Boosters hold high hopes for ExplorOcean

Interactive center planned for Newport Harbor Nautical Museum could lead to a revitalization effort for the peninsula, civic leaders say.

October 15, 2011|By Mike Reicher
  • An artist rendering showing an aerial view of ExplorOcean, the planned education and entertainment center where the Fun Zone is today.
An artist rendering showing an aerial view of ExplorOcean,… (Courtesy LPA Inc. )

NEWPORT BEACH — Ship models? They may be better suited for a yacht club or a fireplace mantel.

On Saturday, the Newport Harbor Nautical Museum will publicly unveil plans for ExplorOcean, a roughly $40-million interactive amusement and educational center that focuses on mankind's relationship with the sea. With a "4D" sensory theater, submarine simulators and other family-oriented attractions, the project's backers envision a regional, if not national, draw for the Balboa Peninsula.

ExplorOcean is showing how the Nautical Museum is expanding beyond — some say discarded — local history and the traditional notion of a museum.

"It's something that takes a little time to grasp," said Tom Pollack, chairman of the ExplorOcean board of trustees. "It's a broader definition of what a nautical museum should be."

The new building would completely alter the landscape and dwarf the iconic Balboa Pavilion, a relic of the early 1900s and state historic landmark. It would also replace the 1930s-era Fun Zone, a mini amusement park with a carousel and arcades.


Plans by Irvine-based architectural firm LPA, Inc. show a three-story amalgamation of glass, concrete, metal and wood. The materials seek to evoke the waterfront, said Principal Richard D'Amato.

"This whole area is going to come alive," D'Amato said fantastically, pointing to a simulated "fly-thru" video of the plans.

Designers have created an "adventure pier," which would support a relocated Ferris wheel, a children's "nautical-themed maze" and a water play area. A long dock provides space for visiting boaters and could accommodate an historic tall ship.

The building would be 34,000 square feet, including some open-air patios. A "sustainable seafood" restaurant is planned for the second level, and a café on the first. Both would offer bay views.

The highest point of the planned structure is 60 feet. While slightly lower than the Pavilion's cupola at 65 feet, the new structure is much wider.

ExplorOcean's marquee attraction is a "4D" theater conceived by The Hettema Group, a Pasadena-based theme park design firm. Dubbed "Into the Unknown," the theater will attempt to recreate a certain era of exploration — the Vikings or ancient Polynesians, for instance.

The theater's plans show an abstracted boat in the center of a circular room. The ship would move, and so would the images on the walls, boat and floor. Sounds of the sea would crash from all around.

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