From old to new

A grandfather shoved quarters into the boy's hand, demanding he try a game of skee-ball.

"I don't want to play," the boy, about 10, whined to his father, who held his hand and blocked an escape to the video games. "I don't know what it is."

Three generations stood in front of the archaic arcade game, and the oldest was clearly the most excited.

After each roll, the boy jumped nervously, waiting to see which hole the ball reached. But as soon as the wooden balls ran out, he squirmed away for flashier machines. His grandpa popped in another quarter for himself. One more, for old-time's sake.

So went the story of the Fun Zone's 75th anniversary Saturday.

It was a celebration of the mini-amusement area, but it was also a point of departure. The Fun Zone's largest landowner evicted the merry-go-round earlier this month, and has revealed plans to demolish its surrounding buildings. Instead, plans call for a $35-million high-tech entertainment complex with a maritime educational theme.

The mechanical ponies and cotton candy are making way for simulated submarine rides.

"I'm trying not to think of it as a wake," said Patrick Moore, who for 22 years has operated the carousel and nearby Ferris wheel.

He and his wife, co-owners of the attractions, will begin deconstructing the carousel Tuesday, though they have 25 years left on their Ferris wheel lease. Their landlord, the Newport Harbor Nautical Museum, has incorporated the iconic wheel into its designs.



Museum officials showed a few elements of designs for their ExplorOcean center on Thursday to a group of local residents and business owners.

They flashed artful drawings of kids climbing on the deck of a clipper ship replica, toying with nets and lines. Some Disney and Universal Studios designers have joined to help the non-profit group. One marquee exhibit would be an "ocean observatory" with live video feeds coming from ships at sea.

"Everybody thinks the Fun Zone is going away," said Jim Salomon, a member of the museum's board of trustees. "It's not. It's getting better."

The Nautical Museum purchased the property in 2005 for a reported $14 million. At the time, it was backed by Roy Disney, an avid sailor who has since died. Now they have an $8 million endowment, much of which has come from a local family, said Executive Director Rita Stenlund.

Soon after the purchase, the museum closed a bumper car attraction and a haunted house ride, and converted the carousel to a month-to-month lease. A carousel has been operating in roughly the same place since the Fun Zone opened in 1936.

Original concepts for the maritime center pictured a traditional museum with historic wooden tall ships docked in front. But during the past six years, plans have changed dramatically. Now they call for an interactive kid zone where "you're going to be entertained and you're going to learn, and you won't even know you're learning," Salomon said.

As the museum group prepares its marketing materials for fundraising, the latest plans have been mostly under wraps. Museum officials say they will reveal their concept publicly in October and to potential donors before then.



Since the plans are still mostly private, many people who grew up playing at the Fun Zone can't picture what the museum has in mind. They can't imagine a museum drawing so many families for fun, anyway.

"They should change the sign to the 'no fun zone,' " said John Taylor, 76, who had just dismounted a fiberglass horse Saturday.

A wide smile on his face, Taylor couldn't recall his age at first.

He had been visiting the Fun Zone since he was a boy — when there was a sandy beach in front of the arcades. His grandchildren weren't very excited about the Nautical Museum's exhibits, he said, and they probably wouldn't return to see them again.

Others agree, saying that the museum will be challenged bringing repeat customers. They view the carousel's departure as a watershed moment. Moore said he found a buyer within 20 miles, at a location visible from the 405 Freeway.

"My ancestors are rolling around in their graves," said Penny Norton, who declined to give her age but said she's a fourth-generation Balboa Peninsula resident.



At the terminus for the Pacific Electric Railway's Red Car line, the area near the Fun Zone was the hub of Newport Beach for the first half of the 20th Century.

Around 1936, a gambling man named Al Anderson tore down an old shipyard and built an arcade zone full of games, with names such as Spill the Milk. He also erected the merry-go-round and the Ferris Wheel

Southern California teens and college students flocked to the Fun Zone and nearby Rendezvous Ballroom. The area teemed, especially during the summer and Easter vacation, which became known as Bal Week.

"The Fun Zone is really the core of Newport memories for so many people," said Gordy Grundy, president of the Newport Beach Historical Society. "It was the epicenter of your young life."

But by the late 1960s, the rowdy crowds began to wear thin on residents and police started to crack down on partying. The ballroom burned in 1966, and was not rebuilt. Around the same time, the Fun Zone began to slip into decline.

An owner in the early 1970s had approvals to build 47 expensive condominiums, but the newly-formed California Coastal Commission blocked the proposal. The property traded hands multiple times, and the property continued to deteriorate.

One newspaper account from the 1980s called it "honky tonk."

Then, in the mid-1980s, a Los Angeles lawyer purchased the site and invested millions, adding a 56-space partially subterranean parking garage and a 30-slip boat marina, in place of the open beach.

For a time in the 1980s, it was the only seaside amusement park in the Los Angeles area. Pacific Ocean Park in Santa Monica was razed in 1975 and the Pike Amusement Park in Long Beach was finished in 1978. Later, Pacific Park at the Santa Monica Pier reopened.

Then in 1994, the two men who owned and operated the rides bought the Fun Zone property. Joe Tunstall and Bob Speth started working there in the 1950s, picking up paper and blowing up balloons. The Nautical Museum purchased the property from them in 2005.

The museum's property stretches between the Balboa Island Ferry landing and the historic Pizza Peet's building, which houses the Balboa Saloon. So even with the property demolished, the area could still have some rowdy bars, the historic Bay Arcade and an ice cream stand with Balboa Bars and frozen bananas.

"It would be nice if they did keep one arcade with skee-ball and pinball machines," Grundy said. "You'd tell your kids that, 'this is what we did before there were video games.' "

Twitter: @mreicher

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