My family spent last New Year's Eve on Balboa Island, where we rented an AirBnB for three nights. If you don't know about this little Southern California gem, read on, as it's a great destination for kids of all ages.
Located across a tiny bridge from Newport Beach, about an hour south of Los Angeles, you can drive to Balboa Island in six hours. (Related: Where to stop on I-5 with kids) Or, fly into Orange County's John Wayne Airport.
Once you've arrived, minus a grocery run, there's no need to drive again. But you can — parking is easier in Southern California– so no need to fear it if you've reserved lodging with a parking space (recommended).
While Balboa Island is surely lovely in the summertime, we had no complaints about the December weather, and the holiday lights on the island are fantastic. I suggest a winter trip to this special place. It feels like a small town from the past, with a beach theme applied on top.
Things to Do on Balboa Island With Kids
The most obvious kid-friendly attraction is The Fun Zone. A tiny strip of carnival rides including an iconic Ferris Wheel and one of those bungee jumping things, the Fun Zone also includes an indoor children's museum, closed at the time of this writing due to COVID-19, though the rest of the Fun Zone is open. Wear a mask!
From the AirBnb in which we stayed, we walked about 15 minutes to a ferry landing and then took the tiny ferry ($1.25/adult; $0.50/kid) across the bay to the Fun Zone. The ferry is a thrill because cars come on it, too.
During the holidays, there is a Lighted Boat Parade, running nightly at 6.30 pm the week before Christmas. We were there for New Year's and missed this magical sight, but many of the boats still had their lights on, and walking around to see them at night was stunning.
The boardwalk path that encircles the island fills up every night before sunset as people come out of their houses to watch the sky change over the water. The Island is only a few blocks deep, so you'll be near the perimeter no matter where your lodging is, but if you're all about that sunset, focus on the West side. The path is wonderful for stroller walks and people watching. Most houses there have really nice porches, so you can keep your distance and still enjoy sitting outside.
The beach. You can drive easily to other beautiful Orange County beaches, but we walked to Balboa Beach from the Ferry landing and played on the sand dunes.
Since it was December 30, and a bit misty, our big kids didn't go in the water, but the following day was beautiful and sunny. (See boat photo below!)
Renting a Duffy boat to cruise around the waterways is a popular Balboa activity. My mom and I drove one of these simple, electric boats commonly found in the area around a few years ago, and last year my husband and I took three kids out for the day. We were with teens, so we actually dropped them at the Fun Zone to navigate back home on their own. That's how small town this little island is.
Balboa Bars and Frozen Bananas are must-try treats, made even more famous by the banana stand on Arrested Development.
Where to Stay on Balboa Island
I wanted to be a short walk from the main shopping street, Marine Blvd, because I had teens who would be able to go out for ice cream on their own. Further, I picked a house with a dock and kayaks, although we didn't end up using them. The water level was low and putting the kayaks in the water looked tricky.
If you will, as we did, convince friends or family from the LA or San Diego area to come see you for the day, make sure to select a place with a healthy dose of porch seating for social distancing.
The quiet streets further from Marine Blvd are so cute and nowhere is more than a few blocks from the Ferry landing, so you really cannot go wrong.
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What else is near Balboa Island?
If you are wanting to make a longer, larger trip, consider that it's an hour and a half to the San Diego Zoo Safari Park, an hour and a half to Los Angeles, and about 30 minutes to Downtown Disney, which I hear is quite a reasonable substitute for Disneyland for kids who are too young to notice. (Disneyland is closed as of this writing.)