One perfect day in Irvine's Great Park

Orange County has its own destination oasis that’s reinventing the grand public park for the 21st century

Jenny Price

Point me to the park: It’s smack in the middle of the O.C., near the intersection of the 5 and 405 freeways.

What it used to be: El Toro U.S. Marine Corps Air Station, from 1943 to 1999. And now? 160 acres of green glory have opened since 2007, with 1,187 more acres opening in stages in the years to come.

The park's greatest hits: The art gallery, North Lawn, community gardens, soccer fields, and visitor center.

Forgot your wallet? No biggie—it’s all free. Balloon and carousel rides, movies on the lawn, garden workshops, working farm, outdoor concerts, everything.

Years away: Wetland and forest preserves, cafes, and a military museum.

See the future: The visitor center has completed park renderings.

Ride in the big orange balloon: The park’s iconic balloon puts the orange back in Orange County, and from 400 feet up, you can see forever (or at least most of the O.C.). While it’s not quite an around-the-world-in-80-days ride, the 10-minute float in the tethered balloon’s open-air gondola is utterly charming. Sign-ups at visitor center.

Green up your thumb: The 12 demonstration mini gardens at the Farm+Food Lab, maintained by the UC Master Gardener program, will give you lots of ideas for what to grow at home. Your yard’s too small? Nonsense: Check out the square-foot plots of edibles for inspiration. Our other faves? The Pizza & Spaghetti Garden and the Fruit Salad Garden, with grapevines galore.

Unorganized sports: It’s a kite-staging area, Frisbee field, reading lounge, family picnic spot—whatever you’d like it to be. The park’s designers want the 7-acre North Lawn to be the place where you can program your own outdoor activity. Croquet, anyone?

The creative side: The Palm Court Arts Complex turned two of the old military base’s squadron support sheds into a public art center. In one, a gallery hosts rotating shows, with exhibits on the base’s impact on the O.C. In the second, open studios let you hang with international resident artists as they paint, sculpt, or compose a symphony.

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