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Courtesy of the DIsneyland Resort

Holiday Events at Theme Parks & Attractions

With non-stop 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, orOtter Days at Monterey Bay Aquarium. Here are festivities that will not disappoint, listed in order by date, to add to your California holiday plans.

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David Jones/Flickr

The Queen Mary ScotsFestival & International Highland Games

The Queen Mary ScotsFestival & International Highland Games
See burly men and more during annual Highland Games

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, 81,000 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 history. Visit for the day, or enjoy the weekend’s worth of festivities with an overnight stay in one of the ship’s classic staterooms. 

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Courtesy of SeaWorld San Diego

Lunar New Year

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Lunar New Year
Commemorate the Asian holiday near Mission Bay

Dolphins and killer whales are not 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 stunts inside Mission Bay Theatre. Outside, see lion dancers swirling in colourful 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.

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Chuck Dowe/Flickr

Butterfly Jungle

Butterfly Jungle
Spring unfolds at San Diego Zoo Safari Park

Hold still as a Cerulean blue butterfly lands on your shoulder in the Butterfly Jungle, a special spring 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.

 

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Randy Wilder

World Oceans Day Weekend at Monterey Bay Aquarium

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World Oceans Day Weekend at Monterey Bay Aquarium
Crafts, chefs, music and awards focus on everything ocean

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 and fun for all ages and awards presentations shedding light on inspiring leaders in ocean conservation. The weekend-long waterfront party also includes special feeding of the aquarium’s life aquatic life, including sharks, and plenty of face time with the ever-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 programme. 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.

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Courtesy of LEGOLAND California

Red, White and BOOM

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Red, White and BOOM
Annual blowout for 4th of July

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 sack races and water balloon throws. Children can dance during the Character Dance Parties, join Lego building events, and join the pushchair parade with mum and dad. 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.

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Elio Yanez/Flickr

Halloween Horror Nights

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Halloween Horror Nights
Scare yourself silly at Universal Studios

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 has helped create one of the annual Terror Trams 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 favourite event of the year.”

The mazes of 2017 include “American Horror Story: Roanoke”, based on the popular FX series; “The Shining,” inspired by Stanley Kubrick’s classic horror film; “Saw,” tied to the horror-film series’ October debut, Jigsaw; and “Insidious: Beyond the Further,” a paranormal fright-fest that offers a kind of preview for the 2018 thriller, Insidious: The Last Key.

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 2017 season by “titan of terror” Chucky—and includes stops like 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 moulds.

Insider Tip: Universal Studios Hollywood does not recommend Halloween Horror Nights or the Walking Dead Attraction for guests younger than 13.

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Courtesy of Disneyland Resort

Halloween Time

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Halloween Time
Experience the Haunted Mansion’s star moment and more

Disneyland Resort turns into a Halloween wonderland throughout October. Halloween events—some scary, some not—include holiday decorations at both theme parks, a ghoulish version of Disneyland Park’s Space Mountain, and a nightmarish makeover at the Haunted Mansion. In Tomorrowland, freaky ghouls amp up the scream factor at Space Mountain Ghost Galaxy. And of course, there’s the iconic Haunted Mansion, that gets decked out as Halloween Town, hosted by Jack Skellington from Tim Burton’s classic film, A Nightmare Before Christmas.

Disney California Adventure Park has gotten its own Halloween makeover, too: Guardians of the Galaxy takes on a Monsters After Dark theme, while Cars Land’s ‘Haul-O-Ween’ zone features costumed characters and the morphing of Radiator Springs into Radiator Screams. For some seasonal music, go by Mater’s Junkyard, rendered into Mater’s Graveyard JamBOOree.

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 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.

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Kathryn Whitney

San Francisco Zoo's Reindeer Games

San Francisco Zoo's Reindeer Games
Christmas Holiday spirit at the zoo and in Golden Gate Park

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 week-long Zoo Lights event. Other evening activities aimed to get all ages in the Christmas 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 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 per year, thanks to unique adaptations.