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When most people think of Orange County, the first thing that comes to mind is Disneyland, and really it’s the reason many visit in the first place. While San Diego and Los Angeles are popular with tourists, the OC seems be the forgotten county, stuck in between the two more popular ones. But I’m here to tell you that there is a lot more to Orange County than just Disneyland! We moved to OC in 2012, when Milana was just 4 months old (from San Diego which we weren’t fans of living wise!) so she grew up here and we’re quite familiar with all the family-friendly activities this area offers.
THINGS TO DO
Balboa Island is a super cute little community in Newport Beach. You can access it via ferry or by a bridge. We like to drive in and then take the ferry across to the Balboa Fun Zone (cars are allowed on the ferry). The main street here has lots of cute shops, restaurants, a candy store and several places that sell the famous Balboa bar. I won’t tell you which to pick, try a few to decide which is best! It’s a great way to spend the afternoon and if you happen to be here around Christmas, the houses by the water are decorated with lots of lights making it a perfect evening walk along the bay.
Balboa Fun Zone
The Balboa Fun Zone is one of SoCal’s oldest coastal amusement areas. Here you will find amusement rides, an arcade, restaurants and boat rentals. If you’re looking for food, Harborside is a great option! They have one of our favorite happy hours in OC in the bar area (kids are allowed) pretty much all day long with some really good food options (try the mussels!). You can also walk across the street to the ocean if you prefer the ocean side, there is a small kids playground right on the beach here. To get here, you can either take the auto ferry from Balboa Island or just drive in an park in one of the many lots in the area.
Any time we have visitors, we rent a boat in Newport Harbor. Check Groupon, since there are always deals! We have also done this during the Christmas boat parade, giving us a great view of all the decorated boats. You can rent boats right near the Balboa Fun Zone as well as several other locations in Newport Beach.
One of the most popular family beaches is Crystal Cove. To get here, you need to park across the busy PCH and either walk down towards the beach or take their free shuttle. We love the little hike so we always opt to walk. There is a restaurants right by the water, though make sure to make reservations as it is almost always packed with a long wait. We came on a random weekday morning last time and had no wait but we’ve seen very long waits here! There are also cottages you can rent here, right by the water. Now these are very popular and sell out instantly. You can reserve on their site for 6 months in advance. It’s not easy to score one of these, however it is definitely worth a try!
This shopping and dining development is a new addition to Huntington Beach. The location can’t be beat, you are across from the beach with some amazing views! Come here for some great food or to sit back and relax while watching the sunset. Our favorite restaurant here is Saint Marc’s, they have delicious cheese plates, lots of shared plates and you can even buy different flavors of bacon by the slice. If you are staying at the Hyatt or Hilton in HB, this will be right between the two. They also have a hotel on site, Pasea, where each room has an ocean view. Lot 579 opened up recently within this complex, and it’s essentially a food hall with lots of dining options (definitely check out Han’s homemade ice cream!). Definitely worth checking out this spot!
Now we have a love hate relationship with HB. It was the first city we moved to in Orange County, right on PCH and across from the ocean. But it’s gone downhill quickly and many locals will tell you to stay away from Main Street, especially at night. I would still visit it during the day, then head over to neighboring Pacific City in the evening. Main Street also has lots of dining options, souvenir shops and you can walk down the pier as well and watch the surfers. Know those giant televisions inside Hollister stores with the surf feed? Well that’s from the live cams in Huntington Beach!
Orang County is home to many malls, but our favorite is Irvine Spectrum, a close second being Fashion Island in Newport Beach. There is a brand new play structure that’s super fun, a carousel, ferris wheel, lots of grassy area for kids to run around and a splash pad for those hot days. This mall is outdoors and gets really hot when it’s warm out so that’s something to keep in mind! There are lots of good dining options here, including Capital Seafood which serves dim sum until 3pm daily. The Hello Kitty Cafe opened up recently as well, however it’s not worth waiting in line if there is one. It’s super tiny and the dessert options are super limited, unlike the ones we have been to all over Asia!
Fashion Island is a higher end mall in Newport Beach. It’s an outdoor mall, with a koi pond which kids seem to love! From certain spots, you have a nice view of the ocean, it’s a great way to combine your trip to Balboa Island since both are near each other.
San Juan Capistrano
In South Orange County, you will find a cute little town called San Juan Capistrano. You can take the train here and get out right in the middle of all the action. There are cute restaurants, shops, and an awesome guinea pig petting zoo called Zoomars. There are almost always Groupon deals for Zoomars, so check there if you want to go! Aside from the very friendly guinea pigs (which are VERY well taken care of, read up on the history before making comments!), there are pony rides, farm animals, a playground and many other activities for kids, including special holiday events. It’s a fun way to spend the day!
