The Orange County region of Southern California is home to some of the state’s signature sights, including Laguna Beach, Mission San Juan Capistrano and Disneyland. Golden shores smothered in sunshine, along with a few of the country’s top amusement parks, make this SoCal destination an obvious vacation choice. At times less obvious are Orange County’s diverse roots, which can be experienced through historic cultural centers, art installations and incredible fusion cuisine.
Alongside relaxed waterfront dining, spectacular hiking and al fresco shopping are many sites that traverse centuries of history. Californians are painted as carefree, but they’ve found many worthy causes as well, which include helping at-risk youth with a private car collection; teaching kids — and adults — about agriculture with free gardening classes; or simply donating to charity with a portion of each lavish lunch bill.
So while the many allures of Orange County are as clear as the sparkling Pacific, be sure to dive beneath the surface during your visit. You might find a hidden bar behind a bookshelf, or a deeper human story behind each city’s citrus glow.
The original Disney theme park, Disneyland Resort in Anaheim, is an obvious choice for a few days of play in Orange County. Disneyland’s many activities and attractions have been wooing families for decades, but it’s worth noting that Disney is no longer just about the Mouse. The franchise now offers the Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge area along with Avengers Campus, where kids can train to be the next generation of superheroes. Disney-themed food and beverage options have also expanded beyond pizza and nuggets to incorporate each park more fully. In Galaxy’s Edge, for example, you can seek out Luke Skywalker’s blue milk or head to Ronto Roasters for a wrap “prepared” by droids. The one-of-a-kind drinks and snacks do add up, but the many dining options are a fun way to immerse yourself and your family in the wonder of Disney’s worlds.
Disneyland Resort comprises two theme parks: Disneyland Park is the main one, with areas such as Galaxy’s Edge and Tomorrowland, while Disneyland California Adventure Park houses Avengers Campus, Pixar Pier and more. To visit both, you’ll need to purchase the Park Hopper ticket.
Address: 1313 Disneyland Drive, Anaheim, CA 92802
Head to Heisler Park
“Laguna Beach: The Real Orange County” was a semi-scripted MTV reality show in the mid-2000s. The authenticity of the television drama may be open to debate, but Heisler Park is a scenic stop in Laguna Beach that is entirely real — and definitely worth a visit. Up along the bluffs on Cliff Drive, the postcard-worthy park offers spectacular views of the ocean with walking trails, gardens and grassy knolls that are the perfect place for a picnic. Heisler Park also grants access to four Laguna beaches, and visitors love perusing the tide pools. Laguna Beach is halfway between Los Angeles and San Diego, which makes it the perfect stop for road-trippers cruising the world-famous state Route 1, or Pacific Coast Highway — though parking can be difficult to find on busy evenings and weekends.
Dana Point Harbor
Dana Point in south Orange County is a city known for stellar dolphin and whale watching, boating, paddleboarding and express ferries to nearby Catalina Island. The harbor hosts these many maritime activities as well as waterfront dining, shopping, yoga and other events. Wintertime ushers in the gray whale migration, while spring and summer are a great time to see blue whales in the area. In just minutes you can be on the ocean from Dana Point Harbor, and a variety of vendors offer whale watching cruises — even a sailing schooner from 1926. Travelers love the atmosphere at the harbor, saying you could easily spend the day just drifting along the waterfront, browsing the restaurants and shops.
For a major splurge, consider a stay or spa treatment at The Ritz-Carlton, Laguna Niguel, located on a bluff in Dana Point overlooking the Pacific Ocean, and head to The Ritz-Carlton’s 180bl? restaurant for drinks, bites and unreal sunset views. This casual venue in an upscale setting is first-come, first-served, so you won’t have to worry about trying to snag a reservation. Live music accompanies the oceanfront views on the weekends.
Crystal Cove State Park
Crystal Cove is a gorgeous state park between Corona del Mar and Laguna Beach that offers way more than its 18 miles of hiking trails. At low tide, the fantastical world of tide pools comes to life. While visitors must be extremely careful not to disturb the creatures that call them home, the four tide pool viewing areas at Crystal Cove State Park might reveal hermit crabs, starfish, anemones or even octopuses. Past visitors called the well-maintained park and its beautiful beaches a wonderful way to relax for a day.
