Would you like fries with that? Photo by Matt Matasci
Would you like fries with that? Photo by Matt Matasci

Where Young Imaginations Soar: Pretend City Children's Museum in OC

If you’re driving an hour from Los Angeles to Orange County with two kids for an activity, the destination had better be worth the battle with traffic! Pretend City in Irvine is well worth any drive, boasting 17 interactive, interconnected exhibits built as a kid-scaled city. For hours, my kids explored their creativity and imagination, pretending to be cashiers and customers at Trader Joe’s, putting on a performance at the amphitheater, working on a farm, replacing a car’s muffler, and more. Find out what makes Pretend City so special and why it’s one of the must-visit children’s museums in Southern California for any and every family with young kids.

What Is Pretend City and Who Is It For?

One of my kids’ favorite activities is playing dress-up, so naturally they were excited to visit Pretend City. The museum has a cool, easy-to-use 3D interactive map on its website, which added to the kids’ anticipation and allowed us to plan our visit in advance. The museum is in a spacious building with tall ceilings and lots of natural light, which gave the feeling that we were really in a separate, miniature city. The employees were enthusiastic, friendly, and helpful, interacting with the kids and explaining to us how to make the most out of the exhibits.

My three-year-old was enthralled the entire time and never showed a hint of boredom, spending plenty of time at each of the exhibits. My seven-year-old also had a great time, though it took making a friend for her to keep her enthusiasm going for the whole visit. It seemed to me that the ideal age for kids to visit Pretend City is between 3 and 7, though there’s still plenty to keep bigger kids interested. There were a few parents with infants and toddlers, and Pretend City has an infant area at Orange Plaza, and the adjacent “park” is for children under two.

Strolling Main Street: Interconnected Interactive Exhibits

First stop: Pretend City's Main Street. The museum is set up like a real miniature village, featuring a circular plaza at the center with the exhibits radiating out in every direction along what looks like paved roads. There are kid-powered and parent-powered vehicles parked at the plaza and kids can navigate the realistic streets to the various exhibits. Initially, my kids raced to and from each section, before settling in to really play.

Pretend City Children's Museum in OC: Everyone loves Trader Joe's

You're never too young to appreciate Trader Joe's.

Grocery Store

The exhibit that offered the most fun for my kids was the mini Trader Joe’s. This grocery store is designed like a realistic Trader Joe’s, with the iconic signs and interior design, actual TJ merchandise, and even the famous Hawaiian shirts that crew members wear. There are kid-size shopping carts and cash registers, so some kids can fill carts with groceries, while others work as Trader Joe’s employees. These details make the experience so much more realistic for kids; mine spent at least a quarter of our time at Pretend City in the grocery store.  

The Arts

Cross the street at the stoplight—which has a working button to change the light and activate the walk signal —and head over to a library filled with kid’s books. There’s also an art studio at the entrance of Pretend City, which is a must-visit for older kids. Across the plaza from the post office is the amphitheater, which has musical instruments and costumes for kids to put on a performance.

Civil Services

Another favorite was the post office, which has a map of the city marked with different mail slots. Kids can “drive” a parent-powered mail truck to the different spots on the map and deliver mail. The emergency services area has police and firefighter outfits, plus a jail to lock up naughty friends!

 Pretend City Children's Museum in OC: This is a great year to learn about getting shots!

This is a great year to learn about why shots are so important! Photo courtesy of Pretend City Children's Museum

The Café & Medical Offices

The Café gives kids the opportunity to work at a restaurant—passing out menus, taking orders, cooking meals, and bussing tables. In the back corner of the city are the doctor and dentist offices, where kids can complete a check-up, take x-rays, and give their friends a pretend root canal!

The Marina

For kids that love to play in the water, the marina will be a favorite stop. At the marina, you can design your own sailboat and experiment with wind to see how it affects the way the boat sails. At the corner of the city is the beach area, where kids can kick off their shoes and do a little digging.

The Gas Station

The gas station is where kids can operate their own auto-repair garage. You can replace the red convertible’s muffler, rotate its tires, and check the engine for problems that kids can then fix with tools.

 Pretend City Children's Museum in OC: Coming through!

Kid-powered vehicles keep traffic from getting too intense.

Time To Go Home

One of my favorite things about Pretend City is the parade when the morning or afternoon session is almost over. The employees gather all the kids up and give each a musical instrument. Then they parade the children around the city and right out the front gate into the lobby. This idea is genius because it gets the kids out of the museum with minimal resistance—one minute they're parading around the city and the next, they’re in the lobby getting ready to go home!

There’s a gift shop at the entrance of Pretend City that sells many of the costumes and accessories found in the exhibits, as well as books and other toys.    

 Pretend City Children's Museum in OC: Learn how to build a city of your own.

Kids can build their own pretend city.

Know Before You Visit

  • With 17 different exhibits at Pretend City, there’s a lot to take in, so you’ll want to be sure to arrive right when the museum opens. There are two sessions each day; two hours in the morning and three hours in the afternoon. Members can visit Pretend City an hour early at the morning session. (We spent the entire three-hour afternoon session at Pretend City and probably could have spent at least another hour there.)
  • Bathrooms are in three areas of Pretend City—the largest are at the back of the museum by the marina, while family bathrooms are near the “Real Café." There are also bathrooms in the lobby, outside the city gates.
  • The “Real Café" is a dining area that sells snacks and drinks from vending machines. I’d recommend bringing your own snacks and keeping them in the lockers; the vending machine selection is fairly limited.
  • Pretend City is easy to access from the 5 and 405 freeways, with plenty of free parking. There are lockers where you can store your extra items and stroller parking near the city’s entrance.
  • Pretend City hosts amazing birthday parties for little ones.
  • Keep an eye on the Pretend City calendar for events, holiday celebrations, and school break camps.
  • If you live nearby, consider getting a membership. This is not a place that kids can fully explore in one or even several visits, and the programming makes frequent repeat visits a must.

Photo courtesy of Pretend City Children's Museum

See you next time! Photo courtesy of Pretend City Children's Museum

Pretend City Children's Museum is located at 29 Hubble, Irvine, CA 92618. The museum is closed Monday and Tuesday. Check the museum's website for details on hours and admission.

Photos by Matt Matasci, unless otherwise noted

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