Now it’s not often that it rains here, but when it does, you are going to want some indoor options as well! Mostly because you won’t want to be driving in the rain as the locals have no idea how to maneuver a vehicle even in drizzle! One of our favorite indoor playgrounds is Billy Beez, located right by Disneyland inside the Anaheim GardenWalk. This is great for big and little kids, and adults as well! The play structure is massive and will easily fit adults. They also have a separate play structure for younger kids as well as a pretend city kind of like a children’s museum, which has a supermarket, restaurant, bank, etc. We do have something called Pretend City in OC however I don’t recommend it as it’s dated, small and really for kids 5 and under. I’d come here instead because you will get the entire pretend city area but also some play structures as a bonus!
This is our version of a science center/museum. They are a part of the ASTC Passport Program so if you have a membership to a museum in your city that is a participant, admission here will be free. We are members and as a result have gotten free admission to science centers and children’s museums all over the country! There is a restaurant on site that serves healthy, organic meals with lots of fruit and veggie options in case your kids get hungry!
There are some really great playground options all over OC. These are just some of our favorites, but there are a ton more that I won’t mention since you most likely won’t be going from playground to playground as a tourist! These stand out and are definitely worth a visit.
This is by far our favorite playground in the county. It’s located in Tustin, near the District which has lots of stores and restaurants. Whenever my sister visits, we bring the cousins here to play. The play structure is massive and great for all ages. The only downside is the lack of shade, it gets really hot on warm days!
This is a fairly new park, located in Newport Beach. It’s very close to the Balboa Fun Zone, so you can combine a visit here with Balboa Island/Fun Zone. On warm days, you can let the kids play in the water. Parents love this beach because there are no waves and it’s easy to keep track of your kids! The play structures are great too and you can’t beat the location.
This park is located in Huntington Beach, in a residential neighborhood. It has a fun play structure though unless you are staying in the area, I wouldn’t make a special trip just for it since the two I mentioned above are much better!
Huntington Beach All Inclusive Playground
This is a very new playground, right on the beach in HB just a few blocks from Main Street and the Pier. It’s a great play area, completely fenced in. Just like the name implies, it’s an all inclusive playground with play structures for all kids.
There are so many great restaurants in Orange County! I’ll name some of our favorites but there are so many more.
This is quite possibly our favorite restaurant in Orange County! It’s a vegan restaurant with a large raw menu as well. They use all organic produce and only natural ingredients. The food here is phenomenal, even if you aren’t vegan it is worth a visit! Milana loves this place especially the rainbow in the sky dessert!
What started as one store in San Diego, quickly spread to OC and LA. This is by far the best burger! They use grass-fed beef and organic cheese/condiments/veggies. They also have a in house made vegetarian burger option as well as turkey and sometimes lamb. There are several locations throughout the county and our go-to for burgers.
Now I wouldn’t call this authentic by any means, however we bring friends and family here when they visit and it’s always a hit! The location can’t be beat, ask for a table on the outdoor patio overlooking the ocean. While it won’t be your best Mexican meal while here, it’s definitely worth a visit as the location and views are great!
Let’s face it, a visit to SoCal isn’t complete without visiting In-N-Out. Make sure to look up their secret menu before you go, otherwise your food will be bland! We like our burgers animal style.
Joe’s Crab Shack
This is a place we personally aren’t fans of however I am mentioning it because it has a playground. This is one of the few restaurants in the county with a playground on the patio. It’s down the street from Disneyland, making it a great place to go have dinner and let the kids run around.
If you like sandwiches, this is a great place to have them! They use organic ingredients and have a decent kid menu too. We go to the Costa Mesa location, which has fun seating and games for kids to play while they wait for food.
Crystal Cove Shake Shack
You will see this hut on your way to Crystal Cove. On weekends, the line extends all the way out to the road so I would come on a weekday afternoon if possible! Come grab a shake and enjoy the view of the beach below.
One of our favorite breakfast places is Snooze in Tustin. Be aware that they are very popular and the wait can be over an hour on weekends! If you go on Yelp, you can put yourself on the wait list cutting your wait time to less than 20 minutes in most cases.
Another fun place for kids is Stacked. Kids get wiki stix while waiting for food and you order everything on a tablet. It’s called Stacked because you “stack” your meal. You start off with one ingredient (eggs for example) and add to make it customized for you. You can stack your own burgers, burritos, even shakes and ice cream sundaes. It’s a fun place to check out with kids!
This is just a small portion of family-friendly activities in OC! As you can see, there is a ton more to do besides Disneyland. Come check out our beaches and awesome playgrounds!