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Santa Cruz boardwalk is enduring a 100-year ride

Inland Valley Daily Bulletin

Original Article »

June 17, 2007

SANTA CRUZ - 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.

Santa Cruz was a logical place for such an attraction in the early 1900s, when trains brought vacationers in from the Bay Area, the Sacramento and San Joaquin valleys, and farther afield.

The Giant Dipper roller coaster, a National Historic Landmark, remains the signature ride. 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 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."

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