Anaheim & Orange County: World Class Conventions Meets Laid Back Beach Culture

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Grand Plaza light show

The combination of luxury hotels, top-tier meeting facilities and experiential options for groups always keep things interesting in Anaheim. The city and surrounding areas create a cool mix of relaxed surf towns and big city metropolitan culture. In January, we flew in for the grand opening of the Grand Plaza courtyard fronting the Anaheim Convention Center. We were there with 95,000 other visitors who were attending the NAMM Show, the largest music trade show in the country.

The Anaheim/Orange County CVB celebrated the gala unveiling of the plaza with a high energy concert headlined by funk band Tower of Power.

“The NAMM Show and Anaheim are synonymous,” said Tom Tait, mayor of Anaheim. “Expanding the show outdoors gives guests added meeting and communal space and a greater experience in the city.”

The 100,000-sf plaza is ideal for receptions, dinners and concerts complete with three fountains, a “river” of lights, 60 fresh orange groves, 151 new palm trees and covered gathering space. And every night there’s a light show staged every 30 minutes. The design is a nod to the agricultural roots of Orange County and each of the fountains onsite represent a different area in Southern California.

“We knew that we wanted a beautiful, resort-themed exterior space, but also one that was very flexible in terms of potential uses,” says Tom Morton, director of sports/entertainment for the Anaheim Convention Center. “We knew that the NAMM Show would utilize it to its fullest potential.”

While Tower of Power played classic hits like “What is Hip” and “You’re Still a Young Man” during the opening reception, the energy was awesome with all of the palm trees, Southern California sun and so many fun-loving people having a great time with room to dance and move around comfortably. Throughout the weekend, famous faces like Randy Jackson, Pete Townsend, Brian Wilson, Steven Tyler and Elton John also performed.

With the NAMM Show in mind, the $15 million project was completed in eight months. In 2014, the Anaheim Convention Center will add more meeting space to accommodate even larger citywide events and run concurrent meetings. The projected overall meeting and function space will be over a quarter million square feet.

Two high-volume conference hotels bookend the convention center campus: the 1,572-room Hilton Anaheim and the 1,030-room Anaheim Marriott. We checked into the Hilton that’s literally a 10-second walk to the front door of the convention center. That proximity is especially appealing for female business executives traveling alone.

The lobby was decked out for the NAMM show, which was a pretty impressive setup. Planners had strategically placed musicians and stages around Mix Lounge, the hotel’s contemporary lobby bar. It really keeps things moving. Meanwhile, the adjacent Mix Restaurant served delicious sustainable meals with organic and natural ingredients. Total meeting space is 140,000 sf.

We also checked out Degree’s Wine & Patio Bar at the Marriott after the day at NAMM. It’s a breezy, charming place for post-session vino with great views of the Grand Plaza. Marriott’s total meeting space is 100,000 sf.

Other dining and entertainment options are right outside the hotel/convention center grounds. Anaheim GardenWalk is an outdoor mall filled with upscale retail shops, gourmet dining and fun entertainment. Be sure to check out the lounge-style bowling alley and UltraStar Cinema. The theater is the first to offer D-Box motion seats that move during the film.

THE PACKING DISTRICT

Right off the convention center, the 3-acre Packing District is an eclectic shopping neighborhood home to family-owned eateries, shops and historic buildings. The 42,000-sf Packing House is a restored landmark once used as a hub of commerce during the agricultural boom in the early 1900s. Presently, the building is being transformed into an assortment of 25 restaurants vendors in an open-air environment.

“The concept is to create a food production service for the community and also a historic venue for visiting groups,” says Chris Bennett, director of development, who is helping create a new Farmer’s Park, outdoor concert venue and event space.

During construction, 400 discarded license plates from 1929 were found and placed inside the nearby Umami Burger restaurant, inside the historic Packard Building, also home to the Anaheim Brewery.

