On Saturday, January 27, the Smoosh crew got the chance to experience Lunar New Year in Disney’s California Adventure (DCA) for the first time. The year 2018 is the Year of the Dog, so Disney had Pluto front and center, pasted on all of its banners and signs. It was so much fun seeing everything the festival had to offer, so Smoosh decided to write about what we saw, along with our recommendations, so you can have the best possible Lunar New Year experience.
Typically, we solo author posts, but since we both experienced Lunar New Year and each had lots of thoughts, we decided to co-author this one! Diane will dive into everything you can experience at Lunar New Year, while Shannon will give you a review of many of the new food offerings!
Lunar New Year Events
One thing that Disney definitely excels at is entertainment. No matter what they do — parades, shows, movies — it’s always fun for everyone involved. In the past few years, DCA has made some giant leaps forward by really utilizing every single area of the park. Take the Paradise Garden area by Paradise (soon Pixar) Pier. For so long it sat as a basically useless area with a restaurant/grill, hidden behind a gazebo and a sea of teal-colored, ironwork chairs. Now, it’s ever-changing and reflects Disney’s newest and exciting developments. Last year, it was Coco-themed (which was AMAZING), for Christmas it was themed for their Feliz Navidad display, and now it’s decked out for Lunar New Year, complete with a ton of red and gold decorations.
When you enter Paradise Garden, the first thing you see is a Lucky Wishing Wall. Hundreds of little Mickey-ear-shaped papers are hung across yellow string, where guests have written out their wishes that they want to come true. Shannon and I believe in Disney magic, so obviously we wrote out our own. :)
Right next to that is an Art Station, where people can get take custom hand-drawn Chinese calligraphy and make their own paper lanterns. There’s even a complimentary face-painting station right outside Ariel’s Undersea Adventure, which looked pretty fun. And no Disney event is complete without an area to Meet Disney Characters. When we were there, Mushu and Pluto made appearances at the Paradise Gardens Gazebo, where people can line up to have their pictures taken. One of my favorite moments of the day was when a woman walked up with two service dogs, and Pluto sat there rubbing their furry little bodies. The Smoosh fam pretty much died.
Another cool feature was the Zodiac wall, where you can find your birth year and find out what animal you’re matched with. Zach, Phillip, and I are sheep (-_-), and Shannon was born in the year of the horse. Nothing like being the animal that literally puts people to sleep. At least Shannon gets to be a majestic stallion.
One of the main attractions for these festivities was Mulan’s Lunar New Year Procession, which takes place at noon, 1, 3, and 4 p.m. every day right outside Paradise Garden (sit by Goofy’s Sky School for the best seats!). It’s presided over by Goofy dressed up as the “God of Good Fortune” and features Mulan and Mushu, a Chinese dragon, drummers, and beautiful ladies in traditional Chinese garb dancing with fans and silks. There were also Chinese-warrior-looking men that did a cool dance with long sticks. Overall, it was really fun to watch. I personally found it a little underwhelming, especially when comparing it to A Musical Celebration of Coco, but it’s still definitely worth watching. Mulan also felt like such a minor part of it. She mostly just walked around waving in her pretty dress but wasn’t included in much of the actual performance. With Mulan being such a fierce warrior in her own right, it would have been cool if they included her in some of the more acrobatic scenes with the warrior men. After all, that was a big part of the story of Mulan! My favorite part was seeing Goofy jammin’ out to the drums in the background.
To close out our Lunar New Year day, we watched World of Color, which featured a special 6-minute water show beforehand called Hurry Home – Lunar New Year Celebration. (Note: Be aware that this short only takes place before the 9 p.m. showing, so get your fast passes early if you can.) Hurry Home, projected onto water screens like the regular World of Color, follows a lantern on its journey to find its way home. It celebrates family and friendship, and the show itself features a ton of reds, golds, and purples, ending in a mini fireworks show.
But honestly, the thing I was most impressed by was the innovation of the show itself. If you’ve seen it a couple of times, World of Color can get pretty old — toward the end, you’ll find yourself checking your watch to see how long you have left. But even in just the last two times I’ve seen it, Disney’s water-show technology has improved dramatically. Like I’m astounded at how far they’ve come since they first debuted World of Color. In Hurry Home, the feast or Lunar New Year banquet was what struck me the most. The colors were SO vivid and the pictures so clear. Right when I think they’ve done the best they could, Disney somehow makes it even more spectacular. *Cries. They also featured a small display of red fireworks to close out the show, which is not typically included in World of Color. It was a fun and surprising addition because DCA rarely does any kind of fireworks display.
Unfortunately, we didn’t get to see everything Lunar New Year had to offer — DCA also had different shows featuring Chinese acrobats, the GuGu Drum Group, and Korean and Vietnamese musicians — because we ran out of time. We did, however, get to try the food (#priorities), which Shannon was itching to review! (See below!)
The Lunar New Year festival also included several new food offerings. A complete list of seasonal food available at the festival is available here. There were three Marketplace eateries — China, Korea, and Vietnam — as well as Lunar New Year food at the Paradise Garden Carts and Paradise Garden Grill. We tried several options at the three Marketplace eateries and two of the options at Paradise Garden. Unfortunately, we didn’t have a chance to try anything from the Paradise Garden Carts.
