Huntington Beach: Surf, Sand and Disneyland

Follow Tom Gierasimczuk’s lead and skip suburban Anaheim altogether for Surf City USA, a.k.a. Huntington Beach, only half an hour—and a world away—from Disneyland.


It is right about the time the one-man band launches into a Sublime cover and my three-year-old pulls his mom up on the dance floor that I declare the Shorebreak Hotel’s Zimzala restaurant has—despite no known international metric for such a thing—the happiest happy hour ever.

As Danny Maika, a stunningly talented fellow—given his ability to pack a dance floor with just an acoustic guitar and a canon of California-specific rock ditties—sings about being down and out in southern California, my son is grooving like a goateed frontman. He freezes at the breaks, kicks at the blasts and spins his mom around at the interludes.

Emboldened by the two-dozen bronzed locals bouncing with equal gusto—saronged, flip-flopped and buff—he only breaks to run over to our small hill of appies (no more

than US$9 per plate) for handfuls of calamari or parmesan-herb fries.

I order another US$2 pint of Primo—the smooth and slightly sweetened Hawaiian lager on special tonight—from the Ryan Reynolds doppelganger tending the bar, and leave my dancing monkeys for some fresh air on the Shorebreak’s second-floor patio.

Huntington Beach Pier

I lean on the railing and look out at the California dreamers below, lit up by the remnant sun disappearing behind Catalina Island. Huntington Beach Pier, loved and lauded like San Fran’s Golden Gate or Manhattan’s Brooklyn Bridge, appears even longer than its 563 metres (1,850 feet), a black line graph of wood and concrete. To its left twinkles the first flickers of fires in the 600 public fire rings peppering Huntington’s football field-wide band of sand.

Despite it being near twilight, a half dozen people are still sopping wet from paddling moments before. A trail of wet footprints lead to the Shorebreak, which houses a ground-level public gallery featuring works by surf photographer Aaron Chang. The actual hotel lobby is up on the second floor, where surf films are projected around the clock and there’s something called a “surf valet” on staff to suit up beginners.

The Official Surf City, USA

It’s all incredibly fitting for a town that’s home to Surfing America, the new national governing body for amateur surfers in the country, the International Surfing Museum, and both the Surfing Hall and the Surfing Walk of Fame. But if you think this is why Huntington Beach has earned the title of Surf City USA, you’d be wrong.

Despite hosting events like the US Open of Surfing, the largest surf and lifestyle event on the continent, the enterprising folks at Huntington Beach Conference and Visitors Bureau had to go to the feds five years ago for a formal trademark. The big reason was an identical claim to fame by Santa Cruz, seven hours north.

With the trademark now theirs, the bureau is diversifying their brand by extending it to beach cruiser bikes (rented locally and sold around the world). Today, there are branded clothing lines, glassware and soft drinks, with a lot more to come.

While I revel in my California moment, my son runs onto the patio, eager to share his, which involves knocking my still-full glass into my brand-new hoodie—the kind you only get to buy

in a surf-crazy place like Huntington.

“Better get cleaned up for tomorrow, Daddy,” he points, covering his mouth in guilt. “You can’t stink like beer in Dis-en-ehh-la-a-nd.”

With that, he runs back inside to rest on one of Zimzala’s Moroccan couches, leaving me to spot the first stars in the purple sky and to internally declare that one should see the sun dip into the big blue—not fade slowly over low-lying convention centres—as much as possible when vacationing in Orange County.

From SoCal Calm to Disneyland Excitement in 30 min

Southern California’s magnetism—its key differentiator—is the sheer amount of stuff you can do on any given day. Even with the epic distances and apocalyptic traffic jams, to come here and do only one thing—stay awake, eat breakfast in a hotel lobby surrounded by freeways, do Disneyland, then watch American Idol (in America!)—seems like an opportunity lost. At least, to my intrepid brood. And, it seems, to a growing number of like-minded optimizers.

As far as California distances go, Disneyland and Huntington Beach are relative neighbours—30 minutes by car and 90 by public transit.

In the past couple of years, new hotel development has made Huntington Beach the home base for many Disneyland visitors, says Chris Epting, a local author and historian who moved his family to Huntington 12 years ago.

The 49-year-old is actually amazed more people don’t tap into actual California while chasing Mickey Mouse.

“Why stare at a replica pier when you have the longest pier west of the Mississippi 20 minutes away?” he asks.

Madison Fisher, visitor service manager from the Huntington Beach Marketing and Visitors Bureau, says there’s brisk trade in all things Disneyland in Surf City. “Our two biggest hotels—the Hilton and the Hyatt—sell Disneyland tickets right in Huntington Beach,” she says. “The Hilton sold more than 300 passes last year.”

And despite the perceived competition for room, Fisher says Anaheim (literally 10 minutes away) is actively promoting the beach as part of a trip to the House of Mouse.

“They’d be crazy not to,” she says. “We have one of the best beaches in California and all you have to do is take one highway,” referring to Beach Boulevard, a straight shot north from the water for about 22 kilometres to Katella Avenue, then another eight kilometres east to Disneyland Drive.

As a proud local, Epting is happy to accommodate increasingly multitasking travellers eager for a holistic California adventure. “The more Disneyland grows, the more Huntington grows,” he says.

Discount Deals on the Way to Disneyland

The next day, with our son napping after a morning of seagull chasing and ambitious sand-castle construction on Huntington City Beach, we opt for some deep discount shopping at South Coast Plaza in Costa Mesa, a 15-minute drive from the water.

After half an hour at Nordstrom Rack (think Winners curated by the cast of Gossip Girl), I walk out with two Ben Sherman shirts, cufflinks and a couple of woven ties for a grand total of 50 bucks.

Half an hour after pulling out of the outlet mall, we’re parking at Disneyland. Our itinerary has been set for months, with our son’s first two visits here hardwired into his frontal lobe and recalled several times weekly since.

A Day with Mickey

It always has to start at the bright, shiny possibilities of Tomorrowland. Namely, the Astro Orbiter. Its cool factor is balanced perfectly with its gentle thrills—the ideal antidote to that potentially incendiary toddler chemistry of build-up, fear and long lineups.

After spotting Buzz and Woody from Toy Story, we make a mad dash over to the Jedi Training Academy for some aspirational lightsaber work, then to a calm lunch at the Storytellers Café at the tucked-away Grand Californian Hotel, where it always seems way too blissfully quiet, given the hordes queuing for similarly priced, but inferior grub at the dozens of food stalls scattered throughout the park.

Walking around Disneyland and Disney California Adventure, I can’t help but feel a bit premature. Large swaths of the park are going up fast behind colourful plywood walls promising the awesomeness just on the horizon.

By the time you read this, the renovated park will have rolled out a good chunk of its most-anticipated gems, including a revamped Star Tours flight simulator and the mind-bending underwater—and US$100-million!—Voyage of the Little Mermaid.

Disneyland After Dark

After six hours at the park, I feel the distant ocean breeze pulling me back to the beach for the last remnant of sunset, to grab some marshmallows and veggie dogs and go to bed feeling like an enlightened local.

But the two Disney parks are a different world after dark, especially now that the World of Color water-and-laser spectacle competes with the nightly fireworks show. It is ultimately no California sunset, but the caramel apple sates my craving for s’mores.

Besides, I can always gather my family around a bonfire in less time than it takes me to get to work in the morning. It’s the best of both worlds, which makes everything happier.


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