By Matt Villano, on May 22, 2013

Orange County without the mouse

Most families visit Orange County, California, to spend a few days (and, quite frankly, a few thousand bucks) at Disneyland. Unbeknownst to many, however, Anaheim and the surrounding area comprises much more than just Disneyland Park and Disney California Adventure. On a recent visit, my family of four spent three days with Mickey and Minnie, then challenged ourselves to spend three days beyond the realm of the Mouse. It turned out to be one of the best vacations we’ve ever had.


Our trip began at Knott’s Berry Farm in Buena Park – the “other” amusement park in town, and, technically speaking, the oldest theme park in America (it opened its doors in 1940). Here, Mom and Dad passed on aerial rides such as the WindSeeker and Rip Tide in favor of Camp Snoopy, a section of the park designed for toddlers and kids up to age 5. Our Big Girl (age 4) yelled her way through a child-sized version of the park’s Supreme Scream, while the Baby (age 1.5) giggled her way through three or four sessions on Snoopy Bounce, a bouncy-house in the shape of Snoopy. The kids also loved the Butterfield Stagecoach, an authentic coach pulled by real live horses.


Knott’s Berry Farm roller coaster (photos courtesy of Knott’s Berry Farm)

That night, we ventured down the street to Medieval Times, where “dinner theater” goes way retro with a utensil-free meal (translation: You eat with your hands) and a jousting show. Our older daughter found the jousting “scary.” I, on the other hand, loved every minute of it, and caught myself on occasion hooting and hollering like a maniac.


We started Day 2 in Orange, a tiny little city with a downtown that harkens back to the way things were in the 1950s, when development in The O.C. took off. The undisputed highlight: A breakfast (waffles for all three girls; chicken fried steak for me) at Watson’s Drugs and Soda Fountain, an eatery that has existed in the same place for more than 100 years. From there, we ventured to Santa Ana, and spent the rest of the day at the Discovery Science Center.

Over the course of five hours in this wonderfully interactive spot, my children 1) made their own clouds, 2) experienced the winds of a hurricane, 3) climbed a rock wall and 4) created bubbles larger than their heads. They also got a crash course in paleontology, as part of an equally hands-on exhibit dubbed Dino Quest.

Viewfinder tip: Print out maps before you visit, as traffic on the interstate often is at a standstill.

We capped our Disney-free visit to Anaheim with a day on the coast – specifically at the Aquarium of the Pacific in Long Beach. The place is home to 11,000 ocean animals representing nearly 500 species. My kids, of course, liked the birds best. For the baby, the Magellanic Penguins in the June Keys Penguin Habitat stole the show; the kid laughed every time a penguin splashed down, and she waddled around like a penguin for a sizable part of the afternoon. The Big Girl was partial to the Lorikeet Forest, in which the colorful and tiny Australian birds landed on her arm to eat from a tiny cup of nectar she carried.


By the time we completed our adventure, oversized mice were the farthest creatures from my kids’ minds. For a change, it was nice to see The O.C. in this different light.


What is your favorite way to spend a day in sunny California?