DISNEY’S CARS LAND

Disney’s California Adventure Park just completed a 5-year expansion including Cars Land featuring the imaginative town of Radiator Springs from the Disney Pixar films, Cars and Cars 2. The scene is a replica of the historic Mother Road— Route 66. My racecar copilot is Juan Flores, communications manager of the Anaheim Orange County CVB.

“This ride isn’t just for kids,” says Flores, who eyes the car next to us. He seems ready for the race.

Our car zips and turns through Luigi’s Casa Della Tires and Ramone’s House of Body Art. As we zoom past the other car we all put our hands up and shouted in excitement. It really breaks the ice for any group.

Other rides include Luigi’s Flying Tires, similar to old-school bumper cars. It is a great way for groups to team up and challenge one another.

“The attractions inside of Disney California Adventure Park and Disneyland Park can be included in a large variety of event concepts that have the capacity for several thousand guests,” says Robert Donahue, director of resort sales. “For Cars Land specifically, we have had events that include the full use of Cars Land, in addition to custom catering and enhanced entertainment. Capacities range 500 to 3,000 guests.”

After bumping and flying through Radiator Springs, our group worked up an appetite. We headed to the new icon of Disney California Adventure, the Carthay Circle Theatre & Restaurant. The interior of the white tower is reminiscent of the 1930s with low lit chandlers, comfy booths, illustrated ceilings and theater memorabilia. The original venue was where “Snow White & the Seven Dwarfs” premiered in 1937.

Groups gather on the ground floor for appetizers and cocktails. We make our way around the historic photographs and watch the illustrations of a veteran sketch artists. We loved hearing stories from Stacia Martin, a 35-year cast member who knows everything and anything related to “The Mouse.”

We headed upstairs to the 77-seat private dining room for various sushi rolls and small bites. Executive Chef Andrew Sutton prepared a special menu for our group, including: Vietnamese twice-cooked beef tacos with fresh pineapple mint salsa, lamb meatballs with tzaziki and pepperoncini, and my favorite, warm dinner rolls filled with cream cheese and jalapenos. There’s a private terrace attached to the dining room with views of Buena Vista Street, an immersive replica of Los Angeles in the 1920s.

The finale of our evening was the new multimillion dollar World of Color light show. The 25-minute combination of fluorescent lights, pyro effects and over 1,200 water features project Disney film sequences on a 40-foot curtain of water.

“Large group reservations can be arranged to view a regularly scheduled show, or private shows are available as part of several park event concepts,” says Donahue. Capacity can range from 200 guests up to 4,000 for a private show. Our group wore light-up Mickey ears to get into the Disney spirit and the show really wowed the crowd with memorable tunes from the films that shaped our childhood.

What I admired most about the Disney California Adventure Park is there are so many options for planners. There’s a new 10,000-sf banquet kitchen for groups to rent for private in-kitchen dining experiences. With pre-existing backdrops, props and decor, the venue is convenient and one-of-a-kind.

LAGUNA BEACH

For planners wanting to switch gears with their group, a trip to nearby Laguna Beach is a fun and warm spot to hang out or get active. Heisler Park sits on the bluffs directly above the sand in North Laguna Beach. This is where you’ll find the popular Laguna Beach Gazebo, a popular spot for large cocktail events pre/post meeting.

Beachside dining includes the Beachcomber Café in Crystal Cove. The open-air patio is the ideal spot for groups needing a chill spot after a long meeting. Groups can watch the whales offshore or enjoy the sunset and locally inspired menu of fresh seafood and tropical frozen beverages. My favorite dish was the Mexican Cobb salad with gorgonzola cheese, shrimp, avocados and vine ripe tomatoes.

HYATT HUNTINGTON BEACH RESORT

Huntington Beach is the largest surf town in America with tons of low-key beach shops, trendy surf bars, the International Surfing Museum and the bustling Huntington Beach pier.

