By Deepa Bharath

Locals cherish the Balboa Fun Zone as a little vignette from the past – its rides, arcade games, the carousel and the Ferris wheel.

But after 76 years of providing the community with tacky yet enjoyable entertainment, the Fun Zone is gearing up for a big change. 

ExplorOcean, formerly known as the Newport Harbor Nautical Museum, has begun a vigorous fundraising process for a $105 million center that will feature a three-story "ocean literacy center" with 4-D attractions, ocean-themed rides, interactive exhibits and an ocean education curriculum that will create partnerships with school districts. They are hoping to break ground in the summer of 2016.

When the project is completed in 2018, it will attract 350,000 annual visitors and achieve at least 70 percent of its revenue from ticket sales, boardwalk attractions and waterfront activities, said Tom Pollack, Capital Campaign chairman. That's twice the revenue earned by the Bowers Museum in Santa Ana and the Ocean Institute in Dana Point, respectively.

The ocean literacy center will have a unique design, including three 30-foot "grow walls" that will be covered with vegetation, said Richard D'Amato of Irvine-based LPA, the architectural firm working on the ExplorOcean project.

The entire roof will be covered with solar panels that will help power the entire building, he said.

Pollack has been encouraged by words of support from the likes of Roy Disney and James Cameron, though the project is still in its infancy, he said. It will require the blessing of both the City Council and California Coastal Commission.

In September, the city commissioned the Balboa Village Advisory Committee, which includes Mayor Keith Curry and Councilman Michael Henn. The city will fix the streets and put in much-needed landscaping in the area as well as allocate funding for facade improvements, Henn said.

Henn called himself an enthusiastic supporter of the ExplorOcean project. He anticipates the city cooperating with Explor-Ocean to build a new parking structure in the area.

The project is not without its opponents. Longtime residents such as Louise Fundenberg were sad to see the iconic carousel go in 2011 when its lease ended.

"I loved that merry-go-round as a kid," she said. "Putting a few patio chairs in its place isn't doing it for me."

Howard Hall, a board member of the Newport Beach Historical Society, is doubtful ExplorOcean's concept will fly.

"They need to raise a lot of money to make these improvements and they're making it more about amusement and oceanography than our nautical history," he said.

Regardless of what is done with the Fun Zone, the area's history must be preserved, Hall said.

"Back in the day, Balboa was a destination," he said. "It was a time when there were fewer attractions in Southern California and this was it."

ExplorOcean is no amusement park, but it will have its own version of boardwalk games, including one that's being designed called "Burt the Bullshark," Pollack said. It's a shark ride much like a mechanical bull ride.

"We're not Sea World or Disneyland," Pollack said. "But this is going to be a cultural center that builds on Newport Beach's rich nautical heritage and our relationship with the ocean. We treasure the history of the Fun Zone too. But, we hope to give people new memories as well."

A History of the Fun Zone

  • 1906: Fred Lewis owned a tract on the waterfront in old Balboa and operated a boat yard there, storing and repainting the boats for many of the locals.
  • 1936: Lewis leased the land to Al Anderson. The boat yard was torn down and the Fun Zone was born. The arrival of the 1918 45-foot Ferris wheel and a carousel paved the way for kiddy rides and arcades, with fondly remembered favorites including Punk Rack and Spill the Milk.
  • 1948: Anderson purchased the property from Lewis.
  • 1972: Anderson sold the Fun Zone, which passed from one lending institution to another.
  • 1985: Jordan Wank purchased the Fun Zone and obtained a permit from the city to bulldoze and rebuild it. A year later, the new Fun Zone opened with carnival-style rides such as bumper cars. Bob Speth and Joe Tunstall formed Balboa Fun Rides Inc. and signed a 25-year lease to operate the Ferris wheel and the carousel.
  • 1988: Doo & Sons, a Japanese investment group, bought the property from Wank with plans to build condos. The City Council voted down the project and the property went into receivership.
  • 1994: Speth and Tunstall bought the Fun Zone.
  • 2005: The property was purchased by the Newport Harbor Nautical Museum, which later changed its name to ExplorOcean.
  • 2011: The carousel lease was terminated, bringing a 75-year run to an end.
  • The carousel moved to the Westminster Mall.
  • 2007 to 2010: ExplorOcean opens its Steele Model Pavilion featuring the museum's model ship collection. Planning begins for a new facility.
  • Sept. 24, 2011: Fun Zone celebrates its 75th anniversary.
  • 2011 to 2012: Architect and creative design teams are hired for the project.

Contact the writer: 714-796-7909 or [email protected]


By the Numbers

  • 6.9 million: Number of people who visit Newport Beach every year
  • 1.5 million: Number of people who visit the Fun Zone, boardwalk and ride the Balboa Ferry each year
  • $105 million: Total cost of the ExplorOcean project
  • 18: Number of months it will take to build the new three-story ExplorOcean center
  • 40,000: Number of annual visitors to the ExplorOcean
  • 350,000: Projected number of annual visitors after improvements are made.
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