Visiting Orange County, California usually means a trip to Disneyland. And while Disneyland is awesome, there’s also a whole world of other fun to be had just minutes from Anaheim. So whether you’re looking for other things to do outside the parks on your next visit to Disneyland vacation, or planning a vacation that doesn’t include Mickey at all, here are 15 fun things to do in Orange County with kids.
Fun Things to Do in Orange County with Kids
Living in Southern California, we are lucky to have an amazing array of world-class activities all within easy reach for family fun. And nowhere is there a greater collection of fabulous things to do than in Orange County, located between Los Angeles and San Diego counties. Here are some of our favorites:
- A Day at the Beach
- Go Boating
- Shop Til You Drop
- Discovery Science Center
- Balboa Fun Zone
- Knott’s Berry Farm
- Knott’s Soak City
- Pretend City Children’s Museum
- Go to the Zoo
- Take a Hike
- Dinner & a Show at Medieval Times
- Dinner & a Show at Pirate’s Dinner Adventure
- Bower’s Museum
- Orange County Great Park
- Catch a Game
A Day at the Beach
There are more than 40 miles of Pacific Ocean coastline in Orange County, boasting a plethora of boardwalks, piers and beautiful sun-kissed beaches. Popular beaches include Newport Beach, San Clemente, Laguna Beach and Corona del Mar.
Orange County is home to Huntington Beach, aka Surf City USA. With its lively downtown Main Street right across from the beach and busy pier with a Ruby’s Diner perched at the end, Huntington Beach is easily my favorite state beach. Its expansive shoreline is great for kids and the boardwalk just beckons for healthy exercise – bike riding, rollerblading or taking a long walk.
Young kids will enjoy the tide pool’s marine wildlife at Crystal Cove State Park in Newport Beach and Dana Point Marine Life Refuge. Winter months and low tides are ideal times to visit the tide pools.
Nothing says Southern California like a day at the beach, so get out there and explore them all!
There are many great marinas in Orange County, and you can stretch your sea legs at just about any of them! Go on a fishing expedition, learn to sail, rent kayaks, or even take a whale watching cruise. But honestly sometimes it’s just nice to wander around the marina and check out the boats and harbor.
My favorite spot in Orange County is Dana Point. Dana Point Harbor is not only one of the largest recreational harbors on the west coast, but also in the world. It’s got tons of shops, bars and restaurants, all with fantastic views.
Newport Harbor is also a beautiful spot to enjoy the scenic views and sign up for a boating adventure.
Shop Til You Drop
With stores akin to Rodeo Drive in Beverly Hills, there are shopping centers in Orange County – such as Fashion Island in Newport Beach and South Coast Plaza in Costa Mesa – that will make you make you wish you were rich. But there are also plenty of equally nice, more moderately priced places too, and many are downright family friendly!
My favorite is Irvine Spectrum, an outdoor promenade with shops, restaurants, a movie theater, comedy club and even some amusement park rides. When it first opened in 1995, Irvine Spectrum was one of the first outdoor retail and entertainment centers in the United States.
Irvine Spectrum has evolved into a must-see attraction for shopping, dining and entertainment for visitors from around the world. It offers visitors over 130 shops ranging from department stores to popular specialty shops and boutiques. There are plenty of outdoor spaces to relax (think fire pits and fountains) and free entertainment, too.
Discovery Science Center
Orange County is home to one of the best kids’ science museums anywhere! Also known as Discovery Cube or “The Cube,” this great children’s museum is filled with more than 100 interactive and fun educational exhibits. Kids can go on research adventures at Dino Quest, be hockey players or broadcasters at the Science of Hockey or learn about rockets and space. My son has been visiting this place since he was a toddler, and there is always something new and fun to discover.
In addition to their awesome permanent exhibits, Discovery Science Center hosts tons of special events throughout the year.
Balboa Fun Zone
Reminiscent of early California’s beach days, the Balboa Fun Zone is one of Orange County’s oldest and last great coastal amusement areas and a popular family-friendly attraction. Located on Newport Bay, Balboa Fun Zone invites visitors to enjoy rides on the waterfront Ferris Wheel, play games in the arcade or tour the nautical museum while enjoying their favorite beach treats such as fries, ice cream and frozen bananas.
The Balboa Fun Zone is also where you can embark on a harbor cruise, fishing trip, or take off for a day trip to nearby Catalina Island.
The Balboa Fun Zone is located on Balboa Peninsula across from Balboa Pier in Newport Beach. A public parking lot is available across Balboa Blvd next to the pier, and there is metered street parking. But be warned: parking can fill up early, especially on summer weekends.
Knott’s Berry Farm
Located just a few miles away from Disneyland, Knott’s Berry Farm often gets overlooked by visitors to Orange County. It is cheaper and some even say the rides are better. If you like thrilling roller coasters, this is the theme park for you.
There are literally dozens of rides, shows and attractions in four themed areas. Our favorite coaster is Silver Bullet – California’s largest inverted roller coaster. Knott’s Berry Farm’s Ghost Town really captures the essence of America’s Wild West. It is home to GhostRider, billed as the longest, tallest, and fastest wooden roller coaster on the west coast. This coaster was recently revamped and boasts “4,500 feet of smooth new track.” I haven’t ridden it yet, but considering the old track made your teeth chatter and your head shake, smooth new track sounds pretty darn good! Ghostrider is the West Coast’s longest, fastest and tallest wooden roller coaster.
