Six Steps to a Dreamy Nutcracker with Kids (with Insider Tips!)

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 start wailing 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

San Francisco Ballet Nutcracker VIP Box Experience. (© Chris Hardy)

Nutcracker attendees at intermission // © Chris Hardy

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 either 11 am or 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.

San Francisco Ballet Nutcracker VIP Box Experience. (© Chris Hardy)

A Nutcracker VIP Experience guest at intermission // © Chris Hardy

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. There are also complimentary treats and beverages for everyone at intermission.
  • For an upscale NutcrackerVIP 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.


SF Ballet in the Snow Scene of Tomasson’s Nutcracker

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, our blog page  has a wealth of information about Nutcracker—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

San Francisco Ballet Nutcracker Family Performance. (© Chris Hardy)

Young audience members delight in a close view of the Nutcracker orchestra at intermission // © Chris Hardy

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).

San Francisco Ballet Nutcracker Family Performance. (© Chris Hardy)

Posing with Nutcracker characters at a Passport Performance // © Chris Hardy

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.

San Francisco Ballet Nutcracker Craft Tables. (© Chris Hardy)

Audience members relaxing in the Family Viewing Area // © Chris Hardy

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.

San Francisco Ballet Nutcracker. (© Chris Hardy)

A photo opportunity at Nutcracker // © Chris Hardy

Purchase your Nutcracker tickets today

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