11 Best Things to Do in Orange County, CA (with Kids)

You just might be surprised by all the fun things to do in Orange County with kids. This area of California is probably best known as the home of Disneyland and some famous housewives. There’s a lot more to the OC, though. Whether you’re looking for a Southern California vacation spot or you want to add some extra activities to your Disneyland trip, you’ll definitely want to explore these 11 things to do in Orange County!

Crystal Cove Beach in Orange County, CA
Crystal Cove Beach in Orange County (Photo credit: focqus, Depositphotos.com)

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1. Connect with nature at Irvine Regional Park.

There’s so much to do at Irvine Regional Park, it’s hard to know where to start! Choices include the Irvine Park Railroad ride-on miniature train, hiking, the Orange County Zoo, pony rides, paddleboats, and even more. Numerous holiday-themed activities occur throughout the year, too, so be sure to check their website to see current events.

Irvine Regional Park in Orange County with kids
The Travel Mama and her kids piloting a paddleboat at Irvine Regional Park (Photo credit: Travel Mamas)

2. Play at Pretend City.

This attraction in Orange County is a favorite of families with young children. You should plan to spend an entire morning or afternoon exploring the make-believe town at Pretend City in Irvine. Parents can sit and relax while children “work” at fun jobs. Kids serve pretend drinks at the café, sort mail at the post office, and play at other professions. Kids earn play money by performing each task. This great learning experience can keep children entertained for hours.

Pretend City Children's Museum in Irvine, California
Pretend City Children’s Museum (Photo credit: Pretend City)

3. Get your thrills at Knott’s Berry Farm.

This Orange County amusement park often gets lost in Disneyland’s shadow. With a multitude of rides, shops, and other entertainment — Knott’s Berry Farm in Buena Park is great fun for families. Big kids love the abundance of roller coasters while young children enjoy the park’s Peanuts gang-themed rides. Be sure to say hi to Snoopy and his friends! You can save big bucks by buying your tickets in advance from Knotts.com instead of at the gate.

Trying to decide if this theme park is right for your family? Read this comparison of Knott’s Berry Farm vs. Disneyland.

Xcelerator, one of the fastest rides at Knott's Berry Farm
Xcelerator, one of the fastest rides at Knott’s Berry Farm (Photo credit: Colleen Lanin)

4. See animals at Santa Ana Zoo.

California is home to a number of wonderful zoos, but one that frequently gets overlooked is the Santa Ana Zoo at Prentice Park in Orange County. Not only is the admission price affordable, but also this zoo offers a number of appealing attractions. From the Crean Family Farm petting zoo and Colors of the Amazon Aviary to the Zoofari Express Train Ride and the Conservation Carrousel Featuring Endangered Animals, you’re sure to find something at this small zoo to please your brood.

A mama sloth and a baby sloth at Santa Ana Zoo
A mama sloth and a baby sloth at Santa Ana Zoo (Photo from the Santa Ana Zoo Facebook page)

5. Go tide pooling in Orange County with kids.

Tide pools are shallow rock pools found beside the ocean. Orange County is a great place to explore these mini-ecosystems with kids. Best of all, it’s free to look for sea creatures and plant life in tide pools. This activity provides a relaxing way to break up a busy vacation. We have a number of beaches here in the OC, but my family’s top two favorites for tide pooling are Crystal Cove California State Beach (right off Pacific Coast Highway at the Laguna Beach/Newport Beach border) and Aliso Creek County Beach/Montage Beach (south of downtown Laguna Beach).

Tide pool in Southern California
Tide pool in Southern California (Photo credit: akcents, Depositphotos.com)

6. Book a whale watching boat tour.

If you’re visiting Orange County with kids in late winter or early spring, then be sure to check out the whale watching boat tours. Kids and adults alike will be amazed to see humpback whales diving and breaching. You’ll likely see playful dolphins frolicking in the wild, too. Book your Newport Beach whale-watching adventure via GetYourGuide now!

A humpback whale diving in Orange County, CA
A humpback whale diving (Photo credit: GUDKOVANDREY, Depositphotos.com)

7. Go surfing in Huntington Beach.

There’s no place better to catch a wave and hang ten than Huntington Beach, also known as Surf City USA. Located in Orange County, Huntington Beach celebrates all things surfing. New to surfing? That’s fine, too! Book surfing lessons for kids as young as age 6 or so. Learn more about all there is to do in Huntington Beach with kids.

Surfers waiting to catch a wave in Huntington Beach in Orange County
Surfers waiting to catch a wave in Huntington Beach (Photo credit: Colleen Lanin)

8. Ride the Orange County Great Park Balloon.

Don’t miss your chance to ride in a hot air balloon for FREE in Orange County with kids. That’s right, families can take to the skies in the basket of a huge orange-colored helium-propelled balloon at Irvine’s Great Park. All ages can ride the Great Park Balloon but children under age 13 must be accompanied by an adult. For a fee, take kids for a spin on the Great Park Carousel before or after your flight.

