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The Santa Cruz Boardwalk- Old-fashioned California Fun

"Please, please, can I go on the upside down double-loop?" begged our oldest, just tall enough to reach the required height mark for the roller coaster at Marineland. "Please?" We had just arrived at the theme park in Niagara Falls, Ont. Of course, we wanted it to be a fun day for the kids. "Well, maybe if your dad goes with you," I suggested. After all, he was the one who waxed nostalgia about the Flyer at the Ex. I'm okay on ferris wheels and merry-go-rounds. But propelled at jet-force speed feet-in-the-air upside down? Forget it.

Will rushed off with glee to master his first big coaster, his dad holding his hand. But at the end of the ride, his face-sombre and green-told a different story. He was clutching his waist. "I think I'm gonna be sick," he announced. Defying gravity had brought on symptoms he hadn't expected. And yet, two hours later, after his stomach calmed down, he wildly suggested riding it again.

Ever since 1884, when LaMarcus Thompson opened the Gravity Pleasure Switchback Railway at Coney Island in New York, (in which cars plunged down a sharp incline), kids and adults have been discovering the joys of amusement parks. In fact, some families plan their summer vacations around theme parks with roller coasters totally enclosed in darkness or free-fall plunges into space. But there's also an argument for visiting the old-fashioned amusement parks with low prices and perhaps lesser thrills such as Kennywood in West Mifflin, Pennsylvania, named as the best-preserved park by the National Amusement Park Association or Playland in Rye, Long Island, featured in Big and Fatal Attraction.

The boardwalk and beach sideshows established early this century may have no costumed characters strolling the grounds, no high-tech virtual reality shows. But kids can ride carousels with real horse hair, catch a brass ring, admire a lakeside view from the top of a wooden coaster and eat enough sticky taffy to give their stomachs the same kind of queasy feeling. And even the tamest parks these days are adding rides that circle and tilt and flip 360 degrees.

We discovered the delights of the west coast version of Coney Island, the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk in California, quite by accident. While looking for surfers south of San Francisco, we discovered a town straight out of the Beach Boys era-a mile-long stretch of beach filled with bikinis and bleached hair and boomboxes blasting top hits. Attached to this summer beach scene was an old-fashioned boardwalk with a noisy 1924 Giant Dipper Roller Coaster (a National Historic Landmark) rattling around on its wooden track, an expansive candy shop run by three generations of Marinis and a 70 carousel horses hand-carved by a Danish craftsman almost a century ago.

Established in 1907, the park is celebrating its 90th birthday this year. A new wild ride called Chaos is the added attraction. In Neptune's Kingdom Adventure Center, kids play a two storey mini-golf course enlivened with a talking pirate and a volcano. The Casino Fun Center Supercade offers video games, pinball and laser tag. But perhaps just as enticing is the 1928 arcade card-flip machine that riled citizens because a woman tosses her clothes out from behind a bush, and the taffy store offering dozens of flavors of saltwater taffy. Exhausted from the excitement, kids can chill for a while on the wide sandy beach.

The boardwalk is open on weekends all year round but starting May 23, rides are open from 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. every day. A pass costs $18.95 U.S. or individual tickets cost between $2 and $3 per ride. But judging by how many times our kids rode the swinging pirate boat, the pass is definitely the better value.

Best of all for families this year is that the Boardwalk has teamed up with six other San Francisco Bay attractions to offer a one-price "Passport to Fun." For $55 U.S., you can plunge from the Drop Zone Stunt Tower (the world's tallest free-fall rides) at Paramount's Great America park at Santa Clara, cruise the San Francisco Bay, see King Tut's tomb in wax at Fisherman's Wharf Wax Museum, and attend a dolphin or tiger show at Marine World Aftica USA's wildlife park. You can also visit Winchester House Museum in San Jose, a 160-room Victorian mansion with such oddities as stairs going nowhere, or ride the rails of a 1880 steam train, the Roaring Camp and Big Trees Railroad, as it chugs through the 100-year-old redwood forest down to Santa Cruz. There, you can disembark to unwind on the beach, stroll the old-fashioned boardwalk, sample the taffy and try all 28 rides for as long as your stomach will hold out. This Passport to Fun, saving each person about $100 Canadian, can be ordered by calling toll-free 1-888-744-8587. For more information on Santa Cruz hotels, restaurants, etc. (we stayed at a great Holiday Inn in town with a large outdoor pool), call the Chamber of Commerce 408-423-1111.





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