- Associated Press - Monday, December 24, 2012

Disneyland is marking Three Kings Day in a big way this season, another milestone in the mainstreaming of a holiday that is beloved in Latin America and other cultures around the world.

The Christian holiday — also known as Twelfth Night or Feast of the Epiphany — takes place Jan. 6, ending the 12 days of Christmas. Many Hispanic communities in the U.S. celebrate Three Kings Day with parades and performances depicting the Biblical story of three kings following a star to find the baby Jesus, bringing gifts of frankincense, gold and myrrh.

The theme park in Anaheim, Calif., “launched the Three Kings Day celebration last year as a test. It was a big success, particularly with the Hispanic community, and we’re expanding it this year to a larger area,” Disneyland spokeswoman Michele Himmelberg said.

The park will host Three Kings Day on Jan. 4 through 6 at the Big Thunder Ranch Jamboree in Frontierland. There will be Mexican folklorico dancing, mariachi musicians, photo ops with Disney characters and bilingual hosts offering face painting, crown making and other children’s activities. Food carts will serve sweet corn tamales, chimichangas, Mexican hot chocolate and king cake, which is a round, sweet, doughy cake called rosca de reyes (king’s ring).

“I love the fact that Disney is doing this,” said Evette Rios, a correspondent with ABC’s “The Chew,” who grew up celebrating Three Kings Day with her Puerto Rican parents in Brooklyn, N.Y. “It means a lot. This is the changing face of America. We are becoming more open to different holidays and traditions. I don’t have a homogenous view of what America is and I’m glad Disney doesn’t either.”

As a child, Ms. Rios said, she would leave a dish of water under her bed for the three kings’ camels — “actually for the horses because there were no camels in Puerto Rico” — along with grass to represent hay.

The next morning, she would find small toys hidden in her shoes — gifts left by the kings.

Ms. Rios still celebrates the holiday by attending a parade in East Harlem in Manhattan organized by El Museo del Barrio, a museum devoted to Latin American and Caribbean cultures. The parade, in its 36th year, includes costumed actors, floats, bands and real camels. It’s always held on a weekday — this year Jan. 4 — so schools can participate.

In Miami, three kings of basketball — Heat superstars LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh — are grand marshals of the 43rd annual Three Kings parade on Jan. 20 in the Cuban-American neighborhood of Little Havana.

The holiday has a French accent in New Orleans, where Twelfth Night kicks off carnival season, culminating in Mardi Gras. Each Jan. 6, the mayor and leaders of top Mardi Gras krewes — organizations that host carnival parades and balls — meet at historic Gallier Hall to serve king cake, which in New Orleans is called galette des rois and is iced in purple, green and gold, the colors of Mardi Gras.

Both the French and Mexican cakes have a toy baby representing the Christ child baked inside, but Mexican king cakes usually are topped in the Christmas colors of red and green, colors also found in the Mexican flag.

Ricardo Cervantes, co-owner of La Monarca bakeries in Southern California, said they sell thousands of king cakes from their stores in East Los Angeles and the largely Hispanic city of Huntington Park. But surprisingly, sales also are strong at a Santa Monica location “in more of an Anglo neighborhood. People who are not Mexican, they are intrigued,” he said. “We also get a lot of people now bringing a cake into the office.”

Traditionally, the person who gets the slice of cake containing the toy baby must throw a party — “tamales and hot chocolate” for all, Mr. Cervantes said.

In New Orleans, the burden is a little lighter: Get the slice with the baby and you buy the next king cake.