At some point in either the late 1980s or early 1990s, without a formal vote or apparently much fanfare, the name of what was once colloquially known as “Atlantis Park”—a 4-acre patch of open space officially christened by the city of Garden Grove in 1963 and punctuated with beautifully haunting and nautical-themed play structures—was somehow changed to “Atlantis Play Center.” The beige-colored stone piece at its gated entrance, near the intersection of Westminster Boulevard and Magnolia Street, now memorializes this name.
Semantics aside, what otherwise would pass for a subtle shift in branding was actually a pretty significant thing. A cultural milestone of sorts, the park (which I will never refer to as a play center out of reverence to my own romanticized memories) had seemed to come into its own, earning a legitimate spot on the mantle of cool Orange County places to visit. But let’s be honest: Whereas the word park conjures up images of limitless exploration, freedom and summer pleasures, play center seems corporate, cold . . . boring.
After several recent makeovers, the current Atlantis Play Center has managed to maintain a respectable balance between wonderment and practicality. I don’t know of any other park space in Orange County that can boast a retro 40-foot, green dragon slide (the park’s iconic centerpiece) while also taking orderly reservations for an annual Easter-egg hunt. There are also birthday parties in the iconic King Neptune Pavilion, which you can reserve if you call far enough in advance.
Thirty years or so before the rebranding, Atlantis Park was the brainchild of Jack Wallin. A former parks superintendent with the city, Wallin had the bold notion of providing Garden Grove’s burgeoning middle-class community with something other than a space filled with cookie-cutter, prefabricated play structures, which were starting to populate the suburban parks of the county in the post-war era.
Wallin (who passed away last year and whose recently unveiled—and well-deserved—bust now greets visitors to Atlantis Play Center) had a distinct vision for the park and commissioned fellow city employees to help oversee the construction. Built on an abandoned air strip owned by the federal government at the time, “something creative emerging from a sea of asphalt” was what Wallin and his boss, Gene Rotsch, wanted to deliver, according to a 1996 Los Angeles Times story. What made the park so cool was that it wasn’t entirely consistent with the urban-planning ethos of Southern California at the time.
To deliver on that vision, Wallin and Rotsch took the further step of tapping the artistic talents of a young Mexican artist named Benjamin Dominguez, whose prior park work included sites in Whittier Narrows, San Gabriel and Las Vegas. All of Dominguez’s parks were adorned with beautiful and what many likely considered irreverent fantasy sculptures, which were contrary to the rigid and linear play places being built elsewhere.
When the park opened on July 4, 1963, it proudly showcased what are known as “Wally the Whale,” “Sandy the Sea Serpent” and a gaggle of rocking seahorses that would not be constructed under today’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration guidelines. And then there is the Viking Ship; a bit historically incongruous with the Atlantis theme, but nautical nonetheless, the structure was reportedly paid for by personal donations from Garden Grove parks and rec employees involved in the park’s construction.
Among all the maritime creatures situated among the multitiered landscaping, bookended by hidden walkways adding to their collective prestige, the centerpiece of the park remains the large, winding slide known simply as “Danny.” Part Americana fantasy and part thrill ride, the dragon undulates back and forth from the top of a nondescript hill, under a canopy of thick trees and eventually into a covered sandpit that over the years has likely seen its fair share of skinned knees and bruised egos. Built from cement and coated with some sort of dated epoxy, Danny’s green hue and painted eyes remain iconic.
Just as Orange County was going through its own demographic transition in the late 1970s and ’80s, so, too, were its parks. From Long Beach to Irvine, metal rocket ships and corrugated-steel spinning platforms were replaced with plastic monoliths. They were safer, but not as interesting. Though Atlantis Park’s physical infrastructure did not change, rules started being posted. Among them was a ban on wax paper. Since this author can remember, kids would sneak into Atlantis Park with pieces of carefully torn and folded wax paper—provided unwittingly by mom and dad and hidden strategically in two-tone OP shorts or Toughskins jeans. Once at the top of the slide, they would quickly unfold the paper, place it on the slide, sit atop it and down they went. The wax paper provided just the right amount of acceleration increase down the curved, green chute—not too much, but just enough to feel as if they got away with something. And they did.
Though such items, in additon to weapons and fireworks, are now barred, Atlantis Play Center remains a true outlier by today’s public-park standards. It’s extremely popular with the county’s residents, hosting several events throughout the year, including a Jack O’Lantern Jamboree. Just as Wallin had set out to accomplish, it is truly “something creative emerging from a sea of asphalt.” Even without the wax paper.
Alex Cherin is an attorney and lobbyist based in Los Angeles.