Why Disney California Adventure's Lunar New Year celebration is the best theme park festival

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Why Disney California Adventure's Lunar New Year celebration is the best theme park festival

Disneyland Resort kicks off its Lunar New Year festivities as new coaster opening dates are announced and both Universal and Disney see updates.

Disneyland Resort Lunar New Year Celebration PRESS

Come one, come all to this week's Theme Park News in review! The past few days have been packed with plenty of coaster announcements as well as the debut of Disney's showstopper of a seasonal festival. It's been a sleepy January thus far, but things are picking up — and from private clubs to new character meets, we've got every update you need to know...

DISNEY'S LUNAR NEW YEAR CELEBRATION HAS LANDED

You can have your Halloweentime, your food and wine festivals, your springtime festivities — as I've mentioned before, Lunar New Year is my favorite seasonal event at California's theme parks, and this year is no different.

It's the biggest thing happening at Disneyland Resort until Valentine's Day, but Lunar New Year is more of a West Coast theme park event, one that doesn't really cross over to the Florida theme park resorts. With Universal Studios Hollywood bowing out of its full slate of entertainment and activities this year, Disneyland is the lone park to formally toast to the Year of the Tiger, and programming-wise, knocked it out of the park.

Disneyland Resort Lunar New Year Celebration PRESS

The entertainment is exceptional. San Francisco-based Melody in China perform a mesmerizing mix of contemporary, folk and classical performances daily at Paradise Garden Bandstand — which I caught multiple times and adored — but Mulan's Lunar New Year Processional was far and away the highlight. Daily performances see fan dancers, a Chinese dragon display, drummers atop a decorative float and characters like Chip n' Dale in costumes specific to the event.

Disneyland Resort Lunar New Year Celebration PRESS

The meet-and-greets are nothing short of fabulous. Guests can take photos with the delightfully playful Mulan and Mushu, who appear together for the festival, or meet the fantastically fun Three Little Pigs. Characters rotate throughout the day, with Tigger — in a special outfit in honor of Year of the Tiger — saying hello or even Mickey and Minnie Mouse stopping by in their Lunar New Year outfits as ideated by Chinese designer Guo Pei. A Raya and the Last Dragon walk-through at Disney California Adventure's Redwood Creek Challenge Trail is new this year as well, allowing guests to meet the princess in person for the first time at Disneyland Resort.

And, although I don't personally celebrate Lunar New Year, I still find Disneyland Resort's take on the holiday to be so inclusive, with Disney California Adventure blending culture with characters for an uplifting celebration that is more centered and than other seasonal offerings. Take some activities on offer, which include Chinese calligraphers and arts and crafts for children. A wishing wall, which allows guests to leave messages expressing their hopes for the coming year, is an especially well-needed jolt of optimism; hand-written notes yearning for health and happiness resonate more deeply considering it's the first time in two years DCA has held the event.

Disneyland Resort Lunar New Year Celebration PRESS

That said, this year's festival is great — but it's not flawless. The food booths and locations, which bring Chinese, Korean and Vietnamese delicacies into the park, have long been one of the highlights, but this year, it was prohibitively frustrating. Operationally, opening day last Friday was a mess of long queues both to order and receive food; I hear it was more of the same over the weekend and early this week.

It's no fault of the employees I encountered personally on Friday, who were working at a deft pace, but caused by demand — particularly from the Sip and Savor passes which allow for multiple tasting-sized portions for a set price — which couldn't be easily satiated during its opening days. Even the impressive hack of being able to order any item from any booth was negated by lengthy “pick-up” lines, extending so far down Paradise Gardens Park that it began to inch towards Pixar Pier.

Disneyland Resort Lunar New Year Celebration PRESS

Disneyland Resort really needs to expand points of sale, staffing, everything. Even with items like gochujang wings and char siu bao buns offloaded to nearby snack carts and coffee stands, there's a clear need to increase the payment and fulfillment opportunities or, perhaps, just introduce more booths altogether. They've created a fantastic product that brings people into the park and celebrates a culture that deserves reverence. Now, they just need to make sure they have the power to sustain it.

