Out & About, Westways Magazine, July/August 2014


Opening Scene
Friendship Ring
When it’s ringing, the Korean Bell of Friendship in San Pedro’s Angels Gate Park can move people to tears. Even when silent, the majestic 17-ton bell and its intricately designed pavilion overlooking the Pacific Ocean invoke nobility and splendor. Both are shining brighter these days, following a restoration that was completed last January. In 1976, South Korea gifted the bell to the United States to honor the U.S. bicentennial and veterans of the Korean War. Over time, the bell suffered the effects of rust, salt spray, roosting birds, and graffiti and for years did not ring. Last year, Chai Dong-hey, a South Korean protégé of one of the project’s original bell masters, Kim Chul-ho, oversaw the restoration, which included hand-chiseling out some of the damage as well as subjecting the bell to an elaborate tuning process. Hear the bell ring on the Fourth of July and on Korean Liberation Day (August 15) and revel in the ancient sound that signifies friendship and a celebration of cultures. Entrance to Angels Gate Park is free. (310) 548-7705. —Brenda Rees

Theme Park News
Make Way for Wizards
Fire up the broomsticks, Muggles. The Wizarding World of Harry Potter expands this summer with a straight-out-of-the-movies experience that’s so big it spans two Florida theme parks.

Universal Orlando turned its former Jaws attraction into a fully actualized wizards’ London, The Wizarding World of Harry Potter: Diagon Alley, which opens this summer. The Wizarding World of Harry Potter: Hogsmeade, Universal’s original Harry Potter attraction, is located in the separate but adjacent Universal’s Islands of Adventure (a dual-park pass is required). To get from Diagon Alley to Hogsmeade, you begin as Harry did: at King’s Cross Station, where you run through a brick wall (no joke) to enter Platform 9¾. Muggles then board a full-scale Hogwarts Express, complete with authentic steam and whistle.

During the seven-minute train ride through the British countryside, watch for Hagrid on his motorbike, the Weasley twins on brooms, and Buckbeak the hippogriff. The return trip to King’s Cross presents different scenes.

In the new attraction, visitors pass through another brick wall to explore the themed shops in Diagon Alley and its dark-side counterpart, Knockturn Alley. See how wands choose their wizards at Ollivanders, pick out novelty items at the three-story-tall Weasleys’ Wizard Wheezes, and browse among the Death Eater masks and skulls at Borgin and Burkes. At Gringotts Bank, a high-speed thrill ride whisks riders through jaw-dropping passageways deep inside the goblins’ vaults.

Restaurants in the new attraction add to the fun: The Leaky Cauldron serves fish and chips, while Florean Fortescue’s Ice-Cream Parlour scoops unusual flavors, including a strawberry-and–peanut-butter mixture. (407) 363-8000. —B.R.

Critter Migration, Westways Magazine, October 2013


Wildlife is on its migratory voyage during the fall, which makes this an optimal season to catch nature in action. Witness critters on the move and learn about how we can continue to preserve their habitats. —Brenda Rees

Land: Tarantulas
Usually nocturnal, hairy male arachnids leave their underground burrows to search for females during the daytime.

Prime viewing: September through October.

Where: The annual mating season sets tarantulas on the march throughout SoCal grasslands, chaparral, canyons, and deserts. Orange County’s Thomas F. Riley Wilderness Park rangers report seeing both brown and gray/black species on their trails. Monthly ranger-led hikes are a good way to see these shy, solitary creatures.

Contact: 30952 Oso Parkway, Coto de Caza. 1-949-923-2265

Air: Vaux’s swifts
These slim, fast-moving birds with their high-pitched, continuous chattering prefer roosting in chimneys.

Prime viewing: September through October.

Where: Vaux’s swifts travel through the Southland from Alaska to warmer winter climates. At peak migration, thousands of Vaux’s swifts can be seen entering chimneys, including those along East Street and Ninth Avenue in San Diego and the top level of Joe’s Auto Park at 440 South Broadway in downtown Los Angeles, where the Audubon Center at Debs Park typically sponsors a viewing party. Check website for details.