For little kids, there are rides and activities at Camp Snoopy, the park’s kid-friendly section. In Camp Snoopy, kids can go wild with over 12 kids rides, interactive shows and a chance to meet Snoopy and the Peanuts Gang.Some of the best times to visit Knott’s are during Halloween, when it transforms into Knott’s Scary Farm (great for teens and adults, kids – not so much) and during the holidays when it becomes Knott’s Merry Farm.
Knott’s Soak City
Adjacent to the theme park is Knott’s Soak City Water Park. Cool off in the summer here with tons of slides, rides and aquatic fun.Knott’s Soak City waterpark offers 13 California beach-themed acres designed for thrill seekers of all ages. Speed fans can drop into Banzai Falls’ six slides or Old Man Falls’ three 63-foot high vertical chutes. For wave riders, Tidal Wave Bay provides the ultimate endless summer, while the whole family will love relaxing in one of the world’s longest lazy rivers. Even kids have their own water wonderland at the Gremmie Lagoon and three-story interactive Beach House.
Pretend City Children’s Museum
If you are visiting Orange County with younger kids, take a few hours to check out Pretend City in Irvine. They will have a blast exploring this child-size city with 17 interactive exhibits.
Go to the Zoo
While it is not as big as the world-famous San Diego Zoo, the Santa Ana Zoo at Prentice Park in Orange County is a lot closer and has plenty of amazing, adorable animals and attractions for some serious family fun. Kids will love seeing all the different animals and taking a train ride aboard the Zoofari Express. There is also the Fifty Monkeys Ferris Wheel and the Conservation Carousel. Kids can also feed goats and sheep in the petting zoo. Family fun at its finest!
Take a Hike
Orange County is truly one of the most scenic places in the world, and there are a myriad of hiking trails to take in its natural beauty. From family-friendly nature walks along the coast to a rigorous waterfall expedition in the Santa Ana Mountains, you’ll find a trail for every fitness level and every age group. Orange County’s extensive regional park system is comprised of 39,000 acres in 25 urban and wilderness parks. This includes seven regional historic sites, 7,000 acres of open space and 230 miles of regional riding and hiking trails.
One of our favorite trails to explore as a family is the Bolsa Chica Ecological Reserve in Huntington Beach. This trail is for the most part flat, and offers a peaceful nature walk through the wetlands. You’ll enjoy fresh air and gorgeous ocean views, as well as the chance to spot birds and other wildlife.
For a more adventurous hike, check out Willow Canyon Trail in Laguna Beach. This 9-mile hike is a challenging uphill trek, but you’ll be rewarded at the top with an amazing view of the Laguna Beach and the coast.
Dinner & a Show at Medieval Times
No trip to Orange County would be complete without a dining adventure at Medieval Times Dinner & Tournament. This interactive dinner-and-a-show is nonstop excitement from beginning to end!
We first visited a few years ago for my son’s birthday and had a blast. The attraction is a bit on the pricey side, but when you look at it as getting dinner and a show, it is quite worth the price!
The two-hour event includes time to explore and see the horses before the main event, great entertainment, and a four-course dinner served in true medieval, pre-silverware fashion inside the castle’s 1,100 seat arena. The show is awesome, and we especially love watching the horses.
Dinner & a Show at Pirate’s Dinner Adventure
If knights and horses aren’t your family’s thing, try the Pirate’s Dinner Adventure, located right next door to Medieval Times in Buena Park. Families will love this interactive pirate dinner show, where they will feast on a 3-course dinner while watching an exciting battle take place on a massive Spanish ship that sits in a 250,000-gallon indoor lagoon. Be sure to arrive early for free appetizers and pre-show entertainment.
Located in Santa Ana, just a few minutes down the freeway from Disneyland and Disney’s California Adventure, the Bowers Museum holds in its collection more than 91,000 works of art from all over the world. But there are plenty of family-friendly exhibits, too! This lovely cultural museum is home to the Kidseum, an interactive children’s museum. Kids will their “Glow Cave,” where they get to create all sorts of art. There are also archeology labs where kids can play and learn.
Orange County Great Park
The Orange County Great Park in Irvine is 1,300 acres of entertainment and fun! Families can explore historic airplanes, go hiking, have fun in the play area, visit the nature center, ride the carousel, play at the Great Park Sports Complex, visit the Farm & Food Lab, or take to the sky in a hot air balloon at this Irvine park.
The Great Park Balloon – sometimes just called “the big orange balloon” – is the Orange County Great Park’s iconic attraction, holding up to 25–30 passengers and soaring 400 feet above the surrounding landscape. It is just $10 per person to go up.
Catch a Game
Orange County is home to the Anaheim Ducks and Angels Baseball. In fact, both Angels Stadium and the Honda Center are located within a mile of each other and just a few miles away from Disneyland and Disney California Adventure. If your family loves sports, be sure to catch a game while you are visiting the OC.
What are your favorite things to do in Orange County?