Many west coaster childhoods include a visit to Disneyland. Sleeping Beauty’s Castle, Mickey’s Fun Wheel, and Dole Whips delight adults and kids alike at the resort. Our own family has spent many vacations hopping back and forth from Disneyland and the Disney California Adventure Park. One of the reasons I love Disneyland is because you can pack a few days of Disney fun into a vacation and still leave time for exploring more of Orange County. If you’re planning your own vacation, here are some great day trips in Southern California.
Related Post: One Week Southern California Itinerary + Disneyland
Shopping and Shows in Costa Mesa
Distance from Disneyland: 18 miles / 25-30 minute approximate drive time (depends on traffic)
On a recent trip I had the chance to experience Costa Mesa for the first time. I soon learned that it is a mecca for shoppers, containing one of the most popular malls in Southern California, South Coast Plaza. The mall has many luxury stores in addition to your standard mall shops, and there’s even a historical carousel. If you’re staying in Costa Mesa you might ask your hotel if they have a South Coast Plaza VIP book that can grant you access to the VIP lounge at the mall.
If you’re looking for a unique spot to grab a bite to eat, head over to SoCo & the OC Mix. It’s the perfect spot for lunch with a few different small restaurants in the center. Each restaurant and store is built around a shop local concept and often features unique California cuisine and products. There’s even a wine store, LCA Wine, that offers tasting flights and can help you pick a great bottle of wine, or three, for your trip.
My true excitement for Costa Mesa was when I attended a Harry Potter symphony show at the Sergerstrom Center for the Arts. The center is beautifully designed and easily reached from all the main SoCal destinations.
Costa Mesa is a great hopping off point for visiting Southern California since it’s centrally located. I stayed at the Avenue of the Arts in Costa Mesa while visiting Orange County, and enjoyed the boutique feel of the hotel in addition to appreciating it’s central location.
Anaheim Packing House
Distance from Disneyland: 2.5 miles / 10 minute approximate drive time (depends on traffic)
I’ll admit that outside of Disneyland I didn’t really know what there was to do in Anaheim. I know there are some great sports teams, but I was pleasantly surprised when I visited the new Anaheim Packing House district. This area isn’t too far from Disneyland and is on the Anaheim Resort Transit line in case you’re without a car while visiting Disneyland.
The Anaheim Packing House is a joint-eatery warehouse of sorts. Restaurants dot the edges of the building while the center is where all the tables are situated. This is perfect if you’re in the mood for a few different things, or if no one in your group can agree on where to eat! There are a lot of cuisines, and kids will love some of the crazy desserts you can get at the Anaheim Packing House.
Mission San Juan Capistrano
Distance from Disneyland: 30 miles / 40 minute approximate drive time (depends on traffic)
Missions are a major part of California history. Some of the historical missions around the state have been preserved to help teach visitors and locals about the history of the missions and their impact on the people of California. Mission San Juan Capistrano is considered to be the “jewel” of the California missions and features lovely architecture and beautiful grounds.
You can walk around the grounds on your own or pay for a guided tour to get more information about the history of the California missions and specifically Mission San Juan Capistrano.
Whale Watching in Laguna Beach
Distance from Disneyland: 35 miles / 45 minute approximate drive time (depends on traffic)
I’ve been living in the Pacific Northwest for 17 years now and until my visit to Laguna Beach I still hadn’t seen orca whales in the wild. Thankfully I got very lucky while on board with Dana Wharf Whale Watching. We came upon a pod of orca whales who decided to bow ride and play around our boat for a good 20-30 minutes. I was amazed and couldn’t wipe my joyful smile off my face for a long time afterwards. To see them in the wild being so playful and graceful, it was an amazing memory.
The whale watching company keeps a log on their website showing what they spotted each day, so check their site to get an idea of what you might see based on when you’re visiting.
Huntington Beach Surfing & Spa
Distance from Disneyland: 22 miles / 40-50 minute approximate drive time (depends on traffic)
Huntington Beach is Surf City USA. If you’re searching for a great southern California beach to stroll along and perhaps catch some ways, Huntington Beach is the spot. In addition to giving surfing a shot, you can also visit the Huntington Beach Surf Museum. For a bite to eat on the beach, stop into Dukes for great views and great food. They also have some delicious specialty cocktails, I think the Molokai Mule is a must try.
After you’ve had your fun in the sun, splurge for a spa treatment at the Hyatt Regency Huntington Beach Spa, Pacific Waters. In addition to the treatments, the spa will help you relax before and after your treatment in their quiet room, jacuzzi, and sauna. I’ve been lucky enough to have two treatments at this spa and each time I left feeling relaxed and renewed.
The Hyatt Regency Huntington Beach is one of my favorite SoCal resorts!
Cruising & Beaching at Newport Beach
Distance from Disneyland: 20 miles / 30-40 minute approximate drive time (depends on traffic)
If you’d like to get out on the water for a day trip, head to Newport Beach and book a Hornblower Cruise. We took one of their champagne brunch cruises that sails along the coast. We enjoyed a small buffet of food in addition to a couple of glasses of bubbly. On a sunny day there’s no better spot to be.
Newport Beach is also home to the famous Balboa Island. There are a few sections of this island that attract visitors, but the Balboa Island Fun Zone is very popular with families. It’s run a bit like a small fair or carnival, with kids getting to go on kiddie rides or play games for prizes. Balboa Island also has some gorgeous beaches that are a must visit for some sunshine and sand time.
Do take note that traffic can be heavy and the streets on Balboa are narrow. Pack your patience and try to avoid visiting on the weekends.
Disneyland & Knott’s Berry Farm
No visit to Orange County would be complete without visiting some of their famous theme parks. Of course, Disneyland is a must visit, our family has been numerous times. The resort offers fun attractions, shows, and dining, and it’s packed into a small space which is great for allowing you to do more around Southern California after Disney. I think 3-days is a great amount of time to spend at Disneyland, but we’ve spent as many as 5-days there, taking advantage of afternoon breaks.
If you have thrill seekers in your family, you might consider a visit to Knott’s Berry Farm. It’s another fun theme park we’ve gone to when planning our itinerary for Southern California. Knott’s features more extreme thrill rides than you’ll find at Disneyland, but if you start early you can hit the popular attractions all in 1-day.
I love Southern California vacations because there’s so much to see and do with a great variety of options. Hopefully these ideas for Southern California day trips will help you plan your own sunshine and sand vacation!