In this carnival ride of a life, I’ve found myself roosted a mere two blocks from the Boardwalk in Santa Cruz, CA. The G-force of the “The Fireball” must exert itself beyond the property boundaries, because I’ve gone wandering there every day this week, drawn to the buzz and the neon.
The Santa Cruz Boardwalk is the only remaining seaside amusement park on the Pacific Coast. While attractions like this one had their heyday in the early part of the 20th century, television, movies, and other forms of modern entertainment gradually outcompeted amusement parks. Nearly all of the parks sitting on valuable coastal property sold out to real estate developers. This one didn’t.
Some attribute the Boardwalk’s survival to the predominant low-growth and zero-expansion attitude of the city of Santa Cruz. Others attribute the park’s longevity to its family ownership, and their generations-long dedication to the establishment and its ongoing improvement. What’s indisputable is that the place has been making a go of it for over a century, and that’s impressive.
The first development here started in 1865 with a public bathhouse where the San Lorenzo River meets the coast. A restaurant and shops followed, and soon after, a casino which burned down and was rebuilt within a year. The first ride – a roller coaster, of course – was erected in 1908, and the extant and now historic merry-go-round was installed in 1911. The original roller coaster was replaced in 1924 by the “Big Dipper,” a wooden-trestle construction which is still on site. The fifth oldest roller coaster in the country, it has thrilled over 60 million riders over the course of its life span – at first for fifteen cents a ride, now for six dollars.
Visitors in 2015 can enjoy thirty-five rides, a giant video arcade, classical carnival games, mini golf, laser tag, shopping, and, of course, eating.
Or, like me, they can wander and watch.
I like amusement park rides and I’m game to toss some skee ball or try to shoot water into a clown’s mouth from time to time. But really, what I love is the carnival atmosphere, and the crazy idea that we human beings have hatched to build these places full of brightly colored gravity-defying machines surrounded by fabulously unhealthy food.
Amusement parks are simultaneously refuges of escapism and beautiful metaphors for everyday life. We seek them out in order to completely leave our daily lives and invest every ounce of our effort into winning an appallingly ugly stuffed giraffe. It’s not about the prize – it’s the process of mastering a new skill to get it and showing off to our companions. We get the pants scared off of us on rides that bring us to the brink of vomiting, and in doing so, we are reminded of our mortality. We eat things (like deep-fried twinkies) that could kill us, as though there’s a get-out-of-jail free calorie card – or as if today might be our last. And frequently, we spend money like it doesn’t matter for just this one day, purchasing mementos that will remind us of our four hours of worry-free bliss when we return to the world of responsibility.
I can’t stop watching this show. Perhaps because I live a little further on the edge of irresponsibility than most, I don’t really need to participate in it. And yet, I love moving through the energy of the place.
The diversity of people at the boardwalk is astounding; I’d estimate that more than half of the folks there are Latino, and there are strong African-American and Indian turnouts as well. I’ve seen every size and shape of human being conceivable over there, and every tattoo and piercing that exists. People with a wide variety of disabilities are accommodated, and English may not be the dominant language.
One thing unites them, however: nearly everyone is smiling. And eating. And seemingly enjoying the magical combination of neon glow and sea breeze on their skin. That’s really rewarding to see, even if it doesn’t last through their car rides home.
After I return from my evening meanders to the Boardwalk and climb into bed I can still see the lights from “Neptune’s Alley,” and, better yet, hear the screams of the passengers on the Dipper.
It seems like a fitting lullaby for me.