Mission Beach Plunge pool reopens after 5 years and $12M in fixes

The Historic Mission Beach Plunge in San Diego reopened today after a comprehensive rebuild. Children from the community jumped in to the pool to officially open the rebuilt landmark.
( Jennifer Van Grove | The San Diego Union-Tribune)

Belmont Park’s long-shuttered Plunge swimming pool is resuming operations in a state-of-the-art facility on Thursday, offering recreational and serious swimmers a seaside experience drenched in history and sunlight.

The nearly 400,000-gallon indoor pool, half of which is reserved for lap swimmers, made its splashy return onto the Mission Beach scene Wednesday morning during a choreographed media event where local kids dove into the pool in what organizers referred to as the “inaugural first plunge.”

The Plunge will officially open to the public at a weekday rate of $15 per adult on Independence Day, a date that’s meant to coincide with the 94th anniversary of Belmont Park’s historic Giant Dipper roller coaster. Now called The Plunge at FIT, the pool is part of an all-new multi-purpose facility more than five years in the making that includes the FIT Athletic gym, which is scheduled to open Aug. 1.

“This is such an iconic pool,” said San Diego Mayor Kevin Faulconer. “So many San Diegans are attached to this pool, and to see the care in which it was redone, with the significant historic features, I think speaks volumes.”

Belmont Park, originally called the Mission Beach Amusement Center, was developed by sugar magnate John D. Spreckels in 1925 and turned over to the city of San Diego in 1939 to be held in public trust. It is currently operated by long-term leaseholder Rancho Sante Fe-based Pacifica Enterprises, which took over in 2012 after the previous operator, Tom Lochtefeld, filed for bankruptcy.

The Historic Mission Beach Plunge in San Diego has reopened after a comprehensive rebuild.
(John Gibbins / The San Diego Union-Tribune)

At its opening, the Coney Island-style park’s centerpiece was the natatorium, which housed the largest indoor saltwater swimming pool in the world at the time. The pool was converted to fresh water in 1940.

The aquatic facility closed its doors in early 2014 because of unsafe conditions. Its structural damage was so severe that a planned $1.2 million repair effort morphed into a $12 million reconstruction effort, although costs escalated in part because of delays in securing permits.

The reconstruction project kicked off in October 2016 and was overseen by San Diego’s Historical Resources Board. It took longer than anticipated because of the complexities associated with sourcing pool materials that resembled original materials, said Dan Hayden, who is in charge of engineering for Pacifica. The mosaic tiles were, for instance, custom made to replicate the 1925 tiles that were so badly damaged they could not be restored.

“This is a very unconventional pool; just its size and the fact that it’s all tile,” he said. “If you built a modern, competition pool like this today, it would be plaster and something that you could do quickly. ... To do a pool this size with tiny, little one-by-one tiles is extremely difficult.”

A portion of Pacifica’s project cost is being absorbed by the city of San Diego, which owns the building. The city agreed to foot $5.2 million of the bill, paid through future rent credits, in its amended 2015 lease agreement with the operator. In the most recent fiscal year ending June 30, Pacifica paid the city $1.53 million in rent for the Belmont Park property, according to a revenue statement provided by the city.

Now finished, the new Plunge building features a contemporary, upscale design. It is made of glass and aluminum, with floor to ceiling windows and sliding doors that allow for a relatively uninterrupted view from the amusement park through to the boardwalk and beach. It still pays homage to its historic roots with a re-creation of the triple-arched entry at the main entrance on the north side of the building, where there are also two commemorative plaques.

“To their credit, (Pacifica) really put in the dollars necessary not only to modernize it but to keep what made it special,” Faulconer said.

Eric Shorter, a fitness manager for the fitness center and lifeguard at the pool, watches over the first group of children to try out the refurbished Mission Beach Plunge. The historic pool reopened today after a comprehensive rebuild.
(John Gibbins / The San Diego Union-Tribune)

Unlike in its past life, the interior of the Plunge facility was built to mimic and connect to the outdoors. For instance, the automatic, retractable roof over the pool opens and closes based on the temperature, said Steve Thomas, who manages Belmont Park.

“We’re trying to keep the temperature (inside the facility) within two degrees of the water temperature (which is 82 degrees),” he said. “That way, when you get in the pool and then get out, your body doesn’t feel a huge difference in temperature.”

The amenity-rich building is meant to keep swimmers comfortable in other ways. There are ample chaises and sectionals for lounging, stadium-style seating for swim competition crowds and a poolside steam room. There is also a reserved dining deck with ocean views, where food and beverage service will be handled by the connected Beach House restaurant.

The specifics have yet to be worked out, but the pool will eventually offer a variety of aquatic classes and host local swim teams, Thomas said.

“(The pool) is for the community of San Diego and Fit members. I see everybody coming here,” he said, noting the venue’s potential appeal for events and birthday parties.

The Plunge will operate daily from 12 p.m. to 5 p.m. to start, although hours may change with the August opening of Fit Athletic. Monday through Friday, the daily rate is $12 for kids and seniors, and $15 for adults. On weekends, day rates are $3 higher. The pool will also sell discounted group passes, as well as monthly memberships that range from $30 to $70. Gym members will have access to the pool at no additional charge.


1:10 p.m. July 3, 2019: Updated throughout with more details of the project and comments.