The O.C. is not just Disneyland’s Small World and surfing — there’s a pirate legend, bunny sculptures, a haunted canyon, kooky art, Nixon cosplay and more.
I have a confession. I’m someone who fancies themselves an expert in offbeat L.A. attractions. I like food. I like drink. I like history. Until last month, I had little to no working knowledge of Orange County, save my eternal love for the mid-2000s Fox drama “The O.C.” In fact, some might say I had a significant bias against O.C., seeing as I’m a filthy socialist democrat who doesn’t react well in sunlight. And yet, I was wrong. So wrong.
Orange County has a wealth of delicious food, booze and weirdo culture fit for any Angeleno, chronically-pale liberal or not. Orange County has more people than 21 of our states, which means it’s not just Disneyland’s Small World and surfing: it comprises every type of terrain and houses vibrant immigrant communities, as well as world and state history and even pirates. (Yes, pirates. We’ll get there.)
So grab your puka shell necklaces, hop on the Metrolink and welcome to the O.C., bitch.
Late Night Disneyland
What’s the opposite of a proud Disney annual pass-holder? Me. So, when I tell you Disneyland is actually pretty cool once all the kids collapse in a haze of churro dust, I mean it. At night, Disneyland becomes delightfully creepy. My favorite activities include napping in The Hall of Presidents, trying to pry open the time capsule at the front of the Enchanted Castle (nobody knows what’s in there. Disney’s cryogenically frozen head?) and steering a Mark Twain Riverboat (which is not often open to the public, but cast members are contractually obligated to let you drive). I’ve never finessed my way into Club 33, but all the plants in Tomorrowland are edible and that’s a much cheaper alternative.
All The Dolphin and Whale Watching
We have something similar to “whale watching” in my Midwest hometown, it’s called “spot a Blatz can in the undertow.” Sure, it’s fun, but nothing compared to the parade of exotic sea-beasts that naturally migrate past Orange County’s shores. You can catch dolphins, blue whales, humpbacks, orcas and fin whales most times of the year (oh yeah, and there are sea lions — lots of sea lions — but who cares, cause, whales). Hop online, check out the migration schedule and get thee to one of the many beach and boat excursions available. Newport Coastal Adventure, East Meets West Excursions Whale Watching and Davey’s Locker are my top picks. Another Suggestion? Bring rum.
One day in 2007, a city worker in Irvine woke up and thought “man, this would be an excellent day to build a giant orange helium balloon that goes 400 feet straight up, and maybe a bunch of people can ride in it.” And so it was — and it was weird. Lovingly known as “Big Orange,” this helium balloon resides in Irvine’s Great Park and anybody can take a ride in its steel gondola for $10 dollars. It’s supposed to be one of the biggest helium balloons in the United States, but honestly, I couldn’t find any others. In my world, Big Orange is king.
There’s Money In The Banana Stand
Newport Beach’s famous snack isn’t just an adorable “Arrested Development” reference; it also spawned some delicious controversy. Bluth’s Frozen Banana stand follows in the tradition of Newport’s many banana-touting shacks, though it’s hard to know which ones.
It all started with Don Phillips, the self-proclaimed “frozen banana king.” Spiritually moved (my words, not his) by a promotional banana snack at the 1933 World’s Fair in Chicago, Phillips opened The Original Frozen Banana on Balboa Island, a tiny bougie island trio about 40 feet off of Newport Beach, in 1940.
Twenty-three years later, a dude named Bob Teller moved to the O.C. with big plans to manufacture seat belts. When that didn’t pan out (oh, that tempestuous seat belt market!) he took a move from the Phillips playbook and opened his own banana stand, The Original Banana Rolla Rama, across the street from Phillips’ stand.
When Phillips died a few years later, Teller bought his stand and expanded it, but not without competition from a guy named Bob Fitch, who was in the banana-selling biz since the ’50s, and from Dad’s Original Frozen Banana, also on Balboa Island.
Who originated this iconic frozen treat? Nobody knows, but everyone has an opinion. I suggest you embark on your own frozen banana crawl and throw a new theory into the ring.
Disneyland’s Pet Cemetery
OK, back to Disney for a second. Not only are there a bunch of adoptable feral cats hanging out at night, but there’s also an actual pet cemetery on the grounds of the Haunted Mansion, where all kinds of critters have their final resting places. Started in the ’80s as a “cool addition” to the Mansion’s design, the graveyard expanded in 1993, wrapping around the house and celebrating all the animals who have died on the grounds. In honor of the mouse? Catching mice? We can’t be sure.
