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Ever since discovering the Orange County Great Park last summer, I have been itching for a reason to return. Well this past weekend I got what I was looking for when a friend said she wanted to fly in a hot air balloon, but didn’t want to spend a lot of money. When I told I knew a place in Irvine where she could soar for $10 plus a few bucks for gas, we were on our way.
Our getaway began last Sunday, when we drove down the 5 Freeway until we saw a huge, orange hot air balloon hovering above the city. Here we exited the freeway and followed signs to the Orange County Great Park.
Located on the former site of the El Toro Marine Base, the Great Park is said to be the first great metropolitan park of the 21st Century. Spanning more than 1,300 acres (nearly twice the size of New York’s Central Park) the mammoth playground’s award-winning master plan embraces environmental sustainability, preserves Orange County’s agricultural heritage, and honors the military history of the former air base.
When we got to the outdoor adventure land, we quickly learned why it is called the “Great Park.” We parked in a massive lot, walked across a sprawling entry plaza, onto colossal former airstrip and found an enormous carousel and the biggest hot air balloon I’ve ever seen.
The balloon is the Great Park’s first major attraction. Soaring more than 400 feet above the surrounding landscape, the balloon holds up to 25 passengers and offers spectacular 360-degree views spanning some 40 miles. It is tethered to the ground by super-strong cables and is lifted by 210,000 cubic-ft of helium. Besides the great views and thrills it provides, the balloon ride is also free. Rides are based on first come first serve basis.
To fly in the balloon, we checked in at the visitor’s center, signed a waiver and were given a pager. In about 40 minutes we were paged and we then strolled to the launching pad. In a few minutes we were floating in the sky on a beautiful summer afternoon.
Back on the ground, we walked past a large grassy field with soccer players and picnic tables and came to the Great Park Carousel, which was packed with kids and their parents. Costing $2 per trip, the carousel sits smack in the middle of the El Toro’s old runway. In fact you can still see the airport lines on the pavement.
After watching carousel riders zoom past at speeds of up to 4.3 mph, we strolled along The Palm Court Arts Complex. This courtyard is home to the Great Park Gallery and the Great Park Artists Studios, housing a publicly-accessible artists-in-residence program. This new civic space also features Hangar 244, a 10,000 sq-ft event center; a shaded outdoor performance plaza enhanced by 54 Canary Islands date palms; and the Great Park’s first site-specific permanent public art installation.
Visitors here will discover that the Marine Corps Air Station El Toro’s World War II-era atmosphere and architecture have been preserved by means of adaptive reuse of existing buildings, a strategy that aligns with the Park’s ecological values. The Palm Court’s re-purposed military structures now form a cultural campus supporting the development of a fresh approach to establishing an interdisciplinary, public arts program.
The park also features a Farmer’s Market every Sunday rain or shine, and Kids Rock, an area with a group of misting shade structures, climbing rocks, “underground tunnels,” a seating area made from recycled runway concrete, and illustrated lakes and streams on recycled rubber flooring.
The Great Park is located at off the Sand Canyon Ave exit on the 5 Freeway in Irvine (there is currently no physical address). The park is open every day and admission is free. The balloon ride is $10 for adults and $5 for kids. For more information, call the Visitors Center at (866) 829-3829, or visit: www.ocgp.org.