Exploring Balboa Park July 3

By Johnny McDonald

Coney copies

Amusement parks have been a happy part of life since the 1800s with thrill rides, “carney” shows, quick-order foods and an assortment of arcadia games.

Johnny McDonald

Johnny McDonald

A segment of this Americana history will be displayed with art, photos and film clips starting July 11 when the Museum of Art opens an exhibit called “Coney Island: Visions of an American Dreamland, 1861-2008.” The exhibit will run until Oct. 11.

“We are offering our visitors the chance to see an iconic American landmark from a new perspective,” said Roxana Velásquez, the museum’s Maruja Baldwin executive director. “There are traces of Coney Island throughout San Diego in places such as Belmont Park and in Balboa Park’s history as a fairground, so it’s momentous to have the opportunity to see the artistic impact of a destination with such a rich past.”

Reputation manager Torie Wohlwend reported that the exhibit is composed of more than 150 objects, including celebrated icons of American art and rarely seen works from public and private collections.

“Showcasing an eclectic mix of drawings, prints, paintings, photographs, film clips, and assorted artifacts such as carousel animals, this exhibition brings to life the excitement of Coney Island, which occupies not only a strip of sand in Brooklyn but a singular place in the American imagination,” she said.

The pattern for amusement parks would be copied across the country and used as foundations for Disneyland, Universal Studios, Knott’s Berry Farm and Six Flags.

San Diego first entered the amusement business with the 1915-16 Expedition … next the compact Belmont Park fun zone was developed by sugar magnate John D. Spreckels and opened on July 4, 1925 as the Mission Beach Amusement Center. The attractions and rides that remain from the original park include the Giant Dipper, a wooden roller coaster and the Plunge.

Spreckels wanted more people to visit the park so he had a streetcar line extended to Mission Beach. Sadly, he died a year later.

Later, during the big band area, the ballroom would feature the best, like Tommy Dorsey who brought along a skinny singer named Frank Sinatra.

Prior to Disneyland, the Southern California shorelines entertained those who liked thrill rides.

In 1902, the “Coney Copy” Long Beach Pike was built and along its mile-long boardwalk were game arcades, pitchmen for sideshows, a movie theater that also had vaudeville acts, a huge roller coaster, merry-go-round and a plunge.

The arrival of the Queen Mary ocean liner in Long Beach in 1979 was the city council’s reason to not renew land leases and the Pike structures were demolished.

Leopards enjoy more room

Two Amur and one snow leopard at the San Diego Zoo have been acclimating to their new exhibits in preparation for the expansion of The Barlin-Kahn Family Panda Trek area.

The 16,500-square-foot habitat includes 5,500 square feet of multi-level living space with rock outcroppings and slopes with felled trees to encourage climbing, foraging and other natural behaviors. There are two other snow leopards that will be moved to the new habitat next week.

The habitat has four separate exhibits with enclosed, overhead passageways above the visitor walkway, allowing the leopards to cross between exhibits. More than 1,600 donors contributed $3 million needed to build the habitat.

Elsewhere in the Park — Spirit of ’45, is a 70th anniversary celebration that remembers the end of World War II at the Veterans Memorial Museum on Aug. 9. In addition to a formal program there will be live music and dancing.  Last year’s event drew 1,000 people … “Thinking Shakespeare Live!” is a 90-minute exploration and an education of the language of Shakespeare, led by Old Globe Artistic Director Barry Edelstein and assisted by three professional classical actors, Aug. 8 at 11 a.m.

—After an award winning, 38-year sports-writing career with the San Diego Union and authoring three books, Johnny McDonald now considers writing a hobby. You can reach him at

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