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Balboa Fun Zone yielding to educational space

ExplorOcean is slowly removing the old theme park and plans to build three-story literacy center

For generations, the scruffy but lovable Balboa Fun Zone was a whirl of lights and bumper cars and waterfront amusement rides.

But then ExplorOcean bought a chunk of the property facing Newport Harbor and exchanged the kitschy Scary Dark Ride and bumper cars for a learning center focused on science education.

But as the new owners continue to remold the area into a place for learning, longtime merchants and wistful residents wonder whether the fun has gone out of the Fun Zone.

The nonprofit ExplorOcean — formerly known as the Newport Harbor Nautical Museum — has been a key player in the transformation of the Balboa Fun Zone from a 1950s-style seaside amusement park to an educational space that emphasizes science, technology, engineering and math.

For years, the area was a bustling area with the Balboa Ferry motoring in, fishing boats docking and scores of people hanging around the Fun Zone. But as the years passed, residents said the area began to show its years.

In 2005, ExplorOcean bought nearly two acres in Balboa Village, including the learning center's current building, the boardwalk and the marina. One by one, the nonprofit began removing the attractions that made up the carnival-style theme park.

In its place, ExplorOcean plans to build a complex that will feature a three-story Ocean Literacy Center with 4-D attractions, interactive exhibits and an ocean education curriculum to supplement marine studies in school districts across California. The organization has launched a vigorous fundraising campaign to make its dream a reality by 2018.

Those backing revitalization of the area say the Fun Zone that people remember wasn't working anymore. Families had stopped showing up; it was time for a change, they say.

However, locals and merchants who have cherished memories of arcade games and carousel rides believe ExplorOcean's expansion is more of a hostile takeover than a gradual changing of the guard.

"They said they were bringing fun back into the Fun Zone," said Henk Wiessner, president of Fun Zone Boat Co. "But it just seems like a ghost town now."

The Scary Dark Ride is now administrative offices, the bumper car area is a small version of the planned Ocean Literacy Center, and the carousel that once spun on the patio area has been replaced by picnic tables to accommodate a nearby barbecue restaurant.

Still, it's unclear when merchants occupying property that ExplorOcean bought may be asked to abandon their businesses to make room for the $105-million learning center, Wiessner said.

Opponents also have raised questions about ExplorOcean's ability to finance and execute its plan, pointing to a loss in revenue in recent years.

But Tom Pollack, ExplorOcean's chief executive, attributes the increase in spending to hiring designers and architectural firms to draft documents for ExplorOcean's learning complex.

"It's not about spending money," he said. "It's about making an investment in the future."

hannah.fry@latimes.com

Copyright © 2016, Los Angeles Times
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