Over the weekend, I visited the Orange County Great Park with my family. Having heard and read so much about the park, I was eager to see it in person. While the vision of the Great Park is grand and exciting, it seems that media coverage of the park has been rather critical or negative. For example, I read a 2012 L.A. Times article entitled “Not-so-great-park” which focuses on how the full vision of the park is far from being realized and that much of the property remains fenced off and unavailable to the public. (Please also read the Great Park Corporation’s response to this piece.) The Great Park is a work in progress; there is no question about that. The park does not even have a large sign marking its entrance, as this Orange County Register article explains. However, instead of talking about the negatives (which may be easier to do given that the park is incomplete), I would like to discuss the positives: those elements that make the park special and show that a great park is indeed being created on the former Marine base.
Great Park Balloon: Even if you have not been to the park, you might have seen photographs of this balloon. The Great Park Balloon is unequivocally the park’s most iconic and unique attraction. After all, how many other parks are there with a bright orange helium balloon that stands 118 feet tall with a volume of 210,000 cubic feet? I learned that the balloon can hold up to 25 to 30 passengers in its 1,810-pound gondola, and soars 400 feet into the air, while tethered to the ground by a steel cable. Due to high winds, we almost did not get to go on the balloon. Fortunately, conditions improved later and we were able to see firsthand why the balloon is referred to as a “public observation deck” for the park’s development. The views are indeed amazing, allowing us to see the park and beyond from a bird’s eye view.
Visitors Center Pavilion: The 4,762-square-foot Visitors Center Pavilion was the first newly constructed permanent structure to open on the former Marine base. It is located near the Great Park Balloon, and offers visitors a welcoming first stop for a visit to the park. The pavilion features a spacious lobby, restroom facilities, and open space. This is also where visitor purchase tickets for rides on the balloon and Carousel. The park staff is friendly and easy to identify (they wear orange shirts!).
Walkable Historical Timeline: This is another unique element of the park. With a length of about 2,600 feet, the timeline marks on the ground (a former runway) 162 historically significant events related to the Marine base and the park, and serves as a natural connection between the Visitors Center and the reflecting ponds and viewing pier.
Palm Court Arts Complex: What I like most about this complex is that it was created from two renovated squadron support buildings. The Palm Court Arts Complex includes the Great Park Gallery and Great Park Artists Studios. This space also features a shaded outdoor performance plaza adorned with over 50 Canary Island Date Palms, and Ghost Building 243, the park’s first site-specific permanent public art installation. The Palm Court serves as the park’s cultural area, supporting the development of new and diverse public arts programming.
Historic Hangar 244: This former squadron complex hangar has been restored and reused as a 10,000-square-foot special event space. Again, I appreciate how the park’s designers have not forgotten or erased the site’s history, but incorporates a structure that was a part of its past.
Kids Rock Playground: This playground was very well-used during my visit. Kids Rock is inspired by and focused on educating kids about conservation ecology and the water cycle. The playground consists of misting shading structures, climbing rocks, tunnels, a seating area made from recycled runway concrete, and illustrated lakes and streams on recycled rubber flooring. As a parent, I like how these elements come together to create an educationally unique and environmentally conscious space that is fun, safe, and relaxing for children.
South Lawn Sports + Fitness Complex: As someone who enjoys playing both soccer and basketball, I was very impressed by this facility. To meet the active recreational needs of residents, this complex includes four lighted, tournament-quality soccer fields, four full-size basketball courts, a new restroom and operations facility building, as well as the Kaiser Permanente Thrive Path, a mile-long health and fitness path that features four interpretive signs with health and fitness information and markers to help joggers and walkers know the distance of their run or walk.
Farmers Market and Picnic Area: As we visited on a Sunday, we also came across the Great Park Certified Farmers Market which is open every Sunday. Like other farmers markets, this one offers fresh, locally grown fruits and vegetables, handcrafted artisan products, food trucks, and live entertainment.
(For a full list of current park features, please go here.)
Overall, I enjoyed my visit to the Great Park. Obviously, much work remains to be done, but as I have shared above, the park already has some elements that make it a quality attraction. If you have not been there yet, I encourage you to check it out. However, please be mindful that it is a work in progress and do not expect it to be like New York City’s Central Park. I understand why people may make the comparison due to its size alone, but in my mind, Central Park is so special that there will never be another one. The Great Park has its own unique identity as a former Marine base being transformed into a park. As funds become available and more improvements are put in, the park will certainly become even more of a wonderful asset for Orange County residents and visitors.
Note: All photos by author.