Not Just Disney | The Real OC for Kids
By Wendy K. Leigh
Fireworks spray like shooting stars over Orange County every evening, with ooohs and aaaahs from the “Happiest Place on Earth” drifting through the original Disneyland theme park. There’s no doubt the Magic Kingdom turns family travel into an enchanting romp through kiddie heaven, but there’s so much more to The OC than what first meets a million star-struck eyes. From roaring beach fires to windswept fishing piers, tethered hot-air balloon rides, ice skating, and the crack of pro ball at Angel Stadium, you’ll find all kinds of magic brewing and bubbling when traveling with kids in Orange County.
Anaheim or Bust
Disney can be sensory overload when traveling with children, so a bit of down time can be just what the little (and big) ones need to rejuvenate. When I first left the Deep South in my early 20s to experience life on the enchanting West Coast, I happened to land in an apartment just a couple of blocks from Disneyland. Suffice it to say that a love-hate relationship with my traffic-invasive “Autopian” neighbors evolved. But I soon discovered that Anaheim has an earthy charm all its own, just minutes from Space Mountain and Jedi Warriors.
- Pro Sports: Angel Stadium is the stuff of dreams, from that first crack! as bat hits ball at an Angels home game, to the requisite steaming hot dogs and roasted peanuts. In the off-season, take the family to the stadium for a ballpark tour, where your own little stars will walk the famous field, stroll through actual player dugouts, and sit in the iconic broadcasting booth.
The Angels aren’t the only deities in town either: the Anaheim Ducks strut their own stuff at Honda Center, along with behind-the-hockey-puck tours. You can also lace up some skates and cut the ice yourselves at The Rinks, the official training facility for the Ducks.
Family Travel Tip: Both sports parks are less than 5 miles from Disneyland and the major hotels on Harbor Boulevard, so rideshares and taxis typically cost less than parking at the venues. Plus, it saves a lot of cross-lot trekking for little legs!
Angel Stadium has fun family events both on and off season.
- Old-Fashioned Fun: It’s hard to believe a genuine, old-school family-fun theme park survives and thrives just minutes from Disneyland, but it certainly does. Head over to Adventure City for a throwback scenario of low-tech carnival rides, a petting farm, children’s theater and a twirling vintage carousel from the 1940s. Still have some energy to burn? Rev up some more family travel fun with electric go-kart racing at K1Speed, rappelling at Rock City, or freestyle trampoline bouncing at Sky Zone.
- Picnics and Turf Dancing: The repurposed Anaheim Packing District is the perfect place to snag some picnic supplies from the Farmer’s Market, and join the forever-fun outdoor lawn parties on the 2-acre park. Pick up a Frisbee or kite from one of the market stalls, or just prance and turf-dance to live music with other families of all ages. If you need some quiet time, stroll the boardwalk and meander through picturesque olive groves.
Miles of golden sandy beaches steal the show in Orange County, and rightfully so. They cradle some of the most diverse ecosystems in Southern California, with teeming tide pools, crusty crustaceans, swooping seagulls and sassy sea otters. One of the best kid’s activities in Orange County is spending an entire day at Huntington Beach, host to world-famous surf tournaments, drop-in beach volleyball games, and wildly fun boardwalks, piers and beach cafes.
- Nicknamed Surf City, Huntington Beach is the quintessential beach town, draped in sun, surf and sand. Jump into the action by renting inline skates, boogie boards, SUP boards, bicycles, scooters, surfboards or volleyballs from rental shacks dotting the boardwalk. Beach volleyball courts line the sand near the pier and are free to use.
- Stroll along Huntington Beach Pier stretching for 1,850 feet into the Pacific Ocean, with anglers dropping lines day and night. Pay a small fee to rent bait and kid-sized fishing gear from Let’s Go Fishing at the end of the pier, and then reel in some bonito, halibut, sole or spotfin croaker to sizzle over a flaming beach bonfire on one of 500 fire rings. No fishing license is required, and there are fish-cleaning stations on the pier.
You can also skip the fishing experience and just arrange a “Beach Butler” bonfire package from Waterfront Adventures across from the sand-side Hilton Hotel. You’ll get firewood, kindling, blankets (which you’ll need after the sun sets!), beach chairs, hot chocolate, snacks and all the fixins for s’mores. Remember to order it 25 hours in advance.
