Local theme parks make this summer their own with attractions both new and old enticing families ready for some fun.
Amusement parks are built for bright, hot summer days. But summer nights at a park can light up, sparkle and rock-and-roll too.
After two long COVID-restricted summers, families are finding themselves doing some so-called “revenge-travel” and making up for lost time. Maybe a trip to Europe is also on the schedule this summer, but in the meantime, the local theme parks are open, bringing back a few classics, launching new attractions, throwing parties and serving up a lot of new food.
Disneyland Resort and Knott’s Berry Farm are bringing a mix of old and new, while Universal Studios Hollywood and Legoland California Resort are opening new family-friendly attractions. Here’s a quick look at them all, with a few tips on how best to enjoy them.
Disneyland Resort — Nighttime Spectaculars and “Tale of the Lion King”
The lights of the Main Street Electrical Parade are on again to celebrate the 50th anniversary of one of the park’s most unique shows. Returning with it are fan favorites the Disneyland Forever Fireworks, Fantasmic! and California Adventure’s World of Color.
Disney relocated the “Tale of the Lion King” to the main park and revamped and expanded it. Presenting the show in the Fantasyland Theatre next to It’s a Small World is likely a bit more family-friendly as it also offers the opportunity to experience the show in a more amphitheater-type environment.
Day and night shows have all benefitted from the downtime forced on them by the pandemic, either getting enhancements, expansions, new features, or at the very least, enjoying an absence-makes-the-heart-grow-fonder type of return to the fans.
“The Main Street Electrical Parade is one of those real unique parades and shows that has lasted for such a long time, it’s really had the opportunity to evolve and grow and present in a different way and bring on new characters,” says Michael Duncan, production manager for Disney Live Entertainment. “It’s always a difficult conversation to approach a beloved show like Main Street Electrical Parade, but it is one we’ve had the ability to change. It’s a show that every generation has their own nostalgic version of. They have a memory or moment of the parade that is unique to them and their generation.”
Duncan says they took advantage of the extra prep time the pandemic afforded them, though it might mostly be things only the most astute Disneyphiles would notice. Nevertheless, the shows, he says, are simply better.
“While the pandemic was very difficult and it has taken us quite some time to return, there were little touches here and there, whether it was a new lighting element in a show or a new little sparkle that may not necessarily be very obvious at first glance, but hopefully some of our guests will be able to recognize them. Any spot we had the ability to give a little extra, we did.”
The shows were brought back methodically but with a sense of joy, because everyone involved loves them too.
“The process has been very similar to how we normally bring back our shows,” he says. “It’s just gathering the production team making sure we have all the right pieces and the right resources and the right people to move forward. Once we’re able to start moving things along, it’s really a team of dedicated technicians and performers and choreographers and show directors and it’s them really pouring hours into making sure the shows can come back and be as strong and buoyant as possible.”
Duncan describes the process as requiring “hundreds and hundreds of people” to properly bring back the Nighttime Spectaculars, as they are often called. “Each show has a massive team behind it, whether it is the technicians working at the World of Color, the pyro-technicians getting ready for Disneyland Forever, the performers learning the Main Street Electrical Parade, or the maintenance team preparing floats, it is an absolutely incredible amount of people working behind the scenes to bring [it] together.”
With “Tale of the Lion King,” its popularity allowed the creatives in Disney’s Live Entertainment department to completely rethink not only the contents of the show, but where the audience should see it.
“We’re celebrating not just the return, but a complete revamping of ‘Tale of the Lion King,’” says Juan Aldava, operations concierge and admitted Disneyphile. “It originally premiered at California Adventure in 2019, however there is more to be told with this story and that’s why we went back to the drawing board. We brought in new choreography, we expanded the songs. It’s still the same characters, the same humor and same spirit of ‘Lion King,’ but presented at this brand-new outdoor amphitheater, the Fantasyland Theatre. You’re sitting in a storytelling environment. We’re putting you in the story of ‘Lion King.’ Not so much the movie, but the story as it would be told by generation and after generation. This is a story and a set of characters that I enjoyed when I was 4 years old, and now my 4-year-old daughter gets to grow up with these same stories and same songs I did. This is a new way of telling the story for a brand-new audience.”
Aldava says the changes will be obvious.
“If you got to see it at California Adventure, it was the outdoors, but it didn’t have the theater setting it has now,” Aldava says. “Now you’re in a seated amphitheater, the music is expanded and it’s really coming to life around you, so you’re not just looking at a presentation or performance on stage — as amazing as that is — it’s also coming to life around you. There are performers going down the aisles, things flying over your head and the music has so much more energy.
“There are so many more cast members on stage. There’s an iconic scene where Simba is trying to get away from the stampede. Now there’s an actual cast with the stampede holding their shields. It just adds a whole new dimension to how we can tell this story,” Aldava says.
“It’s so special to be in a place like this and feel what the story of ‘The Lion King’ is truly like. My favorite part about this is a lot of kids get their first exposure to a theater performance through something like this right here at Disneyland. I can recall being a kid 30 years ago and watching performances in the same theater. It’s special, because you never know what kind of door to the imagination it’s going to open,” he says.
