Officials say the $80 million attraction in the Balboa Fun Zone is expected to open in early 2018.

By Alicia Lopez

NEWPORT BEACH If people just knew what was coming they would be more supportive, according to ExplorOcean President Rita Stenlund.

Instead, many think about the changes at the Balboa Fun Zone as the beginning of the end. The carousel is gone, along with the bumper cars and, most recently, the RocknBounce ride.

But with hopes of bringing people, jobs and new life to the area, ExplorOcean has begun replacing some of those attractions and promises to add an element of education to the entertainment. A bungee ride called Ocean Motion has replaced RocknBounce, the iconic Ferris wheel is staying and a preview center has popped up in the middle of the Newport Harbor Nautical Museum.

The ExplorOcean exhibit is part of the nautical museum, which has been around for 25 years. ExplorOcean is designed to attract children and the curious to the world under the sea. Along with several hands-on activities for children, the venue will have educational demonstrations and lectures.

ExplorOcean is scheduled to have a soft opening in fall 2017 and a grand opening in early 2018, officials say.

During a July study session in Newport Beach, ExplorOcean representatives said the time table is still on track but the cost of the center has grown to $80 million. Tom Pollack, chairman of the Capital Campaign, said they have about $8 million and have begun a concerted push to raise the rest.

Part of the fundraising effort will include the information presented at the study session about the financial, educational and lifestyle benefits to Newport Beach.

The report, compiled by AECOM, found that the center would bring about 261,000 visitors each year – mostly from tourists who are already in the area. Pollack said the added numbers would call for more parking spaces – about 300 more than the 1,636 already in the area.

The report said the center should mean about 117 more jobs for Newport Beach and would bring an annual fiscal benefit of about $148,500 to the city.

ExplorOcean plans include an open-air deck on the third floor that the public can rent out for receptions or other gatherings. Stenlund said admission, the planned restaurant and rental space will allow them to rely on sources of income outside of contributions.

But no matter how much the museum has to offer, dealing with concerns and complaints is still part of the process.

Crystal Smith, who works at a stand in the Fun Zone, said she doesn’t care what new activities are coming. For her, the damage is already done.

“I think it’s horrible,” she said. “They’re taking down the historical parts of the Fun Zone. They took out the carousel and the bungee jump …– that guy’s been here a long time.”

Pollack said a revitalized Balboa Fun Zone is fitting for a city like Newport Beach that is being spruced up in other parts of the city like Fashion Island and the new civic center.

Plans for the inside of the venue include an attraction in which visitors would be in ship-like seating surrounded by 360 degrees of ocean on a giant screen. There will also be a ship for children 5 years old and younger to climb on as well as touch tanks and simulated mini subs to explore the ocean.

The historical aspect of the museum – next door from ExplorOcean – is staying and includes the photographs and artifacts important to the founding members of the nautical museum when it started on the Rueben E. Lee boat in the bay.

Despite these apparent positives, people like Smith will take more convincing.

She said ExplorOcean officials rubbed people the wrong way when they shut down the boardwalk for a fundraiser midday on a Saturday.

“It was a great sunny day and they put up a barricade,” Smith said. “It was dead.”

But not everyone is worried. Jordan Stilley, who works at a boat rental shop, said he misses the bumper cars but thinks ExplorOcean will be a good thing.

“It’s kind of cool,” he said. “I respect what they’re doing.”

“I like change – which you’ve got to do to keep it going,” he said.

Photo caption: The Newport Harbor Nautical Museum has a showroom that features renderings, 3D models, and video flyovers of its plans for ExplorOcean.


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