California's Oldest Coaster, “Giant Dipper,” Turns 90

She’s turning 90 this weekend, and her party promises to give her guests a wild ride.

There will be one hour of free stomach-lurching thrills on Saturday for anyone who wants to wish the Giant Dipper a happy birthday, as the Santa Cruz beach boardwalk's iconic roller coaster -- California's oldest -- celebrates a time when coasters cost $50,000 to build and 15 cents a ride.

"It's an unforgettable ride," said Will Pemble of Orinda, also known as the "Coaster Dad." His son, 11-year-old Lyle, also said he thinks the wooden coaster is "fun" and he likes the "old-time ride," even though it's a little "wobbly."

Still, the roller coaster "isn't that tall and isn't that fast" in the sixth grader's eyes, as Lyle noted that "most amusement parks would have torn down an old ride like that."

The coaster is indeed old.

It's California’s oldest, designed by Frank Prior and Frederick Church and built in 1924 by Arthur Looff, according to Boardwalk history.

When it opened on May 17 that year, the Santa Cruz Sentinel ran a full-page black-and-white ad for the ride, promising a “wonderful kick from start to finish.” In 1987, the Giant Dipper was designated a National Historic Landmark.

The coaster is billed as the 5th oldest in the country and the 9th oldest in the world. The oldest is in Altoona, Pennsylvania, built in 1902.

An ad in 1924 announcing opening day of the Giant Dipper. Source Santa Cruz Boardwalk Archives.

Since opening day, 60 million people have coasted down the half-mile track, which stands 70 feet tall, and is the iconic visual image seen across the beachside city of Santa Cruz.

Among those riders have been famous actors like Michelle Pfeiffer when she filmed “Dangerous Minds,” Vincent Price when he made a horror documentary in 1978 called “America Screams” and basketball legend Wilt Chamberlain, who took a spin in 1968.

Wilt Chamberlain rides the Giant Dipper at the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk in 1968. Source Santa Cruz Boardwalk Archives.

“It’s definitely our signature ride,” said park spokeswoman Brigid Fuller. “Everyone loves the Dipper. It’s beautiful. And that sound of the clickety-clack is so great. It’s a pretty special ride.”

In honor of the coaster's birthday, the park is offering free Giant Dipper rides on Saturday for one hour from 10 a.m to 11 a.m., which Fuller said is something the boardwalk has never done before. The Boardwalk kicks off its summer season on that day too, with a Street Drum Corps presentation and a free beach concert.

Fun Facts About the Dipper:

  • The Giant Dipper was built in just 47 days at a cost of $50,000.
  • The fare was 15 cents in 1924; today it is $6.
  • Record day was June 27, 1987, with 13,729 riders.
  • When the Dipper received a fresh coat of paint last fall, painters used over 4500 gallons of paint and primer to cover an estimated 327,000 board feet of lumber.
  • The 2013 project cost nearly $300,000, six times the original cost to build the ride in 1924.

(Source: Beach Boardwalk)

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