The last time I wandered around the Santa Cruz boardwalk a decade ago, it was a ghost town. Granted, it was cloudy and also a Monday, but let’s just say, it was a different scene entirely; on our most recent visit, we didn’t have this sort of luck with vacant streets and lack of crowds.
Beaches aside, this coastal California city has one major attraction in town, and that’s the iconic Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk. I’d venture to say the majority of tourists who come here, families in particular, are doing so in the hopes to keep the rugrats occupied with the bevy of games and rides comprising the 24-acre park.
And with good reason: It’s the state’s oldest amusement park, it boasts an idyllic seaside locale and it promises to keep kids young and old entertained for hours—if not the entire day.
On this last family vacation, we first dropped by around midday on a Saturday with SVV’s brother, his wife and their two kids, ages 10 and 12. Let’s just say, we didn’t plan that very wisely as the place was a madhouse.
Tip: Arrive as early in the day as possible, preferably on a weekday, to beat the crowds that accumulate as the hours tick by.
But we persevered! The kids immediately found a game they wanted to play, and it became a little friendly, family competition (to the death).
SVV and I mainly just moseyed about, had a couple beers and located the multi-level arcade, which is more or less his version of entertainment crack. Old-school racing games and Ms. Pac-Man, who doesn’t like that (particularly this child of the 70’s)?
We called it a day on the early side and decided to head down to Capitola to the beach instead. Neither of us are keen on crowds and can only handle the chaos for so long.
The next day, though, we were up and going earlier and ready to tackle that boardwalk again.
Parking down that way is a bitch, and on day two, we were clearly seasoned veterans; SVV and I used our collective smarts and parked just over the pedestrian bridge along East Cliff Drive. The bridge spits you out right at the east end of the park and you don’t have to pay $15 for parking, nor do you have to sit in a line that moves at a snail’s pace to get into a lot (and then back out again).
All you have to do is walk these tracks and—BOOM!—you’re in!
I kid, I kid. In reality, the pedestrian bridge is just on the other side of the tracks (literally), and lined with a guardrail, though many crazies (not us, I should add) did opt to disobey the sign and, instead, tempt fate (note: we witnessed no casualties). The actual bridge, which is concealed from sight here, is perfectly safe, and bonus: You’ll likely see a handful of seals frolicking in the shallow bay waters, so keep your eyes peeled.
Sunday morning was a much different scene than Saturday afternoon. We could walk freely through the massive park and take pictures at leisure without having to worry about being bumped by a selfie stick or 20 (there were a LOT of selfie sticks at the boardwalk).
It was blissfully sunny both days but it was also cold and severely windy. I walked the line between sweating and freezing my tail off, so don’t listen to the weather forecast and dress accordingly in layers you can easily shed.
Prices weren’t bad either; you could opt for a card that deducted money each time you rode or buy an unlimited, all-day wristband for $34. Surprisingly, though we’re roller coaster junkies, SVV and I only chose to go on one ride in the two afternoons we spent at the boardwalk, and that was the swings, which went much faster than the swings I remember at Opryland.
Call us old, but I just don’t fully trust high-speed rides at parks that aren’t Disney or Universal.
We did, however, have a great time seeing how much joy the boardwalk brought my three-year-old niece Lucy, who was in awe of everything around her and loved the spin she took on the historic 1911 Looff Carousel, which is a National Historic Landmark.
But eventually your day o’ amusement will come to an end and you’ll likely want to hit the water; do yourself a favor and skip Main Beach, which neighbors the boardwalk. It’s dirty, it’s crowded, it’s a cesspool of germs and needles and who knows what else.
On the flip side, remember that precarious bridge I told you about earlier? The one you most definitely should not walk across? Well, on the other side of it sits Seabright State Beach, one of the prettiest plots of sand around. So why so many flock to the former instead of the latter when there is nothing but a narrow channel separating the two is beyond me (I chalk it up to pure laziness).
Here’s the thing: The Boardwalk is no Disney World or Six Flags or even Busch Gardens. But it is a piece of nostalgia, a candy-colored dream world (think: Simpsons but without the donuts), a great way to make memories with your family and a whole heck of a lot of fun.
Planning a California vacation? I have plenty of travel tips here:
- Windswept + Wild Down Highway 1
- A Day Trip to Half Moon Bay
- A Detour to Point Reyes National Seashore
- A Magical Weekend in Muir Beach
- Planning a Family Vacation to Santa Cruz
- Planning the Ultimate California Road Trip
- Art and Food in San Francisco’s Mission District
- Berkeley in Bloom: 24 Hours in the East Bay
- Skiing Lake Tahoe’s Heavenly Resort