The last time I visited Disneyland, I was 7 years old and dressed identically to my sister and cousins. From our Mickey Mouse ears and striped rompers to our crimson bows and matching white Keds, we were easy to pick out in a crowd (our parents’ survival strategy) as we spun on colorful teacups, gazed longingly at Sleeping Beauty’s castle and got lost in the seafaring fantasy of "Pirates of the Caribbean." Fast-forward almost three decades and my husband and I are now the ones attempting to wrangle our toddler dressed like Aurora and her two big brothers wielding plastic Captain Jack Sparrow swords through the Happiest Place on Earth. We’re in good company with most families visiting this iconic Anaheim attraction, including our friends who have three kids the same ages as ours. I admittedly take a little comfort watching them chase after their Mickey-obsessed toddler while trying to keep their place in a growing line for their two daughters desperate to meet Minnie — at least we’re not alone. Taking six young kids to Disneyland is just what you would expect: part amazing, part exhausting, and undeniably magical. Especially in a destination like Anaheim, where you can balance theme park thrills with the more laid-back adventures that flourish throughout Orange County. From exhilarating roller coaster rides to serene sandy stretches, here are a handful of diverse family-friendly experiences we discovered in and around this sun-kissed southern California city.
Whether you have small children or you’re just a big kid at heart, a trip to Disneyland is a rite of passage when you’re traveling in the Anaheim area. And when you’re at Disney, most people fall into one of these categories. Revisiting more than a quarter-century later, I am still mesmerized by the fantastical world of 17th-century swashbuckling and “Yo-Ho”-ing pirates as we voyage atop the shadowy seas on the Pirates of the Caribbean — the 50-year-old dark ride is even better now with all of the Hollywood-inspired enhancements and my kids in the boat next to me. My face hurts from smiling at my daughter’s gleeful squeals as she soars above Fantasyland on the same Dumbo the Flying Elephant ride I once loved and spots Belle swishing past in her signature buttercup gown while her big brothers are blasting through the galaxy on Space Mountain with their dad. While repeat Disneyland-ers can’t help but get lost in the nostalgia, there’s always something new to discover at this ever-changing theme park, whether you’re riding along the revamped, better-than-ever steam-powered Disneyland Railroad or anxiously awaiting Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge, slated to open next summer. While you won’t see everything in a single day and you can save money purchasing multi-day tickets, Disney FastPass allowed us to experience more and wait less during our one-day visit, and timing our trip midweek cut down on crowds and prices. disneyland.disney.go.com
Disney California Adventure Park
Double your fun at Disney California Adventure Park — these side-by-side attractions are actually two separate Disney theme parks, each boasting distinct rides and attractions. Purchasing Park Hopper tickets allowed us to experience both in one marathon day, doing all things Disneyland from the time the gates opened until midafternoon, when we headed to Disney California Adventure Park, chock-full of Golden State-themed thrills like the Grizzly River Run and locally inspired attractions like Cars Land, which brings to life the beloved Disney series with Route 66 road stops and a rugged Southwestern landscape. While our spouses accompanied the big kids on the thrilling Guardians of the Galaxy–Mission: BREAKOUT!, two of us opted to stay behind to supervise our toddlers napping in strollers while sipping a craft beer. While you won’t find any adult beverages to accompany your nachos or churros at Disneyland, this Anaheim attraction serves up wine, craft brews and cocktails throughout its restaurants and kiosks. Together, our families enjoyed some all-ages fun soaking in aerial views of the park from the heights of the Mickey-faced Pixar Pal-A-Round Ferris wheel and spinning around Luigi’s Rollickin’ Roadsters. Whereas nightly firework displays light up the skies over Disneyland, it’s the World of Color that entertains and enchants each evening at Disney California Adventure Park. Beneath a pitch-black sky, we watched iconic Disney characters come to life in a colorful kaleidoscope of imagination featuring dancing water and exploding pyrotechnics set to captivating Disney soundtracks. Watching the spectacular show unfold over Paradise Bay was an unforgettable experience and the perfect finale to a whirlwind day at Disney.
