Sun, Surf, and (Almost) a Century of Fun
It’s not often that fun and history go hand in hand, but at the Balboa Fun Zone on the Balboa peninsula in the city of Newport Beach, California… that’s exactly what happens.
What Is The Balboa Fun Zone
The Balboa Fun Zone is an iconic piece of Southern California history that started in 1936 when the owner of a failing boatyard leased his land on the peninsula to entrepreneur Al Anderson. Anderson quickly constructed a Ferris wheel and merry-go-round on the property, with kiddie rides and an arcade coming in later. That was when the Balboa Fun Zone moved from a boatyard to a family destination on the seaside of the Balboa peninsula.
Did you know? The Balboa auto ferry started in 1919 and is still in service today ferrying cars from Balboa Island to the Balboa peninsula. Each ferry takes up to three cars at a time, so wait times can be long during the summer months. Turnaround is fairly quick, though, since the trip across the harbor is relatively short.
Today, despite a series of ownership changes, the Balboa fun zone continues to offer nostalgic family-friendly, low-cost fun to everyone who wants to enjoy the sun, surf, and wind of the beautiful Balboa peninsula.
Let’s take a look at what the Balboa Fun Zone has to offer visitors 85 years after its start as the Coney Island of the West Coast.
Go South For Fun
Get off the 55 South at Newport Boulevard and follow it eastward as it spears through Newport Island and you’ll eventually find yourself going back in time to an era when a family outing meant a trip to the seaside, tasty hot dogs, calm ocean waves, and gorgeous ocean views from atop a slow-moving Ferris wheel.
Located at 600 East Bay Ave., suite R in Newport Beach, the Balboa Fun Zone stretches a modest two blocks. It runs from the ferry entrance at the intersection of Palm Street and Edgewater Place down to just past Main Street at East Bay Avenue.
Don’t be fooled, though. There’s a lot to do packed into that relatively small space, especially if you’re a fan of old-school entertainment.
Did you know? Sharks were once used as fertilizer when trees were initially being planted on the Balboa peninsula.
What to Do On the Water at Balboa Fun Zone
The area that would be known as the Balboa Fun Zone got its start as a boatyard and it’s never really gone far from its nautical roots. The area is still home to both the Catalina Flyer and the Balboa Island ferry. While the Flyer is one of the few ways to access the tiny island paradise of Catalina, the Balboa ferry strictly services Balboa island and Balboa peninsula. You can also book whale-watching tours or narrated harbor cruises.
Pro Tip: Taking the auto ferry is a cheap and fun way to get out on the harbor. You can take the auto ferry even if you don’t have a car. The ferry will accommodate people, bikes, and motorcycles alongside your standard family car. Each type of passenger has its own unique (and cheap) rate… find them here.
Accessibility: The Balboa Island ferry is wheelchair accessible. Nonpowered wheelchairs board through a separate gate, while powered chairs may use the ramp.
If you prefer to have control over whatever boat you’re on rather than letting someone else ferry you around, you can rent your own Duffy boat at Balboa Boat Rentals (give them a call at 949-673-7200). Feeling more adventurous? You can also try parasailing either solo or with a couple of your most courageous friends. Of course, there’s nothing wrong with just sitting and watching the boats in the harbor, either.
Pro-Tip: Since the Balboa Fun Zone is an outdoor amusement zone, attractions may close unexpectedly. Keep an eye out for the weather.
All the Fun you Can Have on Land
One of the beauties of the Balboa Fun Zone is that (aside from paying for parking) it’s entirely free. With no entry fee necessary to access the fun, you’re completely free to customize your experience. Whether you’re entirely new to the area or you grew up coming here
You can walk the boardwalk and admire the ocean views, or you can go take advantage of some of the last retro amusements available in Southern California.
Pro tip: Purchasing tickets for the fun zone is available at a clearly marked kiosk just past the rides.
The star attraction for the outdoor fun consists of one of the oldest rides available at the Fun Zone; namely what could be the world’s longest Ferris wheel ride (at least that’s what it says on the sign). Rides cost $5 but it’s not exactly over quickly, and you get amazing views of the harbor. If you time it right, you’ll find yourself suspended against one of those gorgeous Southern California sunsets as it glitters over the water.
Pro-Tip: The Ferris wheel is independently owned and operated and has its own hours. Check here for all the information you need. Please note: children 16 and younger need to be accompanied by an adult, and tots under 2 years old aren’t allowed at all.
