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Southern California Close-Ups: Inland Orange County

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First published on Feb. 20, 2011. Revised and expanded in January 2012.

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.

Behold the big orange balloon, the big black cube, the epic and edgy malls. Behold Richard Nixon's old high chair, the birthplace of the boysenberry and -- because in the end, the mouse will not be denied -- a few Disney secrets.

1. WWND?

Disneyland can wait. First, ask yourself, “What would Nixon do?” That’s the question that’s printed on dozens of mugs and T-shirts at the Nixon Presidential Library & Museum (18001 Yorba Linda Blvd., Yorba Linda; www.nixonlibrary.gov), about 40 miles southeast of downtown Los Angeles. Of course, this leads to 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" 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 recordings. Hear former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger brag about kicking the North Vietnamese "in the groin." Hear the president banter with Ray Charles, make get-well calls to ailing friends and dismiss 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 has since joined the party, as it were, bringing mountains of documents (and recordings) and a nonpartisan agenda. In April 2011, the library’s new leaders completed a long-awaited revision of its Watergate exhibit. (The old version cast the controversy as a coup staged by Nixon’s enemies. The new version draws on 131 taped interviews with key players and probes “dirty tricks and political espionage.” Whatever your angle, 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

It's a given. If you have kids -- and maybe even if you don't -- you're going to Disneyland (1313 S. Disneyland Drive, Anaheim; disneyland.disney.go.com). And you're probably going to like it, because they're pros. So brace for the bill – more than $300 for a family of four in 2012 -- and make your expedition easier by booking a night at a Disney hotel or one of the many partner hotels within walking distance. One excellent choice is the Ramada Maingate (1650 S. Harbor Blvd., Anaheim; www.ramadamaingate.com), where rooms for two were routinely under $150 in 2012. As for the park itself, prepare for your trip with a visit to www.mouseplanet.com, which often has discount tips. 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 machines at many popular rides that allocate head-of-line status for a designated period later in the day. Don't get hung up on hitting every ride (especially the Matterhorn Bobsleds, which are closed for refurbishing until June 14, 2012). And don't leave eating to chance; you can book meals up to 60 days ahead at many restaurants at Disneyland 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 Cafe (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, next to the original Disneyland, will be under renovation in 2012.

3. Where the boysenberries are

Knott's Berry Farm (8039 Beach Blvd., Buena Park; www.knotts.com) was up and running when Walt Disney was still a pup. It opened in the 1920s, 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: about $175 at the gate for a family of four in 2012, and not much more than that for a season pass. Times staffer Brady MacDonald, whose Funland blog has covered theme parks for the several 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, the adjacent summer-only Soak City (www.soakcityoc.com) 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

You are respectfully invited to step aboard a gigantic orange and hover above a mostly idle old military base in Irvine. Now, stop snickering and suspend ... yourself. It's true that the gradual conversion of the former Marine Corps Air Station El Toro into a 1,347-acre Great Park in Irvine (near Interstate 5’s Sand Canyon Avenue exit; (866) 829-3829, www.ocgp.org) 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 at least 25  people at a time, it flies Thursdays through Sundays (weather permitting), rising 400 feet so you can see 40 miles on a clear day. (Check website for hours.) The ride typically lasts eight to 10 minutes, just time to eye the hills and orderly subdivisions, assess the park's recently planted strawberry fields and read the writing on the tarmac: 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 (71 Fortune Drive, Irvine; www.shopirvinespectrumcenter.com).

5. Surf, turf, balls and pucks

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 (2695 E. Katella Ave.; www.hondacenter.com). Adult tickets can cost $25-$290. The Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim  play baseball from April through October (longer if they make the playoffs), with 81 home games at 45,000-seat Angel Stadium of Anaheim (2000 Gene Autry Way, Anaheim; losangeles.angels.mlb.com). Adult tickets can cost $12-$275. During the season, the ballpark offers behind-the-scenes tours (when the team is traveling) on Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Fridays (in season) and Tuesdays (off season) ($5 for adults; [714] 940-2070). 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 (2100 E. Katella Ave.; www.catchanaheim.com) for your surf, turf, tap and big-screen needs. Impress friends (and appall others) by ordering the $59.95 OMG, a 5-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. In two years of the offer, just one guy has managed it.

