By Greg Aragon
I am always looking for fun and inexpensive getaways to tell my readers about. So when I heard about a giant, beautiful park in Irvine, with a big hot air balloon and bunch of cool free things to do, I had to investigate.
My recent getaway began when a friend and I drove south down the 5 Freeway from Los Angeles until we came to Irvine and 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-feet of helium.
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. 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.
The giant balloon and carousel operate Thursday through Sunday. Balloon admission is $10 for adults and kids 18 and under are free. The carousel is $3 for a single ride and $10 for a day pass.
After watching carousel riders zoom past at speeds of up to 4.3 miles per hour, we strolled along The Palm Court Arts Complex. This courtyard is home to the Great Park Gallery and the Great Park Artist Studios, housing a publicly-accessible artists-in-residence program.
The civic space also features Hangar 244, a former squadron complex hangar that has been carefully restored as a 10,000 square-foot special event space. It is now home to the Heritage and Aviation Exhibition, featuring World War II airplanes, historical images, displays, and artifacts that that tell the story of the Great Park from its agricultural roots to its role in the military as Marine Corps Air Station El Toro.
The hanger exhibition includes World War II Airplanes such as an N3N-3 Canary and a SNJ-5 Texan; the Airforce C-135A Stratolifter Memorial, which honors fallen U.S. Airmen and Marines from Marine Corps Air Station El Toro; and a History Room dedicated to WWII history. The hanger also showcases Farmers to Flyers, an exhibit focused on the events that transformed Irvine’s agricultural land into an active military base.
Another interesting exhibit at The Great Park is The Farm + Food Lab, a two-acre urban agriculture demonstration garden that offers a hands-on gardening experience featuring themed planters with fruits, flowers, vegetables, and herbs.
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 8000 Great Park Blvd., Irvine, CA 92618. The park is open every day and admission is free. For more information, call the Visitors Center at (949) 724-6247, or visit: ocgp.org.