As they float skyward this summer aboard a $5-million tethered helium balloon ride at Irvine's Great Park, passengers on the free attraction might notice some unusual amenities on the ground:
* a $300,000 tent -- designed to resemble an airplane hangar -- that costs $75,000 a year to clean;
* a four-person visitor center crew hired under a $370,000 annual contract;
* a series of orange dots painted along the park's entrance road at a cost of $14,000.
When the 15-minute voyage ends, a French-trained pilot earning a six-figure salary will use a remote control to lower the craft to earth.
The helium-filled airship attraction is expected to lose about $850,000 its first year, partly because the Irvine City Council -- which is developing the 1,350-acre Great Park -- plans to allow passengers to ride free of charge until January. From then on the city will charge $20 for adults and $13 for children.
The red ink doesn't worry Great Park spokeswoman Marsha Burgess. "I wouldn't characterize it as a deficit," she said.
Burgess calls the cash outlay "the cost of operation," saying the balloon is an integral piece of the suburban oasis' design.
Irvine officials plan to spend more than $1 billion transforming the former El Toro Marine base's cracked airstrips and dusty terrain into a dramatic landscape of lakes, orchards, athletic fields, museums and a rugged, man-made canyon. When completed, the expanse will be among the nation's largest urban parks -- larger than Manhattan's 843-acre Central Park and San Francisco's 1,017-acre Golden Gate Park, but smaller than Los Angeles' 4,200-acre Griffith Park.
The ride's expected deficit has disconcerted some Irvine officials who worry that if the park's first endeavor is a money loser, the city might have to cut corners on other planned features such as the 60-foot-deep canyon, a botanical garden and a sports complex.
"This is a microcosm of how this park is run," said Councilwoman Christina Shea. "We are going to be hitting a wall sometime and we are going to be upside-down financially, and we are not going to have the park we all envisioned."
On Saturday, the Great Park's balloon is scheduled to begin flying from a 5-acre plot inside the former Marine base, which is being converted to housing tracts, businesses and the Great Park.
Planners are banking on 50,000 passengers a year, roughly equal to ridership on the Philadelphia Zoo's tethered helium balloon, which operates in a venue visited by 1 million people annually.
The anticipated shortfall has led the City Council to consider placing ads on the balloon, including a banner ad on the balloon surface, smaller ads on its gondola, and plants trimmed into the shape of corporate logos. Irvine estimated it could make as much $880,000 a year.
That has led the council to debate balancing the desire to recoup some expenses with the prospect of the craft looking overly commercial.
"We live in a very commercial society. The park should be a respite from the onslaught of advertising," said Ken Smith, the park's designer. "To put ads on it would be a mistake."
The cost to operate the balloon and visitor center doesn't include start-up charges, such as $1.6 million for site design and landscaping, and $1.9 million -- donated by the Lennar Corp. -- to buy the helium-filled ship, install a landing pad and get FAA clearance to fly the craft. Lennar is developing housing tracts around the park.
Irvine officials also have tacked on $838,000 to build a road to the balloon, plant citrus trees and buy a special 50-by-50-foot tent that will serve as the visitor center.
Smith's team specified that the tent "emulate an aircraft hangar" by having an angled roof, taller at the entrance and sloping to the back. "No deviations or substitutions are acceptable," the design team said.
Several of Irvine's balloon project contracts were awarded without competitive bids.
For instance, Automotive Marketing Consultants Inc., which runs a car test track at El Toro and hosts corporate shindigs at the site, will receive $75,000 to wash the outside of the visitor center tent six times a year and clean the interior weekly.
Tim Watson of Clean Awn, an industrial-fabric maintenance company in Lakewood, said he would have been happy to do the job for $54,000.
Burgess had no comment on Watson's pricing.
Automotive Marketing Consultants will also be paid $370,000 to staff the visitor center with four full-time employees -- more than $90,000 per position. The company will receive an additional $64,000 to manage the balloon's website and telephone call center.
Another big payout -- $380,000 -- goes to Aerophile, a French balloon manufacturer, to pilot the helium ship and operate the diesel-powered winch that hoists and lowers it.
Aerophile's contract calls for two full-time pilots and a hostess. After subtracting maintenance costs, that works out to more than $100,000 per pilot.