Beyond amusement parks and beaches, Orange County offers lots of fun-filled experiences for children and their families. Here are a few ideas for you:
Hands-On Discovery: OC offers some great interactive museum experiences for children. Santa Ana's Discovery Science Center features 120 hands-on exhibits, including the world's first interactive dinosaur adventure. Just down the street, the Bowers Kidseum introduces children to cultures around the world through hands-on arts experiences. For very young children, Pretend City in Irvine and the Children's Museum at La Habra offer fun opportunities to explore, play and stretch the imagination.
Marine Life: Take your young explorers to the Ocean Institute in Dana Point for a great introduction to the marine life found in local waters. (Reserved for school groups during the week, the Institute is open to the public on weekends.) If you're interested in experiencing marine life in the wild, check out the variety of family excursions offered throughout the year on Ocean Institute vessels. Whale watching takes place year-round in OC, with migrating Gray Whales appearing off the coast from November through April and Blue Whales from May through October. Multiple operators depart from Newport and Dana Point Harbors. If you'd like to see seals and sea lions up close, head to the Pacific Marine Mammal Center in Laguna Canyon, where pinnipeds rescued along the OC coast are being nursed back to health for release into the wild. Excellent tide pooling can be found in Crystal Cove State Park, the rocky coves of Laguna Beach and at the base of the Dana Point Headlands.
Nature & Animals: OC's zoos are more intimate experiences than others in Southern California-offering terrific introductions for younger visitors. The Santa Ana Zoo offers a particularly strong monkey collection. The OC Zoo in Irvine Park showcases animals that are found in the wild in Southern California. And San Juan Capistrano's Zoomar's is a fun petting zoo. Learn about the plants and animals that inhabit the Southern California ecosystem at the Environmental Nature Center in Newport Beach or the nearby Muth Interpretive Center, part of the Upper Newport Bay Ecological Reserve. Or check out the guided hiking experiences designed for families and children offered by OC Parks and the Irvine Ranch Natural Landmarks.
OC History: For a window on Orange County's history, take a tour of the Mission San Juan Capistrano; a walk around San Juan Capistrano's historic downtown is a great way to get a feel for the county's earliest history. The interactive tours and excursions on the Tall Ships at the Ocean Institute tell young visitors about the early seafaring days along the OC coast. (If you're in town in September, be sure to hit the Tall Ships Festival!) While there are many remnants around the county of OC's agricultural era, the Heritage Museum in Santa Ana is one of the most accessible, providing young visitors an idea of what life was like in the late 19th and early 20th century when agriculture was king. And Heritage Hill Historic Park in Lake Forest spans a number of periods-Native American inhabitants to the original Serrano Adobe (from OC's Mexican rancho era) to the school house, church and citrus ranch house (from the early settlement era.)
All Aboard! Trains were an important part of OC history, bringing settlers to the area and helping farmers reach faraway markets. There are two places in the county where train enthusiasts young and old can ride on miniature trains: Fairview Park, Costa Mesa (3rd Sat. & Sun. each month) and Irvine Regional Park (daily). Or plan a day trip on a real train-multiple OC cities are served by both Metrolink and Amtrak. Three historic downtowns are close to railroad stations--Fullerton, Old Towne Orange and San Juan Capistrano--offering lots to see and do on foot once you arrive. You can also hop a train to take in an Angels game in Anaheim (the station is in the stadium's parking lot.) Or head to San Diego or Los Angeles for a full day adventure.
Farm Experiences: Want to help your kids understand where their food comes from? Check out the Centennial Farm at the OC Fair & Event Center in Costa Mesa, the Orange County Great Park's Farm+Food Lab that makes the farm-to-table connection (while you're there, don't miss the opportunity to rise above it all in the Great Orange Balloon); or Tanaka Farms in Irvine, a working family farm and farm-stands with special seasonal events where visitors can pick their own pumpkins, strawberries or watermelons.
Intros to the Arts: A number of OC performing arts organizations offer regular programming specifically designed for children and their families-check out Pacific Symphony, Segerstrom Center for the Arts and South Coast Repertory to see what might be happening during your visit. Laguna's summer art festivals offer hands-on visual arts workshops and experiences for children. The Annual Street Painting Festival (May) is a fun, accessible way to see artists creating masterpieces before your eyes. And, OC has a number of festivals that provide great creative experiences for children and families including the Imagination Celebration (April/May), the Festival of Children (Sept) and the OC Children's Book Festival (Oct).
Active: OC's outdoor, active lifestyle is perfect for active children and their families. Check out the Outdoor Activities section of this website for places to bicycle, hike, kayak, surf, or learn stand-up paddleboarding. For the skateboarding enthusiast, there's Van's Skate Park in Orange or Etnies Skatepark of Lake Forest. Or try an ice skating experience at Anaheim ICE, the practice facility for OC's professional ice hockey team.
Horses: For young children, the pony rides at Irvine Regional Park might be the perfect place for a first horseback experience. Older children would enjoy guided trail rides offered at three facilities: Huntington Central Park Equestrian Center (Huntington Beach), Country Trails Horse Rental and Riding School (Orange), or Ortega Equestrian Center (San Juan Capistrano). Both of the latter offer less urban trial experiences in the county's beautiful backcountry.
For Sports-Enthusiasts: OC offers a number of opportunities to expose young athletes to talented collegiate and professional sports experiences. OC is home to professional sports teams and competitions including: Angels (baseball), Ducks (ice hockey)-both in Anaheim--and multiple pro surfing events (Huntington Beach and San Clemente.) It is also home to the U.S. Swimming finals (Irvine) and Olympic Volleyball teams (Anaheim), major equestrian events (San Juan Capistrano) and highly-ranked college sports teams at CSU Fullerton and UC Irvine.
Fossils: There are two great places in OC to check out the creatures large and small that inhabited Orange County millions of years ago-and the OC finds have been impressive. Both facilities have extensive displays of the rich fossils discovered nearby. Head to the Ralph B. Clark Interpretive Center in Clark Park (Fullerton) or to the Laguna Hills Community Center, which offers audio tours and a self-guided Paleopack Program for children ages 2-9. Check out http://www.gotfossils.com/ for a preview of the array of creatures that have been found at the Laguna site.
Old Fashioned Amusement: The OC Fair tops the list for old-fashioned amusements; it takes place mid-July through mid-August at the OC Fair & Event Center in Costa Mesa. Other year-round options include: the Balboa Fun Zone (Newport Beach), Adventure City (Anaheim) and Boomers (Irvine.)