Expert Tips


Art, Architecture and Where to Play in Orange County

Orange County's tourist reputation is built on its beaches and theme parks but dig a little deeper and you'll find that there is an eclectic mix of missions and cowboys and even a bison or two.  

Summer brings the greatest show on earth to the waters around Catalina Islando which are the summer feeding grounds for blue whales. Take a walk on the Dana Point Headlands above the Ocean Institute in Dana Point and you'll have a bird's eye view of the coast with noisy California Sea Lions barking in the background.

Relive Orange County history with a visit to Mission San Juan Capistrano.  The famous swallows really do come back every year, just ask the residents that live here.  Make it a day and cross the train tracks to visit the Los Rios district, the oldest neighborhood in California.  There's a tea house and a couple of restaurants, shops and Zoomars Petting Zoo where feeding the bunnies is the big attraction.  

And if theme parks are what you've come for, Disneyland, Disney California Adventure and Knott's Berry Farm are located within 30 minutes of each other.  Knott's Soak City water park opens during the summer for an added thrill.

At the end of the day why not take in a ball game at Angel Stadium and root for the home team.


Angel Stadium of Anaheim

Baseball greats like Rod Carew and Reggie Jackson once trod this field and wowed fans with their heroics, paving the way for the modern generation of Angels. Until 1995, the NFL Rams shared the stadium but after they moved to St. Louis, the Angels became the sole resident. A massive renovation project gave the entire structure a much-needed face lift, complete with terraced bullpens, family and kid's zone and multiple restaurants. The Angels celebrate summer with free Friday night concerts in the Music Garden before the games. The stadium has convenient access to the freeway.

Recommended for Best Attractions & Activities because: Angel Stadium is centrally located in Orange County with convenient freeway access and offers a variety of fan activities.

Local Expert tip: Check out the pre-game activities especially during summer when concerts are added to the calendar.

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Garden Grove
Crystal Cathedral

Designed in the shape of a four-pointed star, Crystal Cathedral is a sight to behold. The impressive structure is comprised of more than 10,000 panes of glass, and coincidentally, the church boasts more than 10,000 members. The congregation enjoys visits by scores of tourists each Sunday and by guest speakers ranging from professional athletes to actors like Arnold Schwarzenegger. The Crystal Cathedral is the backdrop for Rev. Robert Schuller's popular "Hour of Power" weekly television broadcast. Self-guided tours of the cathedral are available during the week.

Recommended for Best Attractions & Activities because: The architecture of the cathedral is truly stunning and its location in Garden Grove is convenient for a quick stop.

Local Expert tip: Don't miss the specially designed pipe organ that's used during services.

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Ocean Institute

The Ocean Institute, located in the Dana Point Harbor, is open to the public on Saturdays and Sundays. Visitors can view hundreds of marine animals in aquariums and touch tanks, witness animal feedings and enjoy ocean-themed exhibits. The Pilgrim tall ship is open for tours most Sundays and the research vessel R/V Sea Explorer offers a a variety of educational and sightseeing cruises during the year including gray and blue whale watching cruises. If you like to hike, there is a path that meanders along the beach at the base of the bluff and you'll often see starfish, sea anemones and sea urchins hiding among the rocks.

Recommended for Best Attractions & Activities because: The Ocean Institutes consistently produces high quality programs that are both educational and fun. The staff are well trained and they like their jobs.

Local Expert tip: The whale watching cruises are great with kids. It's the only whale watching cruise that conducts on-board science activities.

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Pageant of the Masters is part of the Festival of Arts summer program in Laguna Beach which began in the 1930s. Nightly 90-minute shows in an outdoor amphitheater recreate some of the world's most famous paintings. Art comes to life as real people pose in "living paintings". Elaborate costuming, set design, technical components, music and narration bring the art to life and visitors marvel at the life-like approximations. In fact, tickets typically sell out well in advance of the show's premiere. Both classic and contemporary works serve as inspiration, and every show traditionally ends with da Vinci's "The Last Supper."

Recommended for Best Attractions & Activities because: It's a Laguna Beach institution and a summer rite of passage in the area - even local kids get in on the act.

Local Expert tip: Use the free Laguna Beach trolleys to arrive at the show as parking is limited.

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If you're literally trying to get away from things, make Catalina your haven. The island lies just 22 miles from shore and is accessible via an hour-long boat ride. Its charming community is relaxed and carefree, and you'll take the vibe to heart as you frolic in the ocean, play a round of golf, or simply browse local shops and boutiques. In fact, there's plenty to do, no matter your interest or budget. Stay for a day, or make a weekend of it. With balmy weather and loads of leisure time ahead, there's nothing quite as appealing!

Recommended for Best Attractions & Activities because: Catalina offers a peaceful respite from everyday life and the snorkeling and diving are accessible to all ages.

Local Expert tip: The waters in and around Catalina are full of marine life. On the ferry ride over, look for migrating gray whales in winter and blue whales in the summer.

