10 Reasons Why Orange County is Different from L.A. and San Diego

Until the late 1800s, there weren’t many oranges in what is now Orange County, California. Most locals were growing grapes or raising hogs, but eventually millions of orange trees were planted, and by the early 1900s, oranges were the new county’s main crop.

Progress happens, however. By the 1950s, acre after acre of citrus groves were uprooted during a tract housing boom, which subsequently transformed Orange County into a bedroom community for the aerospace and manufacturing industries.

Then, in 1955, came the county’s Big Bang event: the opening of Disneyland, Walt Disney’s decades-long dream, in Anaheim. This seminal family theme park put O.C. on the international tourism map and subsequently transformed the county into a world-renowned destination.

As such, latecomer Orange County is often compared to its closest neighbors, Los Angeles to the north and San Diego to the south. They’re related, of course, by virtue of their geography, proximity to the Pacific Ocean and sunny Southern California weather. But their differences in custom, style and—for meeting planners—infrastructure are apparent.

Here Smart Meetings highlights 10 ways in which Orange County differs from her beautiful “sisters” from an array of perspectives.

Bigger Is Better

orange countyAnaheim Convention Center

Already the largest center of its type on the West Coast, Anaheim Convention Center is about to become bigger. Why? “Having sufficient meeting space has been a challenge, as we currently have 813,000 sq. ft. of exhibit space and 130,000 sq. ft. of meeting space, and we lost business due to lack of meeting space,” says Mindy Abel, CMP, CTA, senior vice president of strategy and development for Visit Anaheim.

Their solution? An expansion that adds 200,000 sq. ft. of flexible, carpeted space in a self-contained building adjacent to the current center. Due to open in summer 2017, it will offer connectivity with a climate-controlled bridge that links the spaces together on the second level.

Thus far, the expansion is already a winner. To date, Anaheim has 10 repeat groups that have confirmed—many for multiple years—because of the additional space, plus 12 new group bookings, Abel says. The center also has close to 40 groups considering proposals to select Anaheim, using this space, between 2017 and 2030, she adds.

But this raises a big question: How was Anaheim able to push the project ahead when its neighbors seem to move one step ahead, then two steps back in their expansion attempts? The answer: With a pressing need—and potential competition on the horizon—the expansion was the result of a strategic public/private partnership involving the necessary players: city of Anaheim, CVB and hotel operators.

According to Abel, the collaboration came to fruition in 2010, when the hospitality community added a 2 percent fee to room rates, dedicated to marketing Anaheim. This allowed the city to redirect its budgeted marketing funds for Visit Anaheim toward expansion and improvements in the convention center.

The Vibe

orange countyMontage Laguna Beach

There’s lots of living large in Orange County, where multimillion-dollar houses reside in gated, master-planned communities and palm-bedecked villas boast equally pricey yachts parked at their boat docks. It’s a luxe, laid-back lifestyle, with the sun shining an average of 280 days a year, ideal for outdoor play and alfresco dining. Also, the water is an ever-present lure, whether for boating, surfing or simply soaking up the view. Jeeps and Land Rovers are as ubiquitous as BMWs and Mercedes SL65s. The dress code could best be described as resort casual (as in five-star), with the obligatory Ray-Ban and Fitbit accessories.

Life’s a Beach (Not Only a Bumper Sticker)

orange countyLaguna Beach House meeting space

Orange County’s 42 miles of coastline provide a kaleidoscope of sandy beaches, sheltered coves and wave sets that lap, crash, and to the delight of surfers around the world, curl. While L.A. and San Diego have some righteous surf breaks (Malibu and La Jolla Shores immediately come to mind), Huntington Beach has been a surf mecca for more than 100 years and was recently named the No. 1 California Beach for 2015 by USA Today.

Sure, there’s a surf culture here, but there are a lot of options other than paddling out into the water on a surfboard. Meeting planners can take a page from locals, who enjoy other activities such as stand-up paddleboarding, yoga while paddleboarding, sand-castle building, beach volleyball and evening bonfires on the beach—all ripe for offsites and team-building exercises. And—no small matter—the beach lifestyle (casual, outdoors, fun) thrives year-round.

Business Centric (and We Don’t Mean Showbiz)

orange countyHilton Anaheim

Although your waiter may have a surfboard instead of a SAG card, make no mistake: O.C. enjoys a robust economic climate, boasting several Fortune 500 corporate headquarters such as Allergan and Western Digital in Irvine, and Pacific Life in Newport Beach. Walt Disney Co. is the county’s largest employer, with more than 27,000 employees.

