Insider’s Guide to the San Francisco Ballet’s Nutcracker

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San Francisco Ballet in Tomasson's Nutcracker © Erik Tomasson

If the idea of a full-on ballet performance with little ones in tow sounds daunting, fret not. The Nutcracker is the best introduction to ballet and while the Bay Area is replete with various interpretations, the San Francisco Ballet’s production has ravished San Francisco audiences for years. With stunning sets and costumes- including an over-sized Nutcracker- a fully-decorated opera house façade, snowflake light shows, and an opportunity to dress up for a special event, it’s easy to understand why so many families make the San Francisco Ballet’s Nutcracker a holiday tradition. Add to that a transit-accessible War Memorial Opera House, kid-friendly dining spots within walking distance, matinees and evening performances on any given day between December 9 and 27th and suddenly a ballet outing seems easy.

Before buying tickets, it’s important to realize that the San Francisco Ballet performs a full-length ballet – not a child-size Nutcracker version. The entire performance, including intermission, is almost two hours long and breaks down as follows: Act I is 44 minutes, intermission is 20 minutes, and Act II is 43 minutes. If your children are able to sit through a two-hour long movie without getting up, eating or kicking the seat in front of them, then they are ready for the big day. If not, look for other fantastic but shorter Nutcracker ballets around the Bay Area.

How to select the best seats for your family

Orchestra or Dress Circle? Here are a few pointers. The War Memorial House provides booster seats at orchestra level only, a mostly flat section closer to the stage and the orchestra pit. However, because it is flat, the Orchestra section might not provide the best stage view for little kids. Some parents prefer the higher sections because of the slanted sitting, and often buy aisle seats to enable a quick getaway. To see the seat layout, view the Nutcracker seating chart here.

Prepping for Nutcracker day

In order to prepare your child for the performance, San Francisco Ballet created a resource guide filled with word games, pictures, and easy-to-digest information that helps explain the Nutcracker plot – and Theater Etiquette 101. The guide is also a great way to entertain and engage children on your way to the performance. You can download the guide here.

Parents recommend Susan Jeffer’s book The Nutcracker as the illustrations incorporate dance scenes, making it a great pre-ballet read. The movie Barbie in the Nutcracker is also a good choice as it uses Tchaikovsky’s music and follows the traditional plot with a “girl power” twist. If you want to expose your children to the music or the performance before you go, you can watch the beautifully produced San Francisco Ballet Nutcracker on DVD, or check out a classic version staring a young Baryshnikov.

What to know on performance day

Most children like to dress up for the Nutcracker performance, even if it’s a matinee, to make the day extra special. After you find the perfect outfit, consider trying to get tickets to one of the family performances.  If those shows are not convenient for you, here are a few additional tips to make your experience a fail-proof success.

Insiders tips for the family performances:

–       There are only 6 family performances: book early to avoid disappointment.

–       The first 500 guests receive complimentary plush toys: arrive an hour early to be part of the lucky few.

–       Everybody gets free juice and cookies at the intermission: find the closest juice and cookies tables right after the curtain falls on the first act.

–       Children can take a picture with their favorite ballerina or Nutcracker character before the show: get in line right away as the characters have to leave 15 minutes before the show starts. If there is a long line waiting to take photos with a character, try the other side of the lobby. There are always two sets of characters and one line is usually shorter.

–       You can enjoy a festive holiday buffet two hours prior to show time for dinner Tuesday through Saturday, and brunch on Sunday: featuring favorites such as winter squash purée, seared salmon or holiday cakes, the buffet costs $34.95/adult and $15/child, or you can buy the family package at $80 for two adults and two children.

Insiders tips for the evening performances:

–       Bring a special friend/blanket in case your child falls asleep.

–       Bring pajamas to change into in the car.

For some performances, an upgrade to VIP tickets gets you the royal treatment with great seats and complementary refreshments at the intermission, and your kids will receive toy Opera glasses to enjoy the show.


–       Restrooms: when nature calls, you will find restrooms on all levels except the orchestra level. For minimal lines, find the two staircases inside the theater just behind the orchestra seats that lead up to the box level. If you dart up those stairs after the curtain falls at intermission, then walk down the halls, past the boxes toward the stage, you will find lovely bathrooms that won’t be crowded. The women’s bathroom is on the south side of the house.

–       Dining: The War Memorial Opera House offers pre-show buffets and light refreshments during the shows. For other family-friendly local dining venues consider: Café Delle Stelle, Arlequin Café (outdoors patio with heat lamps), or Absinthe Brasserie and Bar (the chocolate pot de crème is a must) for a more formal experience.

The Nutcracker ballet only happens once a year but kids will remember it for a long time. You knew that, right?