- The Washington Times - Saturday, June 30, 2007

SANTA CRUZ, Calif.

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. On the West Coast, the summer of 2007 marks merely another birthday for the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk.

The enduring salty dog of amusement parks turns 100 this year.

Exhilarating rides, food 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 — including Toledo Beach on Lake Erie in LaSalle Township, Mich., and the original Myrtle Beach Pavilion in South Carolina — have gone under.

Though Santa Cruz doesn’t have 100-mph roller coasters like Six Flags or Sandusky, Ohio’s Cedar Point or rides based on movies like Disney World or Universal Studios, it still attracts about 3 million visitors a year.

It is considered one of the last remaining gems of its breed, says 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,” Mr. Spiegel says.

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 Canfield, 67, is president of the company.

“Technology has really changed amusement parks considerably,” he says, “[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 new rides are faster but still a relative bargain. Admission to the boardwalk is still free, and a $28.95 wristband buys access to all the rides all day long. That’s a deal compared to larger, brand-name theme parks where one-day tickets easily exceed $50. Unlike larger theme parks, Santa Cruz keeps its lines moving 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 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 a half-hour earlier.

The boardwalk also still hosts a strip of hand-eye-coordination games in which dexterous dads impress their broods by winning stuffed animals — the dime toss, tennis-ball-shooting bazooka guns and the old tossing 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 up-to-the-minute 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.

Buccaneer Bay, a two-story miniature golf course, hosted 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) imaginable.

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 admonished playfully by their wives for eyeing the passing bikinis.

“I like the vibe in Santa Cruz,” says Jason Hall of San Jose, Calif., 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.”

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