First published on Feb. 20, 2011. Revised and expanded in January 2012.

South of Los Angeles and north of San Diego lies an intermittently magical 789-square-mile realm where freeways hum and Disneyland flourishes, where immigrants remake old communities as new ones ripple across the hills. Many outsiders treat this place as they would a prosperous but hopelessly dull relative -- the way some Europeans treat Belgium. Let's remember, people, that Belgium has given us centuries of good waffles, beer and chocolate, not to mention the French fry and Jean-Claude Van Damme. So it is, sort of, with O.C.

Behold the big orange balloon, the big black cube, the epic and edgy malls. Behold Richard Nixon's old high chair, the birthplace of the boysenberry and -- because in the end, the mouse will not be denied -- a few Disney secrets.

1. WWND?

Nixon Presidential Library & Museum (Jay L. Clendenin / Los Angeles Times)

Disneyland can wait. First, ask yourself, “What would Nixon do?” That’s the question that’s printed on dozens of mugs and T-shirts at the Nixon Presidential Library & Museum (18001 Yorba Linda Blvd., Yorba Linda;, about 40 miles southeast of downtown Los Angeles. Of course, this leads to more questions. Has anybody told Kevin Bacon, for instance, that Nixon got elected student body president at Whittier College by opposing the campus ban on dancing? The nine-acre Nixon complex is patrolled by legions of well-briefed docents in red and blue blazers, many of whom were among Nixon's "silent majority" in the late '60s and early '70s. The graves of the president and First Lady Pat are here. You'll find a reflecting pool, a rose garden, displays detailing Richard Nixon's path to the White House, his domestic and foreign programs, his trip to China. If you fill out a form, you can listen to those notorious White House recordings. Hear former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger brag about kicking the North Vietnamese "in the groin." Hear the president banter with Ray Charles, make get-well calls to ailing friends and dismiss the importance of "hinky-dinky espionage" by one political party against another. Until 2007, the site was run without government input by the Richard Nixon Foundation, a loyalist group. The National Archives has since joined the party, as it were, bringing mountains of documents (and recordings) and a nonpartisan agenda. In April 2011, the library’s new leaders completed a long-awaited revision of its Watergate exhibit. (The old version cast the controversy as a coup staged by Nixon’s enemies. The new version draws on 131 taped interviews with key players and probes “dirty tricks and political espionage.” Whatever your angle, come see your 37th president's high chair, then step outside his modest childhood home -- Nixon was born in the farmhouse on this site in 1913 -- and also see the helicopter that carried him from the White House that last time in 1974.

2. The mouse that ate Anaheim

Disney California Adventure Park (Jay L. Clendenin / Los Angeles Times)

It's a given. If you have kids -- and maybe even if you don't -- you're going to Disneyland (1313 S. Disneyland Drive, Anaheim; And you're probably going to like it, because they're pros. So brace for the bill – more than $300 for a family of four in 2012 -- and make your expedition easier by booking a night at a Disney hotel or one of the many partner hotels within walking distance. One excellent choice is the Ramada Maingate (1650 S. Harbor Blvd., Anaheim;, where rooms for two were routinely under $150 in 2012. As for the park itself, prepare for your trip with a visit to, which often has discount tips. Get to the park at opening (it varies by day; check the website), and make a beeline for a Fastpass. These are issued, for free, by machines at many popular rides that allocate head-of-line status for a designated period later in the day. Don't get hung up on hitting every ride (especially the Matterhorn Bobsleds, which are closed for refurbishing until June 14, 2012). And don't leave eating to chance; you can book meals up to 60 days ahead at many restaurants at Disneyland by calling (714) 781-3463. Also, if you have an iPhone, there are several apps that tell you how long the line is for each ride. When your kids droop in the afternoon, retreat to the hotel for a nap or swim. Then return to the park for the nighttime stuff. If your family is doing a second Disney day, the Character Breakfast at Storytellers Cafe (in the Grand Californian Hotel adjoining the Downtown Disney District) is a fine way to start. But consider this: Much of Disney California Adventure Park, next to the original Disneyland, will be under renovation in 2012.