The more than 12-acre Crystal Cove Historic District in the park comprises 46 seaside cottages from the early 1900s. Twenty-one of them are available for overnight rentals, but past guests warn that while they are affordable and uniquely vintage, they can be tricky to reserve. A self-guided walk will take beachcombers along an arroyo down to the cottages on the beach, with an online guide offering historical details such as the work that’s been done on the structures over the years. Crystal Cove once served as the setting of many 20th-century movies, starting with silent films in the 1920s. Cottage No. 13, where the 1988 movie “Beaches” starring Bette Midler was shot, is the final stop on the tour.
Knott’s Berry Farm
Orange County may be best known as the home of Disneyland Resort, but Knott’s Berry Farm has claimed the title of “California’s original theme park.” A once-small family farm now houses a water park, roller coasters and an authentically styled ghost town from the 1800s on 160 acres. In addition to its homegrown and California-themed roots, Knott’s maintains a “Peanuts” partnership, which means character meet-and-greets in the Camp Snoopy section of the park include everyone’s favorite beagle, Snoopy, and photo ops with Charlie Brown and the gang.
The park boasts plenty of rides and seasonal attractions, as well as the annual Knott’s Boysenberry Festival to celebrate the berry that launched the farm. A family-recipe fried chicken dinner has been served on the premises since 1934 and thus constitutes a signature dining experience at Knott’s Berry Farm. Past park patrons caution that, without paying extra for a Fast Lane pass, you will likely spend much of your day waiting in line.
Address: 8039 Beach Blvd., Buena Park, CA 90620
Stroll Casa Romantica in San Clemente
Casa Romantica Cultural Center and Gardens is, as the name suggests, a romantic estate and cultural institution in San Clemente, housed in a 1927 Spanish Colonial Revival historic landmark. Originally built as the home of Ole Hanson, the founder of San Clemente, Casa Romantica sits on 2.5 acres and features coastal flora from around the world and scenic ocean views. The center hosts a lecture series, live music, dance performances, art showings and more events throughout the year.
Visitors are able to enjoy historical exhibitions and an art gallery, as well as activity backpacks for children and access to any cultural events that occur during public hours. Groups of six people or more can take advantage of private docent-led tours of the grounds. Travelers say the breathtaking views and informative displays on topics such as Indigenous history make this site a must-see.
Address: 415 Avenida Granada, San Clemente, CA 92672
Hang ten at the Huntington Beach International Surfing Museum
From one of the country’s first recognized surfers demonstrating his skills in the area in 1914 to the city adopting the name “Surf City” in 1994, Huntington Beach has plenty to recount in the International Surfing Museum. This attraction was founded in 1987 by Natalie Kotsch, a Canadian woman who never surfed but was still able to build an incredible collection to spotlight the sport’s local history. Surfboards, memorabilia and more can be found in this gallery space, as well as the largest surfboard in the world. This massive 42-foot board was tested for the Guinness Book of World Records by 66 people riding it at once. The Surfin’ Sundays series provides free concerts hosted by the museum at the Huntington Beach Pier, with vendors and bands galore. Past patrons say that, while small, this museum is still an interesting stop even for those who don’t surf, and the guides have cool stories to tell about the sport.
Address: 411 Olive Ave., Huntington Beach, CA 92648
Shop at South Coast Plaza
Not just any shopping center, South Coast Plaza in Costa Mesa is celebrating more than 50 years of retail therapy. If you want a taste of SoCal shopping, you’ll find it here in the dozens of high-end retailers, including luxury brands like Armani, Burberry and Louboutin. Shoppers rave about the massive size and elegance of this upscale mall. More than 35 eateries invite you to stay awhile to sample fine dining venues or casual options such as Tableau Kitchen and Bar, which offers photogenic New American cuisine within the wing near Macy’s Home Furniture Store. Even better, part of the proceeds from every Tableau meal is donated to local charities, so if you’re deciding between pancakes or a quiche, get both.
Art lovers too will find a friend in this shopping center, located right next to a performing arts complex. To support the arts, South Coast Plaza once temporarily hosted the Orange County Museum of Art, slated to open its new permanent location in the adjacent Segerstrom Center for the Arts in October 2022.
