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Beyond Disneyland: Unexpected Sights & Activities in Anaheim

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Anaheim, California is usually associated with Disneyland. Not too long ago, Disneyland was literally the only game in town—other than miles and miles of orange groves. But along with the rest of Orange County, Anaheim has developed beyond tourist traps. Contributing family travel writer Margot Black spent a few days in Anaheim to find out if there’s more to Anaheim than just the theme park.

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The mere mention of Anaheim, California conjures up fun times and happy memories of Disneyland, Disney California Adventure Park, or—if you’re an ice hockey fan—the Anaheim Ducks.

But there is so much more to this vibrant Orange County town, and to make the point, I set my family the challenge of enjoying a long weekend that took in not just Disney (we have an eight-year-old so it’s compulsory), but also Anaheim’s many other unsung, unusual, and unmissable tourist attractions.

We were amazed at what else we discovered on our three-day exploration. Anaheim has reinvented itself many times and its modern day story is as gripping as its history. Set along 42 sprawling miles of California coastline, Anaheim was founded by German settlers in 1857, who moved there to start a wine colony. Break down its name and you get ‘Ana’ (which refers to its location near the Santa Ana River) and ‘Heim’ (which is the German word for home). The winemakers were successful, and in 1884, long before Mickey Mouse was a twinkle in Uncle Walt’s eye, the total production of Anaheim’s 50 wineries had risen to an astonishing million gallons a year.

However, just four short years later, disease struck the grapevines, rendering them useless. But these settlers were resourceful, and in their place, citrus groves were planted, sparking Anaheim’s next agricultural boom (which included walnuts, sugar beets, lemons, apricots, and the Anaheim chili pepper).

With that kind of colorful history, we felt it was worth spending time exploring Anaheim’s other hidden gems. Here’s what we found.

A Family-Friendly Hotel and Fireworks From Afar

We stayed for three nights at the Courtyard Anaheim Hotel, which is a five-minute walk from Disneyland and super convenient for all the other attractions in town. First of all—and I’ve never seen this before—our suite had a large bath with a shower head and a separate shower cubicle in the same bathroom. It was family travel genius; having two places to get clean at the same time means you can get the family out of the door in half the time.

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Our other favorite part about the hotel was the 20,000-square-foot water park called Surfside, which features six water slides, a 400-gallon drench bucket, a hot tub that can fit 17 people, and a 42-foot lap pool on the sun deck. The water temperature was perfect for splashing about and our son loved it—all the kids did. Even though it wasn’t warm by California standards (the lifeguard was bundled up in a parka and scarf), the kids were having a ball going down the water slides in the drizzle.

We watched Disney’s evening fireworks from our hotel balcony, which offered a spectacular view. We cozied up in our pajamas and enjoyed the show, and then promptly crawled into bed. From a family travel standpoint, I appreciated being able to watch a fireworks show without a mob and the ability to go to bed right after. After all, dragging an already tired kid out of a park at 9:30 p.m. is not fun, nor is hanging out in the cold waiting for the magic to begin.

Disney Celebrating 60

We love Disney, so no visit to Anaheim would be complete without a day at the world famous theme park, which celebrates its 60th anniversary this year. Even though we’d been to Disneyland many times, we’d never toured the California Adventure Park.

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For starters, the Star Wars Launch Bay opened last December to tie in with the release of the Star Wars: The Force Awakens. Here you can play video games, tour galleries that have items like Han Solo’s Blaster, choose the Dark or Light Side of the Force, and meet either Darth Vader or Chewbacca. There’s a short movie called Path of the Jedi that you won’t see anywhere else, and Star Tours has a 3D experience. Kids can also enroll in some top class Jedi Training where they learn the ways of the Force.

We ate at a diner in Cars Land, which is at the California Adventure Park, and inspired by the 2006 movie. We worked up an appetite careering around the Disney compounds. My husband had a step-tracker on his iWatch and after one day we’d taken a whopping 18,123 steps, walked 8.7 miles, and burned 708 calories each (although it felt like we burned more). Our son was so hungry we ate dinner twice—first a pizza dinner at 5 p.m. at Disney, another later at 9 p.m., and lunch and a few snacks in between.

Going Back in Time

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The Medieval Times Dinner and Tournament at nearby Buena Park Castle is like dinner theater grew up and got an MBA. It was an amazing treat. Our son is on the third book of The Ranger’s Apprentice series (a fantasy adventure novel by Australian author John Flanagan) which is all about heroic deeds, knights, and medieval daring, so this was a big treat for him. The entire experience was a theatrical delight for the eyes—they choreographed jousting and epic battles on horseback, and it was all around hilarious. I particularly love that we were able to tie our visit in with our son’s reading. The atmosphere was grand and celebratory, with tons of birthdays and anniversaries—and best of all, we ate the four-course feast with our hands.

