Festival season has begun at the Disneyland Resort, with the annual Lunar New Year celebration landing at Disney California Adventure. Over the past decade, Disneyland’s Lunar New Year festivities have swelled from relatively modest weekend events to extravaganzas spanning multiple weeks and overhauling entertainment and food offerings at the theme park.
Running now through Feb. 18, the celebration melds traditions from Chinese, Korean and Vietnamese cultures with the company’s familiar roster of characters. This being the Year of the Dragon made, for instance, the return of Mulan’s Lunar New Year Procession a natural fit. (The mini-parade features a Chinese dragon puppet as well as an appearance from Mulan and her dragon pal Mushu.)
If you’re planning a trip to the Anaheim theme park over the next few weeks, here’s what to make time for.
What to eat
The centerpiece of California Adventure’s Lunar New Year festivities is the food, with special offerings that honor, tweak and mash up various traditions. These span the theme park’s restaurants, the resort’s hotels and a series of pop-up food booths throughout California Adventure, similar to what the park offers during its Food & Wine Festival and end-of-the-year holiday events, although slightly smaller in scale.
On the opening day of the festivities, I sampled as much as my stomach — and my wallet — could take, including a few offerings from the six food paths scattered around the main promenade of California Adventure. I also dipped into holiday menus at the park’s Pixar-themed Lamplight Lounge and the Grand Californian’s Hearthstone Lounge.
Highlights from the booths included a quesabirria egg roll, which successfully split the difference between an egg roll and a quesadilla thanks to a hearty heaping of melted cheese, and a Mandarin orange mousse cake, which had a glowing, bulbous look and was more airy than it was fruity.
It’s worth noting that the California Adventure food booths can be hit and miss. I’ve never been truly disappointed, but I’ve also never been completely wowed, as these are small bites designed for sampling. The fried lemongrass chicken dumplings I had I found a bit lacking — the mix of overly crispiness and gumminess contrasted and distracted, resulting in an item that felt unseasoned and nondescript. The red spice friend chicken bites — though packing a decent amount of heat — were thin on meat, at least in the small assortment I was served.
Still, the four offerings were enough to work as a makeshift dinner, and I’m eager to try the garlic noodles, a BBQ pork bun and the taro Vietnamese-style iced coffee, the latter of which came highly recommended. The park offers a “Sip and Savor” pass, which sells for $46 and allows for six bites or nonalcoholic beverages. With most dishes and drinks running somewhere between $6 and $9, the pass can provide a small discount (the pass is $43 for those who have the Magic Key annual pass).
I would, however, highly recommend trying to score a reservation at Lamplight Lounge, or getting on the restaurant’s waitlist while at the park. Lamplight already has one of the resort’s best dishes — the sweet and spicy al pastor pork chop — and for the duration of Lunar New Year is offering a noodle dish with spiced pork belly.
At $27, it’s on the pricier side, but it’s a large dish with seasoned Szechuan sauce and a nice mix of flavors and textures, as carrots, cucumbers and peanuts round out the presentation. I had hoped to add a dessert of Lunar New Year milk tea and taro doughnuts, but was simply too full. Next time.
What to see
Disney has a rich history with dragons — Maleficent, Elliott, Figment, the demonic fire-breathing figure from the end of Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride — and while a part of me was hoping the Year of the Dragon would be an opportunity to showcase this rich tapestry of creatures, the resort has relied on old standbys. The aforementioned Mulan’s Lunar New Year Procession has returned, and it gives Mushu, the reddish-orange dragon from the animated film, a starring role in the center of the small parade.
More important, however, is the fact that the mini-parade successfully melds Disney characters with cultural traditions. Various segments call out folkloric dances and the meaning behind differing colors and flowers. Whether touching on martial arts or fan and umbrella dances, the narration does tie it all back to the character of Mulan, but it’s nice to see Disney’s entertainment team use the company’s characters as a jumping off point into other customs.
Likewise, too, the lovely World of Color pre-show that is “Hurry Home,” a heartwarming tale of a lantern on a quest home. It’s another returning piece of Disney’s Lunar New Year celebration, and it’s centered around a nostalgic and wistful score from composer Tan Dun and playful scenes involving Mushu. It has a more painterly feel than the main World of Color show, lending it a bit of a personal touch.
Lunar New Year has also introduced a new character meet-and-greet to the park. It’s welcome to see Meilin Lee and her mother Ming Lee from the Pixar film “Turning Red” make it into the parks as the two lightfully play off mother-daughter dynamics in their short time with guests.
The characters were met with long lines on the opening day of Lunar New Year, a good sign, I hope, for the long-term appeal of “Turning Red,” a film that delicately touched on the emotional turmoil of puberty, the insecurities of young adulthood and the complexities of familial relations.
And don’t miss this special place for reflection
There’s still more, as there’s live sugar art and various days of Lunar New Year will highlight Chinese and Korean musical traditions (check the Disneyland site for specific dates and performance times). But it’s also worth spending a moment in the Paradise Gardens section of the park, as here one can find the Lunar New Year Wishing Wall. It’s a place where one can take a few minutes connecting to other guests via their hopes and dreams for the coming year, as well as write their own personal message.
Smile, cry or write a note dreaming a little goodwill. I’ll be back, wishing for emotional healing in the coming year. It’s a little hidden nook, one that connects that fantasies of a theme park with those of our own.