Along the Southern California coast, Orange County beckons with 42 miles of sandy shores and renowned theme parks. When it comes to planning what to do in Orange County on your next family vacation, Disneyland Resort is the obvious choice—but there’s even more to explore beyond the Happiest Place on Earth. This family-friendly region is home to multiple beach towns that each boast their own brand of breezy charm, where children and adults alike can enjoy the laid-back surf culture of Huntington Beach or explore the hiking trails of Newport Beach. To make the most of year-round sunshine and diverse landscapes, here’s a guide to the top kid-centric activities in Orange County.
Crystal Cove State Park, Newport Coast, and Laguna Beach
Why It’s a Fun Thing for Families to Do: Crystal Cove is a wholesome beach destination frozen in time with diverse terrain ripe for exploration, from wooded canyons to sandy beaches.
Be Prepared For: If you park at the Los Trancos lot off Coast Highway to access the historic district, it’s a somewhat steep walk to get down to the water; with kids in tow, you may want to take the shuttle ($1.50 per passenger). For direct access to the beach or hiking trails, consider parking at one of the El Moro Canyon lots.
In one day, families can go from exploring the backcountry to splashing by the shore. That’s the magic of Crystal Cove State Park, nestled between Corona del Mar and Laguna Beach along the Orange County coast. There are 18 miles of hiking trails through native wilderness, including easy out-and-back walks like Moro Canyon, a kid-friendly three-mile loop on a dirt path with ocean views. On the beach side, four tide-pool areas reveal an underwater world filled with creatures including sea urchins and red-thatched barnacles. A visit to the historic district is a must if you go to the Rocky Bight tide pools at the south end of Crystal Cove. Kids can have an old-fashioned beach day, digging their toes in the sand while lingering over the last few slurps of a classic date shake from the Crystal Cove Shake Shack. Adding to the scenery are restored historic beach cottages that dot the shoreline; while most are overnight rentals, others house a gift shop, educational exhibits, and a restaurant. After a waterfront dinner at The Beachcomber, end your day by renting a fire pit to enjoy roasted marshmallows and s’mores on the sand—a quintessential kid-friendly activity in Orange County.
Balboa Peninsula and Balboa Island, Newport Beach
Why It’s a Fun Thing for Families to Do: Located along the largest recreational harbor on the West Coast, the man-made island and three-mile stretch known as Balboa Peninsula offer kid-friendly activities in Orange County ranging from classic boardwalk attractions to on-the-water adventures.
Be Prepared For: Parking in this area of Newport Beach can be hard to find—grab a spot on the peninsula side by Balboa Pier.
Balboa Fun Zone is a hidden gem of Orange County. The colorful Ferris wheel, dating back to 1936, is a beacon of Newport Harbor, surrounded by old-time arcade games and boardwalk attractions like a giant trampoline. Take the Balboa Island Ferry across the harbor to find Balboa Bars and frozen bananas, a treat that fans of the TV show Arrested Development might find familiar. After your island detour, you can grab a bite on the peninsula at the family-friendly Ruby’s Diner at Balboa Pier or charter an electric boat for an on-the-water picnic. Whale-watching cruises also depart from the Fun Zone, taking families out to open water to see dolphins, humpbacks, and other species depending on the season.
Surf City USA, Huntington Beach
Why It’s a Fun Thing for Families to Do: Downtown Huntington Beach is the heart of the city, in close proximity to the pier, water sports, restaurants, and family-friendly hotels.
Be Prepared For: Events like the U.S. Open of Surfing and Pacific Air Show draw big crowds and can create restricted access to certain beach areas. Plan your aquatic activities accordingly so little ones aren’t disappointed.
Catching a wave isn’t the only way to spend an action-packed weekend in the SoCal beach town dubbed Surf City USA—though it’s certainly easy for kids of all skill levels to learn from one of the expert instructors along the 10-mile stretch of coast. For tamer waters perfect for kayaking, head to Huntington Harbour on the north side of town where it’s easy to find walk-up rentals by the hour. If you prefer to explore on foot, stay downtown to shop local surf wear boutiques and see memorabilia and art at the Huntington Beach International Surfing Museum, which also hosts Sunday concerts near the pier. Dine at kid-friendly restaurants like Sandy’s Beach Shack and Duke’s, or cruise up the street to Pacific City for more upscale eateries and the Lot 579 food hall.
Orange County Great Park, Irvine
Why It’s a Fun Thing for Families to Do: Orange County Great Park is a hub for family fun—think museums, play spaces, attractions, and even a water park. It’s also close to popular shopping, dining, and entertainment hot spots.
Be Prepared For: There are multiple entry points for the Great Park. While this means there’s plenty of parking, be sure to choose a lot central to the attractions you’re planning to visit and bring a stroller or wagon for smaller kids.
When you’re planning what to do in Orange County Great Park, start with a ride on the iconic orange balloon. You’ll soar 400 feet above the park, giving you aerial views of the many kids’ play areas, vintage carousel, and aircraft hangar that houses the Palm Court Art Complex and aviation exhibit. Children can participate in free art and seeding workshops at the Farm + Food Lab or lace up a pair of skates at Great Park Ice, where the Anaheim Ducks and Olympic champions like Nathan Chen train for competition. In the summer, Wild Rivers is a popular attraction for kids in Orange County, offering wave pools, family raft rides, slides, and splash zones for younger swimmers. What’s for dinner? Head to the nearby Irvine Spectrum Center for an array of family-friendly restaurants and sweet treats from spots such as the Hello Kitty Grand Cafe. Post-meal, let older kids pull off an art heist or break out from prison at The Escape Game, which has six different escape-room experiences.