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Outdoor enthusiasts of all inclinations clamor to this beautiful park, which offers not only a wide variety of landscapes for physical activity but a selection of lookout points for sightseeing as well. Several thousand acres of terrain accommodate visitors on foot, horseback, and bikes, and 3½ miles of coastline proves eminently pleasurable to folks who want to swim, scuba dive, surf, and look for marine life in the tide pools. There are cottages for rent along the beach but competition is fierce and only a little less so for sunset reservations at The Beachcomber Cafe located on the sand. For a casual meal, Ruby's Shake Shack is at the top of the bluff at the end of a long flight of stairs.

Recommended for Best Attractions & Activities because: Crystal Cove State Park has history, beautiful views, a restaurant on the sand and the tide pools are full of exciting creatures.

Local Expert tip: Parking is across the street but if you're carrying a lot of gear use the drop-off area near the beach.

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Knott's Berry Farm

Billed as America's first theme park, this complex features 160 acres of thrill rides, live entertainment, historic exhibits and dining all divided into five themed areas. Among them are Ghost Town – an 1880s Western boom town with cowboys, gun fights, stagecoaches and gold panning – and Boardwalk, a coastal amusement park of the 1920s. With small children, head to Camp Snoopy where over 30 Peanuts themed rides entertain young ones and their parents. Over a dozen stages throughout the park showcase live entertainment with major performers at the 2100-seat Charles M. Schulz Theatre and Wild West stunt shows in Wagon Camp. The Halloween Haunt at Knott's Berry Farm is legendary for its lines and fear factor; it's not recommended for small children or those that scare easily.

Recommended for Best Attractions & Activities because: Knott's Berry Farm is the original theme park and an integral part of Orange County history.

Local Expert tip: For nostalgia, try one of Mrs. Knott's famous chicken dinners with biscuits and boysenberry jam.

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San Juan Capistrano

One of California's oldest Spanish missions, San Juan Capistrano dates from 1776 and still features a variety of adobe foundations and a few working buildings. Although the once-majestic Great Stone Church is no longer intact, the intimate Serra Chapel with its baroque altar is still in use. The mission's legendary swallows, said to arrive every year on St. Joseph's Day, add to the mission's charm. The site's museum recollects the history of the mission, and a variety of art and cultural activities are hosted each season including camps for kids, a summer concert series and Battle of the Mariachis.

Recommended for Best Attractions & Activities because: Mission San Juan Capistrano is often called "The Jewel" of the California missions. It's an historical and peaceful place to spend a morning or afternoon.

Local Expert tip: The mission hosts many school groups; consider visiting on a weekday afternoon when it's less crowded.

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<i>Disney California Adventure</i><sub>&reg;</sub> Park
Photo courtesy of Kristi Marcelle

Disney California Adventure Park emerged in 2012 with a new look after five years of planning and construction. A new entrance, Buena Vista Street, and the fabulously popular 12-acre Cars Land were unveiled along with a variety of new restaurants including Carthay Circle, an upscale, fresh ingredient-focused dining option with the best kids menu in the parks. Radiator Springs Racers in Cars Land is the hottest ride and visitors should queue up early in the day to avoid the longest lines. Consistent anchors in the park are Paradise Pier, a celebration of the state's old oceanfront amusement parks which has a sleeper attraction called Toy Story Mania! and the kid-favorite "A Bug's Land" where wee ones hang out and get wet if you're not careful.

Recommended for Best Attractions & Activities because: Disney California Adventure Park is no longer a pit stop on a visit to Disneyland. The new attractions and dining options make this a destination.

Local Expert tip: Don't miss a visit to Cars Land at night when the neon lights of Route 66 create a photo op straight out of a Disney movie.

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Disneyland Resort
Photo courtesy of Disneyland Resort

It's the happiest place on earth! This world-renowned theme park features breathtaking rides, enticing games, and thrilling shows. In fact, with eight individually themed "lands," it offers plenty of fun for the entire family. Explore the futuristic adventure of Tomorrowland, Frontierland's outdoorsy Pirate's Lair on Tom Sawyer Island, or the zany shenanigans at Mickey's Toontown. Rides, shows, shops, and restaurants are located in each section of the park. Although you could easily spend several days without doing the same thing twice, don't miss Disneyland Park – even if you've only got one day!

Recommended for Best Attractions & Activities because: Disneyland is synonymous with Orange County. Locals love it as much as tourists and it entertains the entire family.

Local Expert tip: Consider staying overnight and visiting the park more leisurely versus running through it in a day. Good Neighbor Hotels are not as convenient as staying on-property at a Disney hotel but they can be substantially less expensive.

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Meet Kristi Marcelle

Originally from Wisconsin, Kristi Marcelle found her passion for travel after studying and volunteering in Quito, Ecuador for two years.  She’s lived in Southern California for over ten years...  More About Kristi