Anchoring this environment, the 517-room Hyatt Regency Huntington Beach Resort & Spa is the largest hotel in the region ensconced in a Spanish-style complex. The resort is perfectly situated along the coastline with long green lawns, palm trees and the sound of the surf just steps away. The Hyatt is the only hotel with direct beach access in the city thanks to a bridge that connects to the sea directly.

“Our hotel owners got approval from the California Coastal Commission to build a footbridge that leads from our property, across the Pacific Coast Highway and onto the beach directly,” says Nancy Monte-Frye, senior director of catering/convention services. “It’s really unique in Huntington Beach.”

Planners are using this to their advantage with the help of the onsite surf shop, Toes on the Nose. The staff coordinates all outdoor activities whether it’s surf lessons, paddle boarding, bike riding, sandcastle competitions, volleyball tournaments or just fun in the sun. There are also Segway tours for groups to scoot through town, as well as Segways with large knobby tires for riding directly on the sand. With some of the most consistent waves on the West Coast, groups can easily become part of the local Hang 10 culture.

Monte-Frye says almost all groups coming to Huntington Beach participate in surf lessons. Large groups will take turns in and out of the water. No more than 15 are allowed in the water at a time, while other members of the group are trained on the shoreline. Toes on the Nose hosts groups up to 500.

“Surfing is the experience of a lifetime,” says Monte-Frye. “What groups take away is a great support system and life memories. There are a lot of high fives out on the water.”

After a fun day of curling waves and a few belly flops into the Pacific, groups head to the hotel’s waterfront courtyard to enjoy a surf-themed reception and dinner. The Hyatt conference services staff lines the courtyard with surf boards, colorful fabrics and tall seashell centerpieces to add to the theme. For groups up to 1,000 pax, book a Beach Boy tribute band and serve fun dinners with spicy fish tacos and chedder cheese quesadillas.

“We use our environment to our advantage,” says Angel Hollingsworth, director of group sales. “The surf meetings have Woody cars, camp fires and live music. It’s like a 21st century version of a classic 60s surf flick.”

Due to the unique and varied setting, there’s a natural amount of movement among attendees to encourage networking and mingling with different people. During a reception, groups can walk from one of the restaurants to both the grass courtyard and the beach. Hollingsworth tells us that attendees often book pre/post stays to enjoy the pool scene and breezy cabanas. Total meeting space is 110,000 sf.

DISCOVERY SCIENCE CENTER

With over 120 permanent exhibits, the Discovery Science Center in nearby Santa Ana is an ideal venue for planners with a creative edge. The 50,000-sf space is undergoing a $62 million expansion adding new pavilions, an education wing, a hall of science, theaters and other cool exhibits. The final project will be designed with LEED certification standards and is expected to be complete in the fall of 2014.

“We are at maximum capacity,” says Joe Adams, president of Discovery Science Center. “Our expansion will double the number of visitors to 1,000,000 annually.”

The pre-existing campus features two floors of interactive exhibits and an outdoor patio, and there are two theaters including the Sun Stage and Discovery Theater. The building accommodates 150 people seated to 1,000 reception-style. Be sure to take your group to The Cube sculpture for a group photo. The 10-story box structure sits on one of its points, seemingly defying gravity.

CITY NATIONAL GROVE

Throughout NAMM week, Anaheim is filled with passionate music enthusiasts. I loved the table setups for the Dee Snider Roast at the City National Grove of Anaheim theater. The Show Room accommodates 1,300 standing and 1,100 seated. Two 9×12 foot projection screens are set on either side of the main stage to ensure front row views for event attendees.

The luxurious Terra Rosa room is a 2,500-sf space draped in velvet, dark woods and rich mauve furnishings with jewel tones. The space is a relaxing spot for groups to socialize pre/post. Be sure to check out The Gallery, a vintage Hollywood themed bar, and the grounds for outdoor F&B and entertainment. Max buyout capacity is 5,000 pax.

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