Address: 3333 Bristol St., Costa Mesa, CA 92626
Peruse notable sculpture garden California Scenario
Isamu Noguchi, a Los Angeles-born artist, has impressive works displayed worldwide, one of which sits right beside South Coast Plaza in Costa Mesa. Originally commissioned by the Segerstrom family as a cultural site to accompany their shopping center and completed in 1982, this public sculpture garden was named California Scenario. The site, which the community calls Noguchi Garden, consists of six principal sculptural elements symbolizing California’s geography, such as “Forest Walk” and “Desert Land,” in addition to the centerpiece. Titled “The Spirit of the Lima Bean” in homage to the Segerstrom family’s agricultural origins, that central sculpture is a later addition made of 15 precisely cut and fitted granite rocks. Noguchi incorporated indigenous plants and materials into his work, which past visitors to the garden have called a hidden gem.
Address: 611 Anton Blvd., Costa Mesa, CA 92626
Mission San Juan Capistrano
Known as the birthplace of Orange County, Mission San Juan Capistrano was founded more than two centuries ago as the seventh of 21 missions across California. Established by Spanish missionaries in 1776 to convert Native Americans in the area to Christianity, today the mission is a historic landmark in San Juan Capistrano with a chapel, museum and gardens.
In addition to rotating exhibits of artwork and artifacts, the mission has a permanent collection of several thousand historical objects, including an 1875 map of the mission, a Mexican coin from 1855, Native American tools and much more. Mission San Juan Capistrano also hosts a number of events throughout the year. Such festivities include summer concerts under the stars, December holiday lights programming or the St. Joseph’s Day celebration every year on March 19, which is a tradition held since the 1920s to mark the return of the swallows and usher in spring. Visitors say you don’t have to be religious to appreciate the beautiful architecture and well-preserved history of the mission.
Address: 26801 Ortega Highway, San Juan Capistrano, CA 92675
Marconi Automotive Museum
The Marconi Automotive Museum in Tustin goes well beyond a cool collection of cars. Founder and former race car driver Dick Marconi’s personal car collection launched the Marconi Automotive Museum when he donated it in 1994. Today this nonprofit museum raises funds for Orange County children’s charities by donating a portion of its net proceeds from admission and special events. Some of the more than 100 iconic automobiles luring car enthusiasts to see the collection include the 1965 Ford Shelby GT350, the 1989 25th anniversary edition of a Lamborghini Countach and the 1996 Ferrari FX. The museum also currently has on display three iconic cars from film and TV: the Batmobile from the 1989 “Batman,” the “Dukes of Hazzard” Dodge Charger and the cognizant car from “Knight Rider.” Guests recommend a visit for the chance to lay eyes upon your dream car — whatever that is, the Marconi Automotive Museum might just have it.
Address: 1302 Industrial Drive, Tustin, CA 92780
Victoria Beach pirate tower
Underneath a cliff on Victoria Beach — one of Laguna Beach’s most unique seashore offerings — stands a mysterious tower that has sparked some imaginative rumors. At 60 feet tall, the affectionately nicknamed pirate tower, as locals call it, looks like it was plucked from a castle long ago. In truth, this structure was built in 1926 to accompany the mansion known as Norman House that sits atop the bluff. The California state senator who lived there with his family built it as a staircase down to the beach, with architecture likely inspired by the chateaus the family visited in France at the time. In the 1940s, a naval captain fascinated by pirate lore acquired the estate and contributed to the tower’s nickname by reportedly dressing as a pirate and hiding coins as a treasure hunt for beachgoers. Since then, the property has had numerous other owners, even once belonging to Bette Midler.
While the pirate tower today is privately owned and thus cannot be entered or climbed, curious photo-seekers can wander Victoria Beach in search of it at low tide — as long as you’re wearing appropriate footwear to traverse the rocky terrain. After snapping some pictures, explore the beach’s other fun features like sea caves and volleyball courts.
Address: 2713 Victoria Drive, Laguna Beach, CA 92651
Spend a day in Newport Beach
Newport Beach has a whopping 450-plus restaurants and wide variety of shops to explore scattered across 10 distinct neighborhoods. Among those communities are Balboa Island, which is known for pleasant waterfront dining and its famous Frozen Banana dessert, and Balboa Peninsula, a 3-mile stretch home to a small amusement park and beaches that’s perfect for surfing or a leisurely bike ride. Corona del Mar, or “crown of the sea,” is a charming hamlet with cottages, gardens and tide pools at the Little Corona beach. To access the main beach — Corona del Mar State Beach, also known as Big Corona — take the Goldenrod Footbridge and set off to find the cliffs and caves of Pirate’s Cove, featured on the TV series “Gilligan’s Island.”
