Noe Valley Voice July-August 2001

A Trip to Santa Cruz Boardwalk

By Janis Cooke Newman

I grew up vacationing at the Jersey shore. Every year we'd load the car with inflatable sea serpents and quarters for the tolls and head down the Parkway towards Seaside Heights or Point Pleasant Beach. At the Jersey shore, we slept on screened porches, the ocean was warm enough to swim in, and we could go crabbing for blueclaws any time we wanted. But the best thing about being "down the shore" was the boardwalk.

The boardwalk at the Jersey shore was made of wood that left splinters in your bare feet if you forgot your flip-flops. It smelled of cotton candy, and sausage and peppers on the grill, and real pizza -- the kind that dripped warm oil down your arm while you ate it. There were games of chance -- big spinning wheels where you could win a giant stuffed snake or a mirror painted with the image of Jon Bon Jovi. And there were rides -- the Tilt-a-Whirl and the Loop-the-Loop, and the Swiss Bob, which played Bruce Springsteen at eardrum-piercing volume while an announcer's voice asked screaming riders, "Do you want to go faster?"

Other people went to the Catskills, or the Poconos, or Europe. But we always went to the Jersey shore. And as a child, I believed that made us the lucky ones.

I still believe that. Which is why the only thing I regret about raising my son Alex in Northern California is that on hot July weekends, we can't rifle the house for quarters and join the Friday-night Parkway traffic heading down the shore.

We can, however, hop into our energy-efficient vehicle and take the considerably more scenic -- and free -- Highway 1 to the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk. Which is what we've done on this sunny, almost hot, summer day.

"Win me that, Dad," Alex begs my husband. He's pointing to a stuffed gorilla in a pilot's outfit.

In order to win the stuffed gorilla, my husband will have to swing a mallet hard enough to ring the bell at the top of a tall pole. This is one of those testosterone-inspired games with enormous potential for public humiliation.

"Don't you already have a gorilla?" my husband says, handing $2 over to a man in a Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk T-shirt. Burly guys stand around loosening their shoulder muscles, while my husband rolls up his sleeves. For a minute, I think he's actually going to spit on his palms.

He swings the mallet, and the lights travel three-quarters of the way up the pole. The man in the Santa Cruz Boardwalk T-shirt hands my husband a consolation prize -- a little inflatable mallet. He passes it to Alex as quickly as he can.

Unlike the boardwalk I grew up with in New Jersey, Santa Cruz gives out consolation prizes. Already, Alex has acquired an inflatable bat, a tiny stuffed M&M doll, and several small bears that look as if they'd last about five minutes in the dog's mouth.

For the next half-hour or so, Alex appears compelled to go on every ride that resembles a mode of transportation: a helicopter and a motorboat, a tank, and a Pepsi-Cola truck. Then he climbs aboard a small roller coaster shaped like a dragon. As the dragon flies around the track, the other kids scream and throw their arms up in the air. Alex sits hunched in his seat, gripping his Giants' cap with two hands, so it doesn't blow off in the wind.

"How'd you like that?" I ask, when the ride's over. "Was it fun?"

"It made my heart hurt," he tells me.

The three of us take the Sky Glider to the far end of the boardwalk in order to get a preview of all the rides. From up here, I can see the entire stretch of Santa Cruz's wide sandy beach. Nobody is in the water. We float past the Giant Dipper, the 1924 wood-framed roller coaster that was modeled after the one in Coney Island. A car filled with shrieking riders comes soaring up the track, as high as we are.

Back on the ground, my husband tries to win Alex a stuffed Tasmanian devil by knocking down bottles with a baseball.

"How come you didn't knock any of them over?" Alex asks him.

"How'd you like to go on the Space Race?"

While I act as "ride sherpa" -- holding the jackets, my husband's camera, and Alex's loot, which has expanded to include a drinking cup in the shape of a naked green alien -- the two of them climb into space bumper cars, which look like inner tubes topped with dentist's chairs, and proceed to ram strangers.

By now, it's lunchtime, and I'm craving a nice Italian sausage (pronounced sauseege) sandwich. However, all we can find are hundreds of stands selling corn dogs (one of the few toxic foodstuffs not produced in New Jersey). Finally, at a place called Barnacle Bill's, we come upon a chicken Italian sausage sandwich served with peppers. The sausage has little bits of fennel and orange in it, and the peppers are not nearly greasy enough. It's all right, but I can't help thinking that if Tony Soprano were ever served one of these, somebody would get whacked.

After lunch, we have a photograph taken of ourselves in the mouth of a great white shark, which we have turned into a refrigerator magnet -- the photograph, not the shark. Then we wander around a shop where Alex begs me to buy him a dolphin-shaped pen and a switchblade pocket-comb.

At another booth, my husband tries to win a stuffed chicken for Alex by catapulting a rubber chicken into a pot. The best he can do is get one rubber leg in, which the game operator tells him doesn't count.

"Try it again, Dad," Alex says. He is speaking in the same overly encouraging tone we use when he's having trouble sounding out the words in Dr. Seuss' Hop on Pop.

Twelve dollars and a dozen rubber chickens later, Alex says that maybe a stuffed chicken isn't really that cool of a prize anyway. My husband is so depressed, he has to ride the Giant Dipper and the Hurricane. Twice.

While he's engaged in roller-coaster therapy, I try my skill at dart throwing. On my first attempt, I win Alex an enormous, blindingly bright blue frog.

Afterward, we take a walk down to the Santa Cruz wharf, where we can look out over the entire boardwalk. From the wharf, the yellow and purple Fun Center building looks like a cross between India's Taj Mahal, the Doges' Palace in Venice, and the arcade at Asbury Park. The shouts of people strapped into spinning rides float over water to us, along with the burnt sugar smell of cotton candy. And if I listen carefully enough, I can almost hear Bruce Springsteen singing "Sandy."


Santa Cruz is just under two hours from Noe Valley, south on Highway 1. Once you reach Santa Cruz, just follow the signs for the Boardwalk. There's all-day parking nearby on Beach Street for $8, and the lots will give you coupons for things like $1 off on funnel cake and free corn dogs (if you dare).

Admission to the Boardwalk is free, but that's about all that is. Ride tickets cost 60 cents each, and most rides take between three and six tickets. For $27.95, you can buy a 60-ticket strip good for 10 to 20 rides that everyone in your group can use.

The Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk is open from 11 a.m. until 11 p.m. everyday until Labor Day. For more information, visit, or call 831-426-7433. Dogs are not allowed on the beach or the boardwalk in Santa Cruz.