Contact: 4700 N. Griffin Avenue, Los Angeles. 1-323-221-2255.

Sea: Pacific gray whales
The barnacle-encrusted, sleek, torpedo-shaped marine creatures have one of the longest migrations of any mammal.

Prime viewing: November through April.

Where: Pacific gray whales travel 10,000 to 12,000 miles round-trip every year from their Arctic feeding grounds to Mexico, where females give birth in the warmer waters. The Aquarium of the Pacific offers daily cruises to search for these gentle giants that swim past Long Beach Harbor’s coastline.

Contact: 100 Aquarium Way, Long Beach. 1-562-590-3100

Worlds of Whimsy, Westways Magazine, June 2013

Photo by Kevin Knight

Photo by Kevin Knight


Los Arboles “Rocketship” Park, Torrance
Photo by Kevin Knight

These old-school playground help imaginations soar

Remember carefree days outdoors as a youth, spinning until dizzy on a merry-go-round or rubbing waxed paper on a metal slide for a zippier ride? Public playgrounds have long held a special sway, delighting children and filling the rest of us with nostalgia.

With their roots in 19th-century Germany, playgrounds encourage exercise, good manners, and healthy competition. In 1837, German education specialist Friedrich Fröbel founded the precursor to the modern kindergarten and paved the way for children to connect with the outdoors through play.

The trend arrived stateside at a time when immigrant families were crowding into urban neighborhoods. Social reformers advocated playgrounds as a way to curtail delinquency and provide a safe place for children to play. The first American playground was built at San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park in 1887.

Early playground equipment resembled gymnasium apparatuses that were meant to appeal to kids of all ages. However, artists and architects in the post–World War II period brought a new aesthetic to play structures. Spurred by a growing movement of experimentation in the 1950s and ’60s, they saw playgrounds as untapped territory for expression using unusual forms, materials, and themes, says Paige Johnson, who blogs about playground design at Play-scapes.com.

Many playgrounds from that era have disappeared and been replaced with prepackaged plastic modules. But remnants of these fantastical worlds still can be found in Southern California. Here, on any given afternoon among whimsically formed concrete, steel, and wood, imaginations take off and lifelong memories are made.

Torrance Los Arboles “Rocketship” Park

  • Best for ages 5-12
  • Playtime: Plenty of lawn space for blankets; be mindful of little ones near the unfenced slope. No restrooms, few picnic tables, and street parking only.


In the 1960s, following the launch of the Soviet Sputnik satellite, rocket ships were blasting off at playgrounds all over the United States. These classic conical metal structures whizzed children into the vastness of outer space from the comfort of their neighborhood park.

Today, most metal ships have gone the way of the scrap yard, but some, including the Rocketship at Los Arboles Park, have found a permanent launch pad.

Installed in 1964 and then restored in 1992 (residents complained loudly when park officials removed the structure earlier that year), this four-level spaceship provides one of the best views of the entire L.A. basin and now features an official plaque from the Torrance Historical Society.

You’ll lose count how many times you hear “4, 3, 2, 1, blast off!” as astronauts in training scale a ladder inside the ship from bottom to nose top. The metal slide is long, fast, and best for older kids. Nearby, a metal replica of a lunar module, with firefighter poles, ladders, and controls, is ready for battling aliens and saving planet Earth. 5101 Calle de Ricardo, Torrance. 1-310-618-2930.

San Gabriel La Laguna de San Gabriel at Vincent Lugo Park

  • Best for ages 1-12
  • Playtime: Bike paths, with bridges over a dry creek bed, surround the playground. Restrooms, picnic areas, soda/water machines, and bike racks. Park in the east lot for closest access.

Slide through a snail’s mouth, climb sea serpent spires, and cavort with wild dolphins at La Laguna de San Gabriel, which has been inspiring children to play since 1965.

