Two weeks before Memorial Day weekend I was in Santa Cruz, and this was the state of their entrance rebuild.


Seemed that they were probably at least a month from completion, so with the announcement of it happening in time for the holiday, surprise was the reaction of your humble narrator. Now they did kind of get ahead of themselves in that it is being called a phased opening. The new ride, Shockwave, is expected to debut Friday, but Typhoon has not yet been delivered, and will be delayed until mid-summer.

It would have been difficult to make it to Six Flags Discovery Kingdom, California’s Great America, and the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk in time for last Sunday’s report anyway, especially given the damaged Inter-dimensional Stabilizer in my TARDIS, but I’ve been over to Santa Cruz taking a look since then while giving my camera a heavy workout. However, I, too, am getting a little ahead of myself, and without a functional TARDIS, will need some historic photos courtesy of the Boardwalk. With all of that taken care of, we’re off to the 19th century!

Recreational activities at the mouth of the San Lorenzo River actually predated this photo by over two decades when the first bathhouses were built. As can be seen, by 1899 there were horse-drawn streetcars as well as a steam-powered merry-go-round (upper left). A casino (the non-gambling type) built in the 20th century burned to the sand after a mere 22 months in 1906. A year later on June 22, 1907 a new casino opened featuring a salt-water swimming plunge, the Casino Ballroom and Boardwalk Pleasure Pier. The following year the L.A. Thompson Scenic Railway opened featuring speeds of up to 25mph, higher than the Santa Cruz speed limit for cars at the time.

The park’s oldest operating ride, the Looff Carousel began its rotations in 1911. Charles Looff had gotten his start when he constructed the first carousel at Coney Island. His hand-carved wooden horses still delight, with their expressive faces, real horsehair tails and saddles sporting everything from weapons to dead animals. The Boardwalk has also been able to replace damaged mounts with a stable of backups acquired from other parks that had featured examples of Looff’s artistry. But let’s not kid ourselves, it is one of the last functional ring dispensers to be found that keeps the folks on the steeds. As the bell rings and the ride starts, rings slide into the dispenser to be snatched and flung at the clown’s metallic mouth. The park once decided not to repair it after a 1970s breakdown, and ridership plummeted over 70%; that mistake has not been repeated. Two chariots and a couple of “stander” horses are also available for the more timid. Throughout its history there have always been signs forbidding removal of the rings from the seahorse topped building, yet it is estimated that more than a dozen have been surreptitiously smuggled out over the past century. The Looff Carousel also has the distinction of having been designated a National Historic Landmark, although that isn’t so rare ’round these parts.

Well, you know how kids are? If dad thinks it’s cool, it must be more boring than an atomic tunnel digging machine. And that scenic railway? How 1900. We’ve made it to the nineteen-teens for corn’s sake. Thus Arthur Looff set off to ply his trade, roller coasters. In Santa Cruz he designed a masterpiece, the Giant Dipper. My first MiceChat column was the 90th birthday of the old girl, and she’s still going strong, and also has that Historical National Landmark designation.

And so it goes, the past alive and well while new things emerge and evolve as time rolls forward. There may be cosmetic changes to the Casino Ballroom’s exterior over time, and it is now called the Cocoanut Grove Ballroom, but it still stands sentinel at the Boardwalk’s north end whether looming above a 1911 concert or a 2017 volleyball game.

Down at the south end, a level below, and even under the Boardwalk meant that by 1961 the Cave Train Adventure was transporting guests to Santa Cruz prehistory while the adjacent Autorama was an opportunity for the pre-pubescent motorist to log some miles. The latter even received a visit from an obscure storyteller named Walt Disney, stopping by to see the center guide rail for possible use in some amusement enterprise he had going in Southern California. Both rides were still going strong in 1975, but although the Cave Train is still chugging along, the surrounding area has changed dramatically.

OK, I can never resist, let’s hop on the Cave Train.

For decades the children of Santa Cruz learned and perfected their swimming skills at the Plunge. The aquatics came to an end in 1963, and the building was further damaged by the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake, but has emerged fresh as Neptune’s Kingdom, and the arched roof of the Plunge now houses an arcade and the two level Buccaneer’s Bay mini golf course.

