Sea exploration center proposed for Newport Harbor


A prime piece of waterfront next to the historic Balboa Pavilion would be transformed into a sprawling $40-million ocean exploration center under a plan proposed by the Newport Harbor Nautical Museum.

The ocean-themed complex would all but erase the kitschy 1930s-era Fun Zone from the Balboa landscape, replacing it with a three-story glass and metal structure that would include submarine simulators and a 4-D theater, the fourth dimension being the salt mist that would be pumped into the room for the full effect.

“It’s something that takes a little time to grasp,” said Tom Pollack, chairman of the ExplorOcean board of trustees.


The plan for ExplorOcean also marks an ambitious change for the nautical museum, which started life 25 years ago in a small, wooden building filled with maritime artifacts and histories of local sailors. And not everyone is happy with turning the museum into an interactive amusement and education center.

“It has nothing to do with the history of Newport Beach,” said Louise Fundenberg, who donated a cotton sail from her Snowbird — a class of boat popular in the harbor for many years — to the museum in the 1980s. Now she plans to cancel her museum membership.

Others, though, see it as a needed next step for the museum and progress for an area of old Balboa that some believe has become scruffy with age.

“You have to move with the time, and it includes moving beyond some of the past history,” said Robert Bents, whose late sister was an avid sailor and ardent supporter of the museum.

The ExplorOcean would dwarf most of its neighbors, including the Balboa Pavilion, and would replace the Fun Zone. Already, the amusement park’s carousel has been closed and auctioned off.

Architects for the ocean center said that it’s been designed to evoke the waterfront and that the Fun Zone Ferris wheel would be moved to a themed pier that would be built on the harbor side of the new facility. The dock could also accommodate visiting boaters and serve as a temporary resting spot for a historic tall ships.


The 34,000-square-foot ExplorOcean would include open-air patios and a seafood restaurant overlooking Newport Harbor.

The so-called 4-D theater, designed by a Pasadena-base theme park designer, would re-create various eras of exploration and include groups such as the Vikings or ancient Polynesians. Blasts of salt air would heightened the experience, designers say.

The plans present a considerable challenge, however. Money.

ExplorOcean is working from an $8-million endowment and still needs to raise tens of millions to complete the center, said Rita Stenlund, president of the planned facility.

But Pollack pointed to the Monterey Bay and Vancouver aquariums as models of what can be done with multiple sources of money. He said, for example, that it would make sense to rent space at ExplorOcean for private events and that restaurants and a gift shops would help bring in money.

Civic leaders said they hope ExplorOcean will spark reinvestment by property owners in Balboa Village, where rusty signs hang over dingy sidewalks and empty storefronts.

“We hope this and the Balboa Theater will be the catalysts for the revitalization of the area,” said Newport Beach Mayor Mike Henn.

The Balboa Performing Arts Theater, another nonprofit organization, is raising money to renovate a historic building nearby. For some peninsula residents, the two attractions would provide a cultural cachet that they say is lacking in the area.

Some of the peninsula’s legacy should stay, the boosters say — including the pavilion — but now it must share the billing for the area’s most iconic building.

“In our minds, we think it’s complementary,” Pollack said.