Amusement Parks | Kid-Friendly Dining | Bowling | Cheap Movies | Creative Fun | Fishing & Boating | Indoor Fun | Museums & Nature Centers | Pools & Water Fun | Skating | Zoos | Parks & Playgrounds | Beaches
Special note: For many of these places, there are "insider tips" that not even most locals know about. These tips will be in a yellow box just like this one.
Best Amusement Parks in Orange County
Disneyland/ California Adventure
While Disneyland and California Adventure don't really need any introduction, any list of the "best places for kids" would be pretty poor without these two parks on the list.
What you may not know: there are tools you can take advantage of as a local to avoid going to these two parks at the busiest times of the year: IsItPacked is a website dedicated to letting you know how busy the parks are at any given time, and has a calendar as well with daily crowd predictions. TouringPlans has an iPhone and Android app for $12.95 per year that not only gives crowd predictions, but also gives minutely updates on estimated waits for different rides and activities in the park.
Knott's Berry Farm
While it certainly isn't as popular as the Disney Parks, Knott's is known for some of the fastest rides (and, according to some) the best fried chicken California has to offer.
For 6 payments of $34 (sounds like an infomercial, right?) you can get an annual pass that includes dinner and lunch every time you visit the park.
Balboa Fun ZoneThe Balboa Fun Zone is free to visit, and features rides (which aren't free), carnival food and games. Right on Newport Harbor, there is plenty to do. The Fun Zone Boat Company offers great online deals if you'd like to do a harbor tour, including a sea lion watching and gray whales (in season) for just $10.
Goat Hill Junction RailroadThe Goat Hill Junction Railroad in Costa Mesa is another hidden gem that a surprising number of Orange County residents have never heard of. The railroad covers 5 miles (yes, 5 miles) of track in Fairview Park and is a non-profit. Rides are free, although donations are gladly accepted.
While Boomers parks can be expensive (that is, unless know the trick, which I'll share in a minute) your kids will have a blast. The Boomer's Parks have miniature golf, batting cages, go carts, rides, laser tag and games, along with a water park opening this summer at the Irvine Location.
Going to Boomers once is expensive, but for just $49.99 (infomercial time again) you can buy a 3-month pass that offers unlimited golf, rides, batting cages and any video games that don't offer prize tickets.
Similar to Boomers, Camelot Golfland in Anaheim features miniature golf, bumper boats, cars, laser tage and waterslides. While season passes aren't offered, a one-time trip is considerably less expensive than Boomers.
After 3 PM, the waterslides are only $6 - bargain alert!
Best Dining for Kids in Orange County
Medieval Times is something you take your kids to once or twice, but well worth the price if you haven't been. You eat with your hands while you watch knights joust and yell and scream - perfect for the little ones.
The Anaheim Visitor and Convention Bureau offers 30% off coupons if you order online.
Pirate's Dinner Adventure
The Pirate's Dinner Adventure, while less "well-known" than Medieval Times, is no less fun. It's a dinner theater concept and, though it's a little pricy, your kids will have a blast.
Daytrippen.com tracks coupons for this show and when the good specials are on, you can save 50%.
Chuck E Cheese
If you haven't been to Chuck E Cheese in a while, you'll notice a major change if you go back: the pizza is actually edible now. While you're not really going for the pizza, it's nice that the adults don't have to try to choke down sludge - and of course your kids will have a great time playing the games and watching the dancing mouse.
If you join the Chuck E Club on the website you'll get monthly offers for discounted food and games.
Farrell's Ice Cream ParlorYou had me at ice cream parlor, right? Aside from the fact that actual ice cream parlors are an endangered species, Farrell's makes the experience particularly kid-friendly with songs, beating drums, and gigantic ice cream sundaes.
John's Incredible Pizza
An alternative to Chuck E Cheese, John's Incredible Pizza is similar, but features an all-you-can eat pizza buffet at reasonable prices and features more rides and games than Chuck E Cheese, including bowling and laser tag.
There are always special promotions which you can find on the website before going.
Best Bowling for Kids in Orange County
Lucky Strike was voted as one of the top 10 places for a kid's birthday party by Parent's Magazine. For bowling? Yes, bowling. They make bowling fun, with colored lightweight balls, and feature other kid-friendly enhancements such as bumpers and ramps.
One of the ways Lucky Strike sets itself apart from other bowling alleys is by maintaining an upscale atmosphere, which includes enforcing a dress code, so be sure to check out the dress code before going.
BowlmorOne of the reasons bowling has increased in popularity in recent years is the rise of clean bowling alleys with a party atmosphere, many of which provide a far different experience than the seedy run-down image (although plenty of those type of bowling alleys still exist). Bowlmor is another entry in the "loud, colorful and clean" category of bowling - making the sport here what it should be for kids - fun.
