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Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk

The fabled Santa Cruz seaside park is almost 100 years old. And it is awesome as ever.

Big Dipper on Boardwalk in Santa Cruz California
Photo caption
The Giant Dipper on the boardwalk is not for the faint of heart.


I was busy scouting my crustacean breakfast possibilities when I heard the first screams of the day. Suddenly, a meal on the Santa Cruz municipal wharf would have to wait. Is there a more come-hither sound than that of people of all ages joining together in a chorus of shrieks as they plunge down the initial 70-foot drop on the Santa Cruz Boardwalk's Giant Dipper roller coaster? It's possible that I'm biased, as I come from a long line of Boardwalk pleasure seekers. My grandfather grew up in Santa Cruz and spent some time as a lifeguard at the Boardwalk's Plunge, an enormous indoor saltwater pool that once occupied the space where the Neptune's Kingdom miniature golf course now stands. On the walls of the Historium in the same building, among pictures of 1930s aerial beach acts and long-gone rides, hangs a flyer promoting a 1938 Water Carnival featuring Olympic swim champion Duke Kahanamoku, who, back in 1913, had participated in a race with a "crack" team of local swimmers—one of whom, family lore has it, was Grandpa Anderson.

My parents' first date was at the Boardwalk. And part of their 50th wedding anniversary celebration last fall took place there as well. In between, my siblings and I whiled away a fair chunk of our adolescence on its 12 acres, getting to know the seductive curves of the Giant Dipper, the delights of chocolate-dipped bananas, and the satisfying crunch of bumper-car collisions.

When I returned there late last summer for the first time in a decade, the Boardwalk defied all probability by looking brighter and cleaner than I remembered it. All of its many indelible elements—the sounds of laughter, sea-gulls, crashing waves, and rumbling roller coaster; the fried foods, track grease, and salt air—were exactly right. It is a sensory mix that's impossible to replicate, notwithstanding all the pots of money Disney invested to that end in its California Adventure Paradise Pier. "Disney was basically trying to capture the nostalgia of the California seaside amusement park, which is what Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk is," says Eric Minton, West Coast bureau chief of the newspaper Amusement Today. "The Boardwalk is the real thing."

That it is the West Coast's only major seaside amusement park to survive into the 21st century is thanks to good luck and a series of visionary stewards, beginning with its founder, Fred W. Swanton. A tireless promoter intent on turning Santa Cruz into another Atlantic City, Swanton first built an onion-domed casino on the beach northwest of the San Lorenzo River in 1904. When that uninsured building burned down two years later, he convinced investors to rebuild on a grander scale. The opening of the new casino and ballroom, along with the Plunge and a pleasure pier and boardwalk, in June of 1907 inspired an inaugural ball (one band directed by John Philip Sousa) and a congratulatory message from President Theodore Roosevelt.

Since then, the Boardwalk has weathered storms, earthquakes, skyrocketing real estate prices, and the shifting sands of public taste. Charles Canfield, whose family has run the Boardwalk since 1952, has done a masterful job of balancing popular vintage attractions with cutting-edge amusements like laser tag and virtual-reality arcade games. But the Boardwalk's greatest appeal to its 3 million annual visitors—aside from its location on a spectacular mile-long stretch of Pacific beach—may be its remarkable consistency. A grandmother can bring her 2-year-old grandson and talk about when she was here in 1940, and they can have a picnic on the same beach where she picnicked 60 years earlier. Every kid still wants to have cotton candy; every kid still wants to ride the merry-go-round. In an era when most parks are caught up in an arms race to build the biggest and most technologically innovative roller coaster, the Boardwalk's chief attraction is still a rattly old 1924 wooden coaster that thrilled its 50 millionth rider last year.

It was to this old relic that I fairly sprinted and purchased a yard of 60-cent tickets. The line was mercifully short, so after parting with six tickets I had to entertain the question Dipper vets always discuss when they find themselves near the head of the line: front or back? A train rumbled overhead, followed by a wave of gleeful screams. When the cars pulled into the station a few moments later, departing passengers high-fived those of us in line, as though we were next in some endless rolling relay. The people ahead of me took the front, so I grabbed the last seat.

Giant Dipper creator Arthur Looff once said the ride's design was intended to evoke a "combination earthquake, balloon ascension, and aeroplane drop." Its builders effected all that in just 47 days at a cost of $50,000, about a third of what it costs today just to paint the thing its signature red and white. Not that you can see those colors for the first 15 seconds of the ride. Once the lap bars drop and a horn toot-toots, you are plunged into a dark tunnel and hit with a rush of cool air and the smell of salt, old painted wood, and track grease. "I wouldn't normally like that smell, but I'd miss it if it disappeared from the Dipper," says David Escalante, former public relations director for American Coaster Enthusiasts, a club of more than 8,500 coasterholics. "It was my first roller coaster, and it remains my all-time sentimental favorite."

