Forget all your troubles, the lights are brighter in Santa Cruz. The Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk may reek of the vilest junk foods ever to fry at an amusement park but the rides are truckloads of fun, you can cruise by in flip-flops and the location can’t be beat. Pacific Ocean sunset with your Giant Dipper ride all lit up, kids? Sandcastles play during your sister’s scary ride? Beach Boys-inspired concerts on the beach? Oh yes please mom – and while we’re at it, can we get a season pass? And we did. We have a season pass for the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk because both my 8-year old and my 6-year old girls love going there.
Maybe I’ve watched The Lost Boys one time too many, but to me the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk has a timeless summer vacation feel. People screaming their heads off on scary rides, kids running around on sugar high, tattooed surfer dudes and teen babes, it’s a quintessential amusement park that – thank god – doesn’t know the 20th century is history. Even the wharf with its tourist-trap restaurants is a sight to behold when day turns to night and the twinkling lights of the jetty reflect in the water. For all these reasons and despite the fact that it’s tacky, loud and pricey, we love this park and never go through Santa Cruz without stopping there.
We started taking our junior crew to the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk when they were 3 and 5 years old. On a clear winter day, our girls discovered Neptune Kingdom’s indoor pirate minigolf with animated figures and thunderstorms (they freaked out when the lights blinked). They asked for 4 turns each at the Looff Carousel, a 1911 National Landmark where kids and adults ride hand-carved figures and can play at ring toss. They ate their first corn dog, the first of a corn dog love story that continues to this day. It was love at first ride.
This visit sealed our Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk fate. Every other year we came back, the girls got bigger, and last year my 8-year old asked for her birthday to be a full day at the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk with 7 friends. Here’s the plan for your next day trip.
My girls’ favorite rides
- The Big Dipper: Iconic boardwalk ride lit up at night with 2,800 lights (I got the info from the mechanic), this 1927 wooden roller-coaster will take you on a thrilling up and down trip with views on the Monterey Bay. Don’t eat right before! It’s so popular that the lines can be long as in half-hour long. Sure that’s short by Disneyland standards but excruciating at a park where instant gratification is the norm and the line just boringly snakes around the roller coaster station. Last fall my 8-year old went by herself and she loved it but none of her friends were hot on joining. As for my 6-year old, she was glad to be too short (under 50 inches) to even qualify.
- Logger’s Revenge: In this typical log-boat water ride, riders get to float high above the boardwalk a final steep plunge. Expect to get wet! All the kids did – before they went for a second round.
- Tornado: This is more to the liking of my 6-year old and a twisted version of the gyrating teacups. Four kids hop on a 4-seater “teacup” hanging from a mechanic arm that will start spinning around sideways and up and down. Again, no eating before is recommended.
- Sea Swings: Probably the safest way to get high. It’s not quite as spectacular as the California Adventure version but still a lovely swing ride with beach view and very little risk factor. Both my little one and the big one like this ride.
- Rock’n Roll: I don’t know why but my daughters always beg me to go on this one. it’s a typical county fair roller coaster with bright lights, loud colors, and a very small and repetitive course. Oh wait, that was my description. The kids would say: loud music and fast grooving, that’s the life!
- Haunted Castle: Spooks and ghouls abound on this ride through the world of Halloween evil. Interestingly enough, my 6-year old wasn’t scared yet she wouldn’t go on the Ferris Wheel which in my opinion, is less scary. Go figure. Kids like it, it’s full of fake bloody figures.
- Red Baron: My girls always go for the airplane ride. Being able to fly high or fly low by using the joystick is a pleasure equaled only by bumper cars and bumper cars can’t even take off and land.
- Looff Carousel: As mentioned before, it’s a beautiful antique carousel with a ring toss for outside circle riders. You’ll see almost as many adults as kids. That’s how popular the ring toss is. Note to frequent carousel go-ers: the ride is long, you get your money’s worth in band organ tunes. A must for kids of all ages.
Well, there’s always the corn dog option and corn dogs are easy to find, as well as funnel cakes, garlic fries, saltwater taffy, hot dawgs, popcorn (very tasty at that), all forms of ice cream and the ultimate in amusement park heart-clogging junk food – deep fried Twinkies. You can read A Little Yumminess’ Junky Food Adventure for a first-hand mom account of the food options.
For “real” food within walking distance, you may want to check out the Wharf and its tourist-trap overpriced restaurants. We had dinner at Gilda’s Family Restaurant where we got the full diner experience. Diner menu, diner-quality food, kid-friendly and group-friendly. Not exceptional but edible (except the industrial olives on the salad – eeek). I hear that the other restaurants have all revamped their menus and remodeled their dining rooms. I’m looking forward to trying a “real” non-Wharf non-Boardwalk restaurant next time.
We usually try to find free street parking sand that’s perfectly do-able if you’re willing to walk 4 or 5 blocks. Otherwise there’s a big flat-fee parking lot behind the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk. If you intend to have dinner on the Wharf later, I’d suggest parking on the Wharf directly. It’s a quick scenic walk to the Boardwalk.
Getting There by Train
You read well. You can get to the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk by train if you board one of the steam engines at Roaring Camp Railroads in Felton. Their Santa Cruz Beach Train travels through Henry Cowell Redwoods State Park, down the San Lorenzo River Gorge, across a 1909 steel truss bridge and through a tunnel before dropping you right in front of the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk. Take the morning train, have fun at the beach, come back by the 4.15pm train. And camp at Henry Cowell Redwoods State Park while you’re at it. It’s a beautiful redwood forest.
What’s your favorite Boardwalk experience?