But it may be surprising to many that O.C. is becoming known as “Silicon South” due to the huge diversity of high-tech companies that are headquartered there, from software (Quest) to computer products (Western Digital Corporation, Toshiba), chipmakers (Broadcom, Microsemi) and others. In fact, according to Deloitte Tech 500, in 2013 Orange County-based technology companies were among the industry’s fastest-growing firms in North America, all with more than 100 percent revenue growth in the past year.

Tech not your company’s metier? Regardless of the industry or organization, the county makes meetings and conventions very easy. Along with an array of big brand and boutique hotel options for groups of all sizes, there’s the easily walkable Anaheim Convention Campus, which encompasses Hilton Anaheim, Anaheim Marriott, Anaheim Convention Center and Grand Plaza. Together, the three properties offer nearly 2 million sq. ft. of space, including the 100,000-square-foot outdoor space at Grand Plaza.

The Mouse (Of Course)

orange countyBlue Sky Suite at Disneyland Hotel

Knott’s (now Knott’s Berry Farm) was primarily a local attraction—selling berry preserves and fried chicken dinners, with a small replica ghost town and several shops—when Walt Disney’s vision for a family-oriented theme park opened its doors down the road in 1965. Fast forward to 2015 as Disneyland celebrates its 60th anniversary with its cast of characters led by Mickey Mouse and its usual panache, including a nighttime electrical parade and fireworks spectacular. Disneyland and Disney’s California Adventure continually top the attendance list of California theme parks, nudging out Universal Studios Hollywood and SeaWorld San Diego.

Meeting planners have access to both of the Disney theme parks, as well as two convention hotels, and the shopping, dining and entertainment options at Downtown Disney. “One of the great advantages is that all of these locations are just steps away from one another,” says Robert Donahue, director of resort, parks for Disneyland Resort. “This makes it convenient for planners to use the entire resort for their events and for attendees to have quick and easy access to lots of options after meetings conclude.”

Beyond the traditional facilities are unique venues such as Blue Sky Suite at Disneyland Hotel, which is ideal for board and committee meetings, and for smaller corporate meetings, Donahue says. And the big plus for planners is “access to a variety of Disney Difference benefits, such as Disney Institute professional development programs, private group events in the theme parks, customized Disney entertainment and special theme park tickets that are unavailable to the general public,” he adds.

Less is More

“Less is more” isn’t a truism you’re likely to find in O.C. except when it comes to population. While it’s true that the county is transitioning from a patchwork of suburbs and cities into a more cohesive metropolitan area, the number of its residents (more than 3 million) is eclipsed by San Diego and, of course, Los Angeles. Anaheim (population roughly 350,000) and Irvine (236,716) are its major “urban” meetings destinations.

Southern California’s Riviera

orange countyLaguna Beach Trolley

Huntington Beach, Newport Beach, Dana Point, Laguna Beach: The trendy SoCal names roll off the GPS as you travel south on Highway 1, each unique in its own way. Most of O.C.’s memorable resorts are directly on or overlooking this sparkling coastline, with many offering large meeting spaces that cater to the incentive market or the flexibility to be scaled down to executive and board retreats.

Northernmost, Huntington Beach has been gentrified since the funky days of the original Jack’s Surfboards. Now, it’s not only Surf City USA, but also a draw for meetings, with shorefront properties such as the beachfront Hyatt Regency Huntington Beach Resort & Spa and Kimpton’s Shorebreak Hotel, both a Frisbee’s throw from the city’s historic wooden pier. Slated to open in 2016 is the brand new, four-star Pasea Hotel & Spa, with 250 guest rooms—all with ocean views.

Segueing southward, Newport Beach is probably the ritziest of the communities. Among other things, it boasts a boat harbor, small exclusive islands stocked with private homes, Balboa Peninsula beaches and a vintage amusement center. Some properties, such as Balboa Bay Resort, are on the water, while Fairmont Newport Beach Hotel and Island Hotel are within a few minutes’ drive.

orange countySt. Regis Monarch Beach

Dana Point, a historic town since California’s hide trade during the 1830s and 1840s, features a marina, shops, restaurants, ferries and whale-watching excursions. Its nearby cluster of high-end resorts (The St. Regis Monarch Beach, Laguna Cliffs Marriott Resort & Spa, DoubleTree Doheny Beach and The Ritz-Carlton, Laguna Niguel) are all stunning, and you can combine them for a mini-citywide, ideal for small or midsize meetings.

