The O.C. might be known for its beach culture and “real” housewives, but it’s also a great place for a family getaway (hold the sigh—we’re not talking Disneyland).
Rich in agricultural history (“Orange County” comes from the acres of orange trees that once grew here) and teeming with marine life, the area is a “magic kingdom” in its own right, with myriad family-approved activities, from farm tours to pirate ships, that it likes to show off once in a while. Here, the ten best family-friendly activities in Orange County.
1. Tanaka Farms | 5380 University Drive, Irvine | tanakafarms.com
Kid-Tested: What kid wouldn’t love piling into a old-fashioned wagon to be pulled (by tractor, of course) around the 30-acre farm to strawberry patches (in spring) or watermelon patches (summer). Come fall it’s all about corn mazes, pumpkin patches, and harvest activities, and the farm sells gorgeous trees Christmas time.
Parent-Approved: It’s always a bonus when the kids can learn while they play. Plus, Nobody goes home hungry. The tours include several delicious sample stations, undoubtedly to keep the kids happy between farming facts.
Details: Wagon tours run regularly on weekends throughout the summer (no reservations required). During the week in spring and summer, call ahead to make tour reservations. Tours cost $17 per person (kids two and under ride free). Pumpkin patch tours are self-guided, but fees may apply for some of the fall festivities.
Directions: Take bus #86 to Alton-Jeffrey, then #175 bus to Michelson-Jordan East, and it’s a short walk from there.
2. Discovery Science Center | 2500 N. Main Street, Santa Ana | discoverycube.org
Kid-Tested: The kids might be a little more fond of their lab goggles after a day at this science center. Offering more than 100 interactive exhibits, including a virtual hockey game and rocket lab, the Discovery Science Center truly launches visitors into the world of science. Here you can take on the responsibilities of a green superhero and save the planet, or become a research assistant and coax an escaped T-Rex back home.
Parent-Approved: You can be a kid again here, and rotating exhibits keep things fresh.
Details: The center is open daily except for Thanksgiving and Christmas day. Tickets are $14.95 for adults and $12.95 for senios and children (kids under 3 are free).
Directions: Take bus #53 to Main-Edgewood and it’s a short walk from there.
3. Eco Zipline Tour | Hog’s Back, Catalina Island | catalinachamber.com
Kid-Tested: Forget roller coasters. Your little adventurer will love the thrill of soaring over Catalina Island, just 22 miles off the coast of Orange County. The tour starts in the hills and descends through the canyon, ending at Descanso Beach with, weather permitting, a bit of fun in the sun to round out the day.
Parent-Approved: It’s theme-park-style adrenaline in a stunning natural setting, and each of the five separate ziplines includes a stop at an eco-station, where hosts will discuss the environmental and cultural history of the Island and the places you zip through.
Details: Tours run year-round and cost $109 per person during low season (September through mid-May) and $120 during the summer months. Children under 5 are too young to partake, and those between the ages of 5 and 9 must tandem ride with a parent.
Directions: Take bus #53 to Main-Redhill, then #71 to Balboa-Adams. Walk to the Newport Beach ferry and board the Catalina Flyer to get to the island.
4. Tall Ships at the Ocean Institute | 24200 Dana Point Harbor Drive, Dana Point | ocean-institute.org
Kid-Tested: Pirates and canons and high seas, oh my! The Pirate Adventure Sail lets you get into the action on one of the Ocean Institute’s traditionally rigged sailing vessels, one of which was modeled after a 1770s privateer from the American Revolution. After hoisting the sails, firing off canons, and battling pirates on the high seas, you’ll be quite experienced sailors (or, as the pirates say, “sea dogs”).
Parent-Approved: It’s like a real life Pirates of the Caribbean—minus the crowds and crazy prices. And if it’s not the pirate’s life for you, one of the other sailing experiences, like the Whale’s Tail Sailing Adventure or the history-themed Coastal Odyssey, is sure to float your boat.
Details: Tickets are $40 for adults and $23 for children aged 12 and under (Ocean Institute members get a 10 percent discount). Kids must be at least 4 to sail, but there is no age requirement to tour the docked tall ships ($6.50 for adults/$4.50 for children). Sails run regularly (check the website for exact dates and times).
Directions: Take the Amtrak from Irvine to San Juan Capistrano (check amtrak.com for timetables), then take bus #91 to Pacific Coast – Dana Point Harbor and walk from there.
5. Santa Ana Zoo | 1801 East Chestnut Avenue, Santa Ana | santaanazoo.org
Kid-Tested: An electric-powered Zoofari express zips the family along to visit more than 80 animal species, including lions, poison dart frogs, and, porcupines. There’s also a farm, where children can pet animals and learn about the daily duties of a zookeeper, an endangered species-themed carousal, and educational opportunities like a rainforest tour and zoo safari.
Parent-Approved: You can feel good about visiting a zoo that has solid conservation programs in place, including participation in a number of AZA (American and Zoo Aquarium Association) Species Survival plans. Plus, as per the mandate of the zoo’s founder back in 1952, there are at least 50 monkeys on site at all times.
Details: Tickets are $10 for adults and $7 for seniors and children ($6/$4 after 2 p.m. on weekdays). Children under 3 are free.
Directions: Take bus #53 to Main-1st, then #54 to 1st-Lyon. The zoo is a short walk from there.
6. Orange County Great Park | 1 Civic Center Plaza, Irvine | ocgp.org
Kid-Tested: Whether you take flight in the giant orange Great Park Balloon, one of the first major attractions of this eco-centered park, or simply watch the balloons float along as you picnic on the ground, your little one will love the magic here. The park also offers carousal rides and Kids Rock, a geology-inspired play space where children can learn about ecology and the process by which water changes.
