Pretend City Children’s Museum in Irvine opened in August 2009 when my kids were 4 and 8 years old. We were so excited to find an indoor play space with so many enriching play opportunities. Kids are naturals at creativity and imagination. There’s really nothing parents need to do except stand-by and engage their kids with questions and pretend play — even narrating their endeavors lets kids know you’re paying attention.
Pretend City almost sounds like a theme park, but it’s more of an interactive play space where kids can engage in pretending with real world props and places.
Want to pretend you’re a farmer? Visit The Farm and see the real baby chicks!
Want to be a pretend chef or restaurant server? Go to the rotating restaurant space and see what’s on the menu!
I’ve visited children’s museums in other cities, but this is the only one with so many play opportunities in Orange County.
Scroll to the end of this post to find out When to Go, What About Babies & Toddlers?, My Top 5 Favorite Exhibits, and more.
Everything You Need to Know About Pretend City in Irvine
Think of Pretend City as a mini-representation of Orange County. With each of 17 interactive exhibits (parts of a city) lending itself to play. Adults like to know what to expect, but I suggest you keep it all a secret for the kids – let them discover this place on their own and maybe lead YOU on a exploration. For once, let them be in charge. Let’s take a clockwise tour . . .
Usually 2 craft projects per day and staffed with volunteers to help out. There are cubbies to let the art dry while you play. Just remember to retrieve it before you go.
Ahhh! Playing with water, floating boats and foam blocks, fishing.
They even have slickers and foul weather boots to dress the part! My kids would spend hours here.
The dentist and doctor’s office can be scary places for young children. But imagine if they’ve been “treating” their parents with all these pretend props for years before they walk into their first medical office appointment. This is a chance for parents to be the patient!
It’s like the ultimate play kitchen! The cafe changes ownership quite frequently to express diversity. On my visit, the Mexico Consulate sponsored the cafe. Get ready to sit at the counter and have your child take your order and serve you. Play along and be a good customer — you might be here a while. Some days we never even got past this point.
Emergency Services & Gas Station
Whether your little one wants to work at the Fire Department or Police Department, there are opportunities for playing at all the emergency jobs and a gas station to refuel those fire trucks and police cars.
Beach, Traveling Exhibits Room, and Home
The beach is an indoor sandbox tucked away behind the Police Station. There is a shoe cubby and picnic tables with a beachy mural to make it all come to life. It can be a quieter spot at the museum. The Traveling Exhibits room comes next and then the Home. Actual local families and their cultural backgrounds are spotlighted in conjunction with the diversity themes at the Cafe. Talk about playing house!
The sounds of this place will haunt you in your sleep, but the fabulous shows your kids will put on should make up for it! Clap loud and long for their performances.
The “Real” Cafe
This is NOT the place for sipping your coffee and working on your computer. However, you can bring your own snacks from home or purchase relatively healthy snacks (Brown Bag sandwiches, Naked Juice, Sun Chips, Horizon milk) from the vending machines — and have a nice sit-down with your child.
You can pay for coffee from a Keurig machine. There are also microwaves available and high chairs. Keep in mind that this is a nut-free facility.
Build, build, build. And when one child starts building others will come to help!
Plant pretend gardens and talk about what we eat that comes from the farm.
We’ve had the great pleasure of watching eggs hatch here. The chicks are soooo cute!
Grocery Store Just Like Trader Joe’s!
Oooh! And the cash registers. But for some reason, kids always gravitated towards ringing the bells and the little carts. You can even dress as a crew member here.
Orange Plaza, Future UPS Store, Library, Bank & City Hall
All of the community events happen in the center of the Museum at Orange Plaza. Older children can earn a paycheck by stamping their time card at various locations and returning to the ATM for pay. Sometimes the bank drive-thru is staffed by volunteers. The Library is another quiet spot when the rest of the museum gets overwhelming.
And that concludes the tour. Just a few more tips to share . . .
Pretend City Places and Props + My Top 5 Personal Favorites
I always encourage you to take your child to new places and maybe provide them with a few simple play props. This place has it all. Once central place to experience 17 more “places” – plus the props to go with it. My favorite exhibits are:
- Grocery Store
What About Babies and Toddlers?
