With nonstop parades, festivals, parties, performances, and activities, it’s fair to say that California’s theme parks turn almost every day into a holiday. Even so, certain times of year get even more spectacular—like July 4th fireworks at LEGOLAND California, or a New Year’s Eve party aboard the Queen Mary. Here are sure-to-please festivities, listed in order by date, to add to your California vacation plans.
The legendary Queen Mary luxury ocean liner, now permanently docked in Long Beach, might just be the biggest party boat in the world. The ship’s social calendar overflows with special annual events, taking place on or adjacent to the 1,000-foot/305-meter, 81,000-ton/73,482-metric-ton cruise ship.
One of the highlights is February’s annual ScotsFestival and International Highland Games, with piping competitions, traditional Highland dancing, whiskey and beer tastings, Celtic harp concerts, and the chance to watch professional and amateur Highland athletes compete in hammer throw, caber toss, and other tests of strength. The festivities are a nod to the big boat’s birthplace—it was built in Clydebank, Scotland, between 1930 and 1934—so it’s only fitting that the Queen Mary has an annual party celebrating her Scottish heritage. Visit for the day, or enjoy the weekend’s-worth of festivities with an overnight stay in one of the ship’s classic staterooms.
Dolphins and killer whales aren’t the only thing leaping high at this top attraction in early spring. In commemoration of the annual Lunar New Year, special events focus on Asian cultures, with performances, foods, and decorations.
Watch Chinese acrobats creating human towers and performing other how-do-they-do-that stunts inside Mission Bay Theater. Outside, see lion dancers swirling in colorful costumes. Even dining at SeaWorld San Diego gets a Lunar New Year twist, with Asian-inspired food and drinks served during the festivities.
All events are included as part of your admission, so you can also take in all the other shows and enjoy the rides throughout SeaWorld during your visit.
Hold still as a Cerulean blue butterfly lands on your shoulder (and someone else madly tries to take a picture) in the Butterfly Jungle, a special springtime exhibit and experience at San Diego Zoo Safari Park, roughly a 40-minute drive north of San Diego.
More than 10,000 butterflies flit and float inside a tropical greenhouse, during this roughly 3-week-long event. Be on the lookout (smart tip: bring binoculars) for showstopper species, such as the yellow-and-black Grecian Shoemaker, the aptly named Giant Owl, and the classic orange and black Monarch. To extend your visit, spend the night in one of the park’s “Roar & Snore” tents overlooking an enclosed savannah habitat, featuring giraffes, gazelles, rhinos, and zebras.
Celebrating everything ocean—from amazing marine life to equally amazing conservation heroes—this two-day June festival sponsored by one of the world’s finest aquariums sheds light on the global ecosystem that covers 70 percent of the our planet. Enjoy live music, samplings of sustainable seafood, crafts for all ages, and awards presentations shedding light on inspiring leaders in ocean conservation. The weekend-long waterfront party also includes special feedings of the aquarium’s life aquatic life, including sharks, and plenty of face time with the every-popular sea otters. For a special twist, consider taking part in the festival’s family sleepover (advance reservations are required).
The festival also includes Monterey Bay Aquarium’s innovative Cooking For Solutions program. Special food and wine adventures, led by celebrity chefs and culinary experts, head out into the field—to local ranches, wineries, and other locations—and into the kitchen for hands-on demonstrations and samplings.
Lean back and stare up at the sky for LEGOLAND California’s eye-popping 4th of July fireworks in Carlsbad, about 45 minutes north of San Diego. The park’s “Red, White and BOOM” festivities have a decidedly retro feel, featuring classic activities like burlap sack races and water balloon tosses. Kids can bust a move during the Character Dance Parties, join LEGO building events, and join (with mom and dad) the stroller parade. Uncle Sam and the Statue of Liberty—on stilts—make a patriotic appearance, bands play in the LEGOLAND water park, and fireworks light up the night sky.
Get ready to scream—beyond the signature thrill rides—when you visit Halloween Horror Nights at Universal Studios Hollywood. And we don’t mean just from the usual thrill rides. In this series of incredibly popular scare-fest nights, the theme park turns into a haunted nightmare that will likely scare the willies out of the most stoic of visitors.
