Chances are, if you’ve made the trek to The OC recently, Disneyland was your destination. Just a quick flight or half-day road trip away, Orange County has so much more to offer than just Mickey Mouse: stunning beaches, family-friendly culinary experiences, Duffy boats you can drive yourself and tons more things to see and do while you’re there. Winter and spring are great times to plan a trip down south as the weather is warmer than our sometimes-dreary Bay Area days. We’ve gathered a boatload of options for you, so tack on some extra days to your next Disney trip to explore all that The OC has to offer.
photo: Visit Buena Park
Knott’s Berry Farm, Buena Park
Snoopy runs the show over at Knott’s Berry Farm where even the smallest adventure-seekers will be in heaven. Start your visit off by taking a stroll through the ghost town to hop aboard the Calico Railroad for a round-trip tour of the park.
Camp Snoopy caters to the super shorties with rides like Rocky Mountain Trucking Company (where they can drive the most adorable mini 18-wheelers) and Linus Launcher (where kids go belly-down on Linus’ blanket). Splash down in the family-favorite Timber Mountain Log Ride or enjoy a wild west stunt show at Frontier Feats of Wonder. There are giant roller coasters for the grown-ups and even the Pony Express ride where you climb aboard your trusty steed and get launched into the air!
photo: Visit Newport Beach
Balboa Fun Zone, Newport Beach
Old-school boardwalk fun rules the day at Balboa Fun Zone in Newport Beach. Ride the iconic Ferris Wheel – in operation since 1936 – and enjoy arcade games, bike rentals and even a nautical museum. Want to check out nearby Balboa Island? The kids will love taking the auto ferry from the fun zone across the water. Pedestrians, bikes and cars are all welcome. Be sure to grab one of the island’s famous frozen bananas, dipped in chocolate of course.
Another option for exploring the Balboa Marina is to rent a Duffy boat from Balboa Boat Rentals. These electric boats go a maximum of 5mph (think of it as a golf cart on the water) and seat up to 12 people. You can drive them yourself or hire a driver. Many restaurants in the marina offer “dock and dine” service where you dock your Duffy boat and grab some eats to enjoy aboard or at the restaurant.
Make it a day at Newport by exploring the newly-opened Lido Marina Village shopping area. Pick up a book for the kids at Lido Village Books and then they can swing in the gorgeous Serena & Lily chairs outside while you shop at Aesop or Warby Parker.
If you are in The OC during December, make sure you make plans to check out Newport’s annual Christmas Boat Parade where boats of all sizes get decked out with holiday lights and cruise around the marina. This is the 108th year of this Newport tradition and the parade will be held December 14-18.
Orange County by Bike or on Foot
With over 50 miles of bike paths, Irvine is the place to go if you want to ride a bicycle. Grab a tandem and a trailer at a local bike rental shop. These bikes have an optional electric motor that allows you to pedal a lot or a little while allowing you to explore tons of beautiful Orange County terrain.
The famed Mountains to Sea Trail will take you from Irvine all the way to the coast at Newport Beach. Hikers and bikers will see wildlife, vegetation and beautiful scenery while breathing in the fresh SoCal air.
Nature-lovers will enjoy exploring what the locals refer to as the Back Bay, or the Upper Newport Bay Nature Preserve and Ecological Reserve. One of the largest coastal wetlands in southern California, the preserve is a favorite spot for wildlife viewing, especially sea birds. Check in at the interpretive center when you are there to see if they are offering one of their “Explore the Bay” family hikes led by one of the preserve’s naturalists.
photo: Visit Newport Beach
Marina Park, Newport Beach
If calm waters and a nautical-themed playground are your speed, then Marina Park should be on your “Must Do” list. This park opened late last year and is great for even the mini mermaids. Slide down the lighthouse slide, splash in the water of Balboa Bay and climb across the rope spiderweb. Bring a picnic to eat on the sand or at one of the shaded tables, or venture over to the nearby Lighthouse Cafe for some kid-friendly favorites. Public restrooms are hidden in the bottom of the lighthouse and there’s a shower there as well so that you can de-sand the crew before you leave.
If a true California beach day is what you are after, then head to Huntington Beach. Miles of soft sand, volleyball nets as far as the eye can see and marine life galore makes it a great spot to spread out your blanket for a day in the sun. Park in any of the beach lots near the pier or even at the Pacific City shopping center where you can grab some fresh eats at Lemonade before you cross the street and hit the sand.
Forgot your flip flops at home? Havianas has you covered as their store right near Main Street has footwear for the whole family in rainbows of colors (for a real treat, create your own color combo right in the store!). Before you head back to your hotel for the day, take the kids to the end of the pier for some old-fashioned milkshakes at Ruby’s Diner.
If you continue south on Highway 1 past Huntington Beach and Newport Beach, you will reach what everyone thinks of when they think of The OC—Laguna Beach. Treasure Island Beach and the Heisler Park Reserve are great spots to take the kids tide pooling or kite-flying. If you are there in the evening, grab a spot at Splashes Bar at the Surf and Sand Resort. There you can leisurely sip your wine while you watch the kids build sandcastles right out front. Locals recommend the White House restaurant especially for breakfast (and it’s super casual so the kids will fit right in).