Overall, the Marketplace food offerings were a pretty big disappointment. The whole Smoosh team is a big fan of Asian cuisine, so we were disappointed when most of the marketplace dishes were so bland. From past experiences, Asian food at Disney always leaves something to be desired. After living in the Bay Area and L.A. (and also marrying a Southeast Asian man…), I’ve learned how incredible Asian food is — but also how intimidating it can be for those who don’t eat it very often. I feel like Disney tries to make it as friendly as possible to the masses, which often leaves it quite bland. Although we were skeptical going into it, we remembered how amazing the Festival of Holidays marketplace food was, so we were hopeful this would match up. Unfortunately, it didn’t. But, despite the disappointment, we were still excited to try all the new marketplace Lunar New Year food. Everything we tried cost $5-$7.
Xiao Long Bao
Pork soup dumplings with black vinegar and ginger.
The soup dumplings were okay — edible but by no means anything special. The black vinegar and ginger was very much ... vinegar. And because the dumpling was so bland, it made the vinegar a bit overwhelming. I would not recommend this.
The three-cup chicken was one of the better food items we tried at the Marketplace. It consisted of chicken in a sweet and tangy sauce over rice and garnished with sesame seeds. It had a nice flavor and was not spicy at all. I don’t think I would ever get it again, but it wasn’t too bad.
Sticky rice cake with pork.
This dish tasted very fresh. The rice was sticky and piping-hot when we opened up the cake. The pork was so tender and moist, as well. Overall, it was really pleasant to eat but so bland! I would not get it again simply because it had no flavor, which was disappointing.
Sugar-cane shrimp skewer with sweet and sour sauce.
This ranked similarly to the three-cup chicken. The shrimp was tasty, not fishy at all, a bit sweet, and had a nice fry. The sauce was also a welcome accompaniment that added a nice sweet and tangy flavor to the fried shrimp. I would not buy this again, but it was one of the better food items we tried.
Ca phe sua da
Vietnamese iced coffee.
This was definitely the best item at the Marketplace that we tried. If you have never had Vietnamese iced coffee, it consists of dark-roast coffee, sweetened condensed milk, and ice. I have had Vietnamese iced coffee a few times, and Indian coffee is similar (hot brewed coffee with sweetened condensed milk and sugar) and have always loved it. The coffee at the Vietnam Marketplace was SO delicious. The coffee was just dark enough to make the sweetness of the milk not too overwhelming. If I make it back to Lunar New Year before it’s over, I will definitely get another. You can also get it at most Vietnamese restaurants if you want to try it — definitely don’t need to go to Disneyland to find it. It’s pretty simple to make at home, too! Sweetened condensed milk can usually be found in the baking aisle at most grocery stores. Go buy it, and put it in your coffee; it’s delicious.
Paradise Garden Grill
Sweet potato noodles with vegetables.
If you want to steer clear of sweets and are craving something healthy and substantial, Diane recommends getting the japchae (which is what she ordered while we were eating all the Markeplace foods!). It’s made up of sweet potato noodles, onions, shiitake mushrooms, carrots, spinach, snow peas, broccolini and lightly sauteed tofu. To finish, it’s tossed with sesame oil and sweet and spicy sauce and topped with toasted sesame seeds. Since the japchae had a ton of veggies, it left her feeling full for the rest of the day. I tried it as well, and it had good flavor but not nearly enough of it. Diane said there were random bites packed with seasoning, while other bites were just mediocre and a little bland. If you’re able to snag some from other stands, add some chili sauce or soy-sauce-type flavoring. Since this dish would require so much doctoring to be good, it might not be worth your money. But, if you do find some chili sauce and want something healthier, this is a decent option.
Bánh mì thit nuong
Marinated pork belly, pickled carrots, and daikon with cucumber, cilantro, seasoned mayonnaise, and jalapeno on a crispy baguette.
Of the many Lunar New Year offerings we tried, the bánh mì was by far the best. My husband and I agreed it was even one of the better bánh mìs we have ever had — and we’ve had many. The pork was flavorful and juicy with crisp, sweet veggies and a nice heat from the jalapenos. The baguette was also big and delicious. Overall, this is the only food item we tried that I would definitely recommend you purchase at Lunar New Year. Unfortunately we didn't get a photo of this one!
Another thing we wanted to mention is the Lunar New Year merchandise, which was pretty darn cute. They had a couple of 2018 Lunar New Year pins (about $14.99 each) depicting the Year of the Dog and Mickey and Minnie, red shirts with a super cute (and also manly) design on them, and — one of our favorites — these red money envelopes ($10) that were absolutely beautiful. We would’ve bought it all if we could. Still, it seems like Disney can do so much more with its products and be more imaginative, rather than being repetitive in its gift-shop offerings each year. It’s possible Lunar New Year hasn’t garnered enough attention to put in the time and effort to make it worth it.
Overall, Lunar New Year was really fun, although now we’re curious as to what the Shanghai and Hong Kong Disney parks do for their celebrations. It must be incredible!! However, for DCA, if you’re not a passholder, you should probably save you money and wait for Pixar Pier to open. But if you are a passholder, I’d say come check it out! As a Disney lover, you’ll appreciate the decorations and the fanfare of it all.
And whatever you do, get the Vietnamese iced coffee!