South of Los Angeles and north of San Diego lies an intermittently magical 789-square-mile realm where freeways hum and Disneyland flourishes, where immigrants remake old communities as new ones ripple across the hills. Many outsiders treat this place as they would a prosperous but hopelessly dull relative — the way some Europeans treat Belgium. Let's remember, people, that Belgium has given us centuries of good waffles, beer and chocolate, not to mention the French fry and Jean-Claude Van Damme. So it is, sort of, with O.C.
There is more here than Disneyland and beaches. And so we bring you these inland Orange County close-ups: 10 micro-itineraries for travelers and locals alike. This is the second installment in our yearlong series that looks anew at Southern California. (We started with downtown Los Angeles in January and we'll come back to the O.C. coastline another day.) On this expedition, we're all about the big orange balloon, the big black cube, the epic and edgy malls, Richard Nixon's old high chair and — because in the end, the mouse will not be denied — a few theme-park secrets.
1. What would Nixon do?
Nixon Presidential Library & Museum (Jay L. Clendenin / Los Angeles Times)
Disneyland can wait. First, consider the question they've printed on dozens of mugs and T-shirts at the Nixon Presidential Library & Museum in Yorba Linda, about 40 miles southeast of downtown Los Angeles. And get ready for a few more questions. Has anybody told Kevin Bacon, for instance, that Nixon got elected student body president at Whittier College by opposing the campus ban on dancing? The nine-acre Nixon complex is patrolled by legions of well-briefed docents in red and blue blazers, many of whom were among Nixon's "silent majority" back in the late '60s and early '70s. The graves of the president and First Lady Pat are here. You'll find a reflecting pool, a rose garden, displays detailing Richard Nixon's path to the White House, his domestic and foreign programs, his trip to China. If you fill out a form, you can listen to those notorious White House tapes (which are being transferred to CD). Hear former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger bragging about kicking the North Vietnamese "in the groin." Hear the president engaging in small talk with Ray Charles, making get-well calls to ailing friends and dismissing the importance of "hinky-dinky espionage" by one political party against another. Until 2007, the site was run without government input by the Richard Nixon Foundation, a loyalist group. The National Archives have since joined the party, as it were, bringing mountains of documents (and recordings) and a nonpartisan agenda. Sounds awkward — which makes it more interesting. (As of early 2011, the Watergate exhibit was still being redone.) Whatever your agenda, come see your 37th president's high chair, then step outside his modest childhood home — Nixon was born in the farmhouse on this site in 1913 — and also see the helicopter that carried him from the White House that last time in 1974.
2. The mouse that ate Anaheim Disney California Adventure Park (Jay L. Clendenin / Los Angeles Times)
It's a given. If you have kids — and maybe even if you don't — you're going to Disneyland. And you're probably going to like it, because they're pros. So, brace for the bill — $76 for an adult day pass, $68 for kids ages 3-9 — and make your expedition easier by booking a night at a Disney hotel or one of the many "partner" hotels within walking distance. (If you live in Southern California, be sure to check for local discounts at http://www.mouseplanet.com.) Get to the park at opening (it varies by day; check the website) and make a beeline for a Fastpass (these are issued, for free, by a machine at many popular rides that allocates head-of-line status for a designated period later in the day). Don't get hung up on hitting every ride. And don't leave eating to chance; you can book meals up to 60 days ahead at many Disneyland and Disney California Adventure Park restaurants by calling (714) 781-3463. Also, if you have an iPhone, there are several apps that tell you how long the line is for each ride. When your kids droop in the afternoon, retreat to the hotel for a nap or swim. Then return to the park for the nighttime stuff. If your family is doing a second Disney day, the Character Breakfast at Storytellers Café (in the Grand Californian Hotel adjoining the Downtown Disney District) is a fine way to start. But consider this: Much of Disney California Adventure Park will be renovated in 2011 and 2012. You might prefer a certain nearby berry farm instead.
3. Where the boysenberries are Knott's Berry Farm (Jay L. Clendenin / Los Angeles Times)
Knott's Berry Farm was up and running when Walt Disney was still a pup. It opened in the 1920s, http://www.knotts.com/public/news/history/index.cfm and despite its high-speed, high-tech rides, it feels more homespun than Disneyland. It also appears a little frayed around the edges. It's also a lot cheaper than Disneyland: Adult admission is $46.99 to $56.99, with frequent discounts and annual passes for as little as $59.99. Times staffer Brady MacDonald, whose Funland blog has covered theme parks for the last four years, calls Knott's "the best park in Southern California, if you're trying to please everybody." In other words, the rides range from little kids' diversions to serious, knuckle-whitening thrills, and the themes keep amusement park cognoscenti engaged. It really was a farm once; the world's first commercial crop of boysenberries was raised here in the 1930s. Now it has a hotel, an outpost of L.A.-based Pink's Hot Dogs, a summer-only water park and Camp Snoopy for smaller kids. It also has the old-school Mrs. Knott's Chicken Dinner, but recent meals suggest that the restaurant's best days may be behind it.