Speaking of animals living and undead, at Newport Beach Municipal Park, 14 oversize concrete rabbits convene ominously — nay, satanically — staring into each others’ cold lime-green eyes. “Bunnyhenge” was installed in 2013 for a cool $221,000 dollars (that’s $14,000 a bunny). The city was livid. At the time, that type of spending on a public sculpture was unheard of, even in affluent Newport Beach. In fact, one city council member created a campaign video, suggesting the sculpture be “blown up.” Despite the hate, the bunnies persevere, conjuring concrete carrots and hexing suburban moms.
A Haunted Canyon
O.C.’s Black Star Canyon is a lovely, popular hiking spot nestled in the Santa Ana Mountains, just don’t Google it if you’re planning a solo visit. An important archaeological site, Black Star Canyon features fun waterfalls, pretty flowers and lots and lots of adorable murder stories. In the 1830s, local members of the Tongva tribe used to flock to the canyon, fleeing SoCal’s oppressive summers. Unfortunately for them, the canyon was chock-full of hungry bears and angry, trigger-happy fur traders, culminating in the brutal killing of natives for stealing and snacking on their horses. But the deaths didn’t stop there, In 1899 a man named James Gregg was killed in a high-profile horse dispute, and several others have gone missing in the canyon, not to mention the numerous paranormal encounters reported there.
Who needs actual art museums when, for an evening, you can live in 50 of your favorite paintings? It’s like a dream. Or a nightmare. Or something in-between? Since 1932, the Pageant of the Masters in Laguna Beach has painstakingly recreated thousands of works of art with human bodies and ornate sets, all based on a theme — though every show culminates in the traditional “Last Supper.” Past themes have included “Under The Sun,” “Partners” and “Grand Tour.” This year the theme is “Time Machine,” which you can experience if you have $20-$200 to spare. The shows are long and delightfully bizarre and beg the question: who are these people? And how can they sit still for so long?
The First(ish) Tiki Bar
In 1931, a 24-year-old named Ernest Raymond Beaumont Gantt moved to Hollywood and opened a bar. He decorated said bar with a bunch of old nets, wood pieces and barnacles (chic!). He called his watering hole “Don the Beachcomber” and centered the menu around rum-based drinks that complemented his janky South Pacific theme — the bar actually developed more than 84 drinks, including the Zombie.
Don the Beachcomber caught on big time and was patronized by Gantt’s famous new pals including Charlie Chaplin, Marlene Dietrich and Howard Hughes (who, in July 1936, allegedly struck and killed a pedestrian while driving home from the bar). Eventually, Gantt changed his name to Donn Beach (because, of course, he did) and the bar expanded all over the world. Years later, Donn’s ex-wife/business partner moved the flagship bar to Huntington Beach to open up more seating and develop a more ornate aesthetic. While the bar itself closed in late 2018, the restaurant still stands, in all its kitschy glory, for photo ops and drunken raids.
Solo Pirate Hangs
You don’t hear a lot about pirate activity in California history — unless you hit up the beautiful Mission San Juan Capistrano. Called the West Coast’s only pirate, Hippolyte de Bouchard was a French dude turned Argentine revolutionary who set off on a journey around the world. With an Argentine blessing to go ham on Spanish ships and settlements, Bouchard set sail and ended in Orange County, attacking the Presidio at Monterey, the Mission at Santa Barbara and on December 16, 1818, San Juan Capistrano. There, he demanded supplies and ammunition. The Spanish defenders refused, so de Bouchard was like, “OK, Imma seize your town. ” And he did —the pirate pillaged and instilled fear in the Spanish inhabitants for years to come.
The mission itself has lots of other strange features, including a Romeo and Juliet love story, some persistent avian pals and the largest California Pepper Tree (listed on the National Register of Big Trees. Seriously.).
This list would not be complete without the inclusion of the Richard Nixon Presidential Library and Museum, one of the most bizarre presidential museums around. The museum includes life-size papier-mache world leaders and, if you’re into roleplay, a replica of Nixon’s Oval Office circa 1970. Nobody quite knows who funded its $15 million tech-heavy renovation in 2016, which is apparently geared to appeal to a “millennial audience.” I personally love that the museum was built on the very farm where Nixon was born and grew up in Yorba Linda, and fun surprise (!) Pat and Dick are also buried underneath.