Go Behind the Scenes at the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk

All Photos by Garrick Ramirez

Do you ever wonder what goes on behind-the-scenes at the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk? How do the rings in the Looff Carousel make it from the clown’s mouth back to the ring dispenser? Where do over 100 years of signage and old ride props end up? And who are the magic elves that keep the rides-including the nearly century-old Giant Dipper-operating smoothly and all those vibrant colors freshly painted?

You can learn the answers via a coveted behind-the-scenes Boardwalk tour offered twice a year through Santa Cruz Parks & Recreation. If you can’t bear to wait until the next one in Spring 2018, we teamed up with our Boardwalk pals to unearth some of the secret sites and histories of this wondrous and beloved Santa Cruz institution. Hold onto your hats-the number one item lost on rides-because we’re going behind the scenes!

Subterranean Super Heros

The next time you plummet down Logger’s Revenge or twirl around on Riptide, know there is an active maintenance crew working below your feet. The Maintenance Department is like the Justice League of the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk. They operate beneath the Boardwalk in a spacious, secret lair filled with buzzing saws, freshly painted signage, and the tangible spirit of playfulness in the air. If you think the Boardwalk is bustling on a sunny summer day, you should see the Maintenance Department. Critical to the team is Mechanical Maintenance Manager, Todd Manoff, an amusement park enthusiast who grew up in Santa Cruz with frequent trips to the Boardwalk. This is a man who loves his job. He and his team of roughly twenty mechanics not only ensure that every attraction is safe and functional but also dream up and fabricate new attractions.

What’s Really in the Haunted Castle?

Every day, Todd and his crew arrive as early as 5 a.m. to conduct inspections of every ride. Yep, that includes walking through the Haunted Castle alone (we asked, and yes, he does turn on the lights). Just like the newly revamped Fright Walk, the Haunted Castle ride descends beneath the Boardwalk. So what’s in the actual two-story castle building that looms over the Boardwalk? Depending how you feel about paperwork, something potentially more frightening: offices!

What Happens to Old Signage and Rides?

Inside the Maintenance Department is where you’ll find a fun assortment of old Boardwalk signs and characters. Walls are hung with vintage signs such as Logger’s Revenge and the Haunted Castle while floors are filled with ride components including candy-colored Sky Glider carts, a paper munching Leo the Lion that’s currently being restored, and a spare train from the Cave Train. Remember the upright bear that once greeted Cave Train riders? He’s enjoying retirement down here sporting a Hawaiian shirt and sun hat (a fitting choice since Boardwalk staff say visitors frequently mistake the land mass across the bay for Hawaii).

Meet the Boardwalk’s Full-Time Archivist

Todd isn’t the only staffer managing the Boardwalk’s vast historical collection. With over 100 years of history, it’s no wonder the Boardwalk taps the talents of Jessie Durant, the Boardwalk’s full-time archivist. Jessie knows EVERYTHING. It’s not surprising considering she’ll often have to dig through ancient board meeting minutes to trace the lineage of any given item. Off the top of her head, she was able to list the movies filmed at the Boardwalk (“Killer Clowns from Outer Space” elicited a chuckle) as well as the years and history of each of the three band organs that chimes along to the Looff Carousel.

Lord of the Rings: The Looff Carousel

The grand Looff Carousel feels like the soul of the Boardwalk. Built in 1911, it still draws a large, eager crowd. Its 73 hand-carved horses-with tails made from real horsehair-receive a fresh coat of paint each winter (some were painted to look like zebras in the 1960s). See if you can spot the few with their mouths closed, a rarity for carousel horses. The domed structure that houses the carousel feels more like a museum with the original 1894 band organ and another salvaged from San Francisco’s Playland-at-the-Beach (thanks, Jessie!).

But everyone knows what makes the Looff carousel so much fun are the metal rings that riders can hurl into the mouth of a giant clown, setting of lights and buzzers. Back in the day, most carousels had a ring dispenser, but the Boardwalk’s is now one of only seven that survive today. What most people never see is the cylindrical, metal contraption that sits underneath the carousel house and tumbles rings around as a conveyer belt studded with clips snags the rings and delivers them to the ring dispenser on the floor above. How many rings does the Boardwalk replace every year? 60,000!

Under the Giant Dipper

For anyone who’s been flying over the wooden hills and drops of the Giant Dipperthe Boardwalk’s most popular ride – it seems impossible that such a rip-roaring ride is nearly 100 years old. Yet much of the ride operates just as it did in 1924. The thrilling coaster runs on gravity after the first scream-inducing drop, and the original system for lugging the train up the initial hill hasn’t changed much since its opening. Housed in a small wooden shed under the Dipper is a 12-foot, motor-operated wheel that rotates a huge leather belt that turns a lengthy chain that pulls the train up the hill. It looks like the world’s longest bike chain! Todd says they could easily update it with modern parts, but its elements such as these that give the National Historic Landmark ride-and the Boardwalk as a whole-its unique character.

Family Owned and Proud

For fans of the Boardwalk, going behind the scenes is a giddy delight that’s akin to meeting a favorite celebrity. Yet, what impressed us is how the Boardwalk has been family-owned since 1952. Like the hundreds of former amusement parks that dotted seaside towns across the county, there were numerous opportunities to sell to developers or larger corporations. Yet, the Canfield family, who owns and operates the Boardwalk, maintains a genuine commitment to providing affordable family fun. It may sound like a marketing slogan, but we assure you it’s 100% sincere. It was apparent to us as we met the crews that develop and maintain rides, and we think it’s apparent to visitors who return again and again, sharing their nostalgia with the next generation. While the rides and signage may have changed over the years, the essence of the Boardwalk has remained the same since its opening in 1907.

Catch a Behind-the-Scenes Tour!

The Boardwalk offers a behind-the-scenes tour in the springtime. Don’t miss a rare opportunity to see for yourself what goes on “below the Boardwalk” and learn fun facts about the historic amusement park. Santa Cruz Parks & Rec has limited space available for its annual Behind-the-Scenes Tour of the Boardwalk! Stay tuned for more info!