A Family Vacation Week of Holiday Fun in California
Photos by Naeem Randhawa
As the winter holidays approached, my husband Naeem and I contemplated a domestic destination to get away with our 5-year-old son, Zakaria. Where could we go that would be easy to get to, have nice weather and plenty to do as a couple, individually, and with our child? After much deliberation, we decided on sun-soaked Anaheim, California in Orange County. With an abundance of amusement parks, attractions, delicious food and 42 miles of gorgeous coastline for outdoor fun, it’s the perfect spot for a family vacation. What follows is a diary of our six days of California exploration and adventure.
Bright and early we head out to Knott’s Berry Farm, America’s very first theme park founded in 1940. In the spirit of historic amusement park chronology we start off at Ghost Town, the first of the now existing five themed areas. Our son Zakaria immediately spots the Calico Mine Train and insists we ride. We board the train and descend through darkness into the heart of the mine. At the bottom lies the infamous Calico “Glory Hole”, a realistic replica of a cave with stalagmites hanging overhead and miners chipping away, searching for gold. Designed by legendary theme park pioneer Bud Hurlbut, some say it partially inspired the design of Disney’s Indiana Jones rides.
Afterwards, Zakaria is ecstatic to visit Camp Snoopy and quickly lines up for the racecars at Charlie Brown’s Speedway. Coming out all smiles, he then soars through the air in the Balloon Race. We spend the rest of the afternoon exploring the rest of the wonderful pint-sized rides.
Since its inception Knott’s Berry Farm has been known for its intrepid, gravity-defying roller coasters. Not to be missed is GhostRider, one of the longest and tallest wooden coasters in the world. Thrill seekers enter a mysterious mine, only to be strapped into mining cars and sent along 4,533 feet of twisting, unforgiving timber. For those not afraid of heights, there’s Supreme Scream. At a bladder-loosening 254 feet it is one of the world’s tallest drop towers. Just don’t look down! At lightning speed riders are propelled straight up and then just as suddenly, plunged to the ground at more than 50 miles per hour.
We decide to get away from the crowds and explore the stunning Orange County coastline. We are fortunate to have a private tour with Cheri Ikerd, the President of OC Wildlife & Beach Tours. Born and raised in California, she is extremely passionate and knowledgeable about the area. We jump aboard the OC Wildlife & Beach Tour Van and set off for the Pacific Marine Mammal Center. This non-profit center was created to rescue and rehabilitate sea lions and seals that may have been injured or orphaned so they can be released back into the wild. The center is free of charge, open to the public every day, and located next to the Laguna Beach dog park (in case your canine family members need a getaway too).
During our behind–the-scenes tour we meet two adorable sea lions pups, Solstice and Atlas. Dehydrated and malnourished when they were brought in, they had to be tube fed for a week to ensure their survival. Now they are swimming in small pools and being shown how to fish so they can eventually be released. You can see a very touching video of a successful harbor seal release here:
Afterwards, Cheri drives us to a few of the countless picturesque coves in Newport and Laguna Beach, two affluent towns on the coast. We walk along tide pools left behind when the water recedes at low tide as Cheri tells us all about the many different plants and sea creatures that live in these salty, shallow homes. We see countless mussels, starfish, crabs and other sea life in their natural habitat. Even in December the weather is laughably perfect, and these arrestingly scenic beaches are exactly what the mind imagines whenever “California Dreaming” or a Beach Boys tune comes on the radio.
We conclude this great day with a sumptuous meal at the Anaheim White House Restaurant set in a historic mansion in the middle of downtown Anaheim. Twinkling lights and a glittering tree create a homey holiday ambience. The restaurant offers up Northern Italian-inspired steak and seafood. Naeem enjoyed the branzino al cartoccio, fresh Chilean sea bass baked in a parchment basket that perfectly sealed in the flavor and aroma. I like calamari, so opted for rotolo di calamari, a sautéed calamari steak rolled & stuffed with crab, served in a traditional picatta style sauce of lemon and supreme Italian capers– magnifco! Our little one picked out a traditional fetuccini alfredo from the children’s menu.
The restaurant is also the home of CNN Hero Chef Bruno Serato. For the past six years, Chef Bruno has been helping feed the children at the local Boys and Girls Club. Seven nights a week, he serves 300 meals to the kids so they won’t go to bed hungry. It is an honor to support such a true hero and cause, and we leave with equally full hearts and tummies. With mouthwatering fare, warm and welcoming service and a luminous atmosphere, it’s no mystery why this historic landmark is a staple gem of Anaheim.
We wake up itching for more California sunshine and decide to check out the legendary Venice Beach in Los Angeles. This wide expanse of palm-lined sand with a bustling boardwalk full of street performers, myriad shops, active beachgoers and odd characters is truly one of the California’s most unique and quintessential spots. It could not exist anywhere but Los Angeles, and encapsulates all the best aspects of the city: natural beauty, human diversity, outdoor fitness and just general zaniness. Every feasible mode of transport is demonstrated along the wide paths in a colorful cacophony of movement as people run, walk, bike, skate, scoot and board along the ocean. Although it is too cold to swim, we play in the fine, soft sand, watch performers on the boardwalk and do some shopping. I zero in on a funky shop with original African jewelry and buy a pair of earrings, a perfect souvenir of the trip! We spend the whole day relaxing by the Pacific, letting the December rays warm our skin and enjoying the singular energy of Venice Beach.
