With nonstop parades, festivals, parties, performances, and activities, it’s fair to say that California’s theme parks and vacation spots turn almost every day into a holiday. Even so, certain times of year get even more spectacular.
There’s the Scotsfestival and International Highland Games, for instance, held every February adjacent to the built-in-Scotland and now permanently docked in L.A. Queen Mary. SeaWorld San Diego commemorates the annual Lunar New Year with a head-spinning array of tributes to Asian cultures, while across town at the San Diego Zoo Safari Park, you can revel in clouds of butterflies at the spring Butterfly Jungle event. In July, LEGOLAND throws its blowout fireworks display, dubbed Red, White and BOOM, for the Fourth, and come Halloween, there’s Halloween Time at Disneyland and Universal Studios Hollywood’s Halloween Horror Nights. Both are sure to be a howling good time.
Then there’s the end-of-the-year holiday season, when the special seasonal events really get going. In San Francisco, the San Francisco Zoo and the California Academy of Sciences have reindeer meet-and-greets, ice skating, a Snowman Theater and more. The San Diego Zoo throws its annual Jungle Bells event, with elves on trampolines, 4-D holiday movies, and the Twinkle Light Trolley. And of course there’s Newport Beach’s Christmas Boat Parade, the largest boat parade of its kind in the world, where every kind of craft, from millionaires’ yachts to humble canoes and kayaks get festooned with colorful lights and other decorations. Kicking off the new calendar year are several seasonal events at Orange County’s Knott’s Berry Farm, including their annual Knott’s Peanuts Celebration and the Boysenberry Festival.
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. 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.
The annual event stages professional and amateur competitions that harken back to the days when such contests were held to test the strength, skill, and technique of ancient warriors. It’s a rare opportunity to watch athletes compete in such time-honored events as the hammer throw, the caber (tree trunk) toss, and others. Meanwhile, festival-goers are also entertained by traditional Highland dancing, piping, drumming, massed bands, darts, Celtic harp concerts, and even falconry and sheepherding demonstrations.
Since no celebration of Scottish culture would be complete without partaking of their proud traditions of distilling and brewing, there are Scotch whisky and beer tastings, with aged-malt experts on hand to share their insight. There’s even a Wee Highland Games that the young ones can take part in, and adults can get competitive with the inflatable Castle Obstacle Course.
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 things leaping through the air at this top attraction in February. In commemoration of the annual Lunar New Year, special events focus on Asian cultures, with performances, foods, music, and decorations.
Watch the Chinese Acrobats of Hebei create human towers and perform such traditional how-do-they-do-that stunts as plate spinning, hoop diving, hat juggling, chair stacking, feats of contortion, and more inside the Mission Bay Theater. Performances last 25 minutes and take place four times a day. Outside, see lion dancers swirling in their elaborate and colorful costumes, with oversized heads and menacing scowls, meant to frighten away evil spirits in anticipation of the coming year. Accompanied by the thunderous pounding of enormous taiko drums, it’s an experience to be remembered. Even dining at SeaWorld San Diego gets a Lunar New Year twist, with food inspired by the cuisines of China, Vietnam, Japan, Korea, and others served during the festivities. (For dessert, don’t miss the green tea macaroons.)
In observance of the tradition of wishing prosperity and good fortune to family and friends, each person will receive a red envelope with a surprise gift inside upon entry of the park during the Lunar New Year celebration. It could be a coupon for discounted culinary treats, VIP seating for the Mission Bay Theater performances, or even free admission to SeaWorld.
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 in March and April. Be sure to keep your eyes peeled (insider 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. Not on a first-name basis with all these winged varieties? Not to worry—there are guides who will be happy to point out and name them all. If you want to get a really good look while the butterflies are sitting still, wear bright colors to increase the chances that they’ll land on you and stay put for a while.
Guests can also embark on the exclusive Butterflies and Friends Behind-the-Scenes tour to commune with bats, sugar gliders (tiny, nocturnal gliding possums), and of course, plenty of butterflies.
To make your visit even more memorable, spend the night in one of the park’s “Roar & Snore” tents overlooking an enclosed savannah habitat, featuring giraffes, gazelles, rhinos, and zebras. You’ll enjoy guided walks, a campfire dinner, and breakfast on the habitat the next morning, after which you’ll get to spend some more time observing the animals before the park opens to the public.