As someone who stopped counting after riding his 400th coaster a few years back, Escalante can also say, with authority, "It's one of the most outstanding roller coasters in the world, and it is arguably the best-maintained one. There is no wasted track; it's fun from start to finish. And I love the way it looks. It's like stepping into a postcard from the 1920s."

It doesn't take many rides to establish a preference for the visual rush of the front or the exaggerated whip action of the back. But there are some Dipper nuances that may take years to pick up. Says Dave Ferrari, a retired florist who rode the Giant Dipper as a 10-year-old on the day it opened in 1924 ("It scared the hell out of me," he recalls) and still rides it at age 89 (in the front as often as possible), "I like to ride in the mornings. Later in the day, the track grease heats up and the thing goes much faster."

That partly explains why lines at the Dipper tend to get longer in the afternoon. Also, there is no need to rush to the Boardwalk as soon as it opens. There is no fee to get in, no pressure to run from attraction to attraction just to get your money's worth. You can purchase a $24.95 day pass, which entitles you to unlimited rides, or you can pay as you go. The pressure to buy anything at all is relatively low, which is just one reason the place still feels, improbably, timelessly carefree.

Wandering the Boardwalk with a fistful of tickets that will be good again tomorrow, and probably five years from now, you can easily forget about the existence of modern killjoys like metal detectors, cholesterol warnings, and personal injury lawyers. The park's maintenance and records are sparkling, and mishaps are negligible; thus the place doesn't feel shrouded by the liability fears manifest in the scolding signage and too-restrictive lap bars found in some other parks. And the security presence is as effective as it is invisible. "I put the Boardwalk among the elite in terms of operations," says Minton, who has visited 174 parks in the last three years. "It is an incredibly safe place."

Unless you are about to visit your cardiologist, that is. If there are amusement parks out there that stand as monuments to healthy eating, the Boardwalk is not one of them. After my first Dipper run of the day, I had a yearning for a mustard-slathered corn dog, which I satisfied at a fried-food dispensary near the arcade. I was also tempted by the nutritionally suspect offerings of garlic fries, soft ice cream cones, hot dogs, cotton candy, and—fire up the defibrillator—fried Twinkies, but I passed on those. Though the Boardwalk doesn't have any coasters with inversions, it still has a few stomach wrenchers among its 34 rides. I felt duty-bound to experience at least one while maintaining a certain reportorial decorum.

I looked for a favorite ride from my childhood, the Round-Up, a steel cylinder of individual stalls to which riders stayed pinned by centrifugal force as the bottom dropped out and the thing tilted up to a vertical spin cycle. Alas, the Round-Up wound up on the scrap heap in 1999. A worthy replacement turned out to be an epicyclically spinning ride called the Tornado, one of four Boardwalk rides named after natural disasters. (None of them, interestingly, is called the Earthquake, a disaster that strikes too close to home: The 1989 Loma Prieta quake, centered nine miles away, did almost $3 million in damage to the Boardwalk.)

After the Tornado, I needed to take a walk, so I paid $5 to amble through the new Fun House wearing a pair of flimsy souvenir 3-D glasses. The experience, enhanced as it was by a group of easily startled teenage girls walking behind me, was amusing, but it was nothing like the original Fun House, with its wooden slide, spinning platter, and rolling barrel that children used to enjoy all day for a small admission price (one of the reasons, along with increasing liability issues, that Canfield decided to shut it down in 1971).

Something that has better withstood the test of time and adolescent energy is the carousel, built and installed in 1911 by Arthur Looff's father, Charles, and one of two national landmarks (along with the Dipper) on the property—which is itself a landmark. The two chariots (included for modesty-minded Victorian ladies) and 73 carved and bejeweled horses—nearly all of which are original to the ride—have been painstakingly restored over the years. After surrendering four tickets, I mounted a palomino whose carved features included a pistol on its withers. Almost immediately I was distracted by the old ring-dispensing machine that was coming up on my right.

Nobody has produced these odd contraptions for years, so when something breaks down, the Boardwalk's mechanics have to machine their own replacement parts. A story has it that when the dispenser broke down for the umpteenth time in the '70s, it was simply removed. Ridership immediately dropped by about 75 percent. "If they could throw rings, teenagers would ride," says Marq Lipton, Boardwalk vice president of marketing and sales. "If not, it was just old folks and little kids." The machine was reinstalled and is now one of only a dozen still operating in the United States. Brass rings, which used to entitle whomever grabbed one to a free ride, are no longer in the rotation, but it is still hugely satisfying to snap off a greasy steel ring and fling it at the mouth of a clown a few feet away. (If you get it into the mouth, the clown's eyes light up, as if it had just tasted a fried Twinkie.)