Throughout it all the Boardwalk has been a community asset; most parks are. Disneyland brings more tax revenue and tourist interest than Anaheim could have ever imagined, and professional sports teams in that city would have been an absolutely comical idea in the 1950s. But the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk has also been an asset to the community in a way that probably isn’t possible with a big park in a big city. Santa Cruz sits beside Monterey Bay which opens into the Mighty Pacific on one side, and the Santa Cruz Mountains on the other. Not the tallest in the world at only a couple of thousand feet, these slopes are steep. As was demonstrated in the storms of the past winter, they can become temporarily impassable. As I write this, I have no doubt that the current population of the Disneyland Resort exceeds that of the entire city of Santa Cruz. (Let’s establish that Disneyland is merely a handy example. As readers and writers at MiceChat, it is pretty much a given that we love Disneyland. The Boardwalk designers I met love Disneyland. This is not an attack on Disneyland in any way; please don’t hit me.)

We are in a beach town that is also a college town. That college mascot is the ferocious Banana Slug. The beach denizens feud with some alleged place called Huntington Beach over which is the real Surf City. The geography means there simply isn’t room for heavy growth, and a university and surfer culture means it’s always likely to be different from the stereotypical suburbia. And the Boardwalk is there with no admission fee for someone that wants a day on the beach, maybe with a few rides, maybe a day of nothing else, maybe just a single spin on the Ferris wheel so Maw Maw and Pop Pop can relive a special memory. Generations learned to swim here, danced in the ballroom, saw concerts from Duke Ellington in the Cocoanut Grove to Los Lobos on the beach, were part of community events like the annual Chowder and Chili Cookoffs, witnessed a Miss California crowning. I’ve briefly gone over the convoluted ownership sagas among the Bay Area parks in this space. The Boardwalk has been family owned for its entire history (a private corporation was formed in 1915), an authentic representation of a place other parks try to simulate. It is a seaside amusement park, and makes no pretense of being anything else. But if a stack of Golden Ticket Awards is any indication, it is the best to be found.

So here we are 110 years later.

Colin and I arrived at the Boardwalk to see the latest changes and were greeted by designers Kris and Mark. As stated before, it is not yet complete. Shockwave is getting its finishing touches on the expanded upper level.

The Vault Laser Maze is also running behind, surprising as it was supposed to open last weekend. We were able to take a quick peak inside, but the lasers were not functional for us.

The main plaza, however is essentially complete, and is much more open and spacious than the cramped walkway that used to access the Boardwalk here. Some of the area is slated for the Typhoon ride, but this should still be an inviting spot with breathing room even then. Don’t know if the flags and decorative touches seen in the concept art will be installed at a later time.

One new addition is the all new Fright Walk Under The Boardwalk, a larger version of the Fright walk that previously existed. Scares at the Boardwalk go back to the 1930s and their first dark ride, Dante’s Inferno.

A succession of dark rides ultimately led to the first walk-through haunts, and, you know, let’s let Mark talk about that as he was the lead designer on Fright Walk Under The Boardwalk.

So let’s start with Ghost Blasters, a sort of spooky Buzz Lightyear. There are guns, and points are earned, but only fire at the lit targets. They all activate some effect and often cause another target to subsequently light up. So unlike most shooter games, there is no benefit to repeatedly hitting the same one.

The Haunted Castle has been a longtime fixture, but got a full reboot a few years ago that changed a random assortment of startling moments into a coherent tour of the Castle.

Fright Walk, as the name implies, is not a ride. There are steps leading down Under the Boardwalk (will you notice the song at any time?), but an elevator is available. Like The Vault, it is not included with the standard ride wristband, but is with the expanded version, or one can pay cash or use points on a MyBoardwalk card. While there are no actors, there are plenty of special effects triggered as you pass through. Haunts are like comedy, the element of surprise matters. Photography is off limits inside Fright Walk, but they graciously allowed the MiceChat camera a quick peek. And Mark already gave away the spinning tunnel in the video, aren’t those great? Colin may be physically still, but he is psychologically falling, and there is no way to convince a human brain otherwise.

Summer seems incomplete without at least one day by the beach, and….hey, something is going on over there.

Looks like the tech gurus are getting ready for the summer concert season with free Friday night shows beginning June 16. That’s a topic unto itself, and we’ll look at it closely on the next Day By The Bay.

By Marc Ricketts