Summertime Family Fun on the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk

Part of the beauty of summer vacation is being able to get up and just go. A tank of gas and a little gusto can have huge payoff, especially when the final destination for your family is a place like the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk.


Getting There

About a two hour drive from San Francisco, the Boardwalk and summer go hand in hand. You’ll spend the first hour on the freeway, but the second hour, after you pass through San Jose takes you onto winding Highway 17 and through the Santa Cruz Mountains.

Though some may not like the twists and turns of the road, I think sheer geography deserves some credit for helping Santa Cruz stay it’s quirky, quiet, seaside-self. While San Jose and the Silicon Valley have boomed and grown, Santa Cruz pretty much looks and feels the same as when I first visited almost 15 years ago.

Santa Cruz’s beachy persona hits the moment you roll into town. Unlike other popular California seaside destinations, resorts don’t dominate the horizon. Think smaller hotels and motels, many privately owned and operated, painted in every vibrant color of the rainbow. It’s old-school funky and fabulous.


There are street signs everywhere that lead you straight to the beach and Boardwalk and you can print out a great map from the Boardwalk’s website before you leave home. The parking lots couldn’t be any more convenient. Located right across the street from the Boardwalk, you don’t have to lug around a day’s worth of much needed stuff. Grabbing what you need, when you need it, is a breeze. The Boardwalk stretches a half-mile along Santa Cruz’s Main Beach. But don’t let that half-mile distance fool you, come ready to do plenty of walking.


Come Prepared

It might be 90 degrees when you leave for the Boardwalk, but don’t count on it being the same temperature when you get there. Dress in layers. Expect it to be cool in the morning, you’ll shed layers on sunny afternoons, but want those warm sweatshirts again when the sun sets.

That said, don’t forget the classic beach necessities like sunscreen, sunglasses and hats if your kids will wear them. If you’re planning on playing on the beach, throw a swimsuit and towel into the car as well. If your kids are still stroller age, this is not a day to leave it at home. Even if they don’t necessarily like to hang out in the stroller, when they start to get tired, they just might change their tune. Besides strollers are a great place to stash a camera and they also make perfect Boardwalk souvenir holders.

What shoes to wear might be the biggest decision you have to make. At 10 and 13, I let my girls make their own choice. They both opted for flip flops, saying they’d just take them off when they went on rides that came with a risk of losing them. It was a good call, and made going back in forth from the beach to boardwalk a breeze, but I can see it not working out so well for younger kids. Losing a shoe on the Sky Glider is no fun.


Boardwalk Rides

My girls couldn’t wait to get on the rides. You’ve essentially got two choices when it comes to rides. Tickets are one dollar each and each ride requires three to five tickets. Or you can buy an All-Day Unlimited Rides Wristband. There’s something about counting tickets and making sure the kids don’t lose them all when they’re upside down on the roller coaster that can quickly take all the fun out of it for me, so my advice is to go for the wristband.

If you’re debating which way to go, check out the complete list of the Boardwalk’s rides, including costs and height requirements.

So Many Choices

The Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk has more than 34 rides and attractions, so give yourself plenty of time to explore. Two of the rides are actually National Historic Landmarks. The Giant Dipper roller coaster was built in 1924 and still probably has the longest lines of any ride on the Boardwalk. It was built by Arthur Looff who probably learned a thing or two from his father Charles. A Danish woodcarver, Looff senior built the Boardwalk’s Looff Carousel, which is celebrating its 100th birthday this summer.

Learning the history of the ride is almost as fun as the riding it. For the Grand Opening of the carousel in 1911, 100 rocking chairs were brought in so mothers could relax while keeping an eye on their children. That gives a whole new twist to going to the Boardwalk.

All Ages Will Want to Take a Twirl

My girls have been to their fair share of great carousels. Two of their favorites are in San Francisco. One is at the fabulous Children’s Museum Zeum and one is tucked away in Golden Gate Park. But they couldn’t wait to get onto the Looff carousel. I was pleasantly shocked by this, since my girls are 10 and 13 and I’m sadly thinking my carousel days may be numbered.

Why all the excitement? The rings! Turns out the Looff carousel is one of only a handful of carousels in the world with a working ring dispenser. When it was time for my girls to saddle up, they did everything but break out into a full sprint to get to just the right horse for ring grabbing.

There had been serious location plotting while waiting in line. I apparently didn’t run fast enough and wound up a few horses behind, but everytime they got a ring I knew it. And if they hit the large clown face target with the prized ring, everyone on carousel knew it.

The carousel was the perfect start to a jam packed day. Ride after ride, we made our way down the Boardwalk. In the morning and early afternoon, there were strollers and kids of all ages everywhere. Even little ones have a good number of rides to choose from. Bulgy the Whale is priceless. Think Disney World’s Dumbo, but instead of sitting in an elephant, kids fly through the air in an orca whale. This is the beach after all.

This is Not a Place for a Diet

With all of the running around your kids will be doing, they will get hungry. If you’re spending anytime on the beach, sitting in the sand, a picnic can’t be beat. (When you head to the car to get the cooler, you’ll understand why I love the fact the parking lots are right across the street from the Boardwalk, not blocks away.)

But part of going to the Boardwalk is eating Boardwalk junk food. Brace yourself, you’ve got plenty of options to choose from. Deep fried twinkies and oreos, funnel cakes, ice cream, cotton candy and caramel apples. Sugar overload is likely. My girls and I shared a caramel apple and cotton candy from Marini’s. Even freshly made cotton candy has a place in the culinary world. And just for the record, we all ate our dinner.

Relevant Links:

Ciao Bambino recommended kid-friendly hotels in Santa Cruz

Luxury family-friendly getaway at the Ritz-Carlton Half Moon Bay

Napa with kids at the Francis Ford Coppola Winery swimming pool

Zip-line through the California Wine Country

What’s new for summer 2011 at Disneyland

Bay Area luxury getaway at Rosewood Sand Hill

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