Just across from the pier, Main Street rocks the block with trendy surf shops, seafood cafes, buskers and street performers. The underground parking structure on Main Street offers flat rates for the day and sits just across from the pier, making it a shorter walk for little legs than parking in metered slots right on the sand.
Beach Tip: Fire rings are first-come, first-serve, and they fill up fast. A little-known way to guarantee a beach fire pit is to reserve a picnic area at Huntington State Beach just south of the pier, or Bolsa Chica State Beach to the north, which comes with a private fire pit.
Crystal Cove offers an alternative, relaxed family vibe.
One of the best things to do in Orange County with kids is to experience an alternative beach vibe at Crystal Cove. Head south from Huntington Beach along Pacific Coast Highway, and park at the dedicated Crystal Cove parking lot, where a beach bus picks up your crew for the ride down to the sand.
- Walk along the sandy path to find a collection of old-style 1920s beach shacks once belonging to Japanese sharecroppers prior to the Japanese internments during WWII. Explore the shack museum and tiny shops to pick up souvenir shells, jewelry, trinkets and handmade wooden beach toys. You can also take the kids hiking, tidepooling and camping in Crystal Cove State Park.
- Fun perks at Crystal Cove include free beach wheelchairs that keep elderly or less-mobile members of your family from missing out on all the fun. Enormous sand-hearty wheels plow the sand like freespinning fun-carts, and everyone on the beach cheers them on. When I took some older family members to Crystal Cove, my kids loved pushing and playing along as granny and auntie went flying in the wind, sand spraying and wind whipping through their hair.
- Don’t miss having fish-and-chips on the open-air patio at Crystal Cove’s Beachcomber Café, just feet from crashing ocean waves. Ask for a complimentary beach blanket while dining, and save room for a basket of the chef’s signature warm and puffy New Orleans-style beignets drizzled with chocolate. You can also call the Beachcomber ahead of time to reserve a fire pit and café packages of BBQ or s’mores.
Go South, Young Families
The Giant Wheel at Irvine Spectrum.
Inland Orange County has its own charms, opening up a whole new side of the OC with hiking, kid-friendly farm-food labs, lively village-style shopping plazas and a giant developed green space bigger than New York’s Central Park. It puts you about halfway to San Diego as well, if California’s southern border is on your family travel list.
- Great Things at Great Park: What was once El Toro Marine Corps Air Station now harbors one of the most interesting things to do when traveling with children in Orange County. Spanning more than 1,300 acres, Orange County Great Park has some pretty great kid’s activities, including a giant orange 118-foot-tall tethered helium balloon towering over the park at 400 feet, with room for up to 30 people inside an open-air gondola. For a fraction of the cost for free-floating hot-air balloon rides, the whole family can enjoy flying the friendly OC skies. There are no reservations; just show up and hop on.
- Great Park Farm + Food Lab: There’s more than just floating orange orbs at Great Park – how about letting the kids join a gourd-chestra and learn to trumpet out tunes from hollow gourd “instruments”? If you have a budding gardener in your junior troop, there’s a “Pizza and Spaghetti” horticultural garden and lots of themed patches, contorted vertical garden structures and compost contraptions.
One of the most earthy interactive kid’s activities in Orange County is to spend the afternoon re-creating early pioneer experiences such as pickling, preserving and canning vegetables and fruits grown at the Great Park Farm + Food Lab. A Farmer’s Market on Sundays also features live music, local arts and kids craft activities. While you’re there, take a spin on the old-fashioned carousel, and check out the family-friendly beginner hiking trails.
- Irvine Spectrum: Traveling with kids often means minimal shopping excursions with bored or weary little companions. Fortunately, Orange County has Irvine Spectrum, a “California Cool” open-air village-style shopping plaza with cozy courtyards, bubbling fountains, colorful carts, live bands, multi-screen cinema, a Giant Wheel and a magical, musical, outdoor ice skating rink for the winter holidays.
Orange County may have limited seasons (one in fact: summer), but it sure knows how to make the best of it. This former land of ranches, citrus farms and wine grapes has transformed gracefully into its modern metropolitan persona – while still embracing the things that make it a memorable place for traveling with kids.
Download a free printable copy of our custom beach and airplane checklists for your next trip to Orange County!
Wendy K. Leigh, Freelance Writer