Boondoggle or Balloon-doogle?

Last Friday Weekly web editor extraordinaire Janine Kahn and I were cordially treated to a fantastic voyage on the Irvine Great Park's $5 million big orange helium airship attraction. While publications like the OC Register and Los Angeles Times — a bunch of negative Nancies — dwell on the balloon's extravagant cost as well as its projected $850,000 deficit the first year, I say sometimes the finer things in life are worth the cost.

As the Great Park's architect Ken Smith told me, "It's only a couple of million dollars. When we look back in a couple of years, I think it will be a bargain for what it brings to the park."

Smith, who looks like a mad scientist with his coke-bottle Harry Potter glasses and gray hair, has a point. With the Great Park's planned more than $1 billion cost, what's a few million if it means having a kick-ass balloon in your back yard? You can't make an omelet without buying a few eggs.

The balloon will mark the entrance, be an icon and signal the first stop for park explorers, who will probably have more to do there than can possibly be done in a single day.

Plus, park planners might eventually sell ad space on the balloon to recover the cost. They could start by approaching Tropicana. There's nothing like a 100-foot-tall Orange balloon to put unsuspecting consumers in the right mood for some Orange County fun.

The one concern I do have, however, was the landing. Janine and I enjoyed the breathtaking vista of the county at 500 feet, but an errant wind gust sent us off-course.

A cord attached to a winch pulled us back down to earth at a weird angle, resulting in the passenger cargo area banging the ground then lifting back into the air, then banging the ground three or four more times.

Everyone onboard tried to make light of it by nervously laughing. But, since this was one of the first trips ever for the balloon, we all probably considered that we could die. I could imagine the headlines: "Giant orange balloon kills media." I hate to say it, but it seems a fittingly ironic death for a journalist.

The rough landing/near-death experience brings to the forefront of my mind some other possible safety considerations to, umm, consider. Although representatives of Aerophile, the French company that made the balloon, say it's never happened before, what if the cord that tethers the balloon to earth just up and snapped? I wonder. Since the balloon is completely enclosed like a blimp and not one of those hot-air balloons you can maneuver by adding fire, how could it be controlled? How high would it go, and how long would it take to descend back to earth? And where would it come down, for that matter — Antarctica, maybe? Maybe it would just keep ascending and ascending until the sun melted it like Icarus' wings, or would it enter orbit and become the subject of new UFO sightings and result in theories of government cover-ups and secret alien autopsies. And, God forbid, what if someone shot the balloon with a gun? Would it pop, blow around all crazy and smash to the ground?

At the end of the day, much like the blowing-dollars-to-reward ratio, the imbalance of pure fun when compared to risk makes this balloon just plain worth it. But don't take my word for it: Go experience it yourself. It's free until January!


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