Orange County Great Park: Exploring a Park in Progress


Orange County Great Park bills itself as the “first great metropolitan park of the 21st century.” Currently, the Great Park consists of 88 acres, and amenities include the Great Park Balloon, the Carousel, the Visitors Center, the Historic Hangar 244, Palm Court and the Farm + Food Lab. Once completed, this Irvine-area attraction will span approximately 1,300 acres. The question the project poses is this: can a park built for the public's benefit preserve a sense of a region's history and also embracing sustainability? Head on down to the former Marine Corps Air Station (MCAS) El Toro and decide for yourself!

The Orange County Great Park is a park in progress that will be more exciting once it comes to fruition, but is still worth a visit now whether you are a neighbor or are visiting in LA. Our advice is to plan ahead and make sure you find out what exhibits are open: here is the website that will help you find out.  Know that you're going on a first-look, exploratory-type adventure, and don’t forget to bring lunch (see below for more on eating wisely.) OCGP6It would be disappointing to make the trip and not be able to at least try to ride the balloon and the carousel. Also, for younger children, don’t advertise the “park” element of the adventure, because there isn’t a real playground, yet.


Spending the Day

We used the Great Park as a meeting point for a family get together between LA and San Diego. Once we navigated the parking lots (there is still a bit of signage confusion), we walked up through Palm Court with its impressive 54 Canary Islands date palms. Palm Court serves as the Park’s cultural campus, preserving El Toro’s World War II era atmosphere and architecture through adaptive reuse of existing buildings.


A warning to parents with younger kids who expect that a park will have swings and a jungle gym; this is more of a park in terms of open space and playing fields. They do have Kids Rock! play area that my kids liked climbing on and playing hide & go seek. The playground is inspired by water cycle and ecology. Shade structures are designed to recall clouds with cooling shade and mist, climbing rocks to symbolize mountains, and a blue area symbolizing the future Great Park Canyon and Lake. 


The Great Park Balloon is the star attraction and is open Thursday-Sunday on clear days. The Visitors Center does a good job managing expectations and told us we might not be able to ride the balloon because of the wind. They gave us a pager to carry around the park to let us know when it was our turn to ride. With the ability to hold up to 25 to 30 passengers, and soar 400 feet above the surrounding landscape, the balloon serves as a public observation deck for the park and offers an unmatched 360° view that spans 40 miles on a clear day. Our day turned out to be too windy to ride – a common complaint that I’ve heard from park visitors.

In the meantime, we bought a $20 unlimited family carousel pass (up to four tickets) and rode the old-fashioned carousel at least six times. It’s refreshing when something as simple as a carousel excites kids.

Let’s Go See Some Planes

The historic Hanger 244 features historical images, displays and artifacts that tell the story of the Great Park from its agricultural roots to its role in the military as a MCAS. The World War II airplanes (N3N-3 Canary and SNJ-5 Texan) dominate the hangar, but my kids were also drawn to the History Room and the WWII artifacts.


Also worth mentioning in regards to the base’s history is the Walkable Historical Timeline, a 2,604 foot long timeline of 162 significant historical events painted on a walkway that runs through the center of the Park.

What’s a Pizza Garden?

OCGP9The interactive Farm + Food Lab is a one acre plot that celebrates sustainable urban agriculture and healthy food. As a parent of a picky eater, I was intrigued. The lab features themed planters with fruits, flowers, vegetables and herbs, a chicken coop and a worm compost bin. I liked the emphasis on fruits and vegetables that could be planted in your backyard. The Pizza and Spaghetti Garden, Fruit Salad Garden and the Butterfly Garden are a good intro to gardening for kids. How many times have you actually said that pizza is full of plants from the sauce to the toppings? The Pizza and Spaghetti garden has peppers, onions, squash and eggplants plus tomatoes and herbs for the sauce. The chicken coop was the highlight of this area as we patiently waited for the hens to lay an egg.

All of the produce that is harvested is also donated to local food banks, making it another good conversation starter. The garden is staffed by University of California Cooperative Extension Master Gardeners who are open to questions.

Mom, I’m Hungry.

A word to the wise is to bring your own food into the park. We made the mistake of not bringing anything and were left to fend for ourselves at the vending machines. I’d recommend packing a picnic or hitting Chronic Tacos, Pizza 90 or Juice It Up at Alton Square in Irvine before you go. Or go on Sunday when the Certified Farmers Market is held from 10 am-2 pm. The market includes locally grown fruits and vegetables and food trucks.

If you decide to spend the night, Irvine’s Chamber of Commerce website does a good job listing hotels and neighboring attractions to combine with your trip.OCGP10


To help achieve its sustainability goals, 12 objectives were adopted to serve as a guide in the design and operation of the park. Tactics to achieve the park’s sustainable strategies include renewable energy generation, implementation of energy-efficient technologies, public education, and demand reduction in the park’s various structures and operations.

The Future of The Great Park

OCGP4The approved proposal passed in 2013 by the Irvine City Council includes a 175-acre sports park that will complement the Great Park’s existing North Lawn and South Lawn Sports + Fitness Complex. The sports park has a planned 18 new additional soccer and multi-use fields, 25 tennis courts, 4 sports courts, 12 baseball/softball fields, and 5 sand volleyball courts. In addition, plans include a 188-acre golf course and golf practice facility and clubhouse, 71-acre agriculture component, a 40-acre Bosque area near the Trabuco entrance, 36-acre Upper Bee Canyon area and improvements that will connect the Great Park to Irvine Boulevard, as well as the 178-acre Wildlife Corridor. 

Written by Heather Koopman