Other kid-friendly blast from the past rides include:
- The Happy Swing (admission is $5), where riders can pull a lot more Gs than they can on any old playground swing.
- Ocean Motion, a bungee-jumper attraction that lets you flip and bounce like a human rubber ball.
- Coconut Climb, where you can embrace your inner monkey on an attraction that puts a tropical twist on the standard outdoor climbing wall.
Outside on the boardwalk isn’t the only place you can have fun at the Balboa Fun Zone. The retro game is strong here, and by “here” we mean the open air arcade. Open daily at 11AM, It contains such arcade classics as PacMan, Skee Ball, a claw machine, and that timeless favorite, the pinball machine.
Most games are $1 and a lot of them give tickets that your kids (or you) can redeem for cool loot at the redemption counter. Isn’t that half the fun of a trip to an arcade?
When you’re done defending your PacMan winning streak, step outside to a faceful of fresh sea air and maybe look around at the other rides that you might be too tired to try… until you grab some tasty beach-side classics at one of the many casual eateries in the Balboa Fun Zone.
What’s Good to Eat at the Balboa Fun Zone?
A better question would be what’s not good to eat at the Balboa Fun Zone. The area boasts a handful of reasonably priced seaside eats that are perfect for noshing at one of the many picnic tables or eating as you stroll.
Some of the highlights include:
- Azar’s Pizza for gourmet pizza (full pies or by the slice), salads, and beer. Get 10% off if you mention the ad on their website.
- Newport Landing for fresh seafood and an oyster bar overlooking the harbor.
- Jane’s Corndogs for fresh, hand-dipped meat in tube form and fresh lemonade. It doesn’t get more beachy!
If snacks are more your style, you can also find cotton candy, popcorn, and more beach concession foods.
Did you Know? The Balboa fun zone still holds one of the one of the last surviving examples of a waterfront recreational pavilion in California. The Balboa Pavilion is a registered historical monument that has a treasure trove of historical photos on the walls, so if you want to see what the area was in the early 20th century, this is where you’ll go. Afterward, you can grab a lovely sit-down meal: the former bathing pavilion is now doing duty as the classy Harborside Restaurant, known for its excellent seafood and “the longest happy hour in town” (12 noon to 9pm every day).
The Balboa Fun Zone is an easy drive from the 55 South. Just follow the freeway until it turns into Newport Boulevard.
Parking in any seaside town is always a hassle, but it’s particularly weather-dependent at the Balboa Fun Zone.
Pro-Tip: Hot weather? Get here before 10AM for the best chance at finding a good spot.
There are several city lots available for your parking needs. The Palm Street lot has a 2-hour maximum, but the larger lot that’s further out on East Oceanfront is all-day.
Metered street parking is available if you can find it: meters do accept credit cards if you’re not carrying a pocketful of quarters. Rates vary depending on whether it’s off-season or not. Check the Newport Beach City site for full details.
What You Need to Know Before You Go
If reading this has you itching to pack up your beach towels and sunglasses, you’re not alone. But before you head down to the Balboa Fun Zone for a dose of nostalgia-inducing entertainment, let us give you just a little more information to make your visit run smoothly.
- The public restrooms are located in the Discovery Cube Ocean Quest building just past the Ferris wheel.
- If you need cash, there’s a standalone ATM by Newport Landing Sport Fishing.
- Smoking isn’t allowed in the Balboa Fun Zone, so plan accordingly if you just can’t go without lighting up.
- As fun zones go, the Balboa Fun Zone does contain areas that have bright lights, loud noises (the Arcade) and frequently has busy foot traffic patterns. Despite that, because it is an outside zone, it’s easy to find places to sit and decompress if you have problems with sensory overloads.
- The Balboa Fun Zone is an outdoor boardwalk amusement venue. Leashed pets are always welcome (bring your poop bags for those inevitable moments when your fur baby can’t hold it anymore). ADA-compliant service animals may, of course, follow you anywhere.
- Most places on the Boardwalk are wheelchair accessible.
The Balboa Fun Zone is both a fun seaside amusement zone and a nostalgia-drenched glimpse into the past of this iconic seaside town. With no entry fee, accessible parking, a wide variety of activities, and a pay as you play structure, there’s every reason to add a trip to the Balboa Fun Zone to your schedule today.
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Kelly Smith is a freelance writer living in Southern California with one dog, two cats, two guinea pigs… and the rest of her family. She writes about Orange County, faith, family, special needs and tea, and world-builds science fiction universes on the side. Find her at www.bluerosecopywriting.com.