Located in a hidden corner of Vincent Lugo Park, this aquatic-themed fantasyland was handcrafted by then-72-year-old Mexican concrete artist Benjamin Dominguez (see sidebar).

Despite its charms, La Laguna was slated for demolition in 2006. Local residents rallied to save the park, and in 2009 the California Register of Historical Resources welcomed the entire menagerie.

Today, the city, along with the Friends of La Laguna, is working to preserve the landmark. Visitors will find repaired structures (the dock, Lookout Mountain slide), as well as pieces awaiting renovation, including the currently off-limits Ollie the Octopus. Bring sand toys for toddlers, and expect older kids to invent story lines about a treasure chest, a sunken pirate ship, seal-shaped islands, and a whale. 300 W. Wells Street, San Gabriel. 1-626-308-2875.

Atlantis Play Center. Photo by Kevin Knight


Garden Grove Atlantis Play Center

  • Best for ages 1-13
  • Playtime: The cash-only snack bar and water play area are open June–September. Restrooms and shaded picnic areas. Operating hours vary. $2 (cash only) for ages 3 years and older, free for ages 2 and younger.

Celebrating its 50th anniversary this June, the Atlantis Play Center is a fully enclosed oasis of imagination that’s filled with oversize concrete sea critters and bucolic rolling greenery.

Let the kids loose in this 4-acre play preserve to discover what lives around the corner, up the hill, or under the bridge. The park is often crowded in summer with children from camps, so weekends are better times to visit.

Concrete artist Dominguez fashioned many of his signature aquatic creatures here—sea serpents; dolphins; a shark; and the all-time favorite, a sea dragon shaped into a slide that gently swirls riders down from atop a high peak.

While young children endlessly race up sloped stairways and grassy hills, older kids can enjoy extreme hide-and-seek in the shrubbery. Walkie-talkies would be perfect for spy games, but leave bikes, scooters, and roller skates at home. These items, along with dogs, are not allowed in the park. 13630 Atlantis Way, Garden Grove. 1-714-892-6015.

West Covina Sabre Jet Fighter at Palm View Park

  • Best for ages 3-10
  • Playtime: Two play areas (one enclosed for toddlers) and some exercise equipment for teens and adults are nearby. Restrooms, a shaded picnic area, and soda/water machines.

This playground’s star attraction is a U.S. Air Force F-86D Sabre Jet. Plopped on its belly atop wood chips, the sleek, shiny silver aircraft is the real deal: The plane never saw active combat, but it was flown by the Air National Guard and at various military bases in the 1950s.

The West Covina Junior Jaycees and representatives of aerospace manufacturer North American Aviation worked to transport the flying machine to its current home in 1961. Since then, it’s been covered with plaster so little hands and knees won’t burn on the hot metal. Nearby water misters provide relief on hot summer days when kids have missions to fly.

Enter the plane from the tail via a makeshift rebar ladder and walk across the top to the cockpit for make-believe aerial encounters. Be sure to photograph your pilot in the red front nose. 1340 E. Puente Avenue, West Covina. 1-626-939-8430.

Benjamin Dominguez Trained in “trabajo rustic” (making concrete to look like wood) at the Escuela Nacional de Artes Plásticas (National Academy of Visual Arts) in Mexico City, Benjamin Dominguez achieved fame at the city’s Chapultepec Zoo with his elaborate cement lion and tiger caves.

After immigrating to the United States in the 1950s, Dominguez created concrete items for golf courses and open spaces (bridges, tree sculptures, etc.), but he quickly became known for his fantastical concrete playlands throughout the Western U.S. Sadly, many of his rebar-and-cement structures have been demolished. Today, Dominguez’s fanciful creations are found locally only in Garden Grove, San Gabriel, Coldwater Park in Beverly Hills, and Legg Lake Park in Whittier Narrows.

As a child, Eagle Rock freelance writer Brenda Rees was always hopeful to swing so high that she’d touch the sky.