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Fun Center in La Mesa Slides to an End After 29 Years of Entertaining

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Bob Zacharias is blind. For years, he and his sons, Daniel and Bobby, have been coming to the Family Fun Center of La Mesa especially for the water slide. Sunday, the Zachariases slid for the final time.

“I’ve enjoyed doing this with the boys,” said Zacharias, 36. “It’s one of the things I can do and feel safe. With the park closing, I guess this means we’re the last of the Mohicans. For us, it’s a definite loss.”

Sunday marked the 10,697th consecutive day of operation for the fun center, whose land was overtaken by the California Department of Transportation at 12:01 this morning. Caltrans plans to bulldoze the property at 8900 Fletcher Parkway to make way for a freeway off-ramp.

Sunday’s mood was bittersweet. The balloons billowing throughout the park looked like party favors sent mistakenly to a wake.

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“We’ve been among the proud users of this park, and this slide,” Zacharias said. “It’s cool, refreshing, fast, wonderfully wet--and now it’s gone. There won’t be another one like it.”

The Family Fun Center is actually a chain of amusement parks, with locations in Kearny Mesa, Escondido, Fountain Valley, Upland and Anaheim. A new park is under construction in Vista.

Like the one in La Mesa, most feature miniature golf, bumper boats, Go-Karts, batting cages, arcades and snack bars. But as longtime general manager Dick Hendry pointed out, La Mesa’s was the first.

It opened its doors June 3, 1961, and as Hendry noted, closed them for the “first and final” time at 4 p.m. Sunday.

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“It’s tough,” he said sadly. “We’ve been here almost three decades. To see all the families and kids that come here, and now, they have no place to go. Oh, sure, they can go to Kearny Mesa or Escondido, but none of those parks have a slide like this one--it’s one of a kind--and East County doesn’t have a park like this one.”

Sentimentality aside, that’s not entirely true. Several attendees to Sunday’s finale said that Marshal Scotty’s, an amusement park near the Alpine junction of Interstate 8, is similar in concept to the fun centers.

But Sarah Merschtina, whose 9-year-old Jessica adores such places, said that Marshal Scotty’s is a bit of a drive for a family from El Cajon.

“We’ve been coming here since it opened,” Merschtina said. “And I just can’t believe Caltrans is doing this. It’s a crying shame--literally. Thousands signed petitions and won stays of executions and all sorts of other delays, but the people at Caltrans finally got their way. I hope they’re happy.”

Officials for Caltrans argue that the project is vital to one of the fastest-growing regions in the country. As one lamenting fun-center visitor said Sunday, the park’s demise was the case of two California pursuits--recreation and the workday commute--colliding head-on.

In this case, business scored a decisive victory over pleasure.

Caltrans says the 6 1/2-acre park is being closed to build an off-ramp connecting California 125 with Fletcher Parkway and Amaya Drive. Later, 125 will serve as the north-south connector between Interstate 8 and the extension of California 52.

The purpose, Caltrans says, is to ease the massive commuter buildup on I-8, which is expected to get worse.

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John Huish, owner of the fun-center chain, says he may rebuild on the same site after Caltrans is finished in three to four years. But the park wouldn’t be as large--4 1/2 acres at most--and as a result, he may construct a new center in El Cajon.

That could take a while, too.

“I hope they’re able to build a nice new place,” said George Droddy, who drove over from Santee with son Daniel, 6, to play miniature golf. “Kids in La Mesa, Santee, El Cajon, Lakeside--they need this kind of place. The East County is lacking in stuff like this, and it’s bad for kids when they don’t have it.

“On the other hand, I have to say the roadwork is needed. The area is just growing too much. I hate to see it get like L.A., but it doesn’t look like we can stop it.”

Christy Brown would at least like to stop the demolition of the center and the fun that goes with it. She’s been coming to the park “since junior high.” Now, she brings her 6-year-old son Sean.

“This is where I bring my friends,” said Beth Tidmore, 5, “and now, I can’t any more. I like golfing, but I really like the slide.”

“I’m amazed they’re doing it,” said Sally Tidmore, Beth’s mother. “It’s an institution, and now it’s gone, just like that.”


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