Orange County 101

What Should You Know About Orange County?

You wouldn’t know it nowadays, but Orange County, California really was heavily devoted to the farming of oranges and other citrus crops in the late 19th century and much of the 20th century. You can still find orchards here and there around the county, but you need to look harder for them.

Although Orange County, Florida was founded before the California version, SoCal has the O.C. you most naturally think of (at least since Anita Bryant stopped pitching Florida orange juice). And, unless you’re totally into the motorcycle show on cable TV, we’re ignoring yet another Orange County in New York and any other O.C.s that don’t have at least two TV shows to their credit.

Where have all the orange groves gone? Gone to developers every one. The land is just too valuable for residential, commercial and industrial development. It is the law of supply and demand; like it or not, a whole lot of people want to live here and have since WWII. The opening of Disneyland in September 1955, in the midst of citrus orchards in Anaheim, made Orange County all the more of a target.

You can find communities with significant numbers of buildings constructed before the 1950s, but most of the county was developed subsequent to that. Tremendous growth started in the 1950s, continuing in fits and spurts throughout the ‘60s, ‘70s and ‘80s. It has slowed down some in the last 20 years because the readily developable land disappeared.

More recent development has involved infill construction, where older, low-density improvements have been demolished with multi-story buildings. In some cases industrial acreage has been rezoned to commercial and residential uses.

We’ve also seen military bases like the Tustin Marine Air Base and the El Toro Marine Base released by the Department of the Navy for local redevelopment (which, in some cases, has caused considerable controversy that we’ll mainly avoid here). Also, development has pushed out into the more rugged terrain in the foothills. Most, but not all, of that construction has been in southern Orange County. There are also such areas in portions of North County.

Some cities with some real historical charm include Orange, Santa Ana, Anaheim, Fullerton and San Juan Capistrano, among others. Interestingly, all of these communities lie along the railroad right-of-way, a huge factor in the early development of the county.

Orange County Geography

It is not unreasonable to loosely split the county up into three main areas, North O.C., Central O.C., and South O.C., although that is pretty simplified. Most of the original development took place in North and Central O.C., as the Irvine Ranch and other landowning families farmed and ranched on much of what is now South County.

So it is not surprising that the County Seat is in Santa Ana, situated in the central portion of the county. With the emergence of Anaheim and theDisneyland Resort Disneyland Resort, we find Anaheim and Santa Ana both wanting to be thought of as the “capital” of Orange County. The government complex is in Santa Ana, but the Anaheim Convention Center, Anaheim Stadium (home of the Angels), Honda Center (Honda Ponda, home to the Ducks hockey team), and other major attractions are in the town that Disney built. Their populations are fairly close, at around 300,000 residents each. The other cities in the county are all noticeably smaller, although there are quite a few cities with populations of well over 100,000.

North Orange County

North Orange County would include Anaheim, whereas Santa Ana is considered to be in Central O.C. You’ll find that the development in North County makes use of the more rolling and hilly terrain. Many of the homes have views and you’ll find some open spaces not yet developed in Brea, Yorba Linda, Anaheim Hills, Villa Park and Orange.

The Richard Nixon Presidential Library and Birthplace (and burial) are in Yorba Linda; this is really quite an interesting place, where you get a surprisingly balanced look at a very influential and controversial president. Northwest Orange County includes Huntington Beach, Buena Park, home of Knott’s Berry Farm and some other, lesser-known towns like La Palma and Stanton.

Other large areas of the county have been designated as permanent open space so there is more park land than might seem apparent.) The single-highest concentration of college-level institutions in Orange County is found in Fullerton, which hosts Cal State Fullerton, Fullerton Community College (Fullerton Junior College, one of the oldest in the state), Southern California School of Optometry, Hope International University and the Southwestern College of Law.

Central Orange County

There are no clear-cut boundaries, but Central Orange County would include Santa Ana, with its deliberately Hispanic downtown community, Garden Grove and Westminster, where you’ll find Little Saigon (some might consider portions to be North County but too bad). Newport Beach, and south through much of Irvine could be considered Central County, as would the northwesterly beach communities like Huntington Beach (Surf City!), Sunset Beach and Seal Beach. TheBolsa Chica Wetlands wildlife reserve is a restored habitat for beach oriented critters alongside Pacific Coast Highway in Huntington Beach. It’s across the street from the entrance to Bolsa Chica State Beach. (There’s another one in the Back Bay of Newport Harbor.

