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The Cohn Restaurant Group Wants to Put in a 148-Foot-High, Dine-in Observation Wheel at Balboa Park

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It’s unconventional dining in the age of Covid-19

Rendering Courtesy of The Cohn Restaurant Group

Since reopening Balboa Park, the iconic site has seen 50 percent less visitors than usual. In a bid to reactivate the allure of the park, the Cohn Restaurant Group, which operates Balboa Park’s Prado Restaurant and Tea Pavilion, is leading the charge to place a temporary observation wheel in the Plaza de Panama in front of the San Diego Museum of Art.

Currently dubbed The Balboa Park Star, the 148-foot-tall wheel would operate in partnership with Sky Views of America, which runs the Grand Wheel at San Diego County Fair through sister company Ray Cammack Shows. If approved, the observation wheel would do a three to six month stint in the park.

The R50 XL Wheel offers panoramic views from 36 eight-passenger gondolas. Though it can hold up to 288 passengers at a time, use at full capacity is not intended. Current Covid-19 discussions include a switch schedule (not occupying all gondolas at once) to allow time for sanitizing high-touch points and/or the use of electrostatic spray disinfectant.

Ticket prices would likely fall between $12 to $15 dollars per person and could be reserved online or at the site. In addition to family-friendly rides through the sky, the observation wheel would provide an opportunity for new styles of Covid-19 safe dining. David Cohn tells Eater they plan to offer a “chef-driven, three-course dinner with alcohol pairings as well as possible wine dinners and other themed experiences” to enjoy as the wheel rotates.

Rendering Courtesy of The Cohn Restaurant Group

The observation wheel was originally proposed by Sky Views of America for Balboa Park’s centennial celebration in 2015, harking back to the famous ferris wheel from the 1915 Panama-California Exposition, but modernized with climate control and sound systems. Or as David Cohn put it, “a temporary bridge between the past and the present.”

The proposal hopes to benefit Balboa Park as a whole, not just the Cohn’s restaurant group; at a recent meeting about the project, Makeda Dread of the neighboring World Beat Center submitted the comment, “Thank you for your efforts to bring visitors and residents back into the park again.” The Balboa Park Star committee also intends to offer ticket discounts and develop cross-collaboration with the adjacent Balboa Park institutions.

Concerns have been raised around whether an observation wheel would be permissible under California’s Covid-19 guidelines. The Balboa Park carousel has been closed since March and rides at Belmont Park were ordered re-closed in June. The state offered clarity in new guidelines published October 20, which says that under the Red Tier (San Diego’s current tier) “Standalone, outdoor attractions are permitted to operate. Standalone amusement attractions are defined as ride attractions (such as a carousel, Ferris wheel, or train ride) that are operated independently of, and are located on distinct and separate grounds from, other amusement attractions.”

This proposal was first presented to the Balboa Park Committee on October 1 (video of the meeting can be viewed here with the presentation beginning at the 1h 28min mark) rousing buzz in local and national media, but it’s currently awaiting for approval from various groups. A presentation was made to the Balboa Park Cultural Partnership Board on Wednesday, October 28 and the proposal will be submitted as an action item at the next Balboa Park Committee meeting on November 5. Ultimately, the city of San Diego must approve the plan. David Cohn tells Eater that he hopes “to have [approval] by the end of next month.”