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A Play Land That Time Forgot

Times Staff Writer

Once upon a time, some Garden Grove city employees conceived a magical play land where kids could be kids and dream.

They called it Atlantis Play Center, a place where concrete whales and seahorses seemed to smile at the children, who loved Danny Sea Dragon, a mammoth slide.

Adults saw it as a version of a mythical lost kingdom. It still lives up to that billing.

But change has come. The park’s hours are much more limited, and often it is nearly empty. Some of the original structures have been removed because of state safety codes. Yet Atlantis remains part of the soul of Garden Grove, perhaps because it speaks of simplicity lost.

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Four decades on, Danny has offered his message to kids on a sign, as do other structures in the park. The text seems stolen from an old nursery rhyme: “It’s really not from envy that he’s a shade of green, he’s just about the happiest dragon that you have seen, if boys and girls can find his tail, and probably you will, you’ll find that Danny offers a slide that’s quite a thrill.”

Danny and his cement brethren seem trapped in a time warp when compared with modern-day amusement parks or video arcades. But at Atlantis, there are no lines, no merchandise. Sodas cost 75 cents.

“I bring my kids here because I remember when I came here and we thought this place was the greatest thing ever,” said Jerome Davis, a 45-year-old lifelong city resident and father of 5-year-old twins. “I know my kids enjoy it. Of course, they [also] want Disneyland and Knott’s. I’m not sure Atlantis is as special to them as it is to me.”

John Montanchez, the city’s assistant supervisor of the Community Services Department, says the park attracts about 300 children a day in summer and maybe as few as 20 a day in other months. Budget constraints have delayed improvements. New safety codes have forced the city to removethe seahorses and oars of a pirate ship.

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Park maintenance is handled by the nonprofit Orange County Conservation Corp. The park is open from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. during the school year and closes periodically for maintenance. It is staffed by city employees.

The park, once part of a federal airstrip used in World War II, was given to the city in 1956. The play center, on the northwest corner of a 40-acre parcel off Westminster Avenue near Brookhurst Street, was the brainstorm of city employees. They wanted to make unique play equipment, an idea echoed many years later in the play structures at McDonald’s and the mall.

Garden Grove’s first parks director, V.E. “Gene” Rotsch, proposed that city workers build customized play equipment around the Atlantis theme. Service clubs such as Kiwanis and Rotary gave donations to build the park.

Workers used their imaginations to go beyond ordinary swings and teeter-totters. Pipe donated by oil companies became handrails and crafted molds for seahorses in city workshops. The Viking ship was a refurbished rowboat discarded by one of the employees’ neighbors. Steel rods became sea serpents and helped build a winding 40-foot dragon slide.

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The park opened July 4, 1963, and drew thousands of visitors intrigued by what was then a futuristic park. But some residents were angered by the 10-cent admission. Mothers boycotted, but to no avail. Today, no one complains about the $1 admission.

Although it has been in Orange County for four decades, many natives are unaware it exists. Regulars seek it out because it is a gated park where children can run free and admission is low, making it ideal for preschool and camp trips.

“I wouldn’t have known about it had it not been for my job -- and I’ve lived in Orange County all my life,” said Grace Reyes, director of Small Wonders, a Santa Ana day-care center. On a recent weekday, she brought 36 toddlers to the park, including her 4-year-old son, Andre. “In many ways, it is better than Disneyland. It’s cheaper, there’s no lines and it’s really the way kids should play.”

Those were the ideals Jack Wallin envisioned when, as superintendent of city parks, he led the effort to build Atlantis.

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“When we first built it, it was the only thing around. Everyone wanted to come in, have a birthday party,” he said.

These days, Wallin, now 73, is saddened that some equipment has been pulled out of the park and that prefabricated play structures have been installed.

“Anyone and their brother can have those,” he said. “But where else can you find something like Atlantis?”


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