The thumping heart of Halloween Horror Nights is found in its mazes, the “scare zones” on the theme park’s streets that re-create shriek-inducing moments from iconic horror films and television series such as The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and Halloween. Visitors get to walk through movie-quality haunted houses populated with ghoulish, masked, or zombified actors, known to dart out from darkened corners.
“We wanted to completely fabricate an original story that brings together our absolute freakiest, scariest, most disturbing ideas,” says Crypt TV director Eli Roth, who helped create a new Terror Tram for the theme park. “Halloween Horror Nights is the must-see event for any horror movie fan—like the Super Bowl for scary movies—and is my favorite event of the year.”
Recent mazes have included hair-raising homages to “American Horror Story,” based on the creepy FX network series; “The Exorcist: The Possession of Regan MacNeil,” with all the levitating and head-spinning thrills of the iconic film; and “Freddy vs. Jason: Dream Battle” inspired by the 2003 film about the slasher-villain smackdown.
The mazes don’t strictly limit themselves to Halloween, either. “Krampus: The Christmas Devil” took its cues from the 2013 film about the “half-goat, half-demon” creature that terrorizes bah-humbug types.
The event’s other staples give spooky makeovers to park attractions, like the masked Jabbawockeez dancers performing at the Special Effects Show. Or, board the Terror Tram, the movie backlot train tour that has been hijacked for the season by Hollywood Harry—the nightmarish clown from digital network Crypt TV—and includes stops at the actual Psycho House and the Bates Motel from Alfred Hitchcock’s classic thriller.
Hollywood Horror Nights runs from mid-September through early November, but the opportunities to get freaked out don’t end there. The park’s Walking Dead Attraction runs year-round, supported by a cast of actors and animatronic zombies created from the AMC series’ original molds.
Insider Tip: Universal Studios Hollywood does not recommend Halloween Horror Nights or the Walking Dead Attraction for guests younger than 13.
Things get spooky at Disneyland Resort in October. Halloween events—some scary, some not—include a ghoulish version of Magic Kingdom’s Space Mountain ride, dubbed Ghost Galaxy. In the Magic Kingdom’s Tomorrowland, freaky ghouls amp up the scream factor at Space Mountain Ghost Galaxy. And of course, there’s the iconic Haunted Mansion, where the area around the mansion get decked out as Halloween Town, hosted by Jack Skellington from Tim Burton’s classic film, A Nightmare Before Christmas.
Disneyland Resort offers spook-free options too, including a massive hand-carved Pumpkin Festival on Main Street U.S.A. Check out the strolling characters in their Halloween garb (including a fair share of Disney villains), and see a traditional skeleton display honoring Dia de los Muertos in Frontierland.
Insider’s tip: Consider splurging with tickets to Mickey’s Halloween Party. Or join a Happiest Haunts Tour, where a “ghost host” scares up special pranks and adventures as you tour the parks; offered throughout the Halloween season.
Santa’s reindeer apparently like San Francisco. Several of the antlered beasts of burden—specifically zoo residents Belle, Holly, Peppermint, and Velvet—welcome visitors during December’s weeklong Zoo Lights event. Other evening activities aimed to get all ages in the holiday spirit include performances by storytellers, jugglers, magicians, and more, plus snow flurries on cue, and thousands of twinkly lights throughout the grounds.
Also in San Francisco, reindeer romp up on the rooftop of the California Academy of Sciences, in Golden Gate Park. Visit with the animals, then—as would be appropriate for a science museum—check out interactive exhibits to learn how wild reindeer make an epic journey of up to 3,000 miles/4,828 kilometers per year, thanks to unique adaptations.
Getting decked out for the holidays has become a full-on extravaganza at San Diego’s world-class zoo, in Balboa Park. Get into the spirit with a ride on the Polar Express, using 4-D special effects to make you feel as if you’re riding to Santa’s North Pole home. Twinkle Light Trolley lets you tour the grounds after dark to take in lighted displays, such as the Northern Frontiers Holiday Forest, with specially designed, lighted trees and displays of winter-loving animals. Also enjoy carolers, musicians, storytellers, elves flipping around in their trampoline workshop, and—of course—a huge decorated tree.
Balboa Park gets dolled up during the holidays too. Visit during the annual December Nights event for special music and dance performances, special activities and crafts, holiday foods from around the world, and spectacular displays in the Botanical Building.