Balboa Park comes back to life

Annie Yan and Jack Read from Encinitas view paintings in one of the galleries at the San Diego Museum of Art in Balboa Park
Annie Yan and Jack Read from Encinitas view paintings in one of the galleries at the San Diego Museum of Art in Balboa Park on Saturday.
(Nelvin C. Cepeda/The San Diego Union-Tribune)

More museums and venues opening as pandemic restrictions ease


Like a sleeping beauty rousing from a long slumber, Balboa Park is coming back to life amid declining COVID-19 rates and increasing numbers of people receiving vaccinations.

“I definitely feel there’s a light at the end of the tunnel,” said P.J. Fatanat of Crown Point as he walked his dog with friends on a picture-perfect, sun-splashed Saturday.

With San Diego County recently entering the red tier of pandemic restrictions, an increasing number of park venues have reopened — at least on a limited basis. The San Diego Natural History Museum, the San Diego Automotive Museum and the San Diego Model Railroad Museum each reopened this weekend.

When Natural History Museum staffers unlocked the doors at 10 a.m. Saturday, about 30 people had already lined up.

Clairemont’s Jonathan and Stephanie Patino and their four children, who had been regular visitors before the pandemic hit, arrived an hour early to be the first in the queue.

“We live in an apartment so we don’t have a backyard where we can send our kids out to play in, so this is like our backyard,” Stephanie said. Five-year-old Nathaniel, already an expert on all things Jurassic, wore a dinosaur outfit. “My favorite dinosaur is the Gallimimus,” he said. “They can go faster than Velociraptors and they have sharper jaws.”

The Patino family in front of the San Diego Natural History Museum
Jonathan and Stephanie Patino from Clairemont along with their four children — Benjamin, 10; Beverly, 9; Nathaniel, 5; and Madeline, 2 — were the first in line to enter the San Diego Natural History Museum in Balboa Park when it opened Saturday morning.
(Nelvin C. Cepeda/The San Diego Union-Tribune)

College students Annie Yan and Jack Read perused the paintings at the San Diego Museum of Art. “I think this is the first time I’ve been to a museum in over a year,” Yan said. “It feels nice to go into these spaces again and not be at home all the time.”

The reopened sites have adhered to pandemic protocols that include the wearing of masks, social distancing and 25 percent capacity restrictions.

The 27,000-square-foot San Diego Model Railroad Museum is restricted to no more than 80 people at a time, but museum officials reported 370 visitors on Friday — nearly twice as large, compared to pre-pandemic numbers for this time of year.

“There’s been a lot of pent-up demand, and I hear other attractions around the park are doing quite well,” said Katy Titus, the Model Railroad Museum’s marketing and community engagement coordinator. “We’ve had a lot of people come through our doors, and that’s incredibly helpful to us as we try to make up for lost revenue.”

Debra Shaiken of Carlsbad takes her grandson Mylo to the San Diego Model Railroad Museum at Balboa Park on Saturday.
Debra Shaiken of Carlsbad takes her grandson Mylo to the San Diego Model Railroad Museum at Balboa Park on Saturday.
(Rob Nikolewski/San Diego Union-Tribune)

Debra Shaiken of Carlsbad watched as her 3½-year-old grandson Mylo excitedly pointed at model trains zipping by the faux Southern California terrain.

“The last time we were here, I was like, ‘I can’t believe I have to stand here and look at these trains go by for another half hour,’” Shaiken said. “But right now, I don’t care. I’ll just stand here all day. My patience is so good because I think we all realize how lucky we are to have this.”

David Neville, director of marketing and communications at the San Diego Air and Space Museum, which reopened on St. Patrick’s Day, said visitors seem much more cheerful to be back.

“Balboa Park is open for business,” Neville said. “The more museums, the more gift shops, the more things that are open in the park, the better for everybody.”

A boost in park attendance means more business for vendors. Jeremiah Rivera of Golden State Dogs, who stayed busy selling hot dogs, sausages and soft drinks next to the fountain at the plaza, estimated his sales have improved 30 percent over last month.

“My sales were so bad (last year) I had to go get another job,” Rivera said. “Now it’s kind of getting back to where I could probably support myself being out here.”

Not far away, David Daniels of San Diego added a soulful vibe, playing his electric guitar for tips and singing tunes such as the 1970s chart-topper from the Spinners, “I’ll Be Around.”

“It smells like spring,” Daniels said. “The people are really ready to get out of the house and break the monotony. It’s great to see everybody out again and enjoying each other.”

Balboa Park venues scheduled for at least partial reopening later this month include:

  • Veterans Museum, April 8
  • Fleet Science Center, April 9
  • Museum of Photographic Arts, April 16
  • San Diego History Center, April 16
  • Museum of Us (formerly the Museum of Man), April 21
    — Rob Nikolewski is a reporter for The San Diego Union-Tribune