10 Things Worth Driving to the OC from LA & SD

best waterparks in Orange County Melissa Heckscher

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No hard feelings for The Mouse, but there are other things to do in Orange County than just Disneyland! How does a bona fide American Ninja Warrior course sound? Or a brand new waterpark? Or, how about a restaurant that lets you see the Disneyland fireworks without actually going into Disneyland? Whether you’re headed to these newly-opened attractions or to other tried-and-true faves, let’s give some love to our neighbor down south and check out these OC spots your whole family will love…despite the long car ride.

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waterpark in orange county
Melissa Heckscher

Check Out SoCal’s Newest Water Park

Wild Rivers: There’s nothing like a brand new water park: No decades-old mystery grime; no throngs of regulars crowding the grounds; no years of sunny skies weathering those rainbow bright tubes. SoCal’s newest water park (which is actually a reincarnation of the original Wild Rivers water park that closed in 2011) has everything any worldly water-slider would want—13 slick new slides (including four, six-person raft slides that let you and the whole fam slip ‘n slide together); a wave pool; a quarter-mile lazy river; and a children’s area with four slides and an 800-gallon water-tipping bucket that lets kids get dumped on every four minutes (it never gets old!). Kids will love every soaking minute of their time here, so slather on the sunblock and be prepared to make the day of it.

Insider’s Tip: Bring water shoes or flip flops—the ground gets hot and there’s lots of walking.

Hours: Open now through Sept. 25 (hours vary; check online for details).
Cost: Admission starts at $40 for kids under 48″; $65 for kids and adults 48″ and taller.

10000 Great Park Blvd.
Irvine, CA
Online: wildrivers.com

Related: 12 Unplugged Family Vacations to Take This Year

american ninja warrior park
Melissa Heckscher

Become an American Ninja Warrior

American Ninja Warrior Adventure Park: Got little couch-climbers or doorway hangers who need an outlet that won’t ruin your furniture? It’s time to put those Spidey-skills to good use! The new American Ninja Warrior Adventure Park is 17,000-square-feet of fun for kids (and grown-ups) who like to climb, jump, swing and bounce while testing their athletic skills. Designed in collaboration with Universal Live Entertainment and inspired by the popular American Ninja Warrior show, this park (located on the second floor of the MainPlace Mall in Santa Ana) lets participants of all ages test their skills on a variety of obstacles including rock walls, rolling logs, swinging bars, high tunnels and warped walls.

The space is divided into two parts: The traditional Ninja Warrior Course, which models itself after the TV show with its series of skill-testing walls and obstacles—and a huge  inflatable obstacle course, which is basically a 10,000-square foot bounce house (where smaller kids will likely want to spend all their time). The inflatable section has a pretty sprawling course of its own that includes side-by-side racetracks so kids can compete against each other. “We are bringing the hit television show to main street U.S.A.,”  American Ninja Warrior Adventure Parks CEO Adrian Griffin said in a press release. “You won’t have to be a top-level athlete to participate, which allows fans of all ages to engage in the fun!” And at $20 an hour, it’s an easy way to get your energy-filled kids thoroughly exhausted for the long ride home (Hello, car nap!).

Insider’s Tip: While you have to wear grip-soled socks for the bounce house, close toed shoes are required for ninjas who want to do the skills course. Bring both.

Hours: Open daily.
Cost: $15 for kids 5 and under; $20 per hour for kids over 5 (or $30 for a 120-minute session)

2800 N Main St unit 603 (on the second floor of the mall)
Santa Ana, CA

Try a Floating Adventure

Adventure Lagoon: This massive floating water park sits inside a man-made lake and is discreetly nestled into an industrial area of Anaheim just off the 91 freeway. Calling itself the fourth largest inflatable obstacle course in the country, the aqua park lets kids bounce on trampolines, conquer tall climbing towers, slide down air slides, crawl through tunnels, balance on floating ladders, and leap through the air—all from atop a floating island parked a short swim from the shore. For little swimmers, the Kid Zone lets kids play in shallow water filled with water trampolines, slides, peddle-boats, and water “sea-saws.”  When you’re done with the obstacle course, relax in the sand, swim in the lagoon, or rent a paddle board or kayak and paddle away (Note: Kayaks and paddle boards cost extra).

Insider’s Tip: Bring your own chairs to ensure a handy spot to sit on the sand. 

Hours: Open daily through Sept. 30.
Cost: $40 for entrance to the lagoon plus a 55-minute session on the obstacle course.

