A Guide to Orange County, California
Shows like The OC and Laguna Beach have brought Orange County to media attention. I feel like those shows don’t really accurately portray Orange County so here’s a guide to life in Orange County. I grew up in Orange County, so this is all just from personal experience. Also, I’m homesick.
If the only thing you knew about Orange County came from television, you’d think that it was filled with only rich white people. This is false. Yes, there are a lot of rich white people, but there are definitely other communities. Southern California has an extremely large Asian population, and it is actually the home to the largest Korean population outside of South Korea. Because of the proximity to Mexico, it’s unsurprising that there is also a significant Latino population. There are also a fair amount of Middle Eastern people around. African-Americans are rarer to see in Orange County, though there are more as you get closer to LA. That’s not to say that there aren’t any, but they are not one of the more populous minority groups. Even then, people of European descent tend to outnumber the minorities two to one.
Not everyone in Orange County is rich. While there is a significant amount of people who are extremely wealthy, there are also areas that have lower socioeconomic status. Places like Santa Ana and Costa Mesa are populated more by minority groups, most significantly Latinos and Filipinos. These places are further inland as, one can guess, the further away you get from the beach, the less expensive everything is. Wealth in Orange County is one of those things that is just sort of assumed unfortunately, and everyone seems to forget that there are struggling communities within it. Like anywhere else in the world, there are rich and poor people, but given the media attention on Orange County, people seem to disregard the latter.
Orange County is a red county. In nearly every election, Orange County comes out red. Given the amount of wealthy people throwing their money around, this is not a huge shocker. There are also not a lot of universities within Orange County, and most students tend to vote in their home counties anyways. You’ll find a lot of Republicans, not only old retirees or old money families, but also a lot of teenagers. I went to high school with a bunch of friends who vote Republican. Prop 8 was a huge deal in Orange County, and a lot of the funding for Prop 8 came from that area. HOWEVER, this is not to say that everyone is Republican. This is mostly just to counteract the idea that all of California is blue. Orange County is very staunchly red, and the only majority red county in southern California.
Seeing celebrities walking out and about its not hugely common. Sometimes they come down to Orange County for the weekend to get away, and it’s not unheard of to run into someone on the beach or at one of the shopping centers. Kobe Bryant used to shop at the supermarket just up the street from my high school, but he lives in the area. Generally though, people don’t just casually bump into celebrities on a weekly basis.
There are pretty much three types of days. Sunny, gray, and rainy. There are no real distinct seasons, and no real extremes in weather. In the summer, there are more sunny days than gray days, and in the winter, there are more gray than sunny. There are still gray summer days and sunny winter days, and rain happens sporadically throughout the year. If you’re closer to the coast, the hottest it’ll ever really get is about 85, increasing to ninety as you go inland. The coldest it gets in the day in winter is about 55, but it drops to somewhere around thirty at night. Leaves don’t really fall from the trees, and it’s not at all uncommon to see trees with green leaves on them at Christmas time. However, it is not common to see people walking around in only bikinis. That doesn’t really happen.
There are a great deal of schools in Orange County, both public and private. Some of the more well-known public schools are Laguna Beach High School (Laguna), Newport Harbor High School (Harbor), Corona Del Mar High School (CDM), and Huntington Beach High School (Huntington). Some of the biggest private/charter schools are Sage Hill School (Sage), Mater Dei, and the Orange County School of the Arts (OCSA). Sage is the big college preparatory school in the area, and people pay up the wazoo to go there. Mater Dei is the Catholic high school, and OCSA is the charter arts school. The names in parentheses are what locals usually call these schools. There are a lot of other smaller schools in the area, a lot of K-8 private schools. Because people here tend to be more wealthy, a many send their kids to private schools because it’s “better”.
UCI (University of California in Irvine) is probably the biggest university in the area. It’s getting up their in terms of UC schools, and it’s smack dab in the middle of Orange County. There are some California State Universities in the area (not to be mistaken with UC schools). Some of the more well-known ones are Cal State Long Beach and Cal State Fullerton. There are a couple smaller schools around the area, like community colleges such as Saddleback College and Orange Coast College. Most high schoolers in the area tend to leave the county for college, or at least that’s been my experience.
Things to Do
As stated above, because Orange County is in between San Diego and Los Angeles, there is a lot to do. Coupled with the nice weather, there is a lot you can do, even without going to LA or SD.
