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Family Amusement Down By The Sea
Big Dipper
The thrill of riding the Giant Dipper roller coaster.

SANTA CRUZ — I honestly thought I was going to die.

It was 26 years ago on the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk. Somehow against my better judgment and fear Cynthia had talked me into going on Chaos.

They strapped two of you into a full upper body harness in a “bucket”. The bucket would randomly flip as the ride rotated up and down. The ride designer calls it a “three-dimensional rocking, rolling, and rotating” ride. I called it insanity.

You’d flip over facing the ground as Chaos spun and then twirl rapidly around as you climbed. The only time I was more terrified was parasailing midway off Maui when I lost my grip on the harness.

Chaos enjoyed a 13-year run at the Boardwalk before it was replaced with another ride.

I can’t think of a better way to suggest heading to Santa Cruz especially if you have a few teens in your clan.

The Boardwalk not only has ample thrill rides — 11 at last count— but also 19 family rides, 8 kids rides and nine other attractions plus food and shopping.

It also has four things that Great America and Marine World will never have — you can walk right onto the beach, you don’t have to pay an admission fee, ride lines are super reasonable on even the busiest days, and during the summer you can enjoy Thursday night bands from 8:30 to 10 p.m. on the Colonnade stage as well as free Friday night movies at 9 p.m. on the beach next to the Colonnade Stage without paying a cent to attend.

The Boardwalk is the grandfather of California amusement parks having opened in 1907. Its charm is the fact it blends state-of-the-art thrill rides with century-old classics in an atmosphere that is semi-carnival as well as being on a beach.

The two oldest rides alone — the Giant Dipper rollercoaster and the Looff grand carousel — are worth the drive from the 209. And you don’t have to buy the all-day ride pass ($39.95 weekdays and $59.95 on Saturdays and Sundays if you buy online prior to day you are attending) to use either. It should be noted that ride passes bought at the Boardwalk are $10 more.

That is another charm of the Boardwalk. You can buy a My Boardwalk Play Card for $50 and share it with others to access rides, games, amusements and arcades. So let’s say you’re a little older than a teen, thrill rides stopped thrilling you when you had your first grand kid, if you still want to enjoy arguably the two greatest rides on the Boardwalk — the Giant Dipper and the carousel, it is not too expensive. The $50 card could be used for two people to ride the Great Dipper at $8 a pop as well as the carousel at $6 each and still have $22 left to spend on amusements or rides.

Anyone can use the card and it doesn’t expire; if you still have remaining value, you can use it on a return trip.

It’s a perfect way to get a couple of old-fashioned thrills in, wander around the Boardwalk enjoying the sights, and taking in the beach between the San Lorenzo River and the Santa Cruz Municipal Wharf as well as the Pacific Ocean.

Why the carousel? Not only are the 73 ornate hand carved wooden horses on the carousel that has been running since 1911 a sight to see, but it is also one of the few carousels remaining in the world that offers a ring dispenser.

Riders on outside horses grab a ring from a dispenser as the carousel spins and then toss them into Aarhus clown’s gaping mouth. Hit the target and you’re rewarded with bells and flashing lights. Some opt not to toss the rings but opt to keep them as souvenirs. That’s fine by over 60,000 people a year or one out of every 13 riders.

Then there are the delightful sounds provided by the 342-pipe Ruth und Son organ built in 1894. It has been in use since 1911 with a complete refurbishing in 2009. It was joined in 2007 by the Wurlitzer 165 Band Organ from San Francisco’s now shuttered Playland-at-the-Beach amusement park.

The grand dame of West Coast rollercoasters and the third oldest in the United States, the Giant Dipper built in 1924 is a classic wooden roller coaster.

It has a feel you won’t find on modern versions of the ride. I rank it right up with Space Mountain and the Matterhorn at Disneyland as a classic thrill ride that has character given the wooden construction and glimpses of the paralleled scenery for an amusement park when you’re not laughing your head off or holding on for dear life.

While I love the Great Dipper and carousel, my favorite ride as a 66-year-old kid without a doubt is the Space Race. Think the classic bumper cars that the Boardwalk also has but circular. Maneuver them just right and you can get decent “air” when you ram someone.

You can’t go to the Boardwalk without indulging in saltwater taffy. There are also other amusement park staples such as cotton candy, kettle corn, churros, funnel cakes and even deep-fried Twinkies to name a few.

Parking in Boardwalk lots are $20 weekdays and $25 weekends. When rides are closed it is $5 and $15 when there are limited rides as delineated on the Boardwalk’s website calendar.

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