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-metre, 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.
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 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 latest maze, inspired by season one of Netflix’s hit series Stranger Things, is slated to come to life at Universal Studios Hollywood on September 14, 2018. Past mazes have included “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 molds.
Insider Tip: Universal Studios Hollywood does not recommend Halloween Horror Nights or the Walking Dead Attraction for guests younger than 13.
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, where the area around the mansion get decked out as Halloween Town, hosted by Jack Skellington from Tim Burton’s classic film, The Nightmare Before Christmas.Disney California Adventure Park has gotten its own Halloween makeover, too: Guardians of the Galaxy takes on Monsters After Dark theme, while Cars Land's "Halu-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’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 the annual Reindeer Romp event. Mingle with these wondrous creatures, learn about how they have adapted to their frigid environments, and feed them snacks by hand.
In December, don’t miss the annual ZooLights celebration, where the reindeer will also make an appearance, along with the evening’s VIP guest, Santa Claus. After schmoozing with the man in red, visitors can take in the holiday light displays and warm themselves by the open fire pit. 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, holiday special events are plentiful at the California Academy of Sciences, in Golden Gate Park. Check out the Academy’s annual holiday “‘Tis the Season for Science: Life on Ice” to see interactive exhibits that show how wild reindeer make an epic journey of up to 3,000 miles per year, thanks to unique adaptations. Learn how many other Arctic and Antarctic animals thrive in their snowy ecosystems as well. Afterwards, go skating at the Holiday Ice Rink, and if you are more of a nighttime skater, check out Sunday Skate Nights on select Sundays in November and December.
Also worthy of a science center is the Snowman Theater—a digital snowman-shaped dome theater that is screening the kid-friendly short film Science of Snow. Everyone knows that every snowflake is special. Learn the story behind each one’s unique geometric beauty.
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.