You might think that all the excitement to be had in Orange County is confined to places like Disneyland. But Mickey Mouse isn’t the only “animal” bringing a smile to O.C. adventurists. Spend some time outdoors visiting these places in the Irvine area and you’ll run into lots of interesting creatures!

The half-day OC Wildlife & Beach Tour ( is an eco tour through coastal Orange County, also known as the California Riviera and the Gold Coast. With a knowledgeable guide leading the tour, your coach will stop at wildlife viewing areas where you may see seals and sea lions and also at scenic ocean overlooks, at one of which you’ll relax with a box lunch and soft drinks.

While you’re picnicking, your guide will tell you about what you can see at your next stop, the tidal pools at Treasure Island Beach in Laguna Beach. And what you can see is amazing! Your visit takes place at low tide so that you can walk out onto the pitted rocks and see the colorful, usually hidden world thriving in the water-filled pools the sea left behind when it ebbed. The pools are the equivalent of tiny cities for sea life where sandcastle worms live in harmony with sea hares and opaleyes, where several kinds of starfish cling to the rocks among sea fingers, abalone and sea anemones and where on occasion you may even see an octopus.

You’ll also visit the Pacific Marine Mammal Center (20612 Laguna Canyon Road, Laguna Beach) where their mission is to rescue, medically treat and rehabilitate marine animals that strand due to injury or illness. Here you’ll see California sea lions, Pacific harbor seals and Northern elephant seals that are getting ready to be released back into the ocean.

Irvine Regional Park (1 Irvine Park Road, Orange) is where you’ll find the Orange County Zoo (, an easily navigated facility where you can see everything from cute coatis to not-so-cute collared peccaries, bobcats, an ocelot and even a chuckwalla or two. The most popular residents here are ones you certainly wouldn’t want to run into out in the wild; a pair of big black bears named Nacho and YoYo. When the zookeepers are working with the bears the animals come right up to the fences, only a yard or so away from the viewing area, standing on hind legs and with their scarily impressive claws poking through the fence openings. You might notice that the bears are actually brown in color; oddly this is actually normal for some kinds of black bears.

Around the corner from the bear pen is where the zoo’s mountain lion lives; Simba likes to pace his enclosure but he’s been known to stand up at the fence too. Staring into this magnificent animal’s intense eyes is mesmerizing, but you tend to snap out of it pretty quickly when he lets out a growl or flashes his massive paws. Bring your cell phone into the zoo and use it to get information about the animals via a free phone audio tour; just call the number found on the zoo map and punch in the exhibit number corresponding to the animal you want to know about.

Also in Irvine Park, about a five-minute walk from the zoo, is the Irvine Park Railroad. Not just for kids, the 1/3-scale train departs from an old-fashioned depot and follows a scenic route through the park on a narrated 12-minute ride.

Chances are at the Orange County Great Park (7000 Trabuco Road, Irvine; the only animals you’ll see will be your fellow human beings. But it’s fun to watch them shrink to the size of ants as you soar 400 feet into the air aboard the Great Park Balloon. The giant orange (of course!) balloon, filled with helium and with a gondola that holds up to 30 people, is always tethered to the ground by steel cable and is the first of its kind in the U.S. Unlike a hot air balloon, the Great Park Balloon rises silently, making the ride all the more enjoyable. The balloon ride is free but you’ll need to pay for parking.

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