There are dozens more kid-friendly activities in Orange County, from the Discovery Cube in Santa Ana down to Doheny State Beach in Dana Point. And if the miles of local beaches, art exhibitions, themed attractions, thrill rides, and outdoor excursions aren’t enough, San Diego and Los Angeles are just a short day-trip away. So whether you’re planning your vacation around a weekend at Disneyland or it’s a stop on a scenic California road trip, the Golden State is a must-visit destination where travelers of all ages will find something to love.
Irvine Regional Park, Orange
Why It’s a Fun Thing for Families to Do: From wildlife sightings to paddle boat excursions, Irvine Regional Park is filled with family-friendly things to do in Orange County.
Be Prepared For: While there are plenty of trees offering a shady spot to relax, as well as covered restroom facilities, remember that the park is all outdoors. Pack lots of sunscreen, hats, and water for your visit.
A trip to this sprawling open space in the foothills of Orange won’t be your average day at the park. For a $3 parking fee ($5 on weekends), you get access to nearly 500 acres filled with wildlife, trails, and attractions such as the Irvine Park Railroad, a 10-minute conductor-led tour that circles the park’s two lakes and wooded groves. Younger kids can take a pony ride at the corral next to the train station, but teens up for a challenge may enjoy a guided horseback tour along the park’s three-mile equestrian trail. Visitors can also rent paddle boats to cruise around on the water or double surreys to explore by road. Admire roaming peacocks from afar while making your way up to the Orange County Zoo, home to animals such as black bears, mountain lions, a bald eagle, and great horned owls. There’s a concession stand at the park, but your best bet is to pack lunch to enjoy at one of the many picnic tables under the shade of oak and sycamore trees.
Disneyland Resort, Anaheim
Why It’s a Fun Thing for Families to Do: Disneyland’s two theme parks and entertainment district means families can enjoy multiple kid-friendly activities in Orange County without ever getting in the car.
Be Prepared For: Spring break, summer, and the holiday season are some of the busiest times of year at the parks. January through March is a great time to visit with younger kids, as you’ll typically find lower ticket prices and shorter lines.
Roller coasters, themed treats, and animated characters brought to life—there’s a reason Disneyland Resort is one of the most popular family attractions in the country. Little ones will love Fantasyland at Disneyland Park, where they can take flight with the likes of Peter Pan and Dumbo, then relax for some storytelling time at the Royal Theatre. Don’t miss Mickey and Minnie’s Runaway Railway in Toontown before hopping over to Disney California Adventure Park. Your superhero-loving kids can get lost in the Marvel Universe at the Avengers Campus, which has family-friendly attractions like Web Slingers: A Spider-Man Adventure and Dr. Strange’s Ancient Sanctum show. Pixar fans can cruise with Lightning McQueen in Cars Land or experience an Inside Out whirlwind of emotion on Pixar Pier. Though you can easily spend days exploring the parks, the Downtown Disney District has plenty of shops, sit-down restaurants, and a bowling alley if you need some downtime between rides. For early entry to the parks before they open to the public, stay at a Disneyland Resort property in Anaheim such as the Grand Californian Hotel & Spa, which has an entrance with direct access to Disney California Adventure Park.
Knott’s Berry Farm, Buena Park
Why It’s a Fun Thing for Families to Do: The Peanuts-themed Camp Snoopy land inside the park offers an opportunity for kids to experience theme park thrills on their own.
Be Prepared For: Knott’s Berry Farm has several roller coasters and thrill rides that have a minimum height requirement. Those with tinier visitors in tow can still enjoy the park’s many stage shows, character meet-and-greets, and kid-friendly attractions.
Whether your kids prefer the Peanuts gang or the Wild West, Knott’s Berry Farm is a treasure trove of pint-sized adventures in Buena Park. In Camp Snoopy, younger kids can go solo on many attractions like Woodstock’s Airmail, the Camp Bus, or Charlie Brown’s Kite Flyer if they meet the minimum height requirement (36 inches for the majority of rides). They can also experience their first roller coaster thrills on the Timberline Twister. Over in Ghost Town, the whole family can pan for gold, watch a blacksmith forge metal, or walk through the Western Trails Museum. Every visit should include a slow-paced, winding journey aboard the Calico Mine Ride, a dark ride that takes passengers on a trip back in time to the California Gold Rush. Take advantage of longer summer days with an afternoon at Knott’s Soak City Waterpark, open seasonally from May through September. Though you may want to sample the famous fried chicken and boysenberry pie at Mrs. Knott’s Chicken Dinner Restaurant, there are also immersive dining experiences just down the street. Cheer on the knights at Medieval Times while feasting on the castle’s finest cuisine with your hands, or go on a high-seas excursion at Pirates Dinner Adventure, a live theater show set aboard an 18th-century Spanish galleon.