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A Newport Landmark Is Changing

The site of the Balboa Fun Zone, a longtime attraction, will soon be home to the harbor's nautical museum. The Ferris wheel stays.

July 10, 2006|Hemmy So | Times Staff Writer

Not a summer has passed since 1963 that Bud and Laura Lovick haven't visited the Balboa Fun Zone. Even before then, they knew the place.

"I came here as a child 60 years ago," said Laura Lovick, 65. The Glendale resident discovered while on a family trip the collection of amusement rides, carnival games, boat tours and eateries on the Balboa Peninsula in Newport Beach. A decade later in the 1950s, she returned with then-boyfriend, now husband, Bud.

"The old bumper cars were unbelievable," said Bud Lovick, 67. "They didn't have safety features like they do now, so they really bumped."

But the bumper cars will disappear in September, along with two other rides to make room for a new version of the Newport Harbor Nautical Museum.

Other Fun Zone mainstays -- the carousel, arcades and eateries -- will remain until their leases run out in the next year to five years.

Only the Ferris wheel will stay.

The nautical museum will be built "on a landmark piece of real estate," said David Muller, the museum's executive director. "There are families that have memories that go back forever at the Fun Zone. The key thing about this is we respect that.... The Ferris wheel stays."

The nonprofit museum bought the property in December, ending a five-year quest to find a larger home.

"We're bursting at the seams," said Muller.

He said the museum's cramped home aboard the Pride of Newport riverboat -- formerly the Reuben E. Lee restaurant -- has hindered its ability to show its full collection, host larger educational programs or display traveling exhibits.

Financial considerations also drove the museum to seek a new facility. Muller said that 30% of its budget is spent maintaining a boat that is 21 years past its predicted two-decade lifespan.

The Fun Zone property wasn't for sale when the museum's board of trustees approached its owner, Joe Tunstall.

But thoughts of retirement and revitalizing the Balboa waterfront prompted Tunstall, 68, to strike a deal.

"Being involved for many years with Balboa, I weighed and measured the changes in mind, and I thought the changes were a benefit to Balboa," Tunstall said. "Time will tell if the museum fulfills their plans."

Like many of the Fun Zone's visitors, Tunstall's relationship with the Fun Zone began decades ago. As a teenager in 1951, he took a job there. He returned almost 30 years later as owner of Balboa Fun Zone Rides Inc., a company that installed and operated the rides. He bought the property in 1994.

While sentimental about the place, Tunstall doesn't regret his decision to sell.

"There's nothing negative about change," he said. "There's only three nostalgic things at the Fun Zone -- the harbor boats, Ferris wheel and merry-go-round. Between 1936 and now, those are the only things that have been there and are still there. The rest is continued change."

On July 31, the museum is scheduled to open the first phase of its new building. The 2,800-square-foot Preview Exhibition Center, located in the Fun Zone's old miniature golf room, will include an octagonal theater with dual screens showing videos of extreme sailing, sport fishing and other aquatic activities.

Renderings of the museum's future facility will also be on display.

Construction for the second phase will begin in October. Museum officials said they hope by year's end to show exhibits and install interactive nautical games in the additional 4,000 square feet.

"Maritime paintings are important, but we also need to engage our new generation," Muller said.

After the remainder of the Fun Zone leases expire, the museum plans to begin its final round of construction that will give it a total of 17,500 square feet. At its heart will be a large courtyard and education center, designed to host students and visitors for tours, educational programs and community events.

Many business owners near the Balboa Fun Zone welcomed the changes ahead despite nostalgia about the family attraction.

They hope the museum will attract more foot traffic to the area.

"I've seen a decrease and decline in participation in the Fun Zone over the past years," said Norris Tapp, manager of Davey's Locker, a sports fishing and whale-watching operation. "The museum is a very good thing. That the museum is in a very well-known area with docking for multiple boats, I think it will attract an appreciable number of people."

But several Fun Zone regulars expressed skepticism at the Newport Harbor Nautical Museum's plans.

"Museums are cool, but this is great for the kids," said Paula Griebel, a Las Vegas resident who just started visiting the Balboa Fun Zone with her family last year. "We'll probably come for the museum once and that's it."

Nine-year-olds Francesca Bertella and Megan Peterson blanched at the idea of a museum to replace their beloved bumper cars and later, the Rock Wall and Bungee Jump trampoline.

"I don't like the idea of a museum. It would take away what we got to do here," Francesca said.

Francesca's family has a long history with the Fun Zone. Her father, Newport Beach native Jim Bertella, 33, also played there as a child, and her grandmother worked there as a teenager about 40 years ago.

"It'd be a bummer for a lot of kids," Jim Bertella said. He said the museum would have to be very good to make up for the loss.

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