This year marks the final season for a couple of well-known seaside attractions on the East Coast, Coney Island's Astroland and Atlantic City's Steel Pier. But on the West Coast, the summer of 2007 is merely another birthday for the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk.
The enduring salty dog of amusement parks turns 100 this year. Exhilarating rides, foods on a stick and pocket-change entertainment are still the main attractions along a strip of shoreline that first hosted a string of bathhouses in the late 1800s. The Santa Cruz boardwalk itself was born in 1907, and it has survived even as similar attractions — like Toledo Beach on Lake Erie in LaSalle Township, Mich., and the original Myrtle Beach Pavilion in South Carolina — have gone under.
And while Santa Cruz doesn't have 100 mph roller coasters like Six Flags or Cedar Point, or rides themed on movies like Disney and Universal, it still attracts an estimated 3 million visitors a year. In fact, it is considered one of the last remaining gems of its breed, said Dennis Spiegel, president of International Theme Park Services, a consulting firm to the attractions industry.
"It's kind of a page out of yesteryear. In our industry it's just revered as one of the all-time great operations," Spiegel said.
The Canfield family has run the Santa Cruz attractions since 1952, when Laurence Canfield bought a controlling interest in the Seaside Co., which operates the boardwalk. His son, Charles, started working there four years later, as a teenage ride operator in Kiddie Land, a collection of rides for children not tall enough for the larger attractions.
Today Charles, 67, is president of the company. "Technology has really changed amusement parks considerably," he said. "(But) the people are basically the same. ... They just come here to have a good time, sort of escape their jobs for a weekend."
The rides are faster now, but admission to the boardwalk is still free. A $28.95 wristband buys you access to all the rides all day long, a bargain compared to bigger brand-name theme parks where one-day tickets easily exceed $50. And unlike larger theme parks, the lines at Santa Cruz move along briskly. The park also seems clean and spiffy despite its age, and the view of the ocean and the occasional surfer is part of the fun.
About 75 miles from San Francisco, Santa Cruz was a logical place for such an attraction in the early 1900s, when trains brought vacationers in from the Sacramento and San Joaquin valleys, as well as farther afield.
The Giant Dipper roller coaster, a National Historic Landmark, remains the signature ride at the boardwalk. It began thrilling visitors on May 17, 1924, and its 500 feet of twisting track and wooden construction survived the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake.
The slow climb to the Giant Dipper's 75-foot peak is a tense affair. The small cars chatter and the cranking of hidden chains and gears gives the impression of something bad looming. Then you drop, and your stomach is briefly weightless as you recall the deep-fried artichoke hearts you inhaled half-hour earlier.
Games for everyone
The boardwalk also still hosts a strip of hand-eye coordination games where dexterous dads impress their brood by winning a stuffed animal — the dime-toss, tennis ball-shooting bazooka guns, and the old toss-a-rubber-ball-at-the-weighted-milk-bottles routine.
Games of chance and skill are housed in the main Casino Arcade, but the clunky, simplistic wooden contraptions of the past have given way to cutting-edge video games.
Some of the old games have been relegated to showpiece status, including a dangerous looking contraption that reads "Electricity: The Silent Physician," which dared boardwalk visitors of an earlier generation to grab hold of its two metal handles and receive a gentle jolt of electricity to encourage vitality.
The Buccaneer Bay two-story miniature golf course used to host the Plunge, also known as the Natatorium, from 1907 to 1962. It was a large indoor saltwater swimming pool that featured water carnivals and fancy high-dive demonstrations.
Over the years, the boardwalk has seen its share of beauty pageants, movie sets, roller coaster fanatics and every phase of the bathing suit (or lack thereof) you could imagine.
On any given weekend, the scene might include children drying out ride tickets on a bench after a dunk in the ocean, or husbands being playfully admonished by their wives for eyeing the passing bikinis.
"I like the vibe in Santa Cruz," said Jason Hall, of San Jose, who visited on a recent Sunday and recalled seeing the boardwalk featured in the 1987 Kiefer Sutherland film "The Lost Boys."
"It's got its own energy that's different from anything else."
If you go
Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk is in Santa Cruz, Calif., about 75 miles south of San Francisco; http://www.beachboardwalk.com or 831-423-5590. Admission to the boardwalk area is free; all-day unlimited ride wristband, $28.95. Rides open daily at 11 a.m. through August, and are also open most weekends and holidays year-round.
Top three rides:
"The Giant Dipper." Constructed in 1924 in 47 days, this wooden beauty of a roller coaster is the signature ride of Santa Cruz. The tension mounts as cranking chains pull the tiny cars 75 feet above the boardwalk, only to send you hurtling downward in a screaming blur. Declared a National Historic Landmark in 1987, the Dipper is as old-school as it gets, but it hasn't lost its ability to thrill.
"The Looff Carousel." Installed by Charles I. D. Looff in 1911, this merry-go-round boasts real pipe-organ music, hand-carved horses and rings from a mechanical dispenser to throw in the clown's mouth each time around.
"The Cave Train." This slow-moving train ride takes you back in time — to the Stone Age — with comical statues of cavemen in otherwise mundane activities such as fishing, sleeping and drinking. It's also the perfect place to steal a kiss from your summertime sweetie.
Top three eats:
Surf City Grill corndogs. Hand-dipped and huge. Surf City Grill was known as Hodgie's when it was run by the late Howard "Hodgie" Wetzel. His gut-busting legacy lives on with these bready delights, which will set you back $3.45.
Marini's salt water taffy. That giant metal contraption contorting in the front window is twisting taffy just for you. Flavors range from trusty old strawberry to pina colada. A one-pound box costs $12.
"Sandaes." Hands-down the best dessert at the boardwalk. Vanilla ice cream, sandwiched between two chocolate chip cookies, dipped in hard-shell chocolate and smothered in peanuts for $3.25. All done up right before your eyes and not handed to you in a plastic wrapper by a disinterested 16-year-old. They're available at a few of the ice cream vendor windows along the boardalk.
Top three ways for adults to kill an hour while waiting for the kids:
The Casino Arcade. Relive your own youth with some of the classic games of the past, including Superman pinball, Pac Man, air hockey and foosball.
Beer, billiards and boardwalk history. In the upper reaches of a building called Neptune's Kingdom, you'll find pool tables, draft beer and historic photos from the amusement park's past.
Sundown beach stroll. Santa Cruz's broad beach is just steps away. You can stand ankle-deep in the Pacific as the screams of the crowd and the rumble of the rides blends in with the gentle lapping of the sea. When the sun goes down and the boardwalk lights up, you'll realize you're in a special place.