Anaheim in Southern California is home to the most famous theme parks on earth. Disneyland resort remains the city's number one attraction and with good reason, given it's "the happiest place on earth."
The park is ever expanding and construction for a Star Wars themed attraction is well underway at Disney's California Adventure Park, located next to Disneyland. The city has a lot more to offer travellers than just magic kingdoms and rollercoasters. Locals are proud to live in a city with Disneyland as their backyard but they're equally appreciative when Disney fans venture further afield to explore their vibrant city, which boasts superb restaurants, food outlets and markets.
Like many international destinations, Anaheim is encouraging residents and visitors to get out of cars and into public transport. The Anaheim Regional Transportation Intermodal Center (or ARTIC as it's known to locals) is impressive and an attraction in its own right. It serves as a train and bus station for a range of different companies.
The centre opened in 2014 and makes good use of the all-year round Californian sun. The steel-frame building's entrance is a 120-foot-tall glass wall. The curved shell structure is covered with air-filled plastic pillows, which allows sunlight to illuminate the spacious interior. Christchurch developers should look at this building for inspiration. Like many modern structures in Christchurch, this building is transparent and built with a lot of glass, but it's architecturally brilliant.
Downtown Anaheim is a lot different than the Anaheim resort and Disneyland district. It's trendy and has an urban vibe, with a mix of historical buildings, established houses and modern structures. It's a relaxed atmosphere, far removed from Disney; the perfect location to wind down, catch your breath and recover after spending several days at the theme parks. The area can be busy, but it's not crowded, which is part of its charm.
Downtown is home to the amazing Packing House; a two-storied food market where you can find just about any food you desire. It features a large central atrium with communal dining surrounded by cafés and kiosks of various sizes as well as outdoor picnic gardens and outdoor dining porch, which runs the length of the building. It's the sort of place where you don't feel like you're in commercial America. There are no multinational brands, but there's certainly a lot of food for any budget. There's everything from eateries like Kroft, where their mission is to "reinvent comfort food," to Hans' Homemade Ice Cream, which has been an Orange County tradition since 1972. But if you prefer something healthy, then there's the Lemon Drop Pressed Juice and Farm Shoppe; a fresh juice bar and vegetable stand. All of its ingredients are sourced from local organic farms.
I wanted to try something 'American' and devoured cheese-burger fries from Kroft. It tastes as good as it sounds.
Many locals from across Anaheim city visit this place at least once a week, as there's so much to choose from and it has a great citywide reputation. People I spoke to at the Disney district insisted I visited the Packing House and they all provided different recommendations on food. You could easily spend half a day here, looking at all the menus before relaxing in the local atmosphere. You can dine at small tables located directly next to the kitchens or eat at bigger communal tables in the middle of the market. It's a fun experience and not as awkward as it sounds.
Locals are friendly and polite. If they see you coming, they make room, acknowledge you and continue eating. The social experience on its own is worth the visit. There's a great mix of people from romantic couples cuddling on wooden swings, to families and groups of teenagers lounging on bean-bags, all co-dining together.
Across the road is a spacious community garden - the perfect place to blob out after visiting the Packing House. On the day I was there, it was nearly empty, given the hot dry day. The weather was the perfect excuse to wash the food down at the Anaheim Brewery, a council owned outlet, managed by local couple Barbara and Greg Gerovac.
Anaheim Brewery includes a tasting room and decent sized beer garden, while the vintage wooden bar has a great view of the shiny brewery tanks. There's plenty of history here - in 2010, the brewery re-established a famous Anaheim beer that disappeared when national prohibition occurred in 1920. The bar has become the 'popular local' for city hall staff.
Downtown Anaheim is home to Center Street Promenade, which is lined with stylish boutique shops and restaurants. A local favourite is Vida Latin Flavor. They make amazing handcrafted tacos and fresh pressed juices. I ordered a range of tacos and they all had contrasting and delicious tastes. The sizes are generous too.
Other attractions include The Muzeo, a museum, which opened in 2007. It prides itself on circulating exhibits, so there's a new experience every time you visit. From classic sculptures, to pop art; nothing is off limits. It's best to check their website to see what's on display. It's a quiet space to retreat to for a few hours.
Despite the large concentration of hotels and restaurants in the Anaheim resort district, the area continues to grow in ways that pleasantly surprises locals. Nine new hotels opened in the Anaheim Resort District in 2014 and 2015. The hotels are reasonably priced too. Homewood Suites by Hilton, for example, is just a few blocks from Disneyland. It's family friendly, but still appropriate for couples and solo travellers.
The lobby and lounge areas are spacious without feeling over the top. The rooms are beautifully presented and have a homely feel about them. Like many hotels in Anaheim, there's no restaurant. Instead, at this hotel, they have what's known as 'social evenings' where guests enjoy a set menu buffet-like dining experience at the ground floor lounge. It's a great opportunity to speak casually to hotel staff. They're genuinely interested in talking to you, and serve guests wine or beer at the buffet area.
A block away is the Residence Inn hotel. In fact, it's the newest hotel in the district. If you want the Disney experience day and night but too exhausted to stay for the nightly fireworks, this is the one of the best hotels to stay at as some of the rooms overlook Disneyland and offer VIP views of the park.
The rooms are well appointed, and have a sleek apartment-style feel to them. The bathroom is at least half the size of the bedroom. All rooms come with a fully equipped kitchen. However, cooking was the last thing on my mind. There's plenty of cafés and restaurants in the area. The hotel gym is bigger than your average hotel facility and it has plenty of treadmills. When I visited it, there was no one there. It's a different story next door at the outdoor rooftop area, with a swimming pool and hot tubs. They overlook the Disney district on one side and convention center on the other. This hotel offers complimentary breakfast.
Pace yourself before heading to the parks. Despite my best efforts to remain semi-healthy on holiday, I gave in to the temptation of sugar and salt at Disneyland.