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Perhaps the Best Gift of All

The shopping list can wait: It's the season for family fun.


Call me a Scrooge, but I've always preferred November to December. Not only is the weather gorgeous, but you're a safe enough distance from the gotta-gotta-gottas of the holiday season to actually enjoy it.

As an added enticement, the month also offers Thanksgiving, a holiday custom-made for savoring the company of family and friends.

My advice? Deep-six the holiday to-do list and take advantage of the myriad shows, exhibits and activities being presented for families this month. It's a horn of plenty out there, and the time you spend together just may be your family's most memorable gift this season.

Friday through Sunday:

Zany Brainy children's stores is opening three new Orange County outlets (there's already one in Corona del Mar) with a weekend full of free fun, including visits with book characters Madeline and Curious George, yo-yo workshops, games, magic and music.

Zany Brainy opens Friday at 27741 Crown Valley Parkway, Mission Viejo, (949) 348-0420; at 763 S. Main St., Orange, (714) 954-0075, and at 810 Imperial Highway, Brea, (714) 672-9032. Call individual stores for schedules and hours.


Gruel, glorious gruel. The Charles Dickens classic "Oliver Twist" gets a nonmusical staging by the Laguna Niguel Playhouse Youth Theatre. Adapted by Brian Way, the 90-minute show is recommended for ages 4 up.

Laguna Niguel Playhouse in the Laguna Design Center, 23811 Aliso Creek Road, Suite 150, Laguna Niguel. $7. (949) 425-1771. At 7 p.m. Friday and Nov. 13 and 1, 3 and 5 p.m. Saturday and Nov. 14.


Long division never gave me happy feet as a kid, but maybe that's because I never met "Dr. Schaffer and Mr. Stern: Two Guys Dancing About Math," which plays at 11 a.m. Saturday at the Orange County Performing Arts Center.

The dancing duo--the former holds a doctorate in math, the latter a master's in fine arts from the California Institute of the Arts--use movement and dance to illustrate the link between mathematics and the lively arts.

The second in the Saturdays at the Center series for kids, this performance is followed by a free backstage tour.

Orange County Performing Arts Center's Founders Hall, 600 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa. $6. (714) 556-2787.


Beginning Saturday, U.S. veterans and active military personnel and their families get in free to Knott's Berry Farm during the theme park's Veterans' Week Tribute. Special ceremonies and the display of "The Moving Wall" Vietnam War memorial are also featured.

Call the park for admission restrictions and guidelines for the special tribute program, which runs through Nov. 15. Knott's Berry Farm, 8039 Beach Blvd., Buena Park. (714) 220-5200.


Enjoy a tromp en famille through the autumn landscape on the Rancho Mission Viejo Land Conservancy's Guided Nature Walks at 2 p.m. Sunday.

Fee is $2 to $3 for the program, which also will be offered at 9 a.m. Nov. 14 and 28.

Also sponsored by the conservancy is Astronomy Night, an exploration of the night sky for stargazers ages 8 and older at 6:30 p.m. Nov. 14. Members of Orange County Astronomers will be on hand. Fee is $6-$8.

Rancho Mission Viejo Land Conservancy, on Ortega Highway in San Juan Capistrano (call for directions). Reservations are required for both programs. (949) 489-9778.


What do you call a superhero without a cape or mystical powers? In Patricia Polacco's books, they're called teachers.

Teachers helped the author/illustrator triumph over her own dyslexia as a child; now, she salutes instructors who make a difference in her children's books, "Thank You, Mr. Falker" and her latest, "Mrs. Mack."

Polacco greets readers at her only Orange County book signing, from 4 to 6 p.m. Wednesday at Irvine's Whale of a Tale children's bookstore, 4187 Campus Drive, Suite A, Irvine. Free. (949) 854-8288.


Grand opera comes in child-sized servings when Cal State Fullerton students perform fully staged and costumed selections from "La Boheme," "Cosi Fan Tutte" and others. A nifty way to introduce the kids to opera on the cheap.

Performances Nov. 12 through 15 in the university's Recital Hall, 800 N. State College Blvd. $5-$8. (714) 278-3371. Call for show times.


Kids, don't try this at home.

Gravity-defying feats of balance, agility and skill, some dating to the Han Dynasty, will be on the bill Nov. 12 through 15 when the National Acrobats of China take the stage.

Cerritos Center for the Performing Arts, 12700 Center Court Drive. $22-$37. (800) 300-4345. Call for show times.


Dancers from UC Irvine and Ballet Pacifica Conservatory perform Sergei Prokofiev's "Cinderella," a full-length fairy tale ballet with choreography by David Allan, on Nov. 13, 14 and 20 at the Irvine Barclay Theatre.

A special gala performance Nov. 21 will feature San Francisco Ballet stars Evelyn Cisneros and Stephen Legate in the lead roles.

Tickets are $6-$16 for performances Nov. 13, 14 and 20; $35-$50 for the Nov. 21 gala at the theater, 4242 Campus Drive, Irvine. For performance times, call (949) 854-4646.


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