Throwing an object into a hole is the point of a lot of Boardwalk games, too. On a weekend visit, I sat down to play a few rounds of Fascination, a game housed in a funky building near the carousel. The whole point of Fascination is to roll a ball down a wooden table into a grid of holes and hope that the holes you hit form a straight line, à la bingo. If you win, you get coupons, redeemable—in sufficiently vast quantities—for prizes. For people coming off a sugar high or just needing a break from the sun, Fascination is hugely appealing, especially at 50 cents a game. After bleeding $3 without a win, I was rescued from the slippery slope of Fascination addiction by a woman carrying a stuffed shark under one arm and a basketball under the other. She clearly could make better use of this opportunity than I. Even counting the 21 coupons I had won at Skee-Ball and Basket Fever earlier in the day, I realized it would take years to earn the coupons for a set of microwave bowls (360 coupons) or even a mini-salad spinner (190).

I'm very happy with the plastic whistle I got for a mere four coupons, but I suspect that no one comes to the Boardwalk for the prizes. They come for the beach, the free Friday night concerts during the summer, the rides, the pan-vintage arcade games (when was the last time you played Ms. Pac-Man?), the 1970s-era photo booth, and the taffy made right before their eyes at Marini's Candies. They come to laugh, to scream, to inhale an olfactory cocktail unlike any other. And they come back, month after month or years later, for the very same things.

The Sweet History of a Treat

There's hardly an ocean beach in America without a vendor of saltwater taffy. It's the de rigueur vacation treat if you're near saltwater—and yet it contains no saltwater at all. Recipes call for water, a pinch of salt, plus sugar, corn syrup, butter, cornstarch, and flavoring, but nobody makes it using ocean brine. So, we deduce, it's called what it's called because it is sold near the water.

That's close to true. According to Joseph Marini III of Marini's candy store at the Beach Boardwalk in Santa Cruz, the confection was named in the 1920s after a fire was extinguished using seawater pumped up from a fireboat. Finding his taffy spritzed, Joseph's grandfather, another Joseph Marini, staged a "saltwater taffy" sale . . . and the name stuck. "He used to tell kids that every morning he walked to the end of the wharf to fill five-gallon buckets with saltwater to make the candy," Joseph recalls. "In fact, we use no salt at all in our taffy."

The East Coast story of genesis goes back to 1880 and the Atlantic City Boardwalk. Built above sea level to keep sand from creeping into hotel lobbies, the broad wooden walkway featured a taffy stand run by candy man David Bradley. One night, strong winds and a high tide sent ocean foam all over Bradley's supply of fresh taffy. Angry that his stock had been dampened, he sarcastically corrected a little girl who stepped up the next morning and asked for taffy. "You mean saltwater taffy!" he sneered. The child nodded; he sold her some; and later that day her boasts of buying saltwater taffy were overheard by Bradley's mother. A bulb illuminated above Mom's head and the next summer when Bradley opened his store, he printed signs that advertised a unique—or, more precisely, a uniquely named—product.

Whichever of them first cooked up the oceanic title, as candy makers perfected the formula—creating a silk-smooth taffy that didn't stick to its wrapper and tended not to yank out loose teeth—the treat became a favorite on beaches all along the Atlantic and Pacific, on the Gulf, and even around the Great Lakes.

One of the best things about saltwater taffy is that it comes in a near-infinite variety of flavors. The Seaside Candyman of Seaside, Ore., a jolly shop in Heritage Square, offers no less than 170 different kinds, from amaretto and apple to watermelon and wintergreen. You can get strawberry cheesecake, buttered popcorn (white with yellow stripes), guava, gooseberry, and coffee roast.

Most purveyors sell taffy by the pound or, for the casual stroller in search of just a couple of chaws, by the quarter pound. That's pretty much the way it was originally sold in Atlantic City: six wax paper-wrapped candy knots for a nickel.

But probably the greatest moment in taffy history was when merchant Joseph Fralinger had an idea: box the pieces and offer them on Saturday night to weekenders who were leaving the beach on Sunday. That way, they could take something home from their visit besides sand in their shoes and a sunburn. Fralinger's boxes of taffy were a sensation. Since then, many Americans consider a trip to the sea incomplete unless they return with a box that has enough chew in it to make their vacation last long into overtime.

Photography by Terrence McCarthy


This article was first published in May 2003. Some facts may have aged gracelessly. Please call ahead to verify information.