For 52 years, the Balboa Fun Zone has been considered a sort of local hero. It has been cemented in the collective Orange County mind as a kind of carefree cultural icon.
In the home county of two of the largest theme amusement parks on the planet, it's easy to miss the significance of the Balboa Fun Zone. How can you compete with multimillion-dollar corporations that offer a sophisticated repertoire of high-G thrill rides when your landmark attraction is a small Ferris wheel? Yet, throughout its 52-year history, the Fun Zone has been considered a sort of local hero. It has been cemented in the collective Orange County mind as a kind of carefree cultural icon, a monument to summer days, ocean breezes, light hearts and pockets full of nickels.
For people who grew up elsewhere, near other seaside amusement parks with such names as Palisades Park or Nu-Pike, the Fun Zone may sound Orwellian at worst and cartoon-like at best, less a name than a declaration (Leaving Misery Zone, Entering Fun Zone). But for longtime county residents or for the lucky vacationers who have spent summers in rented houses on Balboa Island, the Fun Zone has offered a kind of primitive, slightly rumpled magic.
"I loved it," says Tony Rausa, a Huntington Beach beauty parlor operator who in the early 1950s owned and operated the Fun Zone Ferris wheel and shooting gallery concessions. "If I were to rate the fun times of my life, I would certainly rate being at the Fun Zone the highest. Everybody who came down there seemed to be happy and having a good time. The real business was during the summer, and everyone was on vacation. It was great."
The 1.5-acre Fun Zone was small compared with other carnival midways, but for decades, it served as a kind of focal point of the Balboa neighborhood. And entrepreneur Al Anderson, an English immigrant who built the first attractions at the Fun Zone in 1936, knew it.
The neighborhood was a natural. Large-scale development wouldn't arrive in Newport Beach for decades, and there was money to be had from the summertime tourist trade. Newport Beach was known as a resort, and every summer day the Pacific Electric Red Car came to Balboa carrying beach-goers eager for warm sun, cool ocean waves and any form of beachside fun they could scare up.
So, after buying from local rancher Fred Lewis the land northwest of the Balboa Pavilion, Anderson modified some of the existing structures (the property formerly had been a boatyard), erected game arcades and a handful of carnival rides and continued each year to add small rides and other features. Anderson owned the land and the buildings but struck a deal with concessionaires, who paid 25% of their gross for the use of the structures.
The Fun Zone became the peninsula's summertime hangout. You could rent boats at the Pavilion down the street, dance at the nearby Rendezvous Ballroom and fish off almost any dock with water underneath it, but you came to the Fun Zone for just about everything else.
"The Fun Zone was the place to go in those days, and it was just jammed in the summertime," says Jack Wilcox, a title company employee who lives in Costa Mesa and manned one of the arcades for two summers in the early '50s. "At night, and especially on weekends, it was wall-to-wall people. The crowd was basically happy, very carnivalesque. And it wasn't very expensive. You could spend the whole evening there and really have a riotous time. I don't remember what we were paid when I was working there, but it was enough for a high school kid, enough for spending money."
The Fun Zone, until a recent face lift, was basic almost to the point of austerity. The most thrilling ride was likely the bumper cars; the most visible landmark, the Ferris wheel. The midway games were familiar: dart toss, shooting gallery and the like. The arcades, in those pre-video days, relied on thinly veiled games of chance and the ubiquitous Skee Ball, which Wilcox operated when he broke in as an arcade hand.
"I was the cashier. I had this apron with two big pockets full of nickels, and you got five balls for a nickel. I was right there with the crowd, mingling with people, and there wasn't a tremendous amount of responsibility."
The Fun Zone initially was loud because of the blaring organ in the carrousel, Wilcox says. After neighbors complained, the organ was removed and popular music--at a lower decibel reading--was played from the ticket booths.
There also were attractions that appealed to adults, Wilcox says.
"The summer after I worked the Skee Ball concession, I worked at night and had the cigarette concession. It was kind of like gambling. There was an elliptical wheel that would spin, and when it stopped on a number, the player would get that many packs of cigarettes. And we had cases and cases of them."