3255 E Miraloma Ave.
Anaheim, CA

Online: theadventurelagoon.com

Related: 26 Natural Swimming Holes to Put on Your Bucket List

Melissa Heckscher

Climb to New Heights

Ropes course? Check! Zip line? Check! Totally free? Yes, yes, yes! This awesome new playground—located in Huntington Beach’s Central Park between the Huntington Beach Disc Golf Course and Kathy May’s Lakeview Cafe—is the sort of place you’ll wish was closer but that’s worth the long drive south on the 405. With enough Wow” factor to impress kids who might balk at the idea of that hour in the car, the new playground has a towering ropes course that lets kids scamper high above the ground; then take flight on a zipline that soars across the play area (Don’t worry: This part is low to the ground so kids can’t fall far).

Even cooler? The course here is designed like a “Floor is Lava” game, where climbers have to get from one end of the playground to the other without touching the ground. Kids will love it—though it’s best suited for kids ages 5 and up). For the younger kids, there’s a toddler playground next to the lake, with a seesaw, baby swings, bench swings and a small climbing structure with a slide.

Good to Know: Set your navigation to Kathy May’s Lakeside Cafe (6622 Lakeside Dr., Huntington Beach); its is the closest place to park near the playground.

Insider Tip: Make it a staycation and book a room at the Huntington Beach Hyatt, where your kids will love the water slides, beachfront activities, nighttime s’mores and “Mermaid swim lessons” (!!). 

Catch a Free Fireworks Show while Dining

Calaca Mamas Cantina: If you’re already in Orange County and want to top off your day with a bang, this new Mexican restaurant near Disneyland has one thing not many restaurants can beat (at least, if you ask your kids): Fireworks. Its outdoor patio has a view of the Disneyland fireworks, which means you can check out the pops and crackles of Disney’s famous nighttime show without actually going into the park.

Fans of Disney’s Coco will recognize the restaurant’s Día de los Muertos theme. The space is filled with vibrant Day of the Dead decorations, including skeleton art, skull -shaped planters, and a wall full of photos of people who have passed (they’re reportedly relatives of the staff, but look closely and you’ll also see Walt Disney). With all its colors and festivity, its the perfect vibe for its bustling location across the street from California Adventure’s back gate. Sit back and watch the throngs of people drift by with their bags full of Disney gear while your brood noshes on light and flaky chicken flautas or the signature “Taco in a Bag,” which blends all of the traditional taco ingredients and tosses them into a Fritos bag. Finish with the homemade churros, which are served inside a mini churro cart and alongside a huge sparkler candle.*

Plan it all right and you’ll be finishing up your meal right around fireworks-time, when you can gaze across the street and see the fireworks blaze into the sky. It’s Disney magic, without the entrance prices.

Insider Tip: If you’re lucky, you’ll be treated to an appearance by the restaurant’s resident balloon artist, who can basically twist balloons into anything you can imagine (we got Baby Yoda!). You’ve got to pay for the artistry, of course, but it’s worth it, especially if you’re biding your time waiting for the fireworks to start. And validated free parking is available at the Best Western next door)

1550 S. Harbor Blvd.
Anaheim, CA
Online: calacamamas.com

*The writer received complimentary meal at this restaurant, but the opinions expressed above are hers alone.  

Related: All the Fun Things You Can Do in Anaheim with Kids

Pretend the Day Away

Pretend City Children’s Museum: Any kid who loves to play pretend (basically, any kid) will be in make-believe heaven in this gorgeous little “city,” which gives kids tiny replicas of all the places they’d like to imagine themselves a part of. The 27,000-square-foot facility includes a slew of “sets” for kids to immerse themselves in, including a dentist’s office, police and fire stations, construction area, farm, stage theater, water play area, art studio and grocery store. Suited mostly to toddlers and pretend-loving kids up to about 7, your littles will love pedaling foot-powered cars through “downtown” and navigating the space on their own (it’s big enough that they won’t get bored, but small enough that you’ll be able to keep an easy eye on them the whole time).

Insider Tip: If your kids have outgrown their nap, you’re in luck (here, at least)! The slow time (I.e. best time to go to avoid crowds in the tiny grocery store) is 1 to 3 p.m. 

Hours: Tues.-Sun. (closed Tues. starting Sept. 6).
Cost: $20 for both adults and kids.

29 Hubble
Irvine, CA
Online: pretendcity.org

Rides by the Beach

Balboa Fun Zone: Old-school boardwalk fun rules the day at Balboa Fun Zone in Newport Beach. Ride the iconic Ferris Wheel—in operation since 1936—and enjoy arcade games, bike rentals and even a nautical museum. Want to check out nearby Balboa Island? The kids will love taking the auto ferry from the fun zone across the water. Pedestrians, bikes and cars are all welcome. Be sure to grab one of the island’s famous frozen bananas, dipped in chocolate of course.