They may not be able to take full advantage of all the exhibits, but the Pretend City Park has some spaces for the youngest guests and there’s also a corner of the grocery store designed for baby play.
What Ages are Best?
I saw visitors from newborns all the way to about 8 years old on my visit. I think it’s ideal for 3-6 year olds, but there are still things to do for 0-2 year olds and 7-8 year olds (depending on the child).
Leave It Alone
Cell phones and computers are NOT really welcome in this environment. Even though your kids might be used to it — it can be distracting to other parents and children. Be a kid again and play pretend — or just sit and watch their imaginations explode without distractions.
I know that’s where your brain is going! The museum has sanitation protocols to keep things clean. At the time of my visit, these are just some of the steps taken to keep the museum as clean as possible. You can help by dropping toys your child chews on into one of the Sanitation Stations. It is a heavily used play space so normal wear and tear is bound to happen. They even wrote a blog post about “Helpful Tips to Prevent Getting Sick When Visiting Pretend City.”
Pretend City Restroom Details
There are two family restrooms at the back of the building by The “Real” Cafe and separate restrooms in the corner by the Marina area. The family restrooms have a changing table and a stool by the sink. The other restroom has a little potty in one of the stalls and a shorter sink, perfect for toddlers, as well as clear walls to see the pipes so even the restrooms are educational!
When to Go to Pretend City Children’s Museum – Insider Tips
- I’d highly recommend investing in the membership and then you can go during Members Only hours between 9am and 10am (before the museum opens to the general public and there’s only a few families visiting).
- Visit the website at the beginning of each month to download PDFs of their monthly activity calendars and daily art project calendars. Discover Way to Play Days, Baby Steps, and Family Autism Events by exploring the the Good to Go monthly programs.
- One reader likes to go at 4:00pm when it’s half off admission. She says the bonus is that there are no tantrums upon leaving because the museum closes at 5pm and EVERYONE has to leave.
- Best Tip Ever: Find the “Field Trip Report” by scrolling down to the bottom of the home page. It reports on the field trips for the week and how many kids will be visiting. It’s the perfect way to know if it will be a busy or quiet day for your visit! This is so helpful.
Special Exhibit for Summer 2019
Thanks to Tara for providing her impressions of the space.
The newly opened Music Room in Pretend City is located in the back of the museum where they typically house their rotating exhibits (which often feature lots of hands-on, open-ended STEAM activities). The room is brightly decorated with instruments hanging from the ceiling and walls, and stations are set up around the room with different instruments for the patrons to explore.
Most of the hands-on instruments are percussion (which makes a lot of sense from a sanitary and practical standpoint). We loved seeing different interpretations of percussion instruments and seeing all the different varieties of drums, shakers, and ways to create rhythms. My son’s favorite was the rain stick, but the brightly painted piano was a close second.
Kids flocked to the piano, I think because it provided a rare opportunity to explore freely an instrument that often comes with a lot of “don’t touch” rules. There were signs indicating caregivers to teach the children how to treat the instruments with respect (some drums were “hands only”, etc), and that seemed to work well.
I loved how there was ample access to a stage for the kids to “perform” with their instruments too. And the music piped into the room prompted a lot of spontaneous dance parties as well.
Explore the wonder & curiosity (and air-conditioning) of Pretend City Children’s Museum in Irvine near Bake Parkway and Irvine Center Drive.
There are rarely coupons, but it is a place where you can have events like birthdays or parties.
Did you know? You can get your hand stamped before you leave, allowing you to come and go all day.
More Children’s Museums in Southern California
I mentioned at the start that this is the only museum like this (on this scale for a younger age group) in Orange County. But there are other spots to try if you are looking at something like Pretend City.
- Pennypickle’s Workshop in Temecula, CA
- Discovery Cube OC
- Discovery Cube LA
- The Children’s Museum at La Habra
- Kidspace Children’s Museum in Pasadena
- California Science Center in Los Angeles
- The New Children’s Museum in San Diego
- San Diego Children’s Discovery Museum in Escondido
- Fleet Science Center in San Diego (Balboa Park)
- Moxi, The Wolf Museum of Exploration + Innovation in Santa Barbara
Originally posted in June 2016.
Disclosure: We did not receive compensation for this post, however we do periodically attend media events (at no charge) to learn about new exhibits so we can provide you with the most up-to-date information possible.