4. The Great Orange in the Sky Great Park Balloon (Jay L. Clendenin / Los Angeles Times)
You are respectfully invited to step aboard a giant orange and hover above a mostly idle military base in Irvine. Now, stop snickering and suspend … yourself. It's true that the Great Park — the gradual conversion of the former Marine Corps Air Station El Toro into a 1,347-acre public playground in the middle of the O.C. — will be years in coming. But the Great Park Balloon is here now, a helium-filled ball with a people-carrying basket dangling beneath, and it's free. Permanently tethered and big enough to hold 25 people at a time, it flies four days a week, rising 400 feet so you can see 40 miles on a clear day. Hours are 10 a.m.-3 p.m. and 7-10 p.m. Thursdays and Fridays, 9 a.m.-3 p.m. and 7-10 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays, wind and weather permitting. The ride (which began in 2007) typically lasts eight to 10 minutes, but that's plenty of time to eye the hills and orderly subdivisions, assess the park's recently planted strawberry fields and read the fine print: Someone stenciled a list of major historical events on the old runway surface. Flights are first-come, first-served; kids and pets welcome. There's a free carousel too. Best day to fly: Sunday, when the fledgling Great Park farmers market is in session. If that bout with altitude isn't enough, head about 2 miles southwest to the Irvine Spectrum Center mall, where the amusements include a 108-foot-tall Ferris wheel.
5. Surf, turf, balls and pucks Honda Center (Gina Ferazzi / Los Angeles Times)
If you're looking for pro hockey or baseball in O.C., all roads lead to Anaheim. The Ducks (hockey) play from early October through early April (longer if the team makes the playoffs), with 41 home games at the 17,174-seat Honda Center. Most adult tickets cost $20-$110. (A seat at the glass fetches more than $300.) The Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim (blame owner Arte Moreno for the name) play baseball from April through October (longer if they make the playoffs), with 81 home games at 45,000-seat Angel Stadium of Anaheim. Most adult tickets cost $16-$200. During the season, the ballpark offers behind-the-scenes tours ($3 for adults;  940-2070] on Tuesdays and Wednesdays). There's a Metrolink/Amtrak stop at the edge of the Angel Stadium parking lot (also walkable from the Honda Center). To fill your belly before or after the sports, there's the Catch on East Katella Avenue. Here are your surf, your turf, your taps, your multiple big screens. Impress friends (and appall others) by ordering the $49.95 OMG, a 4-pound burger with 10 slices of cheddar cheese and 2 pounds of fries. Sharing is encouraged, but if you finish by yourself within an hour, the restaurant will give you $500. As of early February, just one guy had managed it.
6. Two words: biker bar Cook's Corner (Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times)
First, build thirst. You can do this by taking a hike or a bike or horseback ride in the Santa Ana mountains or the foothills near Rancho Santa Margarita. Maybe Limestone Canyon & Whiting Ranch Wilderness Park or O'Neill Regional Park, where you can make the 3.2-mile round-trip hike up Live Oak Trail to Ocean Vista Point, 1,492 feet above sea level, for a panorama of hills, suburban fringe and distant sea. Whichever trail you choose, head afterward to Cook's Corner, a biker bar and burger joint that since 1926 has stood at Live Oak Canyon and Santiago Canyon roads in the Trabuco Canyon area. Jukebox. Pool table. Sawdust on the floor. They say the kitchen was built from the remnants of an old Santa Ana Army Air Base mess hall. Whatever — it turns out tasty burgers. There are bands on the weekends, along with scores of bikers who fill the patio while their bikes gleam out front.
