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O.C. attraction goes up, up but not away

Hundreds take rides in a tethered balloon on the inaugural day of the first completed feature at the Great Park on the former El Toro base.

July 15, 2007|Yvonne Villarreal and Tony Barboza | Times Staff Writers

Percy Liles' aged fingers grasped a post for balance as he arched his head back to look at the 75-foot-diameter orange balloon towering over him at the former El Toro Marine base.

"Look at that," the 85-year-old retired naval aviator said. "We're in the shadow of the balloon. It's amazing."

Saturday marked the inaugural launch of the Great Park Balloon, attended by more than 5,000 people hoping to ride the giant $5-million tethered helium orb. It is the first completed feature at the urban park being built at the base.

But only the 665 people lucky enough to score tickets got to go up in the gondola as it ferried them 300 feet above the ground.

"I kind of figured that not everyone who attended would get to go on a ride," said Bob Roara, 67, of Palm Springs. "Since there are so many people here, they kind of have to ration who gets on."

Initially about 22 people were taken up per trip, but that number fell to 10 as winds reached 20 mph by noon. "The stronger the winds get, the less people we can take," said Rod Cooper, operations manager for Great Park, explaining that the lower number is necessary to maintain stability.

Each ride lasted about three minutes.

The balloon will need to average about 250 riders a day to draw the estimated 50,000 that Irvine officials hope to attract each year.

If Saturday was any indication, that might not be a problem, though some riders complained of plans to charge adults $20 and children $13 to board the 10-to-15-minute ride, starting in January.

"It's such an Irvine thing to charge $20 for a balloon ride," said Debra Rocha-Dunham, 50. "I probably wouldn't pay $20. It's a lot of money, and what is the money being used for?"

The fees will go toward the $1.6-million annual cost of the attraction, which is expected to lose about $850,000 its first year, according to the Irvine City Council. The city, which is developing the 1,350-acre Great Park, has considered advertising the balloon rides to help offset some of those losses.

On Saturday, riders got panoramic views of Huntington Beach, Newport Beach, Lake Forest and Foothill Ranch as the balloon cast its huge shadow on the maze of runways and old hangars below.

Construction crews worked 12-hour days over the last several weeks to complete the five-acre balloon site in time for the flights, which are to be offered four days a week from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. starting Thursday.

Soon workers will demolish, grade and landscape what is now a flat expanse of runways, hangars and barracks -- transforming it into one of the nation's largest municipal parks.

Designer Ken Smith envisions the balloon as a vantage point from which visitors will see a constantly progressing landscape.

"The public is going to see us building and growing a park," he said. "While parts of it are going to feel unfinished, I think it's exciting."

But the park's design wasn't a priority for Zachary Skeldon, 10, of Irvine as his ride came to an end.

"I don't want to leave," he said. "This is so much fun. Can we do it again for free?"

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