It’s a feeling you get when you stroll along the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk’s historic colonnade, the big pink-and-yellow arches framing a postcard view of sand and sea. Squint just a little and slip back a century, when the first attractions opened in 1907. Imagine beachgoers in floppy swim caps, modest bathing suits sewn long like dresses.
The freaky time vortex works another way, too – no matter what your age, you turn 12. This anomaly usually occurs aboard the Giant Dipper, California’s oldest wooden roller coaster.
Waiting in line, waves of screams in the distance make you giggle with nervous joy. It’s your turn, and there’s a split-second decision – the front car for the best visuals, or the rear for the best whip? You take the back and the breathy “toot toot toot” of the start whistle sends you diving into darkness, then click-clacking up the 70-foot hill, affording a breathtaking view and a deceptive moment of calm. Then you drop. Fast. More screams ring out, this time from you.
You’ve made the trip into childhood.
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It’s old-school fun, for sure. The Boardwalk – named the No. 1 Boardwalk on USA Today’s 2016 Reader’s Choice list – may not offer the highest-tech, most-extreme rides like some of today’s bigger amusement parks. But it has a lot of things they don’t have – mainly the beach. Plus a giant video-game arcade, indoor mini golf and more history than most of the other parks put together.
And one of the best parts – you can do as much or as little as you want, because there’s no overall admission fee. You can buy electronic tickets to pay for individual rides, or opt for unlimited day and season passes. But you don’t even have to ride anything at all – just walk the walk, get some saltwater taffy at Marini’s candy stand, make a sand castle and absorb the sunset.
Be advised, go early – especially in the summer. On nice days, it gets super crowded, and parking is tricky, so the earlier you go, the better. Go during the week if you can. Take advantage of specials, like the $1 rides on Retro Nights (after 5 p.m. Mondays and Tuesdays during summer months), free outdoor movies on Wednesday nights, and free concerts on Fridays.
It’s pretty easy to find your way around the Boardwalk, but here are some tips for extra fun, and hints for things you might otherwise miss:
OK, so it’s hard to miss the Giant Dipper with its curvaceous back rising above the shoreline like a red-and-white sea monster. But here’s a little more about it: It just turned 92. It was built in 1924 in a mere 47 days for $50,000. (By contrast, its 2014 paint job alone cost $300,000.) The swooping beauty is a National Historic Landmark and meticulously cared for – maintenance crews walk the tracks every operating hour, every day. And it’s a favorite of the American Coaster Enthusiasts, says that group’s Northern California rep, Nicholas Laschkewitsch.
“You get a lot of air time on the Dipper,” he says, referring to the lift you get when you go over a hump. “Especially since you’re near the ocean, you get that sensation you’re gonna fly out of your seat and into the water.”
You won’t, of course. Especially if you’re a weenie and you cling to the safety bar.
The Looff Carousel
The hand-carved horses of the carousel have been spinning their circular route since 1911. The original Ruth & Sohn band organ has played alongside the carousel since it opened, and now a rare Wurlitzer from the former Playland-at-the-Beach and a third, smaller Wurlitzer take turns pumping out the carnival music. The Looff is one of the few remaining carousels in the country where you can still try to grab a brass ring (these days they’re steel) and throw it in a giant clown’s mouth.
Take the ski-lift style ride along the length of the Boardwalk, for great views and a lovely breeze to cool you on a warm day.
Cave Train Adventure
This one is easy to miss, down on the lower level at the southern end of the Boardwalk. But it’s worth it for its weirdness. You ride a little train into a psychedelic glow-in-the-dark world of wacky animatronic dinosaurs and cave people – kind of the Flintstones on Haight-Ashbury.
Be advised, some cave men have escaped and might be spotted on various outdoor benches or riding the Sky Glider, says Tish Denevan, who has worked for the Boardwalk since 1978 and gives history tours. “People have even called 911 about them,” she says. “They think we left someone on the ride.”
This vast indoor realm includes Smuggler’s Arcade – 300 games, from classics such as Asteroids and Pac-Man, to the newest “4-D” pod-style games, such as Dark Escape and Star Wars Battle Pods. Plus, there’s an old-school shooting gallery, pool tables and air hockey.
Next door in the cavernous building that once housed a natatorium, there be Buccaneer Bay, mateys – a two-level, 18-hole, pirate-themed mini-golf course. As you play, there’s occasional cannon fire and glowing starfish and rocks in the three black-lit holes. Animatronic pirates growl, “Land ho!”
This is a must. Marini’s, near Neptune’s Kingdom, has been on the Boardwalk since 1915, selling all manner of treats, including saltwater taffy. Become mesmerized watching a machine in the front window, pulling the taffy again and again and again. It will mentally command you to go buy some taffy. You will obey.
Just what the name indicates, it’s a twisted, sliced potato on a stick. This snack is so popular, it just got a new storefront this year, midway down the Boardwalk.
Yes, they exist, even here. Boardwalk food concessionaire Matt Twisselman recently won a Golden Carrot Award for healthful options, such as rice bowls and wraps at various stands in the park.
Check out historic photos, restored vintage arcade games, old dresslike bathing suits from the natatorium and more in the Boardwalk Historium – it’s free, upstairs inside Neptune’s Kingdom.
For more history, go to the Boardwalk’s website and download a PDF for a self-guided walking tour. Or watch for Historic Walking Tour placards located throughout the park.
Miss the old Fun House? It closed in 1971, but you can still see your funny self in the old distorted mirrors, tucked away inside Neptune’s Kingdom (below the stairs, across from Boardwalk Magic Store).
Photo-ops. There’s a good one near the carousel next to oversized beach balls and a big red “Boardwalk” sign. Not far from there, you can pose on a bench with one of the stray cavemen and take a prehistoric selfie. It’s a freaky time-travel vortex.