What is a family trip to Anaheim without experiencing the storybook magic of the Disneyland Resort? Divided into two separate parks, it offers abundant fun for the whole family. Disneyland, the original theme park founded in 1955, has the classic rides such as Pirates of the Caribbean, Space Mountain and It’s A Small World. Disney California Adventure, which opened in 2001, offers the more thrill-oriented rides such as California Screaming and Tower of Terror.
If you’re traveling with small children, Disneyland is a good place to start. Zakaria had a lot of fun at Mickey’s Toontown, a colorful “town” featuring the homes of Mickey, Mini, Goofy and many other Disney favorites. Also in Toontown are a variety of kid-friendly rides such as Roger Rabbit’s Car Toon Spin and Gadget’s Go Coaster.
For lunch we hit up Ralph Brennan’s Jazz Kitchen in Downtown Disney, the shopping and entertainment district of the Disneyland resort. We feel transported to Louisiana in the two-story replica of traditional French Quarter architecture. The Bourbon Street sampler conjures a divine taste of New Orleans– popcorn calamari, coconut shrimp, bayou BBQ ribs, crispy parmesan artichoke hearts, and three dipping sauces. Oysters of the half shell are a whole other kind of Disney magic, and we accompany them with a Louisiana seafood salad resplendent with Gulf shrimp, crawfish tails and red snapper. With great effort, we manage to squeeze in the famous double chocolate bread pudding soufflé. Mickey would be proud.
At night we are lucky enough to catch the Christmas Parade! With marching toy soldiers, floats radiant with multi-colored lights and beloved Disney characters dressed in their Christmas finest, our little family soaks in the holiday glow.
Naeem the fishing enthusiast goes off for a day-trip fishing expedition with Newport Landing Sportfishing, a company great for fisherman of all experience levels. Anglers can catch over 24 different species of fish including giant yellowtail up to 40 pounds, halibut, kelp bass, barracuda, red snapper, and many more on daily trips offered in the morning, afternoon or evening. The company also offers overnight and longer trips to Catalina Island and beyond. Catches of hundreds of fish per trip is a common occurrence in these fertile waters, and Naeem has a fruitful day with over a dozen perches!
While dad fishes, Zakaria and I head off for the Discovery Science Center. Keeping in the holiday spirit, we see a gingerbread house exhibit showcasing some remarkable works from students as young as three years old. Zakaria likes the Discovery Market, following along the instructions of the computer and looking for items and scanning them in. An energetic Star Wars fan, he also delights in the themed exhibit Star Wars: Where Science Meets Imagination. He gets to ride a hovercraft, see real props and costumes from the movies and explore some aspects of droid technology like R2D2. However, the most important and educationally relevant exhibit we experience is the Eco-Challenge, where kids learn to be a “green superhero” by choosing Earth-friendly products and learning how to recycle. This is a great change to get your child thinking proactively about the environment.
We conclude our day at Battle of Dance, a dinner show and entertaining high energy dance performance that re-enacts the legend of the Spanish Armada landing in Ireland, sparking a competition between the passionate Flamenco style of dance and the Celts’ traditional precision footwork. The dancers were great! The costumes were bright and extravagant and there was never a dull moment in terms of choreography. The comedian, puppet and ventriloquism acts between the scene changes were hilarious and a great way to pass time. The food though was decent, but not fabulous, buy a show-only ticket.
We finish our week of California adventures at another theme park, Lego Land. Located a little farther south in San Diego County (about an hour drive from Anaheim), it is well worth the trip. Unlike the other amusement parks, Lego Land is specifically designed for younger children. Almost all the rides are smaller, and we were delighted to witness the most brilliant theme park innovation: a ride line with an adjacent space for kids to play while the adults wait. Yes, you heard it here first folks, you can wait peacefully in line and even socialize with other adults without desperately trying to hold on to your squirming child! When traveling as a family, it’s the little things like this that make a trip truly great.
While aimed to please children, the Lego construction at the park is actually astounding no matter what your age. At the heart of the park is Miniland USA, a replica of seven areas of the U.S. built entirely from over 20 million Legos! We can’t help but be impressed. We also spend time in the Carlsbad Aquarium, which is again engineered specially to introduce young children to the wonders of the ocean. Interactive exhibits, play zones, fun facts and quiz trails create a dynamic and fun educational experience, and Zakaria simply loves it. We take our time looking at all the different fish and marine life, relishing in the last day of a fantastic holiday adventure.
The Anaheim Orange County Visitor & Convention Bureau website allowed us plan out our fun filled itinerary and for transport and lodging, we used Bookit.com, one of the Internet’s now countless travel booking websites. It led us to the beautiful Hotel Ménage, and we could not have been more pleased. Conveniently located next to Disneyland, the modern décor and friendly staff made our visit that much more relaxed and special. The hotel restaurant even cooked the fish Naeem caught!
When planning your next family vacation, remember you don’t have to go abroad (especially with young children!) to see fantastic landscapes, eat delicious cuisine, experience fun attractions and try new things– we’ve got it all right here in the States. California itself is enormous, and my family and I can’t wait to return to explore more of it. With that reliable sunshine and endless entertainment, there’s no better destination we could have chosen to escape winter for our family holiday getaway. As novelist Alison Lurie said, “As one went to Europe to see the living past, so one must visit Southern California to observe the future.”
For more information:
Anaheim Orange County Visitor & Convention Bureau
Knott’s Berry Farm
OC Wildlife & Beach Tours
Pacific Marine Mammal Center
Ralph Brennan’s Jazz Kitchen
Newport Landing Sportfishing
Discovery Science Center
Battle of the Dance