Disneyland & beyond: SoCal thrills for grown-ups

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Whether you loved Disneyland as a kid or always dreamed of going, now that you're all grown up (though still young at heart, of course) the Disneyland Resort makes an excellent base camp for Southern California adventures. Disney’s original theme park is meant for all ages, from one to 100.

Fun-loving adults can get the same kicks as kids do from Space Mountain's glow-in-the-dark roller coaster. And, after dark, Downtown Disney's outdoor promenade lights up with buzzing bars, live-music venues, sports-themed arcades and more; some reserved for over-21s only.

If you can tear yourself away for a day trip beyond the realm of the Disneyland Resort, you’ll find Anaheim is in easy reach of surprisingly diverse activities and attractions, from golden Orange County beaches to LA's urban adventures. Best yet, you can be back to Disneyland in time to take advantage of the theme park’s many night-time escapades.

Orange County's picture-perfect coast

Sunset at Huntington Beach. Image by Chris Wood/CC BY-SA 2.0

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Orange County (the 'OC') is home to not just Disneyland, but beach towns so cinematic, they can seem like big-Hollywood movies come to life. Go find where the surf's up on California's famous Hwy 1, aka the Pacific Coast Highway (PCH). If you're looking for the classic SoCal beach experience, this is it, dude.

Pro surfers rip it up year-round at Huntington Beach (HB), officially 'Surf City USA'. It's only a 32-km (20-mile) drive from Disneyland to HB's historic oceanfront pier, one of the longest anywhere on the West Coast. Join bronzed bods playing volleyball on the sand, then hang around after dark for a beach bonfire. Traipse inland to downtown HB’s party bars, California-casual cafes and surfwear shops. At the grassroots Huntington Beach International Surfing Museum, pay your respects to board-riding legends.

A half dozen miles south down the PCH, Newport Beach is where yachties, trophy wives and young-and-glamorous millennials mix, just like on reality TV shows. Drop down onto the Balboa Peninsula and set up your beach umbrella between the piers or test your expert bodysurfing skills at 'The Wedge'. For old-fashioned seaside amusements, ride the ferry over to Balboa Island with a frozen banana (hello, Arrested Development) or a Balboa bar (an ice-cream sandwich dunked in chocolate and rolled in nuts and candy bits) in hand.

Back on PCH southbound, you'll cruise past the wild, natural beaches of Crystal Cove State Park, offering superb tide-pooling and even scuba diving. After 16 quick kilometers (10 miles) filled with postcard panoramas, you'll hit Laguna Beach, originally an artists’ colony. Around downtown, early 20th-century Arts-and-Crafts bungalows now house chi-chi boutiques, cocktail lounges and elegant restaurants.

Los Angeles: from Hollywood stars to the sea

The famous Hollywood Sign. Image by Christian Adams/Getty Images.

It's easy to combine a Disneyland vacation with a day or two in the 'City of Angels', just a 48-km (30-mile) drive from Anaheim. California's biggest metropolis is actually a mosaic of dozens of mini cities, each with its own identity and brash attitudes. Meet zany characters on the oceanfront boardwalk at Venice Beach, brush up against A-list celebrities power-shopping in Beverly Hills, or hang out with hipsters and artists in offbeat 'hoods’ like Silver Lake.

Delve into Downtown LA, starting with its historic quarters – Spanish and Mexican El Pueblo, Little Tokyo and Chinatown. Then take the pulse of LA's hot gallery scene in downtown's arts district or explore Grand Ave's cultural corridor, anchored by the Museum of Contemporary Art and Frank Gehry's shiny, sculptural Walt Disney Concert Hall. Or, head down to LA Live, where you can play at remixing and recording hits inside the interactive Grammy Museum, then catch a big-name concert at the Nokia Theatre, where the American Idol finale happens, or cheer on pro sports teams at the Staples Center arena.

Hollywood is LA's most touristy spot, but that doesn't mean you should avoid it. Step inside a restored movie palace such as the Egyptian Theatre, snap a pic of the famous Hollywood sign from the Babylon Court at the Hollywood & Highland shopping and entertainment complex, or take a behind-the-scenes tour. For real-life star sightings, score tickets for a live TV studio taping, or party at a velvet-roped nightclub off Hollywood Blvd or on the raucous, neon-signed Sunset Strip.

Wind up your trip to 'La La Land' with a curvy drive down Sunset Blvd all the way to the Pacific, ending up in chic Santa Monica, which also happens to be the finish line for Route 66, the USA's 'Mother Road'. After stuffing yourself with fresh seafood and sushi, walk out onto the carnival-esque Santa Monica Pier to ride the solar-powered Ferris wheel, LA's most perfect sunset-watching perch.

Back to base camp for night-time fun

Fireworks over the castle. Image ©Disney

Just about wherever you go on day trips around SoCal, you can still make it back to Disneyland in time to see the fireworks explode over Sleeping Beauty’s castle. Badger your friends into donning a pair of 'Glow with the Show' Mickey Mouse ears, snap a pic for Instagram, then watch their hats change colours along with the World of Color and Fantasmic! sound-and-light shows. Even more bonuses for returning to Disneyland and next-door Disney's California Adventure theme parks after dark include shorter lines with fewer kids, an extra fear-factor built into the scariest rides – hello, California' Screamin coaster – and fairy-tale night-time views that will make your grin equally as big as a little kid's.

This article was published in August 2013 and updated in April 2014.