Orange County, California is a natural with kids. Theme parks like Disneyland are a stone's skip away from 42 miles of glistening beaches and some surprising pockets of sophistication. And up and down this bridge between Los Angeles and San Diego, hotels let you tailor your stay to your taste and budget.
Here are some of the best OC activities that can be enjoyed with kids of all ages.
Hit the surf in Laguna Beach, California © David Jakle / Getty Images
Don't miss Disney
In 1955, Walt Disney flicked a proverbial magic wand and turned humble orange groves into a Magic Kingdom. Nowadays it's hard even to imagine Orange County without Disneyland. Together with its newer sister park (2001), Disney California Adventure, the Disney Resort is the west coast's most visited attraction. Every day offers solid family fun, plus parades, fireworks, light shows or all of the above – not to mention Mickey Mouse.
Cinderella’s castle is Disneyland's beating, fluttering heart, and it's encircled by themed "lands" (Fantasyland, Adventureland, Mickey's Toon Town, etc) each promising their own brand of fun. Together they create a one-of-a-kind mix of nostalgia like the all-Americana Main Street USA; gentle, fairytale-themed rides; the campy-spooky Pirates of the Caribbean; the pun-filled Jungle Cruise; and the futuristic Star Wars-themed coasters of Tomorrowland – all peppered with roving characters who happily pose for selfies.
Disney California Adventure © Meinzahn / Getty Images
Across the plaza, Disney California Adventure pays homage to Walt's adopted home state, with Disney and California-themed rides, attractions, shows and eateries. This smaller park draws its inspiration from old Hollywood, California's natural beauty, coastal piers, and, fittingly for the state that defined car culture, it has an entire land inspired by the movie Cars. Plus a new themed land, Pixar Pier (set to open in 2018), will include a coaster inspired by the movie The Incredibles.
Don't forget Knott's
From humble beginnings, Knott's Berry Farm started as a down-home farmstand selling fried chicken and boysenberry pie. That is, until 1941 when the owner decided to build an old west ghost town with carnival rides. These days, alongside that ghost town are some of the screaming-est thrill rides in the west, like the Ghost Rider wooden roller coaster, and the X-celerator, which whips you from 0 to 82mph in 2.5 seconds! For littler ones, the endearing Camp Snoopy has pint-sized rides and junior coasters and scramblers.
Bolsa Chica Wetlands © EarthbyEnnis / Getty Images
Hit the beaches
Wherever you go in Southern California, the ocean is never far away. Along the OC's 42 miles of prime coastline, every town offers a different experience. A good place to start is Huntington Beach, which has trademarked the nickname ‘Surf City USA’. Good waves bring good vibes to this comfy town with a kid- (and dog-) friendly beach, a lively downtown, a daring new ocean-view shopping center (Pacific City) and some towering resort hotels. Explore nature in the Bolsa Chica Ecological Reserve by day, and by night grab some logs and snuggle around a beach bonfire (in municipally provided fire rings, no less!). In summer, the city hosts championship tournaments in both surfing and beach volleyball, or bring your skateboard to Vans Off the Wall Skatepark across town – welcome to California, dudes and dudettes!
Further south, Newport Beach bursts with activities for active older kids, from surfing and boogie boarding to the tame but loveable and historic Balboa Fun Zone amusement park. Or take the whole family on a spin around Newport Harbor on an electric-powered Duffy Boat.
For a more secluded beach experience, head for one of the many coves along the South OC coast. South of central Newport Beach, beachgoers have been coming to Crystal Cove for a century, while beaches sparkle like baubles beneath the cliffs of Laguna Beach and Laguna Niguel. On the OC's southern coast, Dana Point is famous for sportfishing and whale watching expeditions. Ahoy!
Newport Harbor has peaceful canals you can explore via an electric-powered Duffy Boat © Ron_Thomas / Getty Images
More than surf culture
You've done the theme parks. You've done the beach. Now explore Orange County's museums, shopping and international eats for budding sophisticates and their parents.
In Santa Ana, Discovery Cube offers some 100 hands-on exhibits to teach kids principles of math and science – learning by doing – with enough ingenuity that parents will have fun too.
Teens, tweens and anyone with a sense of alternative cool will love the Lab and the Camp, twin "anti-malls" featuring alternative clothing, alternative art and even alternative ice cream (yes, really). They're in Costa Mesa, inland from Newport Beach.
Kids with beyond-pizza palates may enjoy Little Saigon, America's largest ethnic Vietnamese community. Block after block of casual restaurants dish pho noodle soups, banh mi sandwiches and cool cups of boba pearl tea, plus trinket and clothing shops well worth a browse. The new Anaheim Packing House is another foodie heaven: dozens of hip and trendy stalls proffering ramen to waffle sandwiches and shaved ice.
Little Saigon is a fun foodie destination for more adventurous palates © Patrick Lu / Getty Images
Stay for a day... or a week
Wherever you and your brood base yourself in the OC, there's a lodging for you. The Disney Parks hotels – mid-century classic Disneyland Hotel, beach-themed Paradise Pier and luxe, national park-inspired Grand Californian – boast Disney touches from story hours to cleverly hidden designs and Disney character meet-and-greets. Surrounding the resort in Anaheim are plenty of options that make up in savings what they lack in Disneyana.
A few miles from Disneyland, the new Great Wolf Lodge may make you want to extend your vacation. Room rates include admission to its sprawling, indoor-outdoor water park, exclusive for overnight guests. Dry off, and kids can play in a game arcade, shoot black-light mini-golf, or even get pretty in a kiddie day spa.
Beachside stay more your style? The two-dozen Crystal Cove Beach Cottages are unfussy, old-timey and lovingly preserved in their original 1930s to 1950s style. Fair warning: book as early as possible. Reservations open the first day of the month seven months before your intended stay.
For more luxe beachfront digs, the towering Hyatt Regency Huntington Beach Resort & Spa offers activities for the young'uns from waterslides to grottoes, the Camp Hyatt program, and a bridge across Pacific Coast Highway directly to the sand. Hipster kids and surfer kids will love the beachy vibe of the Shorebreak Hotel, a short drive away in downtown Huntington Beach.