Crystal Cove State Park
We balanced out a dizzying day at Disney with a trip to Crystal Cove State Park, where the water is brisk, the waves are big and the landscape is unbelievably colorful. Our three kids dipped their toes in the numbing Pacific Ocean for the first time here and soon found out just how quickly those chilly waves roll in. Located off the Pacific Coast Highway between Corona del Mar and Laguna Beach, this is one of Orange County’s largest remaining examples of open space and natural seashore. There are seven separate coves and multiple tide pools to explore along the 3.2-mile broad sandy beach, as well as hiking trails winding through 2,400 acres of vibrant backcountry wilderness. Crystal Cove State Park has been a popular place to camp and stay overnight for about a century — these days, restored historic 1930’s-era beach cottages are offered by lottery and rent up to six months in advance. But even spending a few hours here discovering secret coves and sandy crescents, watching the surf roll in and swimming in the gray-blue sea that laps a shoreline sprayed in shades of green, rust and gold can recharge the soul. crystalcovestatepark.org
Seal Beach, which got its name from the seals that once frequented its shores, is Orange County’s northernmost beach and about as family-friendly as they come, complete with a beach playground where our kids worked up a sweat before building sandcastles and burying each other beneath piles of sunbaked sand. This idyllic stretch is perfect for long beach strolls, watching surfers ride the waves and walking along California’s second-longest wooden pier, dating back to the early 1900s. As evening approached, we flip-flopped from the beach to a bustling Main Street sprinkled with dozens of restaurants spanning surf-inspired seafood cafes to pizza parlors to fill up on cheesy enchiladas and cold margaritas at Avila’s El Ranchito, followed by dreamy desserts at Paradis Ice Cream. sealbeachca.gov
Anaheim Packing District
Bring your appetite and sense of culinary adventure to the Anaheim Packing District. Built in 1919, the restored citrus packing house opened in 2014 as a colorful culinary center that now brims with 20-plus artisan food producers and purveyors. In the few hours we spent in this 42,000-square-foot foodie haven, we noshed on banh mi and pho from Sawleaf Vietnamese Café; sunk our teeth into melty, made-to-order favorites at Black Sheep Grilled Cheese Bar and savory gourmet burgers at Umami Burger; and sipped sweet flavorful teas topped with cotton candy clouds at Mini Monster. Those over 21 can climb aboard a 1920s railroad car and enjoy an artisanal Napa or Sonoma wine at BXCR Wine Bar or order a local pint poured from 24 rotating taps to wash down a savory or sweet waffle sandwich at the Iron Press. packingdistrict.com
Anaheim’s craft beer scene is exploding, with 15 breweries and more on the way. Thanks in part to Anaheim’s German roots, a mayor who loves beer and a city council willing to remove regulatory hurdles, this southern California city is quickly garnering a reputation as a craft beer destination. Duck into the Anaheim Packing District’s restored Packard Car Showroom that houses the Anaheim Brewery, the revived pre-Prohibition brewery that closed in 1920 and opened in 2010 with a beer garden and tasting room; sip a West Coast Style Pixelated Onslaught at the experimental Bottle Logic Brewing; or venture out nearby. With nearly 500 breweries statewide, California’s booming craft beer movement means you won’t search long for a place to pour you a pint. Before flying out of Long Beach, we sipped blonde and amber ales while enjoying weekend brunch, burgers and beachfront views at Belmont Brewing Company, the oldest brewpub in Los Angeles County.
Shop, skate and sports
Spend several hours at Anaheim Garden Walk, a 460,000-square-foot outdoor “eater-tainment” destination tucked in the heart of the Anaheim Resort District, which houses top restaurants including the all-new House of Blues Anaheim, trendy shops, an upscale bowling lounge and local art displays. Find more shops at the open-air Outlets at Orange, just a mile or 2 away, including Vans Skatepark — a full retail store and skateboard pro shop where kids from 6 to 16 can take private street skateboard lessons. Families who prefer sports to shopping can watch the Angels bat at the nearby Angel Stadium of Anaheim.
Stay and play
Anaheim has more than 150 hotels to choose from, but the Courtyard Anaheim Theme Park Entrance proved perfect for our family. Directly across from Disneyland, this Anaheim water park hotel brims with family-friendly perks like 30-foot water slides, splash pads and swimming pools, in-room twin bunk beds and double bathrooms, and convenient on-site dining options. marriott.com/hotels/travel/snadt-courtyard-anaheim-theme-park-entrance
For more information, visit visitcalifornia.com and visitanaheim.org.
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