For an off-the-beaten path attraction in Newport Beach, you can seek out a sculpture called Bunnyhenge close to the city’s municipal center. Whether this local oddity is cute or creepy is open to debate, but you can lay eyes upon the 14 huge white bunnies displayed in a circle and decide for yourself. Once sparking outrage for its six-figure price tag, the public art installation is now close to a decade old and has become part of the character of the city.
Visit the museums of Santa Ana
Santa Ana, a famously windy California city, is also notable for its many museums. The Bowers Museum, for example, displays more than 90,000 objects and works of art in its permanent collection. Having grown exponentially since it first opened in 1936, this art museum hosts a wide range of exhibitions that explore masterpieces and historical artifacts from cultures all over the world, including Native American art that tells the story of the first Californians.
A mere half-mile north of Bowers Museum is Discovery Cube Orange County, a children’s science museum with interactive activities designed to inspire and educate. Young minds will be engaged by the more than 100 exhibits, such as the science center’s “Physics Lab” with its laser maze and wind tunnel, “Science of Hockey” or “Race to Recycle.” Recent visitors to Discovery Cube’s Orange County campus say the museum is so hands-on that even the shortest attention spans will be sated. After some well-spent hours immersed in science, you can always check out other Santa Ana museums such as the Kidseum, the Heritage Museum of Orange County or the Lyon Air Museum, which displays aircraft, rare vehicles and memorabilia mainly related to World War II.
Irvine Ranch Open Space
Protected wildlands with six nature preserves make up the Irvine Ranch Open Space in Silverado. Free parking and jaw-dropping views welcome visitors to 22,500 acres of biking, hiking and equestrian trails. The only caveat is that the park is so protected it’s only accessible through regularly scheduled programming, including self-guided Wilderness Access Days every month, which you can peruse on the OC Parks website. Events are typically free and may include a guided hike or ride in one of the canyons, an opportunity to search for animal tracks or a bug demo for kids. Past visitors say that, while you’ll have to plan ahead, the trail variety and wild beauty of the preserves make it all worth it, and you’ll want to keep your eyes peeled for sightings of deer, coyotes and more.
Address: 13333 Black Star Canyon Road, Silverado, CA 92676
Take on a taco tour
If you come to Southern California, you’ll likely want to sample some of its renowned Mexican cuisine. A self-guided taco tour around Orange County is a great way to patronize some of the top spots for these handheld delights, especially if you take advantage of Taco Tuesday deals.
Lovers of spicy food can go for the orange hot sauce at Oaxacan outfit Taqueros Mexican Restaurant in either its San Juan Capistrano or Mission Viejo location; this establishment is also known for its authentic birria. Local family-run chain Avila’s El Ranchito merits a stop at one of its 13 SoCal locations, all serving tacos galore and tasty flavored margaritas. Solita Tacos & Margaritas, with two Orange County locations in Huntington Beach and Anaheim, is another hotspot for Mexican cuisine, famed for its wood-grilled tacos and more than 20 kinds of salsa. Recent Solita patrons, who rave about the quality of both the food and service, recommend coming especially for Taco Tuesday. With so many other Mexican eateries to choose from in Orange County, you’ll find endless options if you decide to embark on a taco tour.
Irvine Spectrum Center
The Irvine Spectrum Center, anchored by an eye-catching Ferris wheel, features a range of shopping and dining, as well as lots of family-friendly entertainment. This Irvine attraction is no ordinary shopping center; if kids get bored of browsing shops, they can choose from an escape room, movie theater, carousel, cake-decorating studio, the Hello Kitty Cafe and more. Date night is also on the table here with tons of dining — and dessert — options and an improv comedy theater. Weekends feature live music from local artists and morning fitness classes; weekly happenings include Toddlers & Tunes on the first Tuesday of each month, an event that’s free and open to the public. Patrons enjoy the clean, open space and accessible parking at this lively outdoor mall.