Parent-Approved: This park of the future will thrill your eco-heart with its solar lighting, low water turf, native flora, and recycled concrete. Bonus: Visit on a Sunday to enjoy tasty eats from the farmer’s market and on-site food trucks.
Details: Admission and carousal rides are free! Balloon rides are $10 for adults and $5 for kids ages 5 to 16.
Directions: It’s easiest to drive to the Great Park. Take the I-5 North to Sand Canyon Avenue, then take the first left onto Marine Way.
7. Pirate’s Dinner Adventure | 7600 Beach Boulevard, Buena Park | piratesdinneradventureca.com
Kid-Tested: With a cool setting (and ships as seating) and an action-packed show filled with duels and cursed treasure, the Pirate’s Dinner Adventure provides plenty of swash-buckling fun on dry land. Your lil’ buccaneers will love wizardry and effects as they cheer on their own pirate mascot.
Parent-Approved: If the replicated 18th-century Spanish galleon and indoor lagoon somehow fail to impress, the acrobatics and swordplay should do the trick. Plus there’s a feast—and plenty of pirate-approved rum.
Details: Shows take place nightly. Tickets cost $57.95 for adults and $38.95 for children ages 3-11 (children under 3 are free).
Directions: Take Amtrak from Irvine to Buena Park (check amtrak.com for timetables), then bus #43 to the Fullerton Transit Center. From there, take bus #38 bus to La Palma-Beach, a short walk to the Pirate Adventure.
8. Captain Dave’s Dolphin & Whale Safari | 24440 Dana Point Harbor Drive, Dana Point | dolphinsafari.com
Kid-Tested: No matter your age, there’s a certain thrill when you spot your first majestic ocean species, bobbing gracefully in the vast sea. Although the crew can’t guarantee you’ll spot whales, the kiddies are sure to see amazing creatures and learn about the importance of conservation on this marine safari. They can also catch underwater views, listen in on the ship’s hydrophone, and get hands-on at the touch station of whale and dolphin artifacts.
Parent-Approved: Captain Dave doesn’t just talk the talk—he walks the walk too. The dolphin and whale expert has spoken out (he was featured on the Ellen Degeneres show) about the risks that whales and other charismatic megafauna face every day in our oceans.
Details: The 2.5-hour trip costs $55 for adults and $35 for children under 12 (ages 3 and under saild free). You’re likely to see gray whales between December and May, and blue whales, fin whales, and minke whales during the rest of the year.
Directions: Take Amtrak from Irvine to San Juan Capistrano (check amtrak.com for timetables), then take catch bus #91 to Pacific Coast – Dana Point Harbor and it’s a short walk.
9. Laguna Canyon Pacific Marine Mammal Center | 20612 Laguna Canyon Road, Laguna Beach | pacificmmc.org
Kid-Tested: With a focus on rescuing, caring for, and releasing healthy animals back into the wild, the Pacific Marine Mammal Center takes cute animal viewing a step further.
Parent-Approved: The center cares for injured and stranded seals and California sea lions, and can house as many as 100 at a time. If you don’t bring the little ones along, adults aged 21 and older can learn a little something and get that warming and fuzzy feeling by volunteering, too.
Details: The center is open from 10 a.m. until 4 p.m. daily and is free to visit, although donations are encouraged. Take a free tour or walk the site on your own—informational materials are available, along with volunteer staff members on hand to answer questions.
Directions: Take Amtrak (check timetables at amtrak.com) from Irvine to Laguna Niguel, then take bus #91 to Calle de la Plata-Paseo de Valencia, followed by #89 to Laguna Canyon-Stan Oaks, and it’s a short walk from there.
10. Little Corona | Pacific Coast Highway & Poppy Avenue, Corona del Mar | orangecounty.net
Kid-Tested: An O.C. getaway wouldn’t be complete without some beach time. With tidepools full of hermit crabs, starfish, and sea anenomes, Little Corona at Corona del Mar is one of the best kid-friendly beaches in the area. Walk the tidepools with your kids, or take a book and sunbathe as you watch them play from afar.
Parent-Approved: Kid-friendly as it is, the beach also has easy waves, making it relatively kid-proof, so that you can sunbathe as you watch them play. If the family is up for exploring the area, Little Corona is just a short walk from Big Corona, where waves are usually bigger, and Pirate’s Cove, where craggy cliffs surround an isolated lagoon.
Details: The beach is free to visit and open from 6 a.m. until 10 p.m. daily.
Directions: Take bus #53 to Main-Alton, followed by #55 bus to Coast-Irvine Terrace, and it’s a short walk from there.
Family-friendly hotels in Orange County
This Orange County adventure may be about the kiddies, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t get to relax too.
1. Residence Inn Irvine John Wayne Airport/Orange County | 2855 Main Street, Irvine | marriot.com
Parent-Tested: Located smack dab in the middle of the county, around the corner from the bus stop and just 15 minutes from the Irvine Amtrak station, this hotel takes the stress out of a long, travel-filled stay. And with the kitchen and separate living and sleeping areas, you’ll start to feel at home in no time. (All above directions start from this hotel.)
Kid-Approved: The hotel’s outdoor pool and tennis court will help keep the kids at bay between your county-wide adventures.
Details: Rates start at $169
2. The Hyatt Regency Inn | 21500 Pacific Coast Highway, Huntington Beach | huntingtonbeach.hyatt.com
Parent-Tested: Located at the north end of the county, the Hyatt Regency Inn offers public transportation to the many family activities in the area. And after a day of shuttling the kids, you can get your own time relaxing by the pool.
Kid-Approved: Offering a beachfront location plus gaming arcade and water playground with three water slides and a shallow wading pool, this hotel merits a day of family exploration all on its own.
Details: Rates start at $275