Circling the Cube

We visited the Discovery Cube Science Center, which is the newest science center in California and already one of the top three science centers in the US. It was a learning and teaching experience that everyone enjoyed, and we could have definitely used more time there—they were literally booting us out at closing time. There are so many things to enjoy: you can take the Eco Challenge and become a green superhero, feel the power of a real rocket engine launch, and explore the inner workings of a dinosaur two stories tall.

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Our son Jett was able to fly a jet on the flight simulator and learned how to determine how much lift the plane has. He really loved the interactive role-playing and the chance to move an actual joystick.

The Science of Hockey section was also a huge and unexpected hit. Kids learn about friction and can give their best shot against the Anaheim Ducks goalie. We also loved the helicopter simulator, where we took to the skies above Los Angeles, following the 300-mile journey of the L.A. aqueduct. It was the best view of California we’ve ever seen. We didn’t have time to see all 100 exhibits, but we tried our absolute best. We had two hours there and needed four. As the door was closing on us, our eight-year-old son offered a one-word review: “Awesome.”

Packing It All In

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We ate so well everywhere in Anaheim. But if when it comes to having enough choices and eating at a stunning location, I recommend The Anaheim Packing House. It is a two-story mall on steroids packed with gourmet treats and an international food hall that will make your eyes water. Built in 1919 in Downtown Anaheim along the Southern Pacific rail line, it’s one of the few remaining citrus packing houses from the agricultural era (for which Orange County is named), and a pure delight. Back in the day, local farmers would arrive to unload trucks of freshly picked citrus to begin the process of washing, grading, and packing into wooden crates to be shipped nationwide. Today, this restored building features an airy central atrium that serves as a food hall and market reminiscent of the great outdoor markets of South America and Europe.

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I ate Indian food from Adya; a coconut ginger shrimp special with mango mint lassi and watermelon chaat. It was amazing. My husband and son ate Creole, but to be honest I wanted to try everything in here, it was all so delicious and creative. It would be difficult to get bored.

If you want something a little stronger than sodas, check out the Blind Rabbit, the 1920s speakeasy where they serve creative cocktails (the Bacon Old Fashioned caught my attention), and also the Ecco Bar, a pizzeria where every time a train goes by you can buy a shot for a quarter.

Swing Into Action

Hands up, who’s been on a trapeze? Yep, that’s what I thought…not many of you. But head to Anaheim and you can tick circus performer off your bucket list. SwingIt Trapeze is Orange County’s first—and only—flying trapeze school, and is a seven-minute walk from the Packing House. It offers circus and acrobatic classes from professionals who can teach you to swing from trapeze bars. Be prepared, there’s a pretty fast leap between learning how to swing and getting up there in a harness. But if you have a gymnast, little adventurer, or milestone birthday, it’s a funny, accessible, and active way to spend a couple of hours.

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My son really enjoyed swinging back and forth in the harness—and I loved seeing him up there (I wussed out and watched from the sidelines, but someone had to take the photos). My husband Rob won family gold for his amazing aerial stunts—he learned to hang from his knees on the bar. It was fun to feel like a circus family for an hour, and it also gives you new respect for what these people do. I think my ‘running away to join the circus’ days are over, but a taste of big top life was exhilarating.

From Center Street to Nature Central

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I would be remiss not to mention Center Street Promenade. Located in the heart of Downtown Anaheim, this historic street is peppered with innovative chef-driven restaurants, boutiques, shops, and galleries. We took a long, lazy stroll along the promenade early one evening and stopped for refreshments at the Ink and Bean Saloon, which serves artisanal coffee and is a haven for writers.

We also wandered around MUZEO, the museum and cultural center (the word Muzeo means “museum” in the international language of Esperanto). This 25,000-square-foot complex also encompasses Anaheim’s original Carnegie Library, which was built in 1908 (and gained historic status in 1979), and now serves as a venue for art shows and lectures.

If you need to get out of the city and connect to nature, you can head 12 miles inland to the Oak Canyon Nature Center, a 58-acre natural park nestled in the Anaheim Hills. Consisting of three adjoining canyons and four miles of hiking trails, it’s one of the few remaining areas of oak woodland and coastal sage scrub in the region. A year-round stream meanders through the park, and it’s open from sunrise to sunset all year round. It’s a great spot to grab some fresh air and a chance to see nature up close.

For more about family-friendly travel from Margot Black, check out:

Text and Images by Margot Black for PeterGreenberg.com

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