Address: 670 Spectrum Center Drive, Irvine, CA 92618
Old Towne Orange
The city of Orange boasts a historic downtown and a similarly citrusy name to the county it resides in. Old Towne Orange, as California’s largest historic district featured on the National Register of Historic Places, is filled with antique shops, art galleries, restaurants and retail. Its Plaza Park has been a prime meeting spot for locals since its earliest days, with a fountain as the centerpiece and an abundance of trees. Designed in 1886 and still today the cultural heart of Orange, the plaza maintains its original elliptical layout and hosts community events throughout the year, such as the annual Orange International Street Fair.
The Starbucks in Plaza Square is one example of a repurposed historic building in Old Towne, with a unique facade designating it as the former home of The Orange Daily News from 1909 to 1967. The city of Orange has also been used as the backdrop for film and TV, so on your visit to Old Towne be sure to keep an eye out for familiar sights from Tom Hanks’ “That Thing You Do” or the “Parks and Recreation” series.
Bolsa Chica Ecological Reserve
To experience more of Orange County’s biodiversity, consider a visit to this 1,300-acre coastal estuary adjacent to Huntington Beach. The Bolsa Chica Ecological Reserve, one of Southern California’s largest saltwater marshes, is home to a variety of habitats and wildlife — including more than 200 avian species, making it popular for bird-watching. Start with the Interpretive Center, where you can browse educational exhibits on conservation and the history of human interaction with the wetlands, featuring aquariums, live reptiles and model replicas. Visitors can then explore several miles of publicly accessible hiking trails and scenic overlooks, taking care to stay on the designated paths. Travelers recommend a visit for a beautiful escape into nature, with no shortage of birds and other animals to marvel at.
Take your pick at U-pick farms
Southern California’s weather is ideal for growing produce year-round, which makes Orange County a great spot to seek out a farm to pick your own. Tanaka Farms in Costa Mesa, for example, offers U-pick wagon rides and guided tours all year long, with produce options varying by season and crop availability; you’ll just need to reserve your spot online. The ever-popular strawberry season typically runs from February or March through June, but the farm also boasts a wide variety of vegetables you can pick if the berries aren’t available when you go.
Spring also brings strawberries to South Coast Farms in San Juan Capistrano, where you pay for what you pick and need no reservation; you can also purchase fresh produce from its farm stand in Dana Point. Another U-pick option for some sweet berries is at The Original Manassero Farm’s Irvine Market location, where no reservation is required but you may want to call ahead at 949-554-5103 to check harvest availability.
Watch the Angels of Anaheim fly
Dress in your best red attire and get yourself to Angel Stadium in Anaheim — nicknamed the Big A — for some Major League Baseball fun. Catch a home game to cheer on the Los Angeles Angels, once portrayed in fictional form by the 1994 Disney film “Angels in the Outfield.” Today these 2002 world champions are owned by Arte Moreno, who became the first Latino to own a major U.S. sports team when he purchased the Angels from the Walt Disney Company in 2003. To save on seats at select ball games, you may want to sign up for a free Visit Anaheim savings pass and browse discount options. From April to September, Angel Stadium offers public tours during away games to take you behind the scenes to the dugout, press room and more; the venue also hosts certain special events like fireworks displays throughout the year. Visitors appreciate the friendly staff and parking ease in this historic stadium.
Address: 2000 E. Gene Autry Way, Anaheim, CA 92806
Check out an industrial food hall in the Anaheim Packing District
Orange County did indeed gain its name from the money-making citrus fruit. Today, a warehouse from 1919 where Sunkist once readied produce to sell has found a second life as a food hall. The Packing House is part of the Anaheim Packing District, a downtown complex that spans three other landmarks as well. From Japanese crepes to diverse culinary mashups and fresh fruit, the Packing House market is a one-stop palate-pleaser for everyone in your party.
Two other buildings, once a car dealership and a marmalade factory, also make up the historic hub of the Anaheim Packing District, offering delectable dim sum or some of that famous California wine among other food and drink options. The fourth landmark, Farmers Park, hosts community yoga, gardening and more just across the way. If you’re up for a challenge, try to seek out the Blind Rabbit speakeasy, hidden behind a bookshelf somewhere in the complex; the reward will be a delicious drink and mysterious atmosphere.
