Electriquettes return to Balboa Park: a test drive
They look like overgrown lawn chairs and drive like cautious golf carts. They cannot move fast or travel far. If you were to put them up against a skateboarder, stroller or squirrel, they would lose.
When it comes to promenading in Balboa Park, however, nothing beats the throwback thrills of the Electriquette. The electrically powered wicker carts that were a sensation at San Diego’s 1915 Panama-California Exposition made a quiet return to the park earlier this year, when a rental kiosk opened outside the Reuben H. Fleet Science Center. They made their official debut last weekend, when Mayor Kevin Faulconer proclaimed Aug. 14 as Electriquette Day in San Diego.
How can you pass up a 101-year-old mode of transportation that comes with its very own proclamation? I couldn’t. From rental fees to scenic routes, here’s everything you need to know about the Balboa Park Electriquettes. One final word of advice: Do as I say, not as I drive.
The original idea for the Electriquette came from Clyde H. Osborn, a local electric car dealership owner who had the crazy notion to motorize the traditional wicker push chair for the Expo. He started the Electriquette Manufacturing Co. in Los Angeles, and the company built a few hundred individually numbered cars that became one of the Expo’s most popular attractions. Rental fees were a pricey $1 per hour, and tens of thousands ponied up.
After the Expo, the Electriquettes apparently puttered into oblivion. As far as anyone knows, there are no surviving carts. But in 2011, members of Balboa Park’s Committee of One Hundred persuaded local entrepreneur, inventor and car fan Sandor Shapery to bring them back. Shapery drafted architect David Marshall and his Heritage Architecture & Planning firm to create accurate drawings, and the project was off and running.
There are 24 Electriquettes in the new Balboa Park fleet, which is operated by the San Diego-based Electriquette Motor Cart Co. The wicker bodies were made in China, the electronics were made in Massachusetts, and the steering system was made in San Diego. The carts were assembled in San Diego, and they are available in Balboa Park and only in Balboa Park.
The Electriquette rental hours are 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Thursday and 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. Friday through Sunday. Rental fees are $15 for up to 30 minutes, or $25 for the first hour. Umbrellas are an extra $2 and worth every cent. Unless your summer plans include a bout of heatstroke. And sometimes, they do.
“We get a lot of Canadians, and they don’t want the umbrellas,” said cart attendant Daire Coco. “They always say, ‘Oh no, we want the sun.’”
The carts seat two adults, two adults and one child, or assorted humans and their assorted pets. The carts are dog-friendly, as long as your pooch can fit on the floor or on the seat with you. To drive one, you must be at least 16 years old and have a valid drivers license. As I quickly discovered, attention to detail comes in handy, too.
After you sign a waiver and hand over your license, the kiosk attendees will give you a quick driving tutorial. Like the originals, the new carts reach a maximum speed of a leisurely 3.5 mph. Accelerating, breaking and steering are all done with an L-shaped wand equipped with a motorcycle-like throttle.
The approved Electriquette route goes from the Fleet down the Prado to the Plaza de Panama. You can motor around the Lily Pond to the Botanical Building and drive inside the Plaza de Panama. You can stop and park your cart along the way, but you cannot drive on any of the car thoroughfares. The covered pedestrian walkways are off limits, too.
All of this information is also contained in a laminated card tucked in your cart, but that didn’t stop me from obliviously toodling down the first covered pedestrian walkway in my path. I was having a fine old time until one of the kiosk attendants ran up behind me, panting a kindly warning that I was violating the rules of the Electriquette Road.
Surely this happens all the time, right? If only.
“It’s a pretty small percentage,” Coco said, looking embarrassed for me. “Sometimes park employees will call us and say they’ve seen a cart that went off course. But mostly, people follow the rules.”
Once I got the moving violation out of the way, my 30-minute Electriquette journey was a delight. The cart was easy to drive and surprisingly nimble, making it a breeze to navigate around fountains, cafe tables and meandering pedestrians. Wheee!
Highlights on the short, but picturesque route include the Lily Pond (Don’t forget to brake for ducks); the majestic Bea Evenson Fountain in front of the Fleet, which provides a welcome curtain of mist for sweaty drivers; and the Plaza de Panama, whose collection of tables and planters will test your navigational skills in a very satisfying way. If you can drive your Electriquette there, you can drive it anywhere. Except the covered walkways.
The carts have no pickup at all, but unless you plan on drag-racing the pigeons, you won’t need it. With their whimsical design and total lack of speed, these old-fashioned vehicles are a perfect match for our historic park. Kids get a kick out of the carts, and they are a terrific way for people with mobility challenges to take in the scenery without wearing themselves out.
No matter where you go in your Electriquette, you will be cruising through a priceless stretch of San Diego History. And there is no reason to rush that.
“Just get in your cart and relax, and you will be able to enjoy Balboa Park the way people used to — at 3.5 miles per hour,” said Kimm Keeline, general manager of the Electriquette Motor Cart Co. “I’ve had bicyclists pass me, but you know what? I don’t have to work at it.”
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