Holiday Magic Returns to California Theme Parks After a Year Without

Travelers and families who missed out in 2020 are relishing the festivities.

Holiday Magic Returns to California Theme Parks After a Year Without

It’s been two (long) years since the holiday season came to the Disneyland Resort.

Photo by Christian Thompson/Disneyland Resort

The holiday season at California theme parks, including Disneyland, Universal Studios, and Legoland, has an added dash of sparkle this year. After 2020, when the state’s amusement parks were closed due to the pandemic, the major parks are all open this year for the holidays. With kids ages five and up now eligible for the Pfizer COVID vaccine, families have even more reason to celebrate and embrace the festivities.

“I challenge you to find a more festive atmosphere than at a Disney park,” says Cara Goldsbury, president and founder of Glass Slipper Concierge, a bespoke Disney travel agency. “This year has been our most significant in terms of travel sales . . . as of now, the holiday week is almost completely booked.”

Goldsbury noted that Glass Slipper Concierge saw a big jump in bookings after kids ages 12–18 became eligible for vaccinations. “The more vaccinated guests are, the more comfortable people feel about visiting Disney and Universal theme parks. . . . I think any sort of family vacation [this year] feels more poignant and necessary because of the pandemic,” she adds.

My five-year-old son Niko and I were recently among the families indulging in such a vacation. We headed to Disneyland after he had received his Pfizer vaccine, and the entire trip combined with the extra dose of holiday magic—the giant gingerbread house, and corresponding intoxicating scent, being constructed in the lobby of the Disney’s Grand Californian Hotel & Spa set the stage for our extremely jolly weekend—felt far more special than any of our visits before it. Like so many experiences that were ripped from us during the pandemic, this, too, took on new meaning as we finally re-entered the parks after more than two years away. (In the Before Times, it was not uncommon for us to visit Disneyland, just 20 minutes from my parents’ home in Southern California, at least once or twice a year.)

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The writer’s son, Niko, takes a ride on Luigi’s Joy to the Whirl in Disney California Adventure’s Cars Land.

Photo by Michelle Baran

The festive celebrations kicked off at Disneyland on November 12 and will last until January 9—three days longer than usual. If you want to feel like you’ve landed inside a giant winter snow globe, Disneyland won’t disappoint. The extremely photogenic attractions include the centerpiece, winter-themed Sleeping Beauty’s Castle and a 60-foot Christmas tree on Disneyland’s Main Street, U.S.A. The park’s Christmas parade is also back in effect as is a holiday-themed fireworks show.

At Disney California Adventure, the Festival of Holidays celebrates traditions from around the world, featuring numerous specialty food items (braised pork belly adobo, holiday stuffing mac and cheese, churro toffee cold brew latte, and maple hazelnut hot buttered rum among them). And the “Disney ¡Viva Navidad!” is a street party featuring Mexican and Brazilian dancers and musicians. Cars Land has been transformed, too, including two rides that have been given a holiday upgrade with new seasonal songs and decor—Luigi’s Joy to the Whirl and Mater’s Jingle Jamboree.

Niko wasn’t nearly as aware of the magnitude of the trip as I was, but he was swept up in the magic nonetheless. He yelled, “Hi, Jack!” to one of his favorite characters, Jack Skellington, at The Nightmare Before Christmas–themed Haunted Mansion in Disneyland and indulged in oversized seasonal gingerbread cookies at the Festival of Holidays food stalls at Disney’s California Adventure. At every turn we could feel the holiday spirit taking over. It was—for both of us—a much-needed dose of over-the-top, unfettered joy. And we weren’t alone in feeling swept up in it all.

“Disneyland has always been an important place for our family and traveling there always brings so much joy to [us],” Chris Goetz of Concord, California, tells AFAR. Goetz visited Disneyland during Thanksgiving week with his wife and two high school–age kids, all of whom are fully vaccinated. “We often visit during the holiday season—and being there last week after being away during the height of the pandemic was just the best. We met up there with our friends from San Diego, with their fully vaxxed kids—all totally relieved that we could finally go safely together.”

For those who don’t make it for the holidays, Disney California Adventure will be celebrating Chinese, Korean, and Vietnamese tastes and traditions for the Year of the Tiger during its Lunar New Year festivities from January 21 through February 13. And on March 4, the Disney California Adventure Food & Wine Festival will return for a seven-week run, much to foodies’ delight.

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Get in the (treat) spirit with a holiday shake at Smokejumpers’ Grill at Disney California Adventure.

Photo by David Nguyen/Disneyland Resort

Disneyland’s COVID protocols

At press time, advance reservations were required to visit the Disneyland parks, and face masks were mandated for all guests age two and older in indoor areas—but not outside. It’s worth noting that the parks definitely feel crowded again, including in some indoor areas. There is no vaccination or COVID testing requirement for entering Disneyland parks.

Harry Potter holiday cheer and the Grinch return to Universal Studios Hollywood

Universal Studios Hollywood has rolled out the festive welcome mat this year after being closed during most of 2020. From November 26 through January 9, the Wizarding World of Harry Potter has transformed into a holiday-themed destination with Christmas decor, food, drinks, and entertainment throughout Hogsmeade and Hogwarts Castle—head to the Three Broomsticks tavern for a traditional Christmas meal featuring herb-roasted chicken or shepherd’s pie.

Universal has also brought back its popular Grinchmas event, with a decked-out Who-ville and appearances by the crabby Grinch and his adorable companion Max.

Universal’s COVID protocols

All Universal guests ages 12 and older must either show proof of full vaccination against COVID-19 or a negative COVID-19 test (either a PCR or rapid antigen test—home or self-tests aren’t accepted) taken within 72 hours prior to entering the theme park, per Los Angeles County health department regulations. Children under 12 are exempt. Face masks are required both indoors and outside at the theme park and inside stores and restaurants at Universal CityWalk.

Legoland brings back holiday minifigs and a LEGO Christmas tree

Down in Carlsbad, California, families will be greeted by Santa, toy soldiers, and gingerbread LEGO characters, and gather round a 30-foot LEGO Christmas tree at the Legoland California Resort, now through January 9. The park’s Lego-themed hotel has also been decked out with colorful holiday decorations to enhance the joy.

Legoland’s COVID protocols

Advanced reservations are required at the Legoland California Resort. Legoland is asking all unvaccinated guests to wear masks at all times and all guests, regardless of vaccination status, to wear face masks in indoor areas. Proof of vaccination or a negative COVID-19 test is not required.

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Michelle Baran is the senior travel news editor at AFAR where she oversees breaking news, travel intel, pandemic coverage, airline, cruise, and consumer travel news. Baran joined AFAR in August 2018 after an 11-year run as a senior editor and reporter at leading travel industry newspaper Travel Weekly.
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