Southernmost, Laguna Beach is a charming, cultural hive, where 20 coves and beaches are tucked within its 7-mile stretch of shoreline (in keeping with the laid-back vibe, no motorized boats are permitted). Long known as an artist’s colony, the town lives up to its reputation with more than 100 galleries and, in the summer, the one-of-a-kind Pageant of the Masters and three other popular art festivals. On a bluff overlooking the ocean is Montage Laguna Beach, while Pacific Edge Hotel on Laguna Beach is just steps away.

It’s the Location (Not the Zip Code)

orange countyDana Point

Orange County’s enviable location is pretty much ground zero in Southern California because its beach destinations, Anaheim and other cities have easy access by air to three major airports: John Wayne/Orange County (SNA), Los Angeles International Airport (LAX) and Long Beach Airport (LGB). Shuttles provide direct access to all three.

For large and/or regional meetings, the drive market possibilities are endless. With more than 20 million people living within a 90-mile radius of Anaheim, O.C. draws from Los Angeles, the Inland Empire’s nearby desert communities and San Diego.

Speaking of Anaheim, fly-in attendees don’t have to sing the rental car blues, as they can go car-less, thanks to Anaheim Resort Transportation (ART), which provides more than 20 routes that run from hotels to major theme park attractions, Angels Stadium, Honda Center and Anaheim Packing District, the hot new O.C. culinary destination.

South Coast Plaza (Where the Real Housewives of O.C. Shop)

orange countySegerstrom Concert Hall, Costa Mesa

South Coast Plaza, trademarked as “the ultimate shopping resort,” encompasses 250 boutiques, including many ultra-luxury brands that have few or no boutiques nationwide (think Bottega Veneta, Cartier, Van Cleef & Arpels, Hermes, Gucci).

Along with onsite restaurants, they generate revenue of nearly $1.5 billion per year, making South Plaza the highest-grossing shopping center in the United States. Taken-for-granted amenities are shopping shuttles from hotels, four concierge locations, valet parking, foreign currency exchange—and even a historic carousel. It’s also the first shopping center in the country to accept China UnionPay Cards.

Segerstrom Center for the Arts, immediately adjacent, includes a plaza enhanced with sculptures by Richard Serra and Joan Miro. The center boasts the opera house-style Segerstrom Hall and Renee and Henry Segerstrom Concert Hall, plus other, smaller venues available for private events.

It’s the Cookies (Yes, Really)

Those boxes of delicious, diet-busting Thin Mints you buy each year from the earnest young girl in her Brownie or Girl Scout uniform actually come in two different styles, depending on where they’re made. Two authorized national bakers provide the little green boxes ($5!) you hide in your desk drawer from your colleagues: ABC bakes the crunchier, mintier version, sold in Orange County; Little Brownie Bakers takes on the other, wrapped in a smooth chocolate coating, for sale in L.A. and San Diego. Interestingly, according to The Los Angeles Times, the O.C. cookie has more protein and sugar but less fat than the L.A./San Diego treat. Who knew?

Oranges & Apples

When push comes to shove, Orange County, Los Angeles and San Diego are a winning trifecta of options that offer plenty of reasons to consider them for a meeting. And when you want a coastal meeting experience—rather than a city with a coast—or a Disney-centric event, O.C. comes out on top.


Dana Point Chamber of Commerce – mydanapoint.com

Destination Irvine – destinationirvine.com

Visit Anaheim – visitanaheim.org

Visit Huntington Beach – surfcityusa.com

Visit Laguna Beach – visitlagunabeach.com

Visit Newport Beach – visitnewportbeach.com

Major Meeting Venues


Disneyland Hotel

Steps from Downtown Disney and near Disneyland Park and California Adventure Park; 136,000 sq. ft. of meeting space; 52 meeting rooms.

Disney’s Grand Californian Hotel & Spa

American Craftsman-style decor; themed pools with waterslide; easy access to Disneyland Park.

Hilton Anaheim

Adjacent to Anaheim Convention Center; 140,000 sq. ft. of event space; 1,572 guest rooms; five dining options.

Hyatt Place at Anaheim Resort/Convention Center

Walking distance to Disneyland Resort parks; 178 guest rooms; 1,189-square-foot meeting space, plus function room; outdoor pool.