Newport Beach includes Balboa Peninsula and a couple of small islands in Newport Harbor. This beach city has been home to celebrities such as Hillbilly Buddy Ebsen and John Wayne (thus the airport; not sure why it’s not called Buddy Ebsen Airport but cowboys and Green Berets apparently trump dancers and wealthy hillbillies).

A number of professional sports figures make their home in Orange County, often near the beach. That includes Laker Kobe Bryant and members of the Angels and Dodgers. Basketball pretty boy Dennis Rodman lives on Balboa Peninsula, endearing himself to the neighbors with his late-night parties and police visits for one problem or another. Corona del Mar is another beachside community within Newport Beach, adjacent to the entrance to Newport Harbor.

The city of Irvine is named for James Irvine, a major landowner of the 19th- and early 20th centuries. Thousands of acres of former ranchland have been developed and turned into a number of cities in central and South O.C. UC Irvine is a top-level research university, with a medical center in nearby Orange, and serves as a catalyst for much medically oriented research and development in Orange County.

The John Wayne Airport is in county territory but departing planes fly over Newport Beach neighborhoods using noise abatement measures. That means the plane takes off at a steep angle to gain altitude as quickly as possible (like Air Force jets when they fly into Baghdad International Airport), then the pilot backs off on power until you clear the coastline. Lots of nervous smiles even though they warn you about it in advance. Not far from the airport are the fairgrounds, adjacent to Vanguard University.

The O. C. Marketplace (swapmeet) is one of the largest you’ll find anywhere, and is open every Saturday and Sunday except when the annual fair is in town during the middle of the summer.

Out east of the 55 freeway are the Canyons—Silverado Canyon, Modjeska Canyon (named for a Polish actress who landed here in the late 19th century), Star Canyon and others. There are some quaint communities out there and Irvine Park with a nice fishing lake. Fires and landslides (from too much water after a fire has destroyed the hillside vegetation) are occasional threats, but the rural lifestyle just minutes from big-city amenities is a strong lure. There are some very impressive estates out in the hills, as well as along the coast of course.

So South County starts say south of Tustin or in south Irvine and continues down past San Clemente to Camp Pendleton. Geographically is seems that South County is the largest. It includes the El Toro Marine Base, which is slowly being turned into the Great Park and a mixture of development types. Time will tell whether voters made the right choice in abandoning the concept of a regional airport to replace the military airport that had been operating for decades. You’ll still see acres of farmland along I-5, although it is shrinking.

South Orange County

South County is home to one of the larger seniors’ communities in Southern Calfornia, Leisure World. A second Leisure World is found in Seal Beach, in northwest O.C. President Nixon’s Western White House was located at a large estate on the beach side of I-5 in San Clemente. They’d have a small Navy group sitting off the coast most of the time, and especially when the President was in town.

Irvine was one of the original master-planned communities, and that is evident from the various communities like Woodbridge and North Woods, and from beautifully landscaped boulevards and community parks. That has led to most other South County cities having a similar feel. Notable exceptions to the master-plan design are older cities like San Clemente and Laguna Beach. (The Nelsons of Ozzie and Harriet fame lived in Laguna Beach for many years.)

Many people love the features of a master-planned city and others don’t care for it. Fortunately both can be happy in Orange County. There is more rolling terrain in this part of the county than in the central portion, as the latter is apparently more of a floodplain sloping from the San Gabriel Mountains to the beach.

Orange County Weather

The weather in Orange County is, of course, heavily influenced by the ocean influence. Beach-oriented towns will tend to experience more of the fog and damp breeze much of the year, both morning and late afternoon. The low clouds will linger longer along the coast, burning off inland first. Some residents can’t get enough of the beach weather; others would rather live inland where it is warmer. It can be surprising how quickly the temperature rises as you drive inland.

There can be a very distinct difference in the environment between Balboa and say Laguna Hills or Yorba Linda (Laguna Hills is not far inland, but the coast hills block off the sea breeze very effectively in some spots). If you are really looking forward to a sea breeze, and the cool evenings, then make sure you stay at a hotel along the coast.

If you have kids to whom warm evening hotel swimming weather is important, it will be noticeably warmer at almost all times of the year if you stay several miles inland. Now don’t get me wrong, the coast can be quite warm at any time, especially if the desert Santa Ana winds blow hot from the northeast.

During the summer months (and more likely during the second half of the summer) the beach communities can be downright hot; here’s where you’re glad you don’t usually have the humidity of Hawaii.