SoCal Adventure: Day One, Orange County

orange county great park balloon
Orange County Great Park Balloon

After much planning and packing of things, we’ve made it to Southern California for our regular journey to visit with my Dad in the Laguna Beach area. But this time I’ve planned ahead and lined up all sorts of fun and interesting things to do rather than just “take each day as it happens” which generally doesn’t go too well with a 16yo, 13yo and 9yo in my entourage. Or am I their entourage? It’s confusing.

This time we’re staying at four different hotels — it just kinda worked out that way — and visiting three different cities: Orange County (Irvine area), San Diego (Mission Beach area) and Anaheim (Disneyland). I have procured tickets to tons of fun things, including a day at Legoland and another day at Disneyland, along with bike rides, boat tours, car museums and even a hot air helium balloon ride over a former Marine Air Base.

By no particular coincidence, our first day of adventure also ended up being my birthday! We celebrated with a lackluster free breakfast at our Comfort Inn hotel (how can people subsist on this kind of food?) and drove over to the Orange County Great Park, a terrific in-progress example of repurposing a former military base.

Turns out that it’s the former El Toro Marine Air Station, 4,682 acres smack dab in the middle of the greater Los Angeles sprawl that now goes roughly from Santa Barbara down to Camp Pendelton, just north of San Diego. The base was originally built in 1943, during the height of World War II, and was officially decommissioned in 1999. After a few years of debate, the City of Irvine begin in 2003 working on the Orange County Great Park plan, a repurposing of the land into a huge park, agricultural areas and, on the edges, an eventual planned community.

It’s a work in progress, and there’s even another portion of the park that’s opening up in a few months, as we could see from our ride on their signature attraction: The Great Park Balloon. It’s one of five tethered helium (not hot air) balloons and rises 400′ above the ground to give you an amazing view of the surrounding area.

Arial View of the Orange County Great Park
Arial View of the Orange County Great Park

In the above picture, notice the “N” with an arrow. That’s pointing north, logically enough. You can also see that the original markings of one of the El Toro runways was preserved and makes a cool design with its line of chevrons. The diagonal orange line from the lower left to upper right? That’s a walkable area timeline that’s going to stretch quite a ways and feature important historical events from thousands of years in the past up to the decommissioning of El Toro itself. Neat idea.

Pictures of Photographers
Pictures of Photographers

We all really enjoyed the Great Park Balloon, it was kind of like going up and down an outside elevator on a really tall building, except you could look over the side and see the cable tethering us to the ground. On a clear day you can apparently see the skyscrapers of downtown Los Angeles, but our morning it was a bit cloudy.

In addition to the balloon and the beautiful state-of-the-art ball fields (there was a lacrosse tournament going on) there are also miles upon miles of bike paths — basically you can go anywhere you want on the almost 5000 acre former base — and a fund-raising bike ride that was also going on while we were enjoying our aerial vantage.

On the ground, the new visitor’s center wasn’t quite done, but we did have a chance to give the carousel a whirl and while it wasn’t very busy that early in the morning, I think it’s the rare youngster who doesn’t enjoy the adventure:

Enjoying the Great Park Carousel
Enjoying the Great Park Carousel

There’s more at the Orange County Great Park, including an interesting garden center and a few art galleries, but it’s really shaping up to be a centerpiece park for the area and a terrific example of reinvention of urban space. I mean, what do you do with almost 5000 acres of runways, barracks and airplane hangers?  I’m just glad it’s not cookie-cutter dwellings for 25,000 residents. As a culture, we can do better than that, as it demonstrates.

Our second stop on my birthday was a perfect example of what I love and hate both about modern culture: Shopping as entertainment, as embodied by the Irvine Spectrum Center, located at the intersection of Highway 5 and Highway 405 (known locally as “the 5” and “the 405”, of course) in Irvine.

This huge outdoor shopping center is just a short drive from my Dad, so we were already familiar with it and its big Edwards multiplex theater and landmark Ferris Wheel. Yes, it’s a shopping center, but it includes not only a Ferris Wheel but a carousel, a kiddie train ride around the mall, pop-jet fountain and play area. It’s 1.2 million square feet, just about big enough for its own runways and air station!

Truth be told, I grew up in Southern California, so I’m quite comfortable with shopping malls and this whole “shopping as social activity” idea, and the Spectrum really is a beautiful shopping center and a good place to burn off a few hours while shopping.

We started with a quick ride on the carousel, then jumped onto the Ferris Wheel.

The Ferris Wheel at the Irvine Spectrum Center
The Ferris Wheel at the Irvine Spectrum Center

I really like Ferris Wheels and have fond memories of the one on Navy Pier in Chicago, for example. There’s a great story behind their invention by George Ferris, the gradual increase in their size through World’s Fairs, etc, but I won’t go too far off topic here, no worries.

After we enjoyed the 108-foot Ferris Wheel ride and its vantage (we could see the orange Great Park Balloon from the top) we decided it was time for lunch. Which meant walking through the gauntlet of stores to get to the food. Game Stop. Apple Store. Shoes. Candy. It was like hacking away at jungle vines with a machete. Well, minus the creepy snakes and actual weapon, of course.

Could we agree on a lunch spot? Of course not. So we came up with a crazy compromise: Each of us got something to go from whatever we preferred, then met in the middle to eat. My eldest got a salad from Tender Greens (she was “meh” about it), my son got a quesadilla and side of pork from Chipotle (he loved it), my little one got her go-to turkey and cheese sandwich from Subway (she ate it) and I got a terrific veggie buffalo chicken wrap from Veggie Grill. Mission accomplished.

We then stopped into Target for some pool toys — we’ll need them this week as we visit all these different hotels and enjoy the swimming and sunshine — and ended up spending the afternoon at the tiny pool at our hotel, relaxing and giving me a chance to read more of my current book, Gun With Occasional Music, then picked up my Dad for a tasty birthday dinner at BJ’s, followed by presents my kids smuggled here from Colorado.

A great day, surprisingly early bedtime, and we’re ready for day two of our adventure, heading down to San Diego for the second city of our whistlestop tour of Southern California.

Disclaimer: Various travel bureaus and tourist offices helped us acquire tickets to the Great Balloon Ride, Carousel and Irvine Spectrum Ferris Wheel. We paid for our own lunches, however. 🙂

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