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Balboa Park is San Diego's oasis of culture

You'd think there was a party going on.

On a pleasant weekend day at Fountain Plaza, in the elegant shadow of the San Diego Natural History Museum, folks visit with each other in the splash of the font, children scream with delight in their play, and the happy sound of laughter echoes across the street known as El Prado.It's no party, though. Just daily life at Balboa Park, San Diego's 1,100 acres of parkland, museums, art galleries, theaters and assorted other cultural delights. Located just northeast of San Diego's business district, the oasis of greenery and other attractions is the largest urban cultural park in the nation, surpassing even Central Park in New York. Some 12 million city residents and tourists visit each year, drawn by the museums, the architecture, the gardens.

"A lot of people come to the park because they have heard of all the plantings," says Mardi Snow, public relations director for the park. "It's very well-known for its horticulture."

Balboa dates to 1868, when the acreage was set aside as a city park. It languished until the 1890s, when a woman named Kate Sessions, a horticulturist with a vision, approached city council members with a plan: If they would fund it, she would plant 100 trees and shrubs each year in Balboa Park. They bought the idea, and, for 26 years, Sessions spaded the earth and planted an array of palms, jacaranda, sugar gum, eucalyptus and assorted other flora.

The park grew so lush that it played host to the Panama-California International Exposition of 1915-16. Opulent Spanish-Colonial-Revival buildings were created as exhibit halls for the event, which celebrated the opening of the Panama Canal; many still remain and are now museums or art galleries.

"(Visitors) are totally overwhelmed with the Spanish architecture," Snow says. "It's like New York City - you see people staring straight up at the architecture."

The park, which never closes, is always busy, she says.

"We have everything from lawn bowling - these elderly people all in bright white against the deep green of the grass - every afternoon but Wednesday, I think, to boccie ball, the Italian version of bowling, at the other end of the park and everything in between," Snow says.

Joggers, bikers and walkers whiz along the pathways in the park, picnickers lounge on the grass, and children delight in riding the 1910 carousel.

While crime has blighted the reputation of the park in the past, today mounted police and a volunteer patrol are much in evidence, crime is at a low ebb, and Balboa has regained its status as a safe park, Snow says.

The San Diego Police Department agrees. "People flood the park every weekend, and they feel safe," says spokesman Bill Robinson, who explained that this year crime is low, with only a few car burglaries. But even those incidents have decreased, he added.

You could easily spend an entire day here, practically wear out a pair of tennis shoes and still not see everything. Just taking in a few of the museums would eat up several hours (and if you go to the San Diego Zoo, you can almost forget about the rest of the park, that day anyway.) But on the few hours I have this day, I mainly want to soak up the atmosphere.

The museums - especially San Diego Museum of Man, Museum of San Diego History and San Diego Aerospace Museum - will have to wait for another time.

First stop: the Spanish Village Art Center. The tiny, Spanish-style structures form a burst of color around a traditional courtyard in their pink, blue and seafoam green paint. Splashes of magenta bougainvillea crown some of the roofs, and a few of the shopkeepers stand in the doorways.

There are 35 art galleries and studios here; sometimes, often on the weekends, a gallery employee tells me, you can catch artisans - sculptors, glassblowers, jewelers, woodcarvers, painters - at work, but such is not the case this day.

I move on past the natural history museum, its fabulous 63-foot-tall Moreton Bay fig tree and the fountain where all the action is and head down El Prado, also called the Promenade. It's a broad road with some stunning vistas of lavish architectural works stretching up to meet a robin's-egg-blue sky.

As stately and pretty as this area is, there's still a sense of fun. Turning into the Casa de Balboa, where the San Diego Model Railroad Museum fills about 24,000 square feet of the bottom floor, I spot a man in a beach chair wearing a balloon twisted in the shape of a bright red heart on his head. There are no takers just now for his balloon artistry, but that doesn't keep him from beaming happily at passers-by.

The museum is bustling with folks looking agog at extensive model railroad layouts of the legendary Tehachapi Pass, the Cabrillo & Southwestern Yard, Pacific Desert Line, the San Diego & Arizona Eastern Yard and the San Diego Three-Railers line. Men in conductors' hats are busy in the center of the layouts, building, refining and reworking, as well as switching the trains.

"It's kind of a lifetime project. One man said it's an everlasting challenge," says John Rotsart, museum director, who added that each layout is built and maintained by members of different railroad clubs. About 300 volunteers work periodically at the museum, where kids and their parents get excited about the lifelike tiny figures and structures and the realistic sound effects.

Back on El Prado, the lily pond that stretches to the entrance of the Botanical Gardens building commands attention. The fledgling flowers are just starting to poke their heads out of the water; it doesn't take much imagination to visualize the sight of splendid white waterlilies against the panorama of the handsome redwood building. And inside is more splendor - about 2,100 tropical plants flourish here.

A few steps away, the royal entrance to the San Diego Museum of Art - dominated by the bronze sculpture, "El Cid," by Anna Huntington - draws attention away from the House of Hospitality, a historic, cultural building that is currently being rebuilt across the street and will reopen Sept. 14 with not only the visitors center, but meeting and conference rooms, a restaurant and a ball-room.

Across the way, there's a museum with a child's heart and an adult mentality - the Mingei International Museum of Folk Art, located in the old House of Charm building. It is a treasure box for adults, with giant folk-art creations such as fanciful weather vanes, cigar-store Indians, quilts, lavishly decorated furniture and hooked rugs. I step off the elevator on the second floor and almost walk into the rear end of a giant centipede, a chartreuse and red papier-mache creation from Mexico.

There are displays of vibrant pottery, huge masks from New Zealand, textiles from the Philippines and Afghanistan and a palace facade from India. The most captivating feature: a delightful collection of antique carousel horses carved by five generations of the Dentzel family.

There are several gardens situated throughout the park, and most grow plants. But the one just across the street from the Mingei is different. Here, tucked behind a small restaurant, big pieces of iron sprout in a variety of weird shapes and paint-box colors of bright yellow, red, blue and black. It's anybody's guess what they are, but the Sculpture Garden is an exercise for the imagination.

To the lyrical tolling of the 100-bell carillon that chimes every quarter-hour from the park's California Bell Tower, I make my way to the Japanese Friendship Garden. The walk winds past the Palm Tree Arboretum toward the giant Spreckels Organ Pavilion. The organ, which boasts more than 4,500 pipes, is said to be the largest outdoor pipe organ in the world. You can hear it played at 2 p.m. Sundays and during evening concerts throughout the summer.