Newport Museum Has Big Plans for Rides, Simulators



NEWPORT BEACH – Would your kids rather a) ride with a fleet of Vikings or b) look at old pictures of some boats?

If you answered b), you're wrong, and the Newport Harbor Nautical Museum knows this.

The museum has big plans to be a big deal, a regional draw called ExplorOcean, an anchor of local commerce; in short, the sort of place that will bring people and money back to the Balboa peninsula.

"We're charting a new course for the organization that's more than just our ship models," museum chairman Tom Pollack said.

That new course will be unveiled Saturday at an annual fundraiser. Plans include a ship simulator, two-man submarine simulators, an ocean observatory, a navigation lab, and an adventure pier that will include a maze and the Ferris wheel that's there now.

ExplorOcean is taking the place of the Balboa Fun Zone, which used to draw crowds, but carousels aren't the thrill machines they used to be.

The new thrill machine doesn't have a name yet. It's a ship-shaped simulator surrounded by screens and mounted on hydraulics, "like Star Tours but better," according to Pollack.

Pollack said that the museum contacted officials and neighbors several years ago, "and what they were looking for was redevelopment of the Fun Zone on a large scale."

"We knew that if we built something, it had to be fun, but being a (non-profit), it had to be educational," he said.

The museum bought the Fun Zone property in 2005. Rides began to close shortly after. A historic carousel was shut down three weeks ago to clear space for a patio. Eventually, just the Ferris wheel will remain.

Residents have complained, booing the expansion of a museum best known for model ships, old photographs, and harbor memorabilia.

"The fun in the Fun Zone is not going away, it's just going to be upgraded to the 21st Century," said Phil Hettema, who is designing the attractions.

Kids today are too tech-savvy to be impressed by the old-fashioned Fun Zone games he grew up with, he said.

"We need to create an experience that will be as memorable for kids today as it was for me 40 years ago," he said.

Hettema was head of attraction development for Universal Studios before he set up his own firm, which designs museums, rides, and other attractions.

With ExplorOcean - the museum's new name - "we wanted to create a really visceral, exciting experience that would put people in touch with the experience of exploration," Hettema said. "We all have that innate desire to explore, whether it's exploring the Arctic or crossing the Pacific like the early Polynesians did."

Vikings, the Arctic, Polynesia, Columbus, submarines - those are a few of the areas visitors may be able to explore in the ship simulator, although the exact program hasn't been finalized.

The museum will open a 900-square-foot showroom at its party Saturday, and leave it open for the public. The showroom will feature a 3D model of the future museum, as well as a video flyover.

With the plan on display, "there's no more doubt," Pollack said. "This is exactly what the organization is doing from now on."

The question is whether those plans will pan out. This is the third plan released in the last five years, and the museum still needs to raise tens of millions of dollars.

Pollack said that final cost estimates for the project aren't ready yet; he said they'll be in "the tens of millions."

Two years ago, the museum launched a $35 million capital campaign to fund ExplorOcean, an ambitious goal for an institution that averaged $2.3 million in donations from 2005 to 2009. The museum had around $16 million in net assets at the end of 2009.

Rita Stenlund, the museum's president, said they're making progress toward that goal, and mentioned several deep-pocketed sponsors: South Coast Plaza, Bank of America, and Ventas, an S&P 500 investment trust.

The new designs by Hettema and architects LPA, Inc., are the third in five years.

In 2006, the museum released a sketch by Newport Beach architect Jay Bauer, who designed The Ocean Institute in Dana Point.

"The first draft was done really quickly to explain the use of space" at the time the museum bought the Fun Zone, Stenlund said, adding that Bauer just did the sketch, not actual plans.

In 2010, the museum put out renderings by the firm of Favili & Sfingi, which featured a curved dock in the shape of a compass around a building apparently modeled on the Hotel del Coronado.

Those plans were vague on what might go inside; the renderings feature a shark head in a cylinder.

Once the design cohered around the idea of exploration, and the simulators and observatories that involved, the final plans took shape, she said.

The new design uses no space for formal gestures like a giant compass; it's compact, which will provide 40,000 square feet of space, enough room for a restaurant and event deck.

The current museum is 5,000 square feet of gallery space, Pollack said, so there will be plenty of room for the model ships and Newport Beach-specific displays at ExplorOcean.

The new focus, though, will be the whole ocean, not just Newport Harbor, he said.

"Rather than have halls of memorabilia from yacht races, we wanted a much more immersive design," Pollack said.