When you think of Disneyland in Anaheim, California, you probably think of the Kingdom of Make-Believe—because almost everything in the park is an illusion. Under the cartoon character costumes are miserable, sweating park employees. Buried next to the Pirates of the Caribbean, according to legend, is the Disneyland Jail, where trespassers and other miscreants are brought to be tortured by an unforgiving Mickey Mouse. And behind the Main Street façades lies the true heart of Disney: a greedy and sadistic taskmaster. Ask anyone who’s ever worked there.
The streets that surround the park are lined with overpriced motels and bad restaurants, a subversion of the American dream. Anaheim is not a place to be caught after dark. If the thugs don’t get you, the cops will. Ask anyone who’s ever lived there.
Orange County, of which Anaheim is a part, reflects the same sentiment as the amusement park: a veneer of cleanliness covering a lack of soul. It’s especially true in South County, as the locals call it, where new stucco buildings exhibit all the character of a stick figure drawing. Everything in South County, it seems, is new and pristine. Like Disneyland’s Main Street.
“The OC,” which none of the locals call their home county, is not the paradise of the television show. Orange County is mostly a cultural desert, a whitewashed urban development run amock. The picturesque orange groves are long gone, bulldozed for housing developments or office parks, all of which look remarkably similar. The houses invariably feature a two-car garage surrounded by a few rooms. The offices are mostly white boxes surrounded by a parking lot. The county has become a nightmarish parody of planned communities, gated developments, and chain stores. The primary characteristic of the architecture can be termed “Post-Modern Boredom.” The culture has devolved into Fast and Cheap.
The OC is home to the Trinity Broadcasting Network headquarters, aka Jesus’ Birthday Cake (whose main stairway is pictured here). It’s everything God could want . . . covered in gold leaf.
So if you find yourself traveling to The OC for a vacation (or a mistake), what can you do? Well, a two-hour drive north to Los Angeles or south to San Diego is always a possibility, as long as you can stand the traffic. Our advice is to take a trip to the beach—Laguna Beach. It’s a liberal arts colony of a town down the coast from ritzy, glitzy, neon-bright Newport Beach (whose motto is: “Our women have more silicon by age 30 than most cars”). Laguna is a breath of fresh air, at least on a good day when the smog hasn’t blown south from LA.
Laguna Beach features the usual assortment of tourist traps and souvenir stands, but it also has many authentic art galleries (ones that sell more than landscape paintings), unique craft stores, and excellent restaurants. Ask five locals about their favorite Laguna Beach restaurant and you’ll get five different answers, and each one will be worth a meal.
Home to summer art festivals—the Sawdust Festival, Art-a-Fair, and the Pageant of the Masters (worth a story all by itself)—Laguna is a great place to hang out for an afternoon or for a week. Food and entertainment are all within easy reach.
You can walk the beach or play volleyball on it. Park yourself on a bench to watch the mix of locals and tourists, young and old, and straight and gay (not that there’s anything wrong with it). Enjoy a margarita at the Las Brisas Restaurant in time for the sunset. Take a leisurely drive up Pacific Coast Highway (“PCH” to the locals) to Newport Beach to stare in awe at the trophy wives. Drive down the coast to Dana Point, where a picturesque harbor awaits. No matter what you do, you’ll realize “The OC” is centered not in Anaheim, but in Laguna Beach.
Lessons Learned: Make sure you have enough quarters to stuff into the Laguna parking meters. Twenty-five cents doesn’t buy much time during peak tourist season. If you plan to stay for a while, park in a lot. You’ll pay more, but you won’t have to rush back every two hours to feed the metered beast.
How We Saw It
Communication Breakdown: 1
Customer Dis-service: 1
Discomfort Level: 1
Grunge Factor: 1
Inactivity Guide: 1
Spontaneous Consumption: 3
Fun Fraction: 4/5
If You Won’t Listen to Us
Nearest Airport: John Wayne Airport
Native Population: 3,100,000
Normal Attractions: Disneyland, Knotts Berry Farm, professional sports (like the Anaheim Ducks and the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim), top-notch and high-end shopping, plus all those gas stations that help you get somewhere else.
Final Point of Interest: The University of California at Irvine was used as one of the locations in Conquest of the Planet of the Apes. Because it was an educational movie.