Orange County Great Park Balloon
Orange County Great Park Balloon (Photo credit: CityofIrvine.org)

9. Take a ferry to Catalina Island.

Santa Catalina Island, or Catalina Island as it’s often called, is the only one of the Channel Islands where civilians live year-round. Take a ferry here for a day trip or a longer island getaway. On this wee isle just 22 miles from California’s coast families enjoy golf, hiking, and biking. Of course, you’ll also find all sorts of watersports like paddleboarding, fishing, and kayaking. Fun fact: cars are not allowed on the island and most residents get around via golf cart. As a bonus, you might spy whales and dolphins during the journey to or from the island! Book your ferry to Catalina Island from Long Beach or San Pedro. Learn more about the Channel Islands with these tips for visiting Ventura, California.

Avalon Harbor on Catalina Island
Avalon Harbor on Catalina Island (Photo credit: wpd911, Depositphotos.com)

10. Learn at Discovery Cube

Located in Santa Ana just off Interstate 5, this attraction is hard to miss. The Discovery Cube is the aptly named giant black 3-D cube next to the freeway. Learning here is decidedly hands-on with exhibits that teach the science of water, rockets, dinosaurs, and beyond. Plus, it doesn’t cost much to spend a fun and educational day here with children. Look for a variety of educational programs like sleepovers and summer camps, too.

Orange County Discovery Cube
Orange County Discovery Cube (Photo credit: Buchanan-Hermit Own work, Wikimedia)

11. Experience the magic of Disneyland.

Of course, no list of the best things to do in Orange County would be complete without Disneyland and its sister theme park, Disney California Adventure. There’s nothing quite as magical as seeing the wondrous world of Disney through the eyes of a child. If you’re visiting with little ones, then discover the best Disneyland rides for babies and toddlers. Planning a Disneyland trip with bigger kids? Take a look at the scariest rides at Disneyland and these tips for Disneyland with teens and tweens.

Mickey Mouse and friends in front of Sleeping Beauty's Castle at Disneyland
Mickey Mouse and friends in front of Sleeping Beauty’s Castle at Disneyland (Photo credit: Scott Brinegar, Disneyland)

Explore more of California.

Beach days are a must when visiting California. Take a peek at the best beaches in California for families.

Visit Orange County’s southern neighbor with this list of kid-friendly activities in San Diego.

Not sure where to go in California? Decide with these picks of the best places to go in California with kids.

Keep this guide to Orange County.

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Which of these things to do in Orange County would your family like most? Let us know in the comments below!

This story was written by Katie, author of the KidsandMice blog. Katie is a busy, working mother of two boys. When they aren’t riding the roller coasters at Disneyland, heading to the beach, or on some other adventure, you’ll find them at home in South Orange County, California.

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  1. Orange County looks amazing! Our family would love the whale watching cruise! I’m curious as to the best ages for kids at Knotts Berry Farm? Thanks for the awesome recommendations!

  2. Nnniiiccceeeeee….Pretend City is a good one, I must say. The number of distractions it offers, that I can see, are so many….

  3. It is nice to know that there are many other things that we can do with the kids aside from Disneyland. My daughter would love to play at Pretend City and will make sure to include this in our itinerary once we visit OC. It would be nice to visit the Santa Ana Zoo too. Thank you for sharing this.

  4. Oh Em Gee! The pretend place sounds like the Wanna Do City that use to be in south Florida. Never been to orange county but so many fun things to do!! Will deffinelty consider it on my bucket list.

  5. I haven’t been in Orange County yet. There’s so much to do! I hope I can visit soon after the pandemic.

  6. I have always wanted to visit Orange county! Now I am totally convinced that I have to go ASAP! The west coast is absolutely amazing. Makes Florida seem a bit dull at times.

  7. We LOVE Orange County, California! We just moved from Laguna Beach to Costa Rica but are planning another trip out there. These are awesome suggestions! We love the playground at Main Beach in Laguna Beach, mother’s beach on the balboa peninsula in Newport, where there’s another great playground with a lighthouse slide. We also love visiting Balboa Island, especially around the holidays with all the decorations! Duffy boats for sunset cruise in Newport are fun too. I could go on and on. It’s my favorite place in the States.

  8. I have been to California so many times but there are so many places that I have not seen yet. This list has some ideas that we need to do the next time we visit the state. I really would like to go to Catalina Island. Thanks for sharing.

  9. Orange County has so much to offer! If I had the chance to visit, I’d like to go to Irvine Regional Park first. I love nature parks. It just gives me a sense of peace.

  10. I love kid-friendly destinations and Orange County has everything that I like. My kids love water so they’d enjoy being at the beach or tide pooling.

  11. The big paddleboats looks like so much fun, I really must look into fining some here in Sweden 🙂

  12. I don’t have kids yet, but I would love to take the ferry to Catalina Island, and ride the park balloon! So many great suggestions, thanks for sharing.

  13. With so much scenery, amusement parks, and so on, Southern California is a great place to kids! Disney might be the first thing that comes to mind, but there is so much more.

  14. There are many activities that are sporty and a little adventurous here! Nice list of options that are family-friendly.

  15. I have a friend who lives in California, and she’s always talking about how amazing Orange County is. According to her, it’s the best area in the entire state. I’ve always wanted to visit.