Beyond magnificent beaches and Mickey Mouse lies an ethnic melting pot with artistic energy

by Christine Delsol

Days when Disneyland, 42 miles of idyllic beaches and swaths of orange groves were all that lifted “The O.C.” out of Los Angeles’ shadow are long gone. Orange County today is a diverse collection of cities counting famous surf breaks, historic missions, art colonies and scenic marinas among its attractions.

While beach towns—from surf-centric Huntington Beach to tony Newport to artsy Laguna to serene San Clemente—still embody the casual, creative California of popular imagination, inland cities have grown into shopping, entertainment and sports meccas. Irvine—encompassing a University of California campus, the evolving Orange County Great Park and several “villages”—was the vanguard of a trend toward master-planned communities in recent decades.

Defying the suburban stereotype, Orange County cities possess distinct personalities. Even Anaheim, with its modern convention center, revival of the historic Center Street Promenade commerce district, and bustling Packing District, has distinguished itself from the Magic Kingdom. About 30 percent of OC residents hail from another country, and English is a second language for more than 45 percent; Little Saigon is the largest Vietnamese community outside of Vietnam. A true melting pot, the county hosts a dizzying array of ethnic food, festivals, markets and cultural events.

Performance venues such as the Segerstrom Center for the Arts and the South Coast Repertory are sprinkled throughout the county. Destination shopping malls, including Irvine Spectrum, Costa Mesa’s South Coast Plaza and Fashion Island in Newport Beach, vie with dozens of local shopping districts.

Sports fans cheer the Los Angeles Angels at the Angel Stadium of Anaheim and the Anaheim Ducks hockey team at Honda Center, which doubles as a big-name concert venue. Fifty championship courses and a temperate climate await golfers, while hotel and day spas stand ready to soothe aches and tone muscles.


Anaheim is the largest of Orange County’s 34 cities. None has a typical downtown, though Huntington Beach offers a vibrant seaside city center. History buffs gravitate to San Juan Capistrano’s beautifully preserved 18th-century mission, Yorba Linda’s Richard Nixon Presidential Library and Museum and the restored Victorian homes and historic city centers in Santa Ana and Orange.


The coastline with its world-famous surf spots (Huntington Beach, the Wedge at Newport Beach, Trestles in San Clemente), yacht harbors (Newport Beach, Dana Point) and protected areas (Crystal Cove State Park’s underwater reserve, the wetlands of California’s first state beach, Doheny) are just the beginning of Orange County’s natural wonders. Inland canyons and parks teem with wildlife and hiking and biking trails, such as Irvine’s 300-acre San Joaquin Marsh and Wildlife Sanctuary.


Disneyland and Knott’s Berry Farm are a given, but don’t overlook Sky Zone Trampoline Park in Anaheim and Pretend City Children’s Museum in Irvine, where kids go to “work,” collect their pay from ATMs and buy groceries. Santa Ana’s Discovery Cube Orange County offers dozens of hands-on science activities, and Dana Point’s Ocean Institute runs marine science and history expeditions on a tall ship or a research vessel.


After reopening from the year-plus closure last spring due to the pandemic, the parks have gradually been restoring stage shows, nighttime spectaculars, and other entertainment. Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge is the Magic Kingdom’s top draw now—who could pass up a smuggling operation on the Millennium Falcon or battling the First Order with the Resistance? Pixar, Marvel Comics (see the new Avengers Campus at California Adventure) and Twentieth Century Fox acquisitions may overshadow classic Disney characters, but princesses, witches and cute animals galore still enchant youngsters. There’s also the new Jessie’s Critter Carousel and Inside Out Emotional Whirlwind ride at Pixar Pier.

Marked by a huge orange balloon floating 400 feet overhead, the continually evolving 1,300-acre park is a family favorite offering open space, educational play areas, art galleries and studios, a playground and picnic area, 1.5 miles of walking/biking trails, an outdoor performance plaza and a weekly farmers’ market. In addition, there is a 194-acre Sports Complex with a championship soccer stadium, 25 tennis courts and amenities for a wide variety of sports. The latest addition is a public ice and training facility with one Olympic and three NHL regulation-sized rinks and a gym.

Just south of “Surf City’s” downtown, steps from Huntington Beach Pier and the city’s famous sands, the sidewalk cafés and markets of this modern waterfront food hall offer 12 unique restaurants and eateries. Lot 579 is an anchor of Pacific City, a shopping, dining and entertainment complex. The communal space upstairs offers plenty of seating and a killer ocean view.

Art literally comes to life in the unique Pageant of the Masters, in which living actors take up positions against painted backdrops to recreate world masterpieces in eerie 3-D fidelity. It’s the pièce de résistance among the festivals, workshops, galleries and proliferation of public art in the picturesque beach town that began life in the early 1900s as a small artists’ colony.

What started as a small berry farm grew into a family theme park destination. With attractions for all ages, the Park has four themed areas. The Old West Ghost Town is the heart and soul with cowboys, shootouts, shows and rides for all. Camp Snoopy is for young ones and features the “Peanuts” gang. Fiesta Village pays tribute to California’s Hispanic roots with Mexican-style architecture, food, and eye-catching works of art. Knott’s Boardwalk pays tribute to the SoCal beach lifestyle and is home to California’s first dive coaster, HangTime.

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