Just minutes from Main Street, La Vida Laguna provides loads of options for those who want to get on the water. Live like a local and take some surfing lessons or a kayak tour while you are in Laguna. Looking to spot some marine life? Check out one of the local whale watching tours.
photo: Travel Costa Mesa
Enjoy the Arts
Segerstrom Center for the Arts – Costa Mesa
Looking to inject a little culture into your Orange County vacation? Make sure you check the calendar at the Segerstrom Center for the Arts in Costa Mesa before your visit. Offering many family-friendly shows like the Nutcracker for Kids and Elf, the Segerstrom Center knows how to entertain all ages. Aware that all kids deserve to go to the theater but not all kids can handle overly bright and loud productions, they even offer sensory-friendly shows for kids on the autism spectrum or those with sensory-sensitivity (how cool is that?).
Dinner before the show? At the nearby Hotel Irvine you can find Eats Kitchen—a gastropub with upscale burgers, pizzas (try the pear and gorgonzola) and even a build-your-own Bloody Mary bar for brunch. At Eats, dinner time is kids eat free time. Grab yourself a microbrew, find a spot on the patio by the fire pit and send the kids to entertain themselves with the over-sized lawn games like Jenga and Connect 4.
photo: Anaheim Majestic Garden Hotel
Where to Stay
Anaheim Majestic Garden Hotel
Located right across the street from the Disneyland gates, this hotel is a great option for families travelling anywhere in The OC. The castle theme carries itself throughout the whole property, especially if you request a one-of-a-kind castle bunk room that includes a king bed for the grown-ups and a castle bunk bed for the wee ones. If you are lucky, you might spot the hotel’s own princess, Princess Corinne, at breakfast during your stay. Some great features for families include a Disneyland shuttle that runs every 30 minutes, on-site laundry, Disney concierge service in the lobby (where you can buy your tickets ahead of time and avoid the crowds) and an arcade. The huge swimming pool and hot tub are a great spot for viewing the Disneyland fireworks away from the crowds.
Courtyard Anaheim Theme Park Entrance
Massive rooms at this hotel are designed for up to six guests. Grab one with two queen beds, a bunk bed and amenities like a refrigerator, microwave and Netflix streaming. All rooms have two showers – perfect for hosing the kids off after a trip to the property’s own water park and splash pad. It’s location makes it easy to visit the Disney magic – just a 5-minute walk away.
Photo by Leah Singer
Great Wolf Lodge, Anaheim
You may never leave the property if you decide to stay at Anaheim’s new addition to the family hotel scene, the Great Wolf Lodge. The highlight is the lodge’s indoor water park that is full of slides, inner tube rides, a lazy river and a wave pool. The water park is heated year-round, making it a great option for the colder months. Interactive shows, storytimes, a giant arcade and a bowling alley will keep the kids busy. Cabin-themed rooms and suites that sleep up to 8 are great options for families. Check out our recent review of the property for more details.
Residence Inn at Anaheim
One of the drags of travelling with kids is always having to eat out. The Residence Inn has that problem solved as their suites include a kitchenette. Take advantage of their complimentary grocery delivery service to stock up on Pirate’s Booty and applesauce squeeze packs before you arrive. The bunk bed rooms have a big bed for you and a whimsically-decorated bunk bed room for the kids (with their own separate bathroom). Hot breakfast is included for all guests. You will want to spend some time at this hotel’s rooftop patio that includes a pool and splash zone for the shorties.
Hyatt Huntington Beach Resort and Spa
Luxury and family-friendly go hand-in-hand at the Hyatt Huntington Beach Resort and Spa. This property is right over a pedestrian bridge from Huntington Beach and has tons to offer families like poolside activities and surfing lessons. You can even send the kids (ages 3-12) to Camp Hyatt where they will be entertained and you can enjoy some well-deserved alone time at the spa or restaurant.
Me Time for Mommy
If your family vacation includes some serious shopping (sign us up!), then you should definitely book your rooms at at Hilton. Through the end of 2018, Hilton’s Winter “Warmerland” packages offer rooms for as low as $145 a night at 42 properties in the OC and LA. The Winter Warmerland shopping VIP Passport includes exclusive offers to stores and restaurants at South Coast Plaza, Orange County’s premier shopping experience (and the Beverly Center in LA, too). Bonus: the kids will love taking advantage of the package’s free dessert with purchase options as well as the free pass to ride the Plaza’s iconic carousel.
Where to Eat
Anaheim Packing House
Foodies and small fries will all have no problem finding (too many!) great eating options at the Anaheim Packing House. This recently converted space once housed the citrus that gave Orange County its name. Now it is a two-story mecca of mouthwatering munchies from Popbar to Urbana. Communal seating is on the first floor as is a super secret speakeasy called the Blind Rabbit (only for kids over 21). Live music and swings hanging from the rafters will make you want to hang out here.
There’s something for everyone in Orange County. If you need more advice on where to go and what to do, check out the Orange County Visitors Association website. It’s your one-stop shop for family-friendly activities in The OC. And—make sure you catch at least one sunset on the sand before you head back to the Bay Area!
All photos by the author except where noted.
Note: This trip was paid for by Visit the OC, but all opinions expressed here belong to the writer.