Costa Mesa

Ayres Hotels and Suites, Costa Mesa-Newport Beach

Contemporary, European-style boutique hotel; 284 guest rooms; 12,200 sq. ft. meeting space; close to South Coast Plaza Shopping Center.

Hilton Orange County/Costa Mesa

orange county

Located in heart of South Coast Metro, Orange County’s business district; 485 guest rooms; 48,000 sq. ft. of meeting space.

The Westin South Coast Plaza, Costa Mesa

Upscale property connected to South Coast Plaza by pedestrian bridge; 29,000 sq. ft. of indoor and outdoor meeting space; 393 guest rooms.

Dana Point

DoubleTree Suites by Hilton Hotel Doheny Beach

Located on Highway 1, directly across from Doheny Beach; 196 suites; 13,743 sq. ft. of flexible indoor and outdoor meeting space.

Laguna Cliffs Marriott Resort & Spa at Dana Point

AAA Four Diamond resort perched on cliffs above Dana Point; 378 guest rooms; 50,000 sq. ft. of meeting space; spa and wellness center; Vue restaurant features local cuisine.

The Ritz-Carlton Hotel, Laguna Niguel

Mediterranean-style luxury hotel situated on oceanfront bluff; panoramic ocean views; 396 guest rooms; 26,224 sq. ft. of meeting space; nearly 54,000 sq. ft. of outdoor space, including garden courtyards, pool terraces and oceanfront lawns.

The St. Regis Monarch Beach

orange county

Beachfront property; more than 30,000 sq. ft. of indoor meeting space and 60,000 sq. ft. outdoor event space; 400 guest rooms; Monarch Beach Golf Links; Forbes Five Star Spa Gaucin.

Huntington Beach

Hyatt Regency Huntington Beach Resort & Spa

Oceanfront resort; 517 guest rooms; 52,000 sq. ft. of function space; 20,000 sq. ft. of prefunction space; 40,000 sq. ft. of outdoor function space; three ocean-view ballrooms; six restaurants.

Shorebreak, a Kimpton Hotel

Surf-inspired hotel reflecting Huntington Beach lifestyle; located across from the beach, near Huntington Beach Pier; 157 guest rooms; 8,000 sq. ft. of meeting space; pet friendly.

The Waterfront Beach Resort, a Hilton Hotel

Located a short stroll from Huntington Beach Pier; 21,000 sq. ft. of indoor and outdoor event space, including two oceanfront ballrooms, outdoor courtyard and sand area; 290 guest rooms.


Atrium Hotel

Conveniently located across from John Wayne Airport (SNA); 208 guest rooms; 13,000 sq. ft. of attractive meeting space; Waterfalls restaurant; Ilum poolside lounge offers cabana seating.

Hotel Irvine

Formerly Hyatt Regency Irvine, now part of the Irvine Company’s Coastal Collection of Independent Hotels and Resorts; 536 guest rooms; more than 50,000 sq. ft. of newly upgraded function space.

Laguna Beach

Laguna Beach House

orange county

Boutique cliffside property; surf-and-skate vibe; recent $1.5 million renovation; 36 guest rooms; meeting space for 15; nightly wine hour.

Montage Laguna Beach

Elegant resort set on a bluff overlooking the Pacific Ocean; 248 guest rooms; three newly renovated luxury suites; 16,000 sq. ft. of meeting space; 20,000-square-foot spa.

Pacific Edge Hotel on Laguna Beach

Oceanfront setting; 125 guest rooms; more than 4,000 sq. ft. of flexible meeting space; five indoor/outdoor daytime bungalow spaces; two restaurants; Studio restaurant includes private dining room and Chef’s Table.

Newport Beach

Fairmont Newport Beach Hotel

440 guest rooms and suites; 38,000 sq. ft. of meeting space; onsite Hertz car rental agency; newly expanded fitness facility; 8,000-square-foot Sante spa; outdoor sundeck with heated swimming pool.

Hyatt Regency Newport Beach

26-acre property; 407 guest rooms; 22,000 sq. ft. of meeting space including 10,500 sq. ft. of prefunction space.

Island Hotel Newport Beach

Recently completed an 18-month renovation; part of the Irvine Company’s Coastal Collection of independent hotels and resorts; 292 guest rooms; 23,000 sq. ft. of meeting space; spa.

The Resort at Pelican Hill

Italian-influenced resort, part of Irvine Company’s Coastal Collection of Independent Hotels and Resorts; 204 bungalow guest rooms, 128 villas; 23,200 sq. ft. of meeting space; golf course; spa.