Costa Mesa 55 Tavern + BowlYet another entry in the "bowling is supposed to be fun category", Costa Mesa 55 Tavern & Bowl features flashing lights and rock music making it fun for everybody.
The Picture Show at Main Place MallWhile it may not have the glitz and the glamour of many movie theaters in Orange County, the Picture Show offers movies for $2before 6 PM, $3 after 6, and 3d movies all day for $4.
Woodbridge Movies 5One of the nicest of the "cheap movies" locations around, Woodbridge Movies 5 also features $2 tickets before 6, $3 after 6, $4 3D movies and $1 hot dogs.
Charter Center CinemasCharter Center Cinemas in Huntington Beach features $3 movies all day (but a $2 surcharge for 3D films).
Brea Plaza 5Brea Plaza 5 is another bargain, showing $3.25 matinees and $4 evening shows.
Build-A-Bear is a very fun experience where your child gets to create their very own stuffed animal, choose the name, and "accessorize", including picking out scents and even songs that the bear can play when you squeeze the toy.
If you are a Disney Passholder, the Anaheim location (within Downtown Disney) offers a ten percent discount.
Similar to the "Build-A-Bear" concept, except kids have the opportunity to build their own remote control car.
While Ridemakerz is not one of the "cheaper" options on our list, as the final product can easily costs between $50 and $100, there are always plentiful coupons for Ridemakerz online. Just Google "Ridemakerz Coupons" and you'll find plenty of discounts.
The Lego StoreMore than just "toy stores", Lego Stores are fun because of the huge Lego sets showcased within the stores, as well as the Lego structures unique to each store (the store in Downtown Disney has a life-sized Incredible Hulk built out of Legos as well as a Dragon on the roof). Each store has play areas for your children to build smaller Lego creations and the opportunity to buy individual bricks. Lego
Color Me Mine
Color Me Mine is a chain of "paint your own pottery" stores where your kids (or you) can pick among dishes, animal figurines, and a host of other objects for a fun and creative time. The stores offer a great way to keep your kids busy and creative for a good 2-3 hours.
One promotion to definitely take advantage of is "kids night out" - you can drop your kids off for a night of painting, games, pizza and movies while the parents have free time to grab dinner or a movie.
Fired Up is another ceramics studio, but is privately owned, rather than being a large franchise. Like other ceramic studios, this is a great place to take your kids, and provides a fun atmosphere.
Timree Paint Studio
A fun atmosphere that provides painting classes for kids and adults alike, Timree offers summer camps, after school activities, and private lessons.
If you're at a loss for what to do for your child's birthday, Timree Paint Studio offers paint parties, both in studio or at your home.
The Ceramics Studio
The Ceramics Studio, similar to other paint-your-own-pottery venues, also offers the chance for your kids to play with wet clay. Ceramics classes are also offered.
Fishing & Boating
Davey's Locker Sportfishing & Whale Watching
Fishing and whale watching are great fun for kids, and Davey's locker offers both. Open all year, Davey's locker has been in business for more than 60 years. They also offer boat rentals to fish in the harbor for $105 (half-day) or $135 (full day) including frozen bait.
Before going fishing, it may be helpful to check if the bite is "on" recently. You can check Davey's Locker's and other local harbors' fish counts at www.thefishcounts.com
Newport Landing Whale Watching and Sportfishing
Just a few hundred feet away from Davey's Locker is the also venerable Newport Landing. Offering the exact same services, Newport Landing is another fantastic choice for either fishing or whale watching.
The company's home page has links to several articles about local fish and best techniques for catching each of them.
Captain Dave's Dolphin and Whale Watching SafariOne of the only businesses in Orange County that specializes in only offering aquatic mammal watching, Captain Dave's vessels feature all sorts of whiz-bang gizmos such as underwater viewing pods and underwater remote control vehicles.
Santa Ana River Lakes
One of the few public areas for lake fishing in Orange County, Santa Ana River lakes offers three lakes stocked with Trout, Catfish, Tilapia, Sturgeon and Bass.
Younger children are well suited for Huckleberry Pond, an "overstocked" fishing hole for younger children - where they are *guaranteed* to catch fish.
Irvine Lake is stocked with trout, catfish, bass, crappie and sturgeon, and also offers camping.
Sky High Sports
You may remember how fun trampolines were as a kid.... but all we had back in the dark ages was those 6 X 6 backyard trampolines... What about wall-to-wall trampolines? How great would that be? Sky High Sports has that... plus trampoline dodgeball.
While Sky High Sports can be a little pricey at $14/hr, there are numerous specials listed online at their website.
Another entry in the new genre of indoor trampoline parks, Sky Zone is another wall-to-wall trampoline house offering trampolines, plus the trampoline versions of dodgeball, cageball and basketball.