7. Santa Ana, urban and artsy Discovery Science Center (Jay L. Clendenin / Los Angeles Times)
Santa Ana has some of O.C.'s grittiest corners, but it's also home to a pair of worthwhile museums and a growing number of galleries. The kid-focused Discovery Science Center stands beneath the big black cube at the edge of Interstate 5 (the cube conceals a facsimile rocket) and has hands-on exhibits that cover populist themes such as the science of hockey, plus there's a modest climbing wall. About four blocks south of the cube at Main and 20th streets is the more grown-up Bowers Museum. The Bowers is a cultural museum, meaning it's just as likely to tell you about Benjamin Franklin as it is to show you Chinese adornments or an amazing pair of red and gold African earrings (under glass in the lobby). It also has a children's Kidseum space (1802 N. Main St.). If you want to see work by living homegrown artists, head to the nearby Artists Village area, park in the structure at North Broadway and West 3rd Street, and prowl gallery spaces such as the Orange County Center for Contemporary Art (117 N. Sycamore St.), the Grand Central Art Center (run by Cal State Fullerton at 125 N. Broadway) and the quirky old Santora Arts Building (207 N. Broadway). The restaurants Gypsy Den and Memphis at the Santora are handy for a bite. And if you go on a Santa Ana Artwalk (first Saturday night of every month), a few dozen nearby galleries will be open as well.
8. Fullerton after dark Downtown Fullerton (Glenn Koenig / Los Angeles Times)
When night falls, downtown Fullerton hops. This is especially true along Harbor Boulevard near the railroad tracks, where more than two dozen bars and restaurants cater to the hunger and thirst of Cal State Fullerton students and others. Count on young demographics, designate a driver or take Amtrak or Metrolink to Fullerton's handsome old station. Within an easy walk you'll find the Pint House, the Envy Ultra Lounge, the Mulberry Street Ristorante, Café Hidalgo, Branagan's Irish Pub, Ziing's Bistro & Bar, Heroes Bar & Grill and the Continental Room (which claims to be Fullerton's oldest drinking establishment, dating to 1925) and plenty more.
9. Retail detail South Coast Plaza (Mariah Tauger / For The Times)
If you're not shopping, the recession wins, right? Now more than 40 years old, South Coast Plaza in Costa Mesa is still the biggest mall (by square feet) in California. Shoppers come from as far as Asia to roam the 280 stores and restaurants. You can spend $3,600 on a hand-etched, limited-edition silver Bentley writing pen (at Paradise Pen) or $5.75 on a cup of tangy gumbo at Seasons 52 restaurant, which opened in late 2010. If you want to spend many, many hours here, you can sleep a block away at the Westin (weekend rates as low as $109). For a more intimate, semi-subversive shopping experience, head 11/2 miles south on Bristol Street to the Lab, a slacker haven with about a dozen retail and restaurant tenants arrayed around a courtyard with couches and a magazine rack. Then cross Bristol and creep into the Camp, where chic sustainability is the order of the day. Note the Patagonia shop, the bike shop, the soothing sayings stenciled on the parking lot blacktop. Now, surely, you've had enough shopping, so double back toward South Coast Plaza. Head into the Segerstrom Center for the Arts next door, where you can see a play at the South Coast Repertory, hear music in four venues or just watch the limos pull up in front of the snazzy buildings. Don't forget to stick your head inside the tall, rusty steel sculpture by Richard Serra ("Connector," 2006), mumble and listen for the eerie echo.
10. Welcome to Orange. Please set your watches to 1940 Gabbi's Mexican Kitchen (Mariah Tauger / For The Times)
Plaza Square (a.k.a. the Orange Circle) is a roundabout that serves as the heart of the city of Orange. It's also a fine place for time travel, with hundreds of well-tended homes in the surrounding Olde Town Historic District dating from 1888 to 1940. Closer to the square, antiques shops huddle with a growing number of eateries. At Mr. C's Rare Records, customers such as 22-year-old Nathan Chase hunt for old gold in the vinyl bins because, he says, "everything is overproduced now." Watson Drugs & Soda Fountain (founded 1899, 116 E. Chapman Ave.) still serves banana splits up front and fills prescriptions in back. Chapman University is two blocks away, so Glassell Street is full of lively, youthful businesses and restaurants. At the Felix Continental Café (opened in the late '70s) on Plaza Square, you get Cuban cuisine and sidewalk dining. At the Filling Station Cafe (opened 2000) on North Glassell, you get sandwiches on a patio where gas pumps once stood. At Gabbi's Mexican Kitchen (opened 2006) on South Glassell, upscale Mexican. At the Bruery Provisions on North Glassell (opened 2010), craft beers, wines and fancy cheese. At Haven Gastropub (opened in 2009), pub grub and more beer. And at Bruxië Gourmet Waffle Sandwiches on North Glassell (opened November) — well, Orange County, there's your Belgian connection.Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun