The Birth of the Discovery Science Center
Earlier, I described the non-profit Art Spaces Irvine (ASI) and its program to put public art in Irvine, a program eventually killed by then Irvine City Councilwoman Christina Shea. Nevertheless, out of ASI came two seminal ideas: creating a huge park in Irvine and a hands-on science and technology experiential museum.
Even though ASI ceased to exist, my brother Walkie seized the idea of creating an experiential museum and became obsessed.
First, came the specific concept. For that he found inspiration in The Exploratorium in San Francisco, which is a “museum” filled with exhibits demonstrating various scientific principles. The important thing is this: all the exhibits are designed for children to push buttons, press levers, jump around and so on. It is fun.
Then came the location. For that, Walkie found an old retail furniture building at the corner of Interstate 5 and Main Street in Santa Ana, which because of the then-recession, he got cheap. This was not big enough, though, and he turned to the City of Santa Ana and its mayor, Miguel Pulido, and City Manager David Ream, who through a series of deft political economic maneuvers, bought and or tied up enough other land for the site.
All along, Walkie and his wife Janet wined and dined potential contributors at their home in Newport. They had trouble gaining traction until a friend at Disney suggested they needed an architectural icon to give the idea an image and a name that specifically was not museum-like. So “The Cube” was born, a huge structure that today is perched on the freeway side of the non-museum-named Discovery Science Center (DSC).
After Walkie built a model showing The Cube and how the DSC would look, the contributions began. First came Taco Bell, which contributed an initial $2 million (and hence the center’s official name, The Taco Bell Discovery Science Center). Then came a bunch of other contributions and pledges and a bank loan.
DSC was still $6 million short, and Taco Bell used its lobbying muscle to obtain a grant from the state. The Republican-controlled State Assembly and Republican Gov. Pete Wilson liked the idea. However, the Democratic-controlled State Senate rejected, of course, anything the Republicans from “conservative Orange County” wanted. So Taco Bell’s lobbyist told them DSC had to go beg from the Democrats. There was only one person associated with the DSC who also had the Democratic credentials necessary to do the begging: me. So I did. And DSC got the money and opened in 1998.
Today, annual attendance tops 500,000, making the DSC the most-visited institution of its kind in the U.S. Further, it is on a $72 million expansion campaign, which will knock your socks off.
The whole thing was pioneering and daring and none of us knew if we would be successful, which did not deter us in the least. And it was just a beginning.
Laguna Beach resident Michael Ray grew up in Corona del Mar. He makes a living as a real estate entrepreneur and volunteers with several non profits.