- Orange County has a lot of open-air malls. People walk around, mill in and out of shops, take advantage of the nice weather, take a ride on the carousel or ferris wheel, etc. These are wide, sprawling malls, rather than the one building that’s a couple stories tall and has stores crammed together. Some of the popular ones are Fashion Island, Irvine Spectrum, Bella Terra, and The District. There are a couple closed malls, such as South Coast Plaza, which tends to be more higher end, and will get occupied by older people. It generally includes department stores, Tiffany’s, designer stores, that sort of thing. Fashion Island is along the same lines, though it’s starting to expand more given that it’s a popular place for students to hang out. Teenagers generally go to Fashion Island (Newport Beach), Irvine Spectrum (Irvine), and Bella Terra (Huntington Beach), depending on where they live/go to school.
- Disneyland is in Anaheim, ranging from a 10 to 30 minute drive from most anywhere in Orange County. Keep in mind that this is a very expensive thing to do. A ticket to one park costs about $90 and a ticket to both parks is $125. This is before parking and food and souvenirs if you feel so inclined. And it is a theme park so all the prices are already jacked up. This is not a leisurely Friday night date, unless you have a lot of money, and even for wealthier people, it’s not quite something that they do all the time. Considering the tourists and the prices, this is something kids in the area do maybe one to three times a year.
Knott’s Berry Farm/Knott’s Scary Farm
- Knott’s is much cheaper than Disneyland, and it’s catered more towards older patrons in some aspects. It has many more rollercoasters and thrill rides, while still managing to be a family park. It’s got all your standards of most theme parks, Peanuts characters walking around in costume, overpriced and not very good food, long lines, but at the end of the day, it’s a lot of fun. Also, for the month of October, at sundown, the park turns into Knott’s Scary Farm, in which maze/walkthroughs are opened up and monsters walk around trying to scare people. A really good date opportunity for couples who like to cuddle.
Those are the two main theme parks in Orange County, but there are also several others in San Diego/Los Angeles. Some of those include Sea World, Legoland, Universal Studios in Hollywood, and Six Flags Magic Mountain. There are also a couple water parks around, which are open in summer months with the nice weather.
- Lido Isle is this very small, quaint, manmade island in the harbor of Newport Beach, and is a place locals like to frequent. When I say small, I mean, there is a main street that extends two blocks, and it tapers off into neighborhoods for another radius of three or four blocks. There’s only one lane to get in or out, and on busy weekends, it can take you up to fifteen minutes to get down the main street just one way. Lido is filled with small boutiques and cute little cafes/restaurants, with a couple of chain locations sprinkled through. It’s a bit of a hidden gem if you’re willing to risk how busy it is and the near impossibility of finding a place to park.
Santana Catalina Island
- Santana Catalina Island (more commonly dubbed Catalina Island) is a slightly larger island about twenty miles off the coast of the mainland. It’s a good place for an overnight trip and it has a lot of rich history. During the summer, people can go scuba diving, snorkeling, or take glass bottom boat rides. They have a number of different walking tours ranging from ones about the history of the island to ghost tours. Occasionally you’ll see bison roaming the island, even though they’re not indigenous to the island because they were brought over for a movie, but never taken off the island. To get to the island, you’ll need to take the Catalina Flyer, which leaves from the mainland and takes people over to the island pretty much every day.
The beach is a huge attraction for Orange County. Pacific Coast Highway (PCH) winds down the coast and there are a lot of stores and restaurants, as well as homes all along it. One thing to remember is that the Pacific Ocean is cold. The current runs down from Alaska, so the clear warm waters of the Caribbean and Hawaii are not the case here. Even in the summer, the water tends to be pretty chilly, and you can almost never see very far into the water because it’s so dark.
Laguna Beach/Main Beach
- Main Beach is down in Laguna Beach and there are beach volleyball courts, a ton of mom and pop restaurants, art galleries galore, and cute little boutiques in this area. Traffic tends to get pretty backed up here, especially when the weather is nice, and parking is a bitch. But if you manage to find a spot and find enough quarters to pay the meter, it’s a great place to hang out. The view is great and if you get tired of playing in the water or lounging in the sand, walking up and down PCH and taking a look in the shops is a good way to spend the day.
- Huntington Beach is towards the northern end of Orange County. It’s got a couple of great bonfire pits, and a really good place to surf. It is also home to the Huntington Beach Pier. People like to go there to fish or even just take a romantic walk along the pier at sunset. Across the street, there are a lot of shops and restaurants, and other places just to walk around.
Tips to speaking like a local
This is not nearly everything on Orange County, but these are quick tips that will get you by. If you have any other questions, I would be more than happy to answer them. I lived in Orange County for eighteen years, and my parents still live there now. It gets a bit of a bad rep from reality TV, and I have my problems with it, but it’s my home and I love it.