Orange County's Great Park and El Toro Base in California

Established in 1942 after the bombing of Pearl Harbor as Marine Corps Air Station El Toro, the site in Irvine, California, has undergone a crazy transformation. Following its closure in 1999, the base was repurposed into a public space known as the Great Park. This free park has it all, including a carousel, an air hangar, and an exhibit showcasing Navy planes, as well as multiple sports fields.

Video Recap

Great Park History

In 2003, the City of Irvine acquired 1,300 acres of the former base, aiming to create one of the largest urban parks in the nation. Unfortunately, progress faced challenges, including funding issues and political disputes.

Over the years, portions of the park were developed, featuring sports fields, a balloon ride, and a farmer's market. However, the original plans for a grand park were scaled down due to financial constraints.

Carousel on-site with rides for $3 or $10 for unlimited rides

Today, the Great Park combines the history of its military past with recreational and cultural community amenities. My two brothers and I loved how clean this park was and it's extremely different than what we're used to in Los Angeles. For one, there were multiple security cameras and emergency stations all over the park, which reminded me of my college back in the day. Additionally, the park was spotless without any graffiti, homeless tents, or trash on the ground, something we're unfortunately accustomed to in L.A.

El Toro logo created by Walt Disney

We walked into the Heritage and Aviation Exhibit, which taught us about the El Tora base and how Walt Disney created the El Toro logo for the Military Base. It makes sense since Disneyland is not too far away. 

Sign Transcribed: 

"Life on the Base:

MCAS El Toro

Construction of Marine Corps Air Station El Toro began on August 3, 1942 on land previously owned by the Irvine Company. The runways and taxiways were completed by December 1, 1942 and all squadron hangars were completed by January 15, 1943.

From 1943 to 1999, what is now the Great Park and surrounding residential communities, was once Marine Corps Air Station El Toro. Its start dates to the mid-20th century, as Orange County was quickly becoming the fastest developing region in the United States and was selected as the home for multiple new military bases. MCAS El Toro endured for more than sixty years, serving as a home and workplace for its service members.

The day to day for El Toro service members included the expected activities of life on a military base, however their free time and recreational activities were fun, diverse and similar to Great Park visitors today. From the start, MCAS El Toro was home to both male and female baseball clubs. MCAS El Toro had a bowling alley for both amateur play and league tournaments. Residents of the base also felt a genuine camaraderie during celebrations, dances, and celebrity events. The history of MCAS El Toro, and the experience of life on the base, continues through recreational activities for visitors of Great Park today.

- Cynthia Castaneda, Public Historian

The images on display, courtesy of the First American OC Historical Photo Archive and the Flying Leatherneck Aviation Museum, capture life in the early days of MCAS El Toro. They were originally exhibited in the 2023 Great Park Gallery exhibition Life on the Base: MCAS El Toro, curated by Cynthia Castaneda.

Cynthia Castaneda is a public historian with an M.A. in Public History from Cal State Fullerton. She has participated in the Cal Poly Pomona's Phi Alpha Theta chapter and, most recently, has been a member of Cal State Fullerton's Cultural and Public History Association. Castaneda's work has included ongoing collaborations with the Lawrence de Graaf Center for Oral and Public History at CSUF and serving as the social media and marketing representative for the Southwest Oral History Association."

We also discovered a nice-sized pond with ducks swimming around. My brother Sean discovered this pond on Google Maps on the way to get food, so we made a pit stop.

Reflecting Pond was serene and had ducks swimming around

Know Before You Go

If you're looking for the man-made lake, keep in mind it's not formed yet although it's pictured in the future plan inside the hangar. We tried to find it and learned the hard way. 

You're going to be out in the sun, so make sure to wear sunscreen. 

We saw so many people bringing their own lawn chairs although there are several picnic tables around the carousel area. 

Parking is FREE! 

If you're a skateboarder, there are ledges with anti-grinding metal blockers to prevent you from scratching up the cement. 

There's a bike trail that passes the Reflecting Pond. 

Overall, this was a great park to explore, free to visit, and it's so large that to get to the Reflecting Pond, you have to drive to it or take a long walk from the hangar exhibition. We're adding this park to our routine whenever we visit the Ascension Cemetery in Lake Forest, CA as it is free to visit and explore.

Address: 8000 Great Park Blvd, Irvine, CA 92618

Photos by Steven Buena

Photo by Steven Buena - SNJ-5 Texan WWII plane

Photo by Steven Buena - SNJ-5 Texan WWII plane

Photo by Steven Buena - N3N-3 Canary WWII plane

Photo by Steven Buena - N3N-3 Canary WWII plane

Photo by Steven Buena

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Where to Eat Near Great Park

We discovered a great place for lunch called Knowlwood Restaurant with a truck inside. I had the Tuna Melt, my brother Sean had the French Dip Beef Sandwich with mushrooms, and Steven had chili cheese fries and a hot dog. I splurged this weekend and it was a great break from eating healthy during the week. 

Truck inside

Tuna Melt

French Dip Beef Sandwich (needed cheese)

Chili Cheese Fries and a Hot Dog

Knowlwood Restaurant Address: 14952 Sand Canyon Ave, Irvine, CA 92618

Trip Resources

If you’re planning a road trip, here are some helpful sites that I use. Note, below are affiliate links, which means I receive a small commission for every booking, with no extra cost to you. Thanks so much, in advance! - Anytime we need a rental car, we use this site to find deals. - I like to use this site to explore upcoming cruises that I'd like to take. I also refer to it to compare hotel prices, flights, and car rentals. - Book things to do, attractions, tours and discover new food. - When we’re not staying in an AIRBNB, we’re in a VRBO rental. We use this option when we want to enjoy a full house with individual bedrooms, a kitchen, backyard and other amenities. - Anytime I want reputable reviews, tips, and overall advice about a vacation area, I leverage this site. - Looking for cool tours in your vacation area? This site has a number of options. 


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