- The Best Orange County Staycation Destinations of Summer 2022
- How OC Does Disney: Locals Sound Off with Tricks of the Disney-Going Trade!
- Making the Most of Summer Break’s Family Bonding Time
Duncan acknowledges the fine line in keeping the classic shows generally as people have come to know and love them but also the desire to freshen them however possible.
“The biggest change is for the Main Street Electrical Parade’s 50th anniversary. We have a brand-new grand finale float,” Duncan says. “The float is 118-feet long with seven sections, and has characters from all kinds of our Disney classics. From ‘Jungle Book’ and ‘Aladdin’ to ‘Coco’ and ‘Raya and the Last Dragon’ and ‘Encanto.’ It’s inspired by Mary Blair’s iconic art style, for It’s a Small World, really aiming to reinforce that we are all in this together as one large family and helps to bring the thought of togetherness at the end of the parade.
“Really, where we tend to make changes to World of Color is in its seasonal program,” he says. “Over Lunar New Year and our holiday season we get to bring out new versions of the show. It’s one where we really have the ability to give it new life through our seasonal small changes. Even the classic show has ebbed and flowed over time. It’s a unique venue where we are able to bring new elements and new technology with new versions of the show.”
Yet, change too much and the fans will let you know.
“These are all classic shows returning mostly untouched,” Duncan says. “We’re trying to add a little sparkle and shine wherever we can, and touches of new technology wherever we’re able to add it. So we’re hoping to bring back these shows that people know and love in a way that brings a little extra bit of Disneyland in them.
“We do always engage with the public and try to get a sense of what they like and what they don’t like, from a broad standpoint. We do factor in some of those discussions when we’re trying to build out those new shows to try to make sure we’re offering a show that is really going to hit home.”
Aldava agrees. “We are storytellers and we care what our audience wants to hear. This was so popular we wanted to expand on it. We’re constantly listening for what our guests are asking for. We’re constantly trying to give them the best of the best and this is the latest.”
When visitors aren’t riding Rise of the Resistance or Web Slingers or one of the park’s long-running classics, there is a lot of new food around and new collectables to collect like the light-up Elliott Dragon premium bucket and light-up turtle sipper.
Insiders recommend getting dining and dessert packages to get premium seating for the shows and to sample some of the new food. The packages are available via the Disneyland app or at disneyland.com.
Knott’s Berry Farm — Ghost Town Alive and Summer Nights
The streets of Knott’s Ghost Town have been, well, pretty ghostly the last two summers, but are buzzing with activity once again as every visitor can unlock secret missions with long-standing Ghost Town characters, solve puzzles and even play a role in the day’s events.
Flush with old and new characters, there’s plenty to do in the Old West town during the day, but when the sun goes down, the party gets going.
Knott’s Summer Nights is still a chance to feel the wind in your face on a coaster or two, but it is also live music and DJs spinning, as well as classic summer food to new dishes like Crab Cake Sliders, Korean BBQ Burgers or Vegan Lettuce Wraps. Top it off with Peach and Pineapple Shaved Ice.
Tasting cards are available for $50 — $45 for season passholders — and offer six tastings from a selection of over two dozen seasonal-inspired dishes and drinks.
Universal Studios Hollywood —The Secret Life of Pets: Off the Leash!
You can still float past dinosaurs, whizz through the tomb of the mummy and tour the Hollywood backlot at Universal Studios, but this summer, you can also take a stroll through Pets Place to the front of Katie’s New York City apartment to enter the new ride The Secret Life of Pets: Off the Leash!
So what are pets doing when we’re not home? The new ride answers that question with 64 hi-tech animated figures and projection mapping, with blinking eyes to eyebrow movements, from head tilts to nods, from moving mouths to smiles, from ear curls to lip curls, from full torso twists to physically walking and the voices of Kevin Hart, Tiffany Haddish, Patton Oswalt, Eric Stonestreet, Jenny Slate and Lake Bell, all taking visitors to meet characters from the movie as they transform into a live-action world.
Universal is also utilizing Virtual Line technology, designed to help visitors maximize their time at the park, via the official Universal Studios Hollywood app, or at the Virtual Line kiosk located in the New York City subway station next to the ride.
Legoland — Ferrari Build and Race Attraction
The Ferrari F40 is a legendary sports car from the late 1980s known for its sleek red design and speeds of over 200 miles per hour. Just over 1,000 were produced and perhaps less than 200 remain in the U.S.
Or, you can just build one at Legoland. Then drive it.
A design team at the park used more than 380,000 LEGO pieces and 1,900 hours to build a life-sized replica of the famous car that now sits in the garage area of Legoland California’s new interactive attraction, Ferrari Build and Race.
Visitors can sit inside and take pictures inside the replica, and then tour the other two interactive areas in the garage that include the build and test area, as well as the digital racetrack where you can race your own LEGO Ferrari against others to try and reach the fastest lap.
The Ferrari Build and Race is included as part of regular admission to the park. Go to legoland.com for more information.
By Shawn Price