From 7-9 PM Sunday through Thursday, Sky Zone offers 2 hour "all you can jump" for $15.
Big Air Trampoline House
Big Air Trampoline House is another trampoline park, this one with several different fun twists beyond just wall-to-wall trampolines, including jousting over a foam pit, wall climbing over a foam pit, and launching from a trampoline into a foam pit. (See any pattern here?)
The best of the trampoline parks for your littlest ones, Big Air offers "toddler time" for all kids under 6 for just $7 on Tuesday and Thursday from 10 AM to 1 PM.
Funtopia At Sender One
Funtopia is an indoor rock-climbing center inside the Sender One gym. With stellar reviews online, if your kids would enjoy indoor rock climbing, Funtopia is the place to take them.
While indoor rock climbing is never a "cheap" activity, Funtopia offers a weekday membership for just $59/ month for one hour per day Monday through Friday.
K1 SpeedK1 Speed is a chain of indoor go kart facilities which both kids and adults alike can participate in. They have facilities for both older kids and younger ones, though all racers must be at least 48 inches tall.
Frogg's Bounce House
A "bounce house" that is more geared towards the younger kids, Frogg's Bounce House is one of Orange County's hidden gems, filled with bouncers, air hockey tables, a movie lounge, and other fun things for the kids.
Frogg's offers a 1 year membership for just $109 or a month-long membership for $29.
Museums & Nature Centers
Discovery Science CenterA large museum in Santa Ana specifically tailored to children with several rotating exhibits that change throughout the year, Discovery Science Center is a fabulous place to take kids of all ages. The exhibits at the Science Center do a wonderful job of taking popular children's themes (such as Star Wars and Lego's) and using them as both an entertaining and educational experience.
ExplorOceanExploreOcean is a fun and educational museum with the Balboa Fun Zone that offers a "maker lab" where kids can create their own robots, radios, and other items, a "touch tank" with ocean creatures and other educational-but-fun things to do.
Pretend City is a Children's Museum that is best for the 7- and under crowd. With several exhibits that mix learning and play, this is an activity to be sure to visit while your children are young enough to appreciate it.
Memberships, which start at $70 per year ($140 for a dual-membership) include daily "members-only" hour from 9-10AM with special activities, as well as access to after-hours events that are only offered to members.
La Habra Children's MuseumThe La Habra Children's Museumis a wonderful place for younger kids, with dinosaurs, life sized animals, and several hands-on exhibits for interactive play.
Bowers MuseumBowers Museum features a "Kidseum" (open only on weekends, from 10:00 AM - 4:00 PM) which is designed for younger kids with full interactivity.
Environmental Nature CenterThe Environmental Nature Center in Newport Beach features many exciting exhibits and programs to get kids excited about nature and the environment, including a butterfly house.
Peter Mary Muth Interpretive CenterThe Peter Mary Muth Interpretive Center is a 10,000 square foot facility built into one of the bluffs on Newport Bay and features a number of exhibits to teach youngsters (and adults) about the life in Upper Newport Bay. Admission is free.
Shipley Nature CenterShipley Nature Center is a large park with a lake in Huntington Beach that few in Orange County even know about. In addition to trails and hikes are a number of exhibits and activities for the kids.
Best Pools & Water Fun in Orange County
Knott's Soak City Water Park
Just across Beach Blvd from Knott's Berry Farm, Soak City features the usual waterslide attractions, including fast slides, kiddie slides, and a lazy river.
Memberships are cheap: $79 per year (which you can split into 4 payments) for a basic membership, or just under $100 per year scores a membership to both the slides and Knott's Berry Farm.
Buccaneer Bay Water Park
Buccaneer Bay, part of Splash! (La Mirada's "Regional Aquatic Center") is another great waterslide choice, offering waterslides, a lazy river, and a kid's water playground with a pirate theme.
Memberships are $74 per year, nut if you buy early in the year they can buy bought for as low as $54.
Camelot Golfland Water Slides
Less elaborate than many of the other water slide areas in and around Orange County, but also much easier on the wallet, the Water Slides at Golfland work great if paired with some of the other activities also at this facility.
The waterslides at Camelot Golfland are some of the least expensive in Southern California, at just $9 per person ($6 after 3 PM)
Sigler Park Splash PadA great place to take very young children on hot days, the Splash Pad in Sigler Park is basically a large playground with water spraying everywhere. The best part about the Splash Pad is that admission is *Free*
Harry Dotson Park "Wet Saloon"This small park in Stanton features a pirate theme, 2 playgrounds, and an absolute gem of a splash pad area. Highly recommended.
Atlantis Play Center Splash PadThe Splash Pad in Atlantis Play Center is a great place for kids. At just $2 admission, the area also features playgrounds with fun nautical themes.
Holiday Skate CenterHoliday Skate Center in Orange is one of the few actual roller skating rinks you can still find. A relic from the 80's - this adds to the nostalgia!