6. Two words: biker bar

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 (www.ocparks.com/whitingranch) or O'Neill Regional Park (30892 Trabuco Canyon Road, Trabuco Canyon; www.ocparks.com/oneillpark), 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 (19152 Santiago Canyon Road, Trabuco Canyon; www.cookscorners.com), a biker bar and burger joint that dates to 1926. Jukebox. Pool table. Sawdust on the floor. Horseshoes on the patio. 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

Santa Ana has some of the 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 (2500 N. Main St., Santa Ana; www.discoverycube.org) stands beneath a 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 is the more grown-up Bowers Museum (2002 N. Main St., Santa Ana; www.bowers.org). 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. It also has a children's Kidseum space (1802 N. Main St.; www.bowers.org/kidseum). 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., Santa Ana; www.occca.org), the Grand Central Art Center (125 N. Broadway, Santa Ana; www.grandcentralartcenter.com) and the quirky old Santora Arts Building (207 N. Broadway, Santa Ana; www.aplaceforart.org/galleries/santora). The restaurants Gypsy Den (125 N. Broadway, Unit D; www.gypsyden.com) and Memphis at the Santora (201 N. Broadway, Santa Ana; www.memphiscafe.com/santora) are handy for a bite. And if you go on a Santa Ana Artwalk (first Saturday night of every month; four-block 2nd Street Promenade in Artist’s Village, Santa Ana; www.santaanaartwalk.com), a few dozen nearby galleries will be open as well.

8. Fullerton after dark

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 (136 W. Wilshire Ave., Fullerton; www.thepinthouse.com), Mulberry St. Ristorante (114 W. Wilshire Ave., Fullerton; www.mulberry-st.com), Cafe Hidalgo (305 N. Harbor Blvd., Fullerton; www.cafehidalgofullerton.com), the Continental Room (bar and lounge, 115 W. Santa Fe Ave., Fullerton; www.thecontinentalroomfullerton.com) and plenty more.

9. Retail detail

If you're not shopping, the recession wins, right? Now more than 40 years old, South Coast Plaza (3333 Bristol St., Costa Mesa; www.southcoastplaza.com) 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 $6,000 on a fountain pen at Paradise Pen Co. or $60 on shoes from Stride Rite. If you want to spend many, many hours here, you can sleep a block away at the Westin South Coast Plaza (686 Anton Blvd., Costa Mesa; www.westinsouthcoastplaza.com; weekend rates lower than weekdays). For a more intimate, semi-subversive shopping experience, head 1 1/2 miles south on Bristol Street to the Lab (2930 Bristol St., Costa Mesa; www.thelab.com), 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 (2937 Bristol Ave., Costa Mesa; www.thecampsite.com), where chic sustainability is the order of the day. Note the SEED People’s Market (No. C100-101; www.seedpeoplesmarket.com), the Active Ride Shop (for surfers and skaters (No. 9; www.activerideshop.com), the soothing sayings stenciled on the parking lot blacktop, and the several enticing restaurants (including East Borough [www.east-borough.com] for tasty Vietnamese snacks). Now, surely, you've had enough shopping, so double back toward South Coast Plaza. Head next door into the Segerstrom Center for the Arts (600 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa; www.scfta.org) for music, or see a play at the South Coast Repertory (655 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa; www.scr.org), 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

Plaza Square (a.k.a. the Orange Circle) is a roundabout that serves as the heart of Old Towne in the city of Orange. It's also a fine place for time travel, with hundreds of well-tended homes in the surrounding Old Towne 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 (148 N. Glassell St., Orange; (714) 532-3835), customers like Nathan Chase hunt for old gold in the vinyl bins because, he says, "everything is overproduced now." Watson Drugs & Soda Fountain (116 E. Chapman Ave.; www.watsonsdrugs.com), which was founded in 1899, still serves banana splits up front and fills prescriptions in back. Chapman University is two blocks away, so Glassell Street is full of lively, youth-oriented businesses and restaurants. At the Filling Station Cafe (201 N. Glassell St.; www.thefillingstationcafe.com), you get sandwiches on a patio where gas pumps once stood. At Gabbi's Mexican Kitchen (141 S. Glassell St., Orange; www.gabbipatrick.com/gabbis-mexican-kitchen), upscale Mexican. At Haven Gastropub (190 S. Glassell St., Orange; www.havengastropub.com), pub grub and more beer. And at Bruxie Gourmet Waffle Sandwiches (292 N. Glassell St., Orange; www.bruxie.com), you can close your eyes, open your mouth and pretend you’re really in Belgium.

chris.reynolds@latimes.com

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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