Address: 440 S. Anaheim Blvd., Anaheim, CA 92805
Irvine’s Great Park
With a wide array of family-friendly amenities and attractions, the Great Park in Irvine more than lives up to its name. This public park, the repurposed site of a former air station, is centered on outdoor recreation, sustainable agriculture and the arts. Start your day at the Visitors Center to sign up for a free balloon ride 400 feet in the air or to rent sports equipment before checking out the latest exhibition at the Palm Court Arts Complex. One of the play areas, Kid Rock, teaches children about conservation ecology — and it’s not the only park attraction aimed at environmental education.
Interested parties of all ages looking to start a garden or get their thumb just a bit green should visit the Great Park’s Farm + Food Lab, an interactive outdoor classroom that focuses on horticulture. Browse this nonprofit farm’s themed planters and informational displays or consult the online park schedule to time your visit with a free gardening workshop (weather permitting). Past visitors say that while it’s tucked away, the Farm + Food Lab is a great place to bring toddlers and small children to teach them about growing food.
Address: 8000 Great Park Blvd., Irvine, CA 92618
Pretend City Children’s Museum
Children can take their games of make-believe to the next level at this replica city build just for them. Pretend City Children’s Museum in Irvine provides a hands-on environment for kids to get curious and creative, with a variety of educational exhibits and activities designed to give them a taste of “real life.” The bank, for example, lets children flex their math skills, while the cafe teaches about cultural diversity and the gas station encourages problem-solving. Youngsters can exercise their imagination to play an artist, construction worker, doctor or whatever else they choose, as well as experiencing exhibits like the grocery store.
The museum also hosts events such as the free monthly Family Autism Night, where children on the autism spectrum can play in a welcoming environment. Families who have experienced Pretend City say there’s no shortage of stimulating activities for young kids, particularly those who like playing house, though the museum can get crowded.
Address: 29 Hubble, Irvine, CA 92618
California State University–Fullerton has an impressive arboretum with a number of different plant collections, where you can amble through the gardens and observe the wildlife. Accompanying the flora of the arboretum are pieces of Fullerton’s history, including the gardens and outbuildings of a cottage built in 1894 by one of the area’s pioneer doctors. This restored Heritage House, made from redwoods and firs in Eastlake Victorian style, is now a museum about life and medicine of the late 19th century. Also on the Fullerton Arboretum grounds you can find the O.C. Agricultural and Nikkei Heritage Museum, which highlights the historical impact of agriculture, as well as the contributions of Japanese Americans and pioneer families to the area. Visitor reviews note that the arboretum is a serene place to spend an afternoon, with beautiful botanical offerings making it worth a visit in any of the four seasons.
Address: 1900 Associated Road, Fullerton, CA 92831
The LAB Anti-Mall
Call it the “anti-mall” — well, this attraction calls itself that, at least. The LAB Anti-Mall is a Costa Mesa retail center whose name stands for “Little American Business.” Surrounded by the suburbia of Orange County, the founders of The LAB strived to create an unconventional space that would serve as a hangout, dining and shopping center, and hub for the creative community. More than 25 years later, The LAB boasts a clothing exchange where you can buy or even sell apparel, a refill station with eco-friendly hygiene products, a plant store, a record shop and more. Food and drink options range from doughnuts and coffee to sushi and craft beer. Events here include the monthly Maker’s Mart spotlighting local artisans, in addition to occasional pop-ups that take various forms — maybe you’ll stumble upon an art installation or some live music on your next visit to this so-called anti-mall.
Address: 2930 Bristol St., Costa Mesa, CA 92626
Hike to witness the redwoods of Carbon Canyon
California’s redwood trees are famed for their vast size and majesty. While Northern California enjoys a reputation for its impressive redwoods, Orange County offers a taste of these arboreal wonders too. Head to Carbon Canyon Regional Park in Brea and take the milelong nature trail to Redwood Grove, which past travelers say is a pleasant and easy walk the whole family can partake in. The coastal redwoods spread across these 3 acres reach heights of 100 feet, and while they may not be as large as the ones further north, park visitors appreciate having access to such a sight in SoCal.
Elsewhere in the 124-acre Carbon Canyon Region Park are tennis courts, a lake with fishing piers and plenty of picnic areas. Carbon Canyon is also a prime spot for bird-watching and occasionally holds events such as guided hikes or outdoor movies.
Address: 4442 Carbon Canyon Road, Brea, CA, 92823
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