Another option for exploring the Balboa Marina is to rent a Duffy boat from Balboa Boat Rentals. These electric boats go a maximum of 5mph (think of it as a golf cart on the water) and seat up to 12 people. You can drive them yourself or hire a driver. Many restaurants in the marina offer “dock and dine” service where you dock your Duffy boat and grab some eats to enjoy aboard or at the restaurant.

600 E Bay Ave.
Newport Beach, CA

Online: balboafunzone.com

Melissa Heckscher

Try Out a Pint-Size Theme Park

Adventure City: Want something a few steps (and dollars) down from a big theme park—but that gives enough thrills that tiny riders will be squealing with delight? Look no further. Spread out over two acres on Beach Blvd. near Knott’s Berry Farm, this little amusement park has 11 rides—and almost all of them are perfect for kids as young as 2. From a tiny Ferris wheel and “Crazy Bus” to a carousel and train ride, kids will feel like bona fide daredevils as they conquer the thrills. There are two small roller coasters that big sisters and brothers will appreciate (with a height requirement of 39″ and 36″), but all in all, we’d say the sweet spot for this place is ages 3 to 8. Tweens and teens will likely long for the bigger, faster rides of bigger theme parks.

Kids of all ages will love the petting zoo, where they can feed sheep, chicken, goats, and pigs. And, when screen time calls, head to the arcade to cool off and game for a bit.

Hours: Open daily in the summers; weekends throughout the year.
Cost: $27 per ticket.

1238 S Beach Blvd.
Anaheim, CA
Online: adventurecity.com

Related: Discover All the Best Animal Encounters around Los Angeles

Melissa Heckscher

Play a Round of Mini Golf

Camelot Golfland: Any fan of mini golf will want to take a swing at this sprawling golf course that features three separate 18-hole golf courses—plus a small waterpark, a go-kart track, bumper boats, laser tag and an arcade. The huge course has no big surprises; there’s no fancy moving windmills or electric clown faces. This is straight-up traditional mini golf here, with tried-and-true challenges including raised holes, bridges over water, and mystery tunnels where your ball goes in one place and shuttles to another spot far below. In keeping with mini golf kitsch, the hodgepodge of design details meanders between Medieval Times, Tiki and Jurassic Park decor, with stone castles and Medieval knights jumbled together with dinosaurs and Tiki mask faces. It’s a random assortment with no rhyme or reason, but it’s mini golf! So it’s all good.

Hours: Open daily
Cost: $11 per game.

3200 Carpenter Ave.
Anaheim, CA
Online: golfland.com/anaheim

Related: Where to Play a Round of Mini Golf near Los Angeles

Spend a (Half) Day at the Zoo

Santa Ana Zoo: We love the LA Zoo, but let’s be honest: Sometimes we’re just not up for pushing a stroller around those 133 hilly acres, even with the plethora of wildlife it promises to show us. Sometimes we just want something a little bit… smaller. The Santa Ana Zoo is the perfect zoo for little kids (and their parents) who want a taste of the wild without the all-day commitment. With just 20 acres of easy paths meandering around a smattering of fun animal exhibits—plus a petting zoo, playground and even a few amusement park rides—it’s a zoo that’s just enough (especially before nap time).

As for wildlife, the zoo focuses on the animals of Central and South America, and its residents Include anteaters, monkeys, llamas, and a variety of birds. There’s also a farm area where kids can interact with friendly critters, and a butterfly exhibit that lets visitors walk through a 2,000 square foot habitat filled with butterflies from South Central and North America. (Note: The butterfly exhibit will run through the end of September and will reopen in the Spring.)

Did we mention the rides? The gorgeous hand-painted Ferris wheel and carousel are always a hit—as is the around-the-park train ride which gives you a behind-the-scenes narration of all the animals who call this place home.

Insider Tip:  Pack a lunch and have a picnic (or buy from the restaurant) next to the playground then let your kids get out their wiggles so they can conk out and snooze the whole ride home. 

Hours: Open daily.
Cost: $9 for children; $12 for adults.

1801 E Chestnut Ave.
Santa Ana
Online: santaanazoo.org

If you’re looking for events and activities, don’t miss our local Orange County events calendar, which has everything from story times to seasonal activities like apple picking, pumpkin patches and Christmas tree farms.

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