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Riding the big orange ball in the sky | Bartell's Backroads

A view from California's largest tethered helium balloon.

IRVINE, Calif. — Soaring over Orange County and the city of Irvine is an iconic oddity. On a clear day, It can be seen from almost any point in the city.

From the ground, it looks like a giant orange ball. From the sky, it’s a one-of-a-kind attraction for sightseers and amateur photographers.

The orange oddity in the sky is the Great Park Balloon. It's one of the largest tethered helium balloons in the United States and for the past 11 years, Thein Nguyen has been its pilot. 

“This is about 6,000 cubic meters of helium and air, and on a good hot day, it has five tons of lift,” Nguyen explained. 

Depending on the weather, the balloon can carry 29 adults. To throw a few more numbers at you:

  • The balloon is 118 feet tall
  • It can move at up to two miles-per-hour
  • It floats up to 400 feet in the air

The best number of all is the cost. “It is zero dollars to ride. Free. It is all first-come-first-served, weather permitting,” Nguyen said.

The balloon was the first attraction at Great Park in Irvine, and it first took flight in 2006. The idea behind the helium balloon was to give visitors a way to watch the progress of the park’s construction and expansion.

On a clear day, you see well beyond the park. “You can see all the way down to the Los Angeles and the Hollywood sign. It’s a little dot,” Nguyen said.

Directly below the balloon, you can see all the amenities Great Park offers. Soccer fields, playgrounds, basketball courts and a number of historical items, including several World War II airplanes which pay homage to the park’s military past. From 1943 to 1999 this land was Marine Corps Air Station El Toro.

These days, music from the newly restored carousel takes the place of buzzing military planes that once landed here. Carousel operator Randy Cary loves the park so much he came out of retirement to help out. 

He says the most rewarding part of the job is working with kids who have special needs. The orange balloon, the carousel and everything at the park are accessible to everyone.

“You know special needs kids, Disneyland can be too much for them so they can come here and it’s a little easier,” Cary said.

Whether you are on the ground or in the air, Great Park is a great place to see all of Irvine.

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