As long-time residents of Orange County, CA, it is easy to forget that we live in a bona fide vacation destination that millions of families visit from across the globe every single year. From Disneyland and Knott’s Berry Farm to Newport Beach and Huntington Beach, there are so many family-friendly activities strewn across OC.
As a mama of three with an intense passion for travel, I am always looking for the next
opportunity to explore a new region of the world with my kids. For example, last summer we
spent 60 straight days on the road driving cross country with my kids and parents in our own
minivan. But at times during the school year or when life events (or budgetary constraints) prohibit long distance travel, there are certain techniques I have learned to help quench my incessant thirst for travel and adventure. One of those ways is to book weekend “staycations” in and around Orange County and to basically play the role of an OC tourist for a few days each month. It only makes sense as residents of SoCal to take advantage of the amazing cities and kid-friendly attractions that surround us – I mean, why not!?
When you already live in OC, you don’t have to bear the cost of flying anywhere to take
advantage of the numerous fun family experiences within two hours driving or less. In fact, with so many options the most difficult part may actually be deciding where to go! Here are three of my favorite go-to destinations near Orange County with interesting historical significance, fun family activities, and kid-friendly accommodations.
Queen Mary – Long Beach, Los Angeles County
The Queen Mary was built during the Great Depression and is a sister ship to the infamous
Titanic. After taking its maiden transatlantic voyage in 1936, its days as a luxury ocean liner
were actually short lived because the Queen Mary was transformed into a troop ship called the Grey Ghost during WWII. She survived the war, and after contributing to the American war effort, Queen Mary returned to serving passengers for about 20 years before retiring in 1967 to the port in Long Beach, CA.
Why it’s great for families
The Queen Mary may have retired as a cruise liner, but it has remained open for business in the Port of Long Beach as a fully functioning hotel with several restaurants, bars, gift shops, and museums. Several times per year, the Queen Mary also hosts amazing festivals like the Scottish Festival, which is one of our family favorites, every February. As a brief side note, the Queen Mary was actually built in Glasgow, Scotland (a city we visited for three weeks and absolutely loved!) so the historical ties to Scotland are actually strong with this ship.
We love visiting and staying aboard the Queen Mary with kids. First of all, the ship has retained its original wood interior design that will make you feel transported to a glamorous era. Secondly, it is just fun to walk around and explore all the nooks and crannies of this (allegedly haunted) ship. In addition, they have affordable tours and rotating exhibits, for example, to learn about the history of the Titanic or about the life of Princess Diana.
Finally, one of our favorite activities aboard the Queen Mary is to spend the afternoon or
evening (or both!) having drinks at the observation bar, which has this amazing view of Long
Beach and preserves an art deco, classic-Hollywood atmosphere. There is just no other place
Old Town – San Diego, San Diego County
Old Town San Diego is considered to be the birthplace of California. It is the site of the first
permanent Spanish settlement in 1769, where Father Juniperro Serra established the first
mission of what would eventually become 21 missions across the state of California. There are historic adobe-style buildings, Victorian-style colonial homes, a main plaza with park, museums and shops, and a Catholic cemetery from 1850’s named El Campo Santo. There are tons of fascinating stories you can learn about while exploring Old Town, including significant families and structures that made up early San Diego, including of course, the infamous Whaley House which is regarded as one of the most haunted places in America.
Why it is great for families
Old Town is such a beautiful little area of San Diego with vibrant colors, great food, and fun music with mariachi bands greeting visitors in almost every restaurant. One of the things we love most about visiting Old Town San Diego is that there are so many great cantinas with authentic Mexican food and delicious margaritas. The kids love running around and burning energy in the grassy plaza, and we all enjoy shopping affordable Mexican trinkets and gifts in the adobe style buildings. Old Town is very much a celebration of Mexican-American culture that represents the beating heart of Southern California.
We have also discovered a jewel in Old Town that makes our visit special every time we visit. The Hacienda Hotel is located in the heart of Old Town and has, as the name implies, a hacienda style with romantic courtyards, patios and balconies. We often find rates around a hundred bucks per night, which includes parking, two free cocktails and free breakfast at the wonderful restaurant on premises called Tequila Factory. Part of the reason we love Old Town as a family getaway is the experience of staying at the Hacienda Hotel. If you plan a visit, we couldn’t recommend this hotel enough!
Also, staying in Old Town, you are also just a hop, skip and a jump away from family-friendly attractions in San Diego like Mission Bay, Seaport Village, Coronado Island, Balboa Park and downtown San Diego. Orange County has a lot to offer, don’t get me wrong, but it is always fun to escape town for a couple of days with just a 1-2 hour drive to San Diego to feel transported to a whole new lovely place.
Mission Inn – Riverside, Riverside County
The Mission Inn is located in the heart of downtown Riverside and first opened its doors to the public in 1903 by Frank Miller, the son of C.C. Miller, who originally settled the property as a civil engineer and who came to Riverside in 1874 to work on the water system. By 1931 the Mission Inn had swelled to include four eclectic wings with a variety of architectural styles inspired Miller’s travels across Europe and Asia including Spanish Gothic, Moorish Revival, Mission revival, Renaissance Revival, and Mediterranean revival styles of architecture. In 1977, the Mission Inn was designated as a National Historic Landmark by the federal government. Over the years, many US Presidents have been hosted at the Mission Inn including Presidents Harrison, McKinley, Roosevelt, Taft, Hoover, Kennedy, Ford, Nixon, Reagan and Bush. Notable Hollywood celebrities have also visited the Mission Inn including Raquel Welsh, Clark Gable, Cary Grant, Bette Davis, Bob Hope, Drew Barrymore, and many more.
Why it is great for families
Downtown Riverside is a fun place to spend the day or to spend the weekend with your family, with a variety of good restaurants and historic buildings like the Fox Theater, built in 1929, which is the centerpiece of art and culture in Riverside. The Fox Performing Arts Center hosts ballet productions, Broadway performances, concerts and other exciting cultural events. There are also several museums to visit including the Riverside Art Museum, Metropolitan Museum, Heritage House Museum, and March Field Air Museum located at nearby March Air Force Base. But honestly, the Mission Inn is so unique and grand that you could spend a fun weekend just exploring the Mission Inn and savoring everything the amazing property has to offer. There are multiple award-winning bars and restaurants including Duane’s Prime Steak & Seafood, Bella Trattoria Italian Restaurant, the Presidential Lounge, and the Mission Inn Wine Tasting Room. There is a beautiful outdoor pool area, boutique, spa and several relaxing outdoor spaces.
Funny story – the last time we visited Mission Inn, I posted a picture on social media and people thought I had traveled to Spain. It is definitely worth staying the night at the Inn, but you can even just visit for free and spend the day walking around the grounds. Either way, the Mission Inn in downtown Riverside is a wonderful, historic place to escape OC and feel momentarily whisked away to an exotic city in Europe.
That’s a Wrap!
When you are in Orange County, you really don’t have to go very far to satisfy your craving for travel. I think it is well worth the investment to spend a weekend as a “local tourist” and experience some of the wonderful family activities in San Diego County, Los Angeles County, and Riverside County. Truthfully, we only just scratched the surface in this article, but it is definitely a good place to start if you’ve never experienced Queen Mary, Old Town San Diego, or Riverside’s Mission Inn. Just spending quality time together as a family away from home will promote family bonds and increase your child’s awareness of local history and culture. Now that’s a win-win.
About the author: Amanda Keeley-Thurman is a bartender in OC, freelance writer, and the founder and creator of hotmamatravel.com, a family travel blog that specializes in educational travel to cities and historical sites across the country, and which takes kids to just about anywhere they are allowed.