Senior women head to Balboa carousel for one last go-around

NEWPORT BEACH — Nearly 400 cumulative years of memories stood before the iconic Balboa Fun Zone carousel Wednesday morning as seven riders prepared to saddle up one last time.

The group of senior women connected by mutual friends, family and a shared love of the brightly painted ponies came to reminisce and have one more adventure on the soon-to-close attraction.

"It was always a big deal to come down to the Fun Zone," said Pat Newton, 82, of Pomona. "It was the in place to be, especially if you were a teenager."

Newton, who has vacationed on Balboa Island and the peninsula with three generations of her family since the 1940s, recalled when the carousel rides cost a nickel.

"I remember swimming over from the island with a handful of nickels tied into a handkerchief," she said. "You spent all your nickels on the carousel, then you had one left for the ferry ride back."

The carousel's owner, Patrick Moore, announced in July that it would cease operations by Sept. 30.

The Newport Harbor Nautical Museum in 2006 bought the land that the carousel occupies and plans to use the patio area to host community events and educational programs as it gradually phases in ExplorOcean, an interactive learning center.

"I don't like the thought of this being gone," said Janna Wright, 71, of Newport Beach, who first rode the merry-go-round as an infant.

Like Wright, each member of the group had her own memories going back 31 to 70 years, or a collective 376 years of history.

"I support the museum 100%, but for people who've grown up here, it's really a tragedy," Wright said. "It's a part of every family's history — you couldn't wait to bring your child to the merry-go-round for that first time."

As the posse rode around the patio, the women — the carousel's sole passengers — horsed around, waved at couples strolling by and laughed together.

"I haven't ridden this merry-go-round in years," Wright said while perched on top of a white-and-red steed during her third revolution. "I'm always holding a child — this is fun!"

The carousel had always been a place for youths and families, but over the years other organizations also have used its allure to inspire.

About five years ago, the Balboa branch of the Newport Beach Library handed out tokens for free rides to children participating in a summer reading program, said Lavonne Voit, 68, of Newport Beach.

"It made sense — read more books, receive more tokens," Voit said.

When the carousel slowly came to a stop amid a chorus of disappointed groans, a few of the women called out, "Again, again!"

But, all the riders had to dismount eventually — there would be no riding off into the sunset.

The carousel was put up for sale on EBay in August with an opening bid of $149,999. As of Wednesday, the amusement had no bids.

The women exchanged more laughter and hugs as they filed though the carousel's faded white security gate. The mood was bittersweet while they paused to take pictures.

"I think this is the best story — all these people loving this carousel so much that we've gathered here for it today," Voit said.

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