Disneyland Resort Lunar New Year Celebration PRESS

Disney California Adventure's Lunar New Year celebration runs now through Feb. 13, and I highly recommend visiting. (Yes, I am personally aghast that the best item in years past — a $25 whole fried fish for two, served head-on — was a severe disappointment, but there were plenty of delights regardless, like the Tiger Milk Tea with brown sugar boba and the divisive Mickey-shaped Hot Dog Bun.)

Other festivals are happening nationwide this time of year as well. In addition to Epcot's International Festival of the Arts in Florida, Knott's Berry Farm is hosting PEANUTS Celebration Jan. 22 through Mar. 6 with live music, themed stage shows, and meet & greets; while SeaWorld Orlando's Seven Seas Food Festival, which starts Feb. 4, will present musical acts like Flo Rida and Everclear; and Busch Gardens Tampa Bay's Real Music series brings concerts to the resort throughout January and February.

AND IN COASTER NEWS...

Iron Gwazi, at long last, has an opening date. Busch Gardens Tampa Bay's much-touted hybrid coaster will debut on March 11. Iron Gwazi, which will set new records as the fastest and steepest hybrid coaster in the world — and North America's tallest — incorporates the original coaster's supports with an all-new steel track. Annual Passholders can experience a preview of the ride as early as Feb. 13.

Elsewhere, Busch Gardens Williamsburg' Pantheon — the world's fastest multi-launch coaster — will open on March 25 with passholder previews beginning March 4, and SeaWorld San Diego's Emperor coaster will open on March 12. When it does, Emperor will be the tallest, fastest and longest dive coaster in the state of California, with a 150-foot drop and speeds more than 60mph.

COAST TO COAST PARK UPDATES

Orlando Sentinel shared a construction update for Epic Universe, the large-scale expansion slated to open at Universal Orlando Resort in 2024. The photos are of…a whole bunch of nothing (dirt! infrastructure!), but it's good to know they're proceeding after being stalled during the early portion of the pandemic. Over at the main resort, Universal Orlando Resort will no longer be requiring unvaccinated employees to test weekly. (Following a change late last month, masks are still required indoors for all guests and employees.)

Walt Disney World has welcomed back new character greetings, like Vanellope and Joy at Epcot and the absolutely incredible Kevin at Disney's Animal Kingdom, and select character experiences will now offer expedited access by way of Disney Genie+. Mickey Mouse, Cinderella and Tiana at the Magic Kingdom and Olaf at Disney's Hollywood Studios are among the characters that will now allow guests with the daily benefit — available for $15 per person, per day — easier access to meet-and-greets.

I'm... not sure yet how I feel about Disneyland annexing off space for an annual passholder-exclusive lounge and comparing it to their costly private Club 33. On one hand, tiered exclusivity that doesn't impede upon the experience of other day guests is a good thing for everyone, especially the company's bottom line. On the other hand, I'd presume Magic Key holders would much prefer flexibility — like not having to deal with park reservations or lessened restrictions on park hopping — than having yet another location to spend money on food at.

YOUR WEEKLY COVID UPDATE

The Orlando Sentinel reports that Orange County, Florida saw 44,010 new COVID-19 cases over the weekend. The state's seven-day average is 32,474 — the lowest in nearly a month, but still a whole hell of a lot of new cases.

A similar trend is happening on the West Coast. Orange County, California, averages 6300 new cases per day and saw nearly 19,000 new cases over the weekend, according to the Orange County Register. Coronavirus-related deaths in California have risen, with 102 deaths reported last Thursday — the highest single-day tally since March 2021, as reported by the Los Angeles Times. Even with those numbers and transmission rates extremely high state-wide (as of late last week, California was averaging over 100,000 new cases per day) new daily coronavirus cases are said to be declining in comparison to the past few weeks. We'll let you know where things stand — and how they'll hopefully improve — this time next week.

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