment to explain what it’s like to be in a theater. And that unlike at a sports event or watching TV at home, they’ll need to be both quiet and still during the show (and can’t look at electronic devices). Then prepare to bask in the reflected glow of accompanying such well-behaved kids at the show.
INSIDER TIP You can take a virtual tour of the Opera House.
5. Set Them Up for Success
Head Out Early
The experience of Nutcracker starts well before the show, and everyone will be happier if you’re not rushing and/or arriving late. Allow a few minutes for photos before you leave home, so you can capture everyone in their holiday finery, and budget extra time for traffic, parking, transit delays, inclement weather, etc. You can learn more about getting to the opera house, where to park, and where to eat in the neighborhood here.
INSIDER TIP Walk to the front of the Opera House to enter the building from Van Ness Avenue. On a clear day, you may feel a little “snow” coming down outside!
Grab a Bite Before The Show
Build in time to get something to eat, whether at home or at one of the many local restaurants. You can purchase drinks and food throughout the opera house, but you cannot bring them into the auditorium, and outside food isn’t allowed in the Opera House.
INSIDER TIP To avoid concession lines at intermission, you can pre-order beverages and snacks so they’ll be waiting for you after the first act. Just speak to one of the bartenders before the show.
Arrive Even Earlier for Passport Performances
If you’re going to a Passport Performance, aim to arrive when the doors open (one hour before the performance). Two reasons: the first 500 children to arrive are handed a plush toy, and you can only pose for photos with Nutcracker characters during the first 30 minutes after the doors open (and lines can get long).
INSIDER TIP You can rent opera glasses (binoculars) for $5 at the North Lobby coat check. Essential? Of course not. But if this gadget is what draws your child into the action onstage, it’ll be worth it.
Find the Facilities
You know this already, but here’s one more reminder: take a trip to the restroom before the show begins. Each act is about 50 minutes long and if you leave in the middle, you won’t be allowed back to your seat. There are restrooms on every floor (except the Main Lobby level) with women’s restrooms on the south side and men’s on the north side (they’re side-by-side on the lower level). There’s a family restroom/gender-neutral restroom on the Dress Circle level.
6. Enjoy the Show! (and have an exit strategy)
Nutcracker is a wonderful ballet for children, with an engaging story and many short, colorful dances. That said, take a look around before the lights go down to determine the easiest way out of the theater in case anyone gets restless.
INSIDER TIP Need a band-aid or a cough drop? There’s a first-aid room on the lower level. This can also be used as a mother’s room/lactation room.
If you need a break or to leave the auditorium during the show, you can still see what’s happening onstage. There’s a special Family Viewing Area on the Dress Circle level. There you can watch the performance unfold on a screen in a welcoming space that allows children to move and/or talk about the performance while experiencing it.
Stretch your legs by exploring the Opera House at intermission (right after the snow scene). You can visit the Shop at SF Ballet on the second floor, use the restroom, get a snack, and/or burn off some extra energy. This is a great time to chat about the first part of the performance. What did you like best?
And don’t forget to document your Nutcracker experience (but not during the performance, it’s not allowed). There are Nutcracker-themed backdrops set up on two different levels of the opera house. And there’s a photogenic sleigh on the north side of the lower level that you can sit in for photos. If you share to social media, tag @SFBallet and #SFBNutcracker.