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Beyond Disneyland -- Top Ten Things to Do in Orange County, California
Orange County...a Great Place to Visit
Orange County, California is a great place to visit. I should know, I have lived in Orange County for a good portion of my life. I even worked at Disneyland for six years when I was in college.
There are a lot of things to do in Orange County. Sometimes it feels like there is something for everyone. There are beaches and ocean activities, hiking, theater, and shopping, among other activities. Orange County has two zoos and museums for all different tastes.
Disneyland is what most people think of when they think of Orange County. Yes, Disneyland is the biggest thing going in Orange County. However, there is more to Orange County than just "The Mouse." In this lens I'll highlight some of my favorite spots in Orange County. In fact, I've been to almost all of them, and plan on going back to them all.
Photo by Jack Wei
Getting to Orange County
Orange County, CA is actually pretty easy to get to...well, it's easy if there's no traffic anyway. Located in the heart of Southern California, Orange County is surrounded by Los Angeles County, San Diego County, Riverside County, and the Pacific Ocean.
If you are in California, the main freeways that will get you there are the 5 from the north and south, the 405 from the northwest, the 57 from the north and the 91 from the east.
If you are flying in to Orange County, you can fly directly to John Wayne Airport in Santa Ana, which is right in the middle of the county. You can also fly into LAX in Los Angeles or Ontario Airport in San Bernardino County and drive in.
Photo courtesy www.epodunk.com
About Orange County
Here are some books written about Orange County. They are great resources if you are planning a trip to "The OC".
Maps so you can get around.
A great resource for visitors.
Great for visitors and locals alike.
A fun look at places locals used to go to back in the day.
Old pictures of things that no longer exist. Great nostalgia.
1. The Beach
The beach is one of Orange County's biggest attractions. After all, beaches compromise the entire western border of the coutny. The beach is a great place to go. You can sunbathe on the sand or play in the waves. You can play beach volleyball, surf or go bodyboarding.
If you visit Huntington City Beach or Bolsa Chica beach, you can have a bonfire on the sand. I have great college memories of getting together with a bunch of friends around the fire pits at Bolsa Chica. Good times!
There are also 5 piers in Orange County, Seal Beach, Huntington Beach, Newport, Balboa, and San Clemente. Several of these piers have a Ruby's diner at the end. Ruby's on the Seal Beach pier is a favorite place for my family to spend a beautiful Orange County afternoon enjoying good food and good views. My ex-husband and I used to go grab chili burgers and then go eat them on the Seal Beach pier.
Just about all of the beaches in Orange County have festivals throughout the year. Huntington Beach has its famous surf competition every year. Other beaches have kite festivals, beach volleyball tournaments, beach clean-up days, whale festivals, etc. It seems like there's always something to do at the beach in Orange County.
Photo by me. Taken off the Seal Beach Pier
Check the tide tables so you can visit the tide pools at Crystal Cove Beach in the city of Laguna Beach when the tide is low.
2. Irvine Park
Irvine Park is Orange County's oldest park, and California's first county park. It was started in 1897 when James Irvine Jr donated the land around Santiago Creek to Orange County. The new park was called Orange County Park.
Today there are a lot of things to do in Irvine Park. For families, there is a train ride as well and bike and paddle boat rentals. There also horseshoe and volleyball rentals, pony rides and hiking. Also, there are educational programs for elementary school kids. When I was teaching kindergarten in Orange County, my school always took the kids to a travelling farm that visited Irvine Park every year.
There are also festivals and special events, including a pumpkin patch, a Christmas train, Easter Egg Hunt, and a California History Day. Irvine Park also has facilities for birthday parties and other celebrations, and even has bounce houses that can be rented.
However, I think the best part of Irvine Park is the Orange County Zoo, which is located there. The Orange County Zoo features plants and animals that are native to the American Southwest. The animal exhibits resemble natural habitats, which zoo staff thinks is good for both the animals and zoo visitors. From 1994 to 2001, the biggest attraction at the Orange County Zoo was Samson the black bear. He was brought to the Orange County Zoo after he was caught lounging in a hot tub in someone's back yard in nearby Monrovia. Samson was 27 when he died, which is very old for a bear.
Photo courtesy ocparks.com
3. The City of Orange
Yes, in the County of Orange there is a City of Orange. The City of Orange has several points of interest. It is definitely one of the cities in Orange County that shouldn't be missed.
One of the gems of Orange is the old town section. Old Town Orange is about a square mile in size and is one of the oldest neighborhoods in Orange County. Many of the homes were built as long ago as the 1880's. There are several architectural styles including Victorian, Craftsman, Bungalow, and Spanish Colonial.
Also in Old Town Orange is Old Towne Plaza. Visitors to this historic shopping district feel like they've stepped back in time. The intersection of Chapman and Glassel Avenues has a park with an old fountain and is surrounded by shops that look like they've through a time machine from the 1950s. In fact, Old Towne Plaza doubled as the Erie, Pennsylvania of the early 1960s in Tom Hanks' movie "That Thing You Do".
Photo by Evan Wohrman
4. Newport Beach
Newport Beach is one of the wealthiest cities in the United States. It is in the southern part of Orange County, and has plenty for visitors and locals alike.
If shopping is your thing, then Fashion Island is a good place to visit. It is an upscale shopping center with exclusive stores. Even if these stores aren't in your budget, it is fun just to browse, and maybe let the kids ride the carousel.
Newport Beach is also home to two piers, Newport and Balboa. There is a bike path between the two piers for roller skating and cycling right on the sand so you can jog, cycle or skate right on the beach. There are even places that will rent you bikes and roller blades. When I was in my 20's, some friends and I rented roller blades in Newport. I got going too fast and I fell and skinned my knee worse than I ever had before, which is saying a lot since I was a tomboy growing up. I haven't donned a pair of roller blades since, but it was still fun.