Fountain Valley Skating CenterAnother "old school" roller skating rink, Fountain Valley Skating Center does not disappoint.
Check their website for "family night" - just $17 for the whole family (up to 5 people)!
The RinksThe Rinks constitutes a number of Orange County rinks some of which offer inline skating and some ice skating. All also offer hockey leagues and lessons.
Ice PalaceThe Ice Palace, with locations in Aliso Viejo and Lake Forest offers ice skating, both adult and kids hockey, figure skating lessons, and broomball.
Best Orange County Zoos
Zoomars Petting ZooZoomars is one of the places for kids in Orange County that not enough people know about. With animals to pet, trains to ride, and "gold" to mine this is a great place for your kids.
Santa Ana Zoo
A small zoo, but still the largest within Orange County, the Santa Ana Zoo is known for having a lot of monkeys - at least 50 at all times. Also within the zoo, along with other animals, are a train ride and a carousel.
A whole family membership is just $79 per year, and includes free or discounted entry to more than 150 zoos across the US.
Orange County Zoo
Located in Irvine Regional Park, the Orange County Zoo is a small but fun zoo to take the kids to. At just $2 for visitors over the age of 3, plus $3 (weekdays) or $5 (weekends) to enter the park, the Orange County Zoo is certainly an economical choice.
If you have a membership to the Santa Ana Zoo, entry to the Orange County Zoo is *FREE*.
The Reptile ZooIf your kids are into reptiles, the Reptile Zoo in Fountain Valley is a must. At just $5 per person admission (adult admission is normally $10, but as the facility is currently under expansion, adult admission is discounted to $5), the reptile zoo is a treat.
Pacific Marine Mammal CenterTechnically not a "zoo", but the mammal center in Laguna Beach is a great place to go. The Pacific Marine Mammal center rehabilitates seals and sea lions and offers free admission - a fun and educational experience for the kids.
Parks & Playgrounds
Orange County Great ParkStill in development, the Great Park in Irvine has many fun things for the kids, including a carousel, a hot air balloon and other fun activities.
Mile Square ParkMile Square Park in Fountain Valley is a huge 625 acre park with lots of trails, ducks, archery, a golf course, a lake with water activities including pedal boats, and rotating exhibits throughout the year.
Irvine ParkIrvine Park (which is actually in Orange) is a huge park that many Orange County residents don't realize exists. It includes the Orange County Zoo, the Irvine Park Railroad, Pony Rides and a host of other activities for the kids.
Yorba Regional ParkAnother enormous park in Anaheim, Yorba Regional Park features a lake, numerous hiking trails, many playgrounds, and boat rentals.
Heritage ParkHeritage Park is a large park in Irvine with a small pond filled with turtles, ducks and fish, a pool, a playground, and courts for numerous sports including tennis, racquetball, and basketball along with one of the best libraries around.
Northwood Community ParkAlso known as "Castle Park" (because there is a big brick castle on the playground) and "Parrot Park" (due to parrots that reside in the trees) Northwood Community Park is a favorite with a large playground and always plenty of kids.
Atlantis Play CenterAtlantis Play Center in Garden Grove features a huge playground replete with concrete animals, including a 50-foot slide in the shape of a sea serpent.
Citrus ParkTustin's Citrus Park, a 17-acre park features 2 large playgrounds with a "citrus" theme.
Main Beach Park LagunaRight on the beach, Main Beach Park in Laguna Beach is one of the only true playgrounds in Southern California with an ocean view. Parking can be a hassle but it is worth the effort.
Adventure PlaygroundAdventure Playground in Huntington Beach is a fantastic playground with fun things to do such as paddling a wooden "raft", a rope bridge, a tire zipline, and a tree house building area. At just $3 per child (all visitors over 16 are free) this is a "must do" in Orange County.
Crystal Cove BeachOne of the most beautiful and cleanest beaches around, Crystal Cove Beach has beautiful views, tide pools and gorgeous walkways.
Little Corona Del Mar BeachLocated in Corona Del Mar, this beach has plenty of rocks to climb and tide pools to explore.
Treasure Island BeachTreasure Island Beach in Laguna Beach is one of the prettiest beaches in all of California. With wonderful seashells to view (but not collect), awesome marine life to see, and the relaxed Laguna Beach atmosphere, this is one to definitely visit.
Shaw's CoveShaw's Cove in Laguna Beach is a small, but less crowded than many, beach in Laguna Beach. This beach area is particularly good for snorkeling.
Heisler Park ReserveHeisler Park Reserve is a beach setting but really more of a park, with tide pools and nature walks, picnic tables, and park benches to just watch the spectacular views.
Crescent Bay is another Laguna Beach park/beach with amazing flora, breathtaking views, and, of course, the ocean.