In a decade that produced electronic games that ranged from the fairly basic Pac-Man to devices that allowed you to strafe and bomb oil fields, there was still one place where someone with a pocketful of quarters could get a game of Skee-Ball.
And while theme parks were turning them away with bigger and more nauseating roller-coaster rides, simulated space wars and a frightening array of stomach-churners, there was--and still is--a place where you can get a relaxing ride on a Ferris wheel for $1.25.
The Balboa Fun Zone, even with its recent face lift, is one of the county's delightful anachronisms. Still small, still fairly garish yet unpretentious, it has over the decades resisted growth (if not change) to remain a traditional pocket of innocent fun where, if your hand is steady and your aim is good, you can still win a fuzzy green worm or a teddy bear.
The Fun Zone, which has been tucked into the tiny bay front between the Balboa Pavilion and the ferry landing on the Balboa Peninsula since the 1930s, has always been a Lilliputian version of the traditional seaside amusement park, a kind of minimalist Coney Island.
Until 1986, the Fun Zone was where you went to blow out a few frustrations on the electric bumper cars, ride the Ferris wheel for a view of the bay lights on a summer night or slide some change into an arcade jukebox to listen to the Hollywood Argyles sing "Alley Oop."
Today the bumper cars are gone, but nearly everything else has remained in one form or another, even the Hollywood Argyles on the jukebox. The western end of the Fun Zone, where the bumper cars once crashed, was remodeled in 1986, and the New England style of the shops and arcades now reflects the architecture of many of the new buildings on the south bay front. It now looks less like a carny and more like what might be called a small amusement mall, with fast-food restaurants and a handful of specialty shops.
At the eastern end of the Fun Zone, however, things have changed little over the years. There are video games in the older Bay and Playland arcades, but Skee-Ball still reigns as a favorite, as do other, older games of skill.
And across the sidewalk you can still buy the chocolate-covered Balboa ice cream bar, rolled in nuts or candy sprinkles. Or, if it's a pleasant day, you can still take a bay cruise on the Fun Zone excursion boats, which have been cruising the harbor for nearly 40 years.
For Jim Speth, the Fun Zone is like a second home. His parents are the principal owners of the Ferris wheel and merry-go-round concessions and own about a fourth interest in the new arcade. When he isn't studying at Cal State Long Beach, Speth works in the arcade, repairing the machines.
"I used to help test the machines and blow up the balloons when I was younger, too," he said. "I think it's like getting paid to have fun."
Speth's arcade is bright and relatively new, and much of the traffic there is--as it has always been--school-age children. But, Speth said, nearly three-quarters of the records on the jukebox come from the '50s and '60s, "and the basketball-shooting game is still one of the all-time favorites. Some of the older people come in here and kind of relive the past with those type of skill games."
And, said Toni Speth, Jim's mother, the arcade is still growing, with more games to be added soon. But don't look for more video death rays.
The new games will, she said, be Skee-Ball.
Patrick Mott is a regular contributor to Orange County Life.
THE BALBOA FUN ZONE AT A GLANCE
Where: On the bay front of Balboa Peninsula between the ferry landing and Balboa Pavilion.
Attractions: Three game arcades, Ferris wheel, merry-go-round, various fast-food restaurants and specialty shops, snack stands, harbor cruises.
Hours: Winter, 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. Monday-Thursday, various concessions open later on weekends. Summer, 10 a.m.-midnight daily. Hours may vary slightly among concessions.
Ride prices: Ferris wheel, $1.25; merry-go-round, 75 cents.