Newport Bay is a great place to take a harbor tour and look at all the exclusive properties. The Balboa Fun Zone features a ferry, ferris wheel and arcade. However, if nature is your thing, you'll want to visit the Newport Back Bay. It is still in pristine condition, and is a great place to hike. When I was in college, I took a field trip there and we saw a peregrine falcon catch a bird. It was very awe inspiring.
Photo by Low Altitude
5. The Great Park
The Great Park is Orange County's newest attraction. It has been billed as "the first great metropolitan park of the 21st Century"
The land where the park sits used to be the El Toro Marine Corps Air Station. The MCAS was closed in the 1990s. At first, the land was slated to become an airport, but in 2002, the people of Orange County voted to make it a park instead.
The first phase of the Great Park, the Western Sector, is about 200 acres. The first features opened in 2010, and the sector will be finished in 2012. The parts that have already opened include a giant orange hot air balloon, an arts complex, an aviation museum, a carousel, and educational exhibits.
Photo courtesy www.dailytitan.com
6. Knott's Berry Farm
Knott's Berry Farm is the original theme park. It began as a small berry stand in Buena Park on Highway 39, which would eventually become Beach Blvd.
Walter Knott, the berry stand's owner, cultivated the boysenberry, which is a combination of a blackberry, a raspberry, and a loganberry. YUM!
It was the Great Depression and times were rough, so Mrs. Knott began serving chicken dinners to make some extra money. People loved the food and her Chicken Dinner Restaurant became very popular. By the 1950s, it was not uncommon for people to wait two hours to be seated in the restaurant.
Mr. Knott wanted to entertain his guests as they waited to eat at the Chicken Dinner Restaurant, so he built Ghost Town. Ghost Town is a replica of Calico, CA, a mining town in the Mojave Desert. It features shops, a saloon with a can-can show, displays, a mine ride, a "Haunted Shack", and a log ride. Then people started coming to Ghost Town without going to the restaurant.
Eventually, the Knott family added more rides and attractions and started charging a separate admission to their theme park, called Knott's Berry Farm. Knott's has been a favorite with locals for generations and continues to be one of the top attractions in Orange County.
And, of course, you can still go to Mrs. Knott's Chicken Dinner Restaurant and get some of her famous fried chicken.
Photo by Park Thoughts
7. Richard M. Nixon Library and Birthplace
Orange County has a presidential connection. Richard Milhous Nixon, who was our 37th President, was born and raised in Yorba Linda. Yorba Linda is at the northern edge of Orange County.
At the Richard Nixon Library and Birthplace, you will find the small house where the President was born. The house was built by President Nixon's father in 1910 using a home building kit. It has been restored to its original condition. President and Mrs. Nixon are buried near the house.
There is also a museum which houses memorabilia, papers, etc from Nixons tenure as President of the United States. In 2007, the Nixon Library and Birthplace became part of the federal Presidential Library System. Because it was now run by the federal government, it could now house Nixon's Presidential papers and records. The museum gives a history of Nixon and his Presidency and policies.
Photo by Arizona Shona
8. Fullerton Arboretum
The Fullerton Arboretum is located on the campus of California State University at Fullerton (which is my alma mater). Fullerton is at the northern end of the county, right off the 57 Freeway.
The Arboretum is 26 acres in size and is the largest botanical garden in Orange county. It houses over 4,000 plant species from all over the world.
There are four main collections: Woodland, Cultivated, Desert, and Mediterranean.
In addition to being a peaceful garden for the community to enjoy and relax in, the Fullerton Arboretum is a community resource. It holds plant shows and education programs, is a place where people can have weddings and other parties, and hosts school field trips.
Photo by Grant Schweppe
9. Mission San Juan Capistrano
Mission San Juan Capistrano is the "birthplace of Orange County". It was founded on November 1, 1776 by Father Junipero Serra, a Jesuit priest. The mission was the seventh mission to be founded in Alta California. There were 21 missions altogether. The missions had two purposes, to bring Christianity to the native population, and to expand Spain's borders and influence in the northern part of California. The mission served as an outpost and as a place to educate the native people so that they could become good Spainish citizens.
Today, the mission is being restored. Most of the buildings have been restored, including Serra's Chapel, which is the only church still in existence in which Father Serra is known to have celebrated mass. Unfortunately, the Big Stone Church was not able to be restored and is still in ruins. However, it really cool to see the ruins and walk through them.
Every year, on March 19, the town of San Juan Capistrano and the mission hold a Swallow's Day celbration. This is the traditional day in which the swallows return to San Juan Capistrano after spending the winter in Argentina.
When you visit Mission San Juan Capistrano, you should definitely take the audio tour. It is very interesting and educational.
Photo by me
10. Discovery Science Center
The Discovery Science Center is a great children's museum. It is located in Santa Ana, in the heart of Orange County. You'll find it right next to the Main Place Mall, nestled between the 5 and 22 freeways. The infamous Orange Crush interchange is less than a mile away, so it is easily accessible from the 5, the 22 and the 57 freeways.
There are lots of interactive exhibits for kids to enjoy. The permanent collection includes exhibits about astronomy, aerodynamics, earthquakes and hockey. Outside is a great dinosaur exhibit. There are also educational movies you can watch for an extra fee. Last time I was there they were showing "Turtle Vision 4-D" and "Dinosaurs of Patagonia".
In addition to the permanent collection, the DSC is always hosting temporary exhibits. When I took my son last month, there was an exhibit about water that was absolutely fascinating. They also have annual events that are great. Every spring they have Bubble Fest, which celebrates the science and the wonder behind bubbles. It's super fun!
Photo by Bama Library Lady
This lens won the Purple Star award. (It's my very first one) WOW!