3. Where the boysenberries are

Knott's Berry Farm (Jay L. Clendenin / Los Angeles Times)

Knott's Berry Farm (8039 Beach Blvd., Buena Park; was up and running when Walt Disney was still a pup. It opened in the 1920s, and despite its high-speed, high-tech rides, it feels more homespun than Disneyland. It also appears a little frayed around the edges. It's also a lot cheaper than Disneyland: about $175 at the gate for a family of four in 2012, and not much more than that for a season pass. Times staffer Brady MacDonald, whose Funland blog has covered theme parks for the several years, calls Knott's "the best park in Southern California, if you're trying to please everybody." In other words, the rides range from little kids' diversions to serious, knuckle-whitening thrills, and the themes keep amusement park cognoscenti engaged. It really was a farm once; the world's first commercial crop of boysenberries was raised here in the 1930s. Now it has a hotel, an outpost of L.A.-based Pink's Hot Dogs, the adjacent summer-only Soak City ( water park and Camp Snoopy for smaller kids. It also has the old-school Mrs. Knott's Chicken Dinner, but recent meals suggest that the restaurant's best days may be behind it.

4. The Great Orange in the Sky

Great Park Balloon (Jay L. Clendenin / Los Angeles Times)

You are respectfully invited to step aboard a gigantic orange and hover above a mostly idle old military base in Irvine. Now, stop snickering and suspend ... yourself. It's true that the gradual conversion of the former Marine Corps Air Station El Toro into a 1,347-acre Great Park in Irvine (near Interstate 5’s Sand Canyon Avenue exit; (866) 829-3829, will be years in coming. But the Great Park Balloon is here now, a helium-filled ball with a people-carrying basket dangling beneath, and it's free. Permanently tethered and big enough to hold at least 25  people at a time, it flies Thursdays through Sundays (weather permitting), rising 400 feet so you can see 40 miles on a clear day. (Check website for hours.) The ride typically lasts eight to 10 minutes, just time to eye the hills and orderly subdivisions, assess the park's recently planted strawberry fields and read the writing on the tarmac: Someone stenciled a list of major historical events on the old runway surface. Flights are first-come, first-served; kids and pets welcome. There's a free carousel too. Best day to fly: Sunday, when the fledgling Great Park Farmers Market is in session. If that bout with altitude isn't enough, head about 2 miles southwest to the Irvine Spectrum Center mall, where the amusements include a 108-foot-tall Ferris wheel (71 Fortune Drive, Irvine;

5. Surf, turf, balls and pucks

Honda Center (Gina Ferazzi / Los Angeles Times)

If you're looking for pro hockey or baseball in O.C., all roads lead to Anaheim. The Ducks (hockey) play from early October through early April (longer if the team makes the playoffs), with 41 home games at the 17,174-seat Honda Center (2695 E. Katella Ave.; Adult tickets can cost $25-$290. The Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim  play baseball from April through October (longer if they make the playoffs), with 81 home games at 45,000-seat Angel Stadium of Anaheim (2000 Gene Autry Way, Anaheim; Adult tickets can cost $12-$275. During the season, the ballpark offers behind-the-scenes tours (when the team is traveling) on Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Fridays (in season) and Tuesdays (off season) ($5 for adults; [714] 940-2070). There's a Metrolink/Amtrak stop at the edge of the Angel Stadium parking lot (also walkable from the Honda Center). To fill your belly before or after the sports, there's the Catch (2100 E. Katella Ave.; for your surf, turf, tap and big-screen needs. Impress friends (and appall others) by ordering the $59.95 OMG, a 5-pound burger with 10 slices of Cheddar cheese and 2 pounds of fries. Sharing is encouraged, but if you finish by yourself within an hour, the restaurant will give you $500. In two years of the offer, just one guy has managed it.

6. Two words: biker bar