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 from mid-September through early November 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. Visitors get to walk through movie-quality haunted houses populated with ghoulish, masked, or zombified actors, known to dart out from darkened corners.
A few of the latest mazes to join the lineup of thrill-inducing experiences include ones inspired by Netflix’s hit series Stranger Things and Jordan Peele’s horror film Us. Other themes include Rob Zombie’s House of 1,000 Corpses, Ghostbusters, Stephen King’s Creepshow, and one that pits two of horror’s all-time greatest against each other in Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man. The mazes aren’t the only attractions that have a distinct lean toward a certain decade. After your heart slows down from the fright, get it pumping again at the ‘80s Throwback Thursdays bash, which is really two events in one: one venue features a live band playing that decade’s monster hits and the other a DJ-hosted dance party.
Elsewhere, the spirit of Halloween Horror Nights inspires spooky makeovers and additions to park attractions, like the masked Jabbawockeez dancers performing at the Special Effects Show. And a whole selection of Scare Zones await as well—Fallen Angelz, Toxxxic Tunnel, and All Hallow’s Evil are just a few of them that will test your mettle. And 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.
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, 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.
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, just north of downtown San Diego. Visit the annual Jungle Bells celebration, from mid-December through early January, and get into the spirit in ways only the San Diego Zoo can inspire. Take a ride on the Polar Express, which uses 4-D special effects (achieved with 3-D glasses, plus such enhancements as wind, mist, and snow!) to make you feel as if you’re riding to Santa’s North Pole home. Another 4-D movie adventure is Ice Age: A Mammoth Christmas, where fans of the flick can join Manny, Sid, and Diego on a quest to get Sid off of Santa’s naughty list.
Twinkle Light Trolley lets you sit back and tour the grounds after dark, all the better to take in elaborate lighted displays such as the Northern Frontiers Holiday Forest, with specially designed lighting adorning trees, and displays of winter-loving animals. Also enjoy carolers, musicians, storytellers, elves flipping around in their trampoline Toy Hop Shop, and—of course—a huge decorated tree.
No holiday celebration is complete without a reading of the poem The Night Before Christmas, and here, it’s animal-themed, hosted by Dr. Zoolittle.
Outside the zoo, Balboa Park gets dolled up during the holidays too. Visit during the annual December Nights event for special music and dance performances, seasonal activities and crafts, carnival rides, holiday foods from around the world at the International Cottages, and spectacular displays in the historic Botanical Building.
The boysenberry may be a summer fruit, but Knott’s Berry Farm finds plenty of ways to celebrate its origins and various holidays year-round.
The calendar year kicks off with the Knott’s Peanuts Celebration, held on select weekends in late January and February, featuring live shows with Peanuts characters, meet-and-greets, and added attractions like character-drawing classes. In March, Ghost Town is consumed with the Knott’s Boysenberry Festival, when your pass gets you tastings of creative berry-fueled dishes (like chicken wings with a boysenberry glaze, or quesadillas made with purple boysenberry tortillas and accented with a spicy berry dipping sauce). You can even pair your food with boysenberry wine, along with other local wines and beers. During the summer, the Wild West section of the park is the focal point of Ghost Town Alive!, with appearances by bandits, cowboys, and regular folks taking part in regular western hoedowns.
The holiday season kicks off with Knott’s Scary Farm (typically from mid-September through Halloween), when the park gets a spooky makeover, with haunted houses and mazes that feel like live horror films and thrill rides that go dark. The park walkways are even in play, with creepy clowns and zombies popping in and out of the fog. The scarefest only runs on select nights during the season, and is not recommended for kids under 13. Littler kids (or grownups who aren’t fond of ghouls) will like Knott’s Spooky Farm, which runs on select days, when there is trick or treating in Ghost Town, a Halloween Hootenanny on the Timber Mountain Log Ride, and a special show at the Camp Snoopy Theatre.
By mid-November, the park shifts into Knott’s Merry Farm (running through early January), when holiday trimmings cover the park, carolers stroll, and shows abound, like a few different Peanuts shows (including Snoopy on Ice), a Wild West–themed holiday show at the Calico Saloon, and old-fashioned takes on A Christmas Carol and The Gift of the Magi staged at the Bird Cage Theatre. Stay for the evening when man-made snow falls over Ghost Town.