US coastal parks are in danger. For those by water, the threat is particularly acute. In the 1920s there were over 1,500 authentic waterfront amusement parks in America. It was a given — where there was a body of water that people used as a gathering place for recreation, there was an amusement park. Out of those 1,500, there are less than 15 left. Gary Kyriazi profiles a survivor.
The tale of California’s Mission Beach Amusement Park, later to become Belmont Park, is not just a story of survival, but of resurrection, one of the miracles of amusement history.
Mission Beach actually got a later start than most traditional American amusement parks, opening 1925 in San Diego. That’s not to say that this major port had been without an amusement park. Wonderland, a small amusement pier in the Ocean Beach area had been in operation in the early part of the century, but it didn’t last through the early glut of hastily built amusement parks that had opened after Coney Island at the turn of the century.
Instead, Mission Beach was a large, well-planned oceanside amusement centre, which, according to the May 24, 1925, San Diego Union, was to “mark another milestone in prosperity advancement.” Interestingly, such a declaration of community benefit as expressed by the paper was to continue throughout Mission Beach’s history. The first owner, the Spreckels Sugar Company, ended up donating the entire park to the State of California in 1934 (possibly as a tax settlement), which in turn transferred ownership to the city of San Diego in 1939.
San Diego retained ownership of the park until its closure in 1976, with all of the rides, attractions, games and food services operated on a concessionaire basis. Operating a park in this way was standard in the first 50 years of the American amusement industry: since each concessionaire has a vested interest, there was more pride and care taken in the operation of the enterprise, be it ride, game or food.
The downside of concessionaires was the “carny” environment created by the tattooed, rough-looking owner/operators which the industry seemed to attract. Also, with the 1950s and beginning of urban blight, an amusement park could only be deemed “safe and clean” when run as a privately-owned, enclosed operation with a gate admission. Even so, the usually nominal entrance fee wouldn’t discourage visitors who had only trouble on their mind. Ultimately, the older, traditional amusement parks became undesirable to families by 1960.
Mission Beach, renamed Belmont Park in 1957, was no exception to this urban problem, and when William D Evans took over the lease in 1969, his original intention was to tear it down and put up a hotel, claiming Belmont Park had a “carnival atmosphere” and “that’s the nicest way to put it without saying it’s a ‘horrible place.’” Public opposition, however, disabled Evans from getting the city’s approval for his oceanfront hotel, which would have been the only one on the Pacific Coast. Stuck with an amusement park, Evans decided to make the best of it.
His efforts were energetic and productive. He enclosed Belmont Park, brought in new rides, dismissed the concessionaires and hired young and enthusiastic workers. One of them was the savvy character Don Hertel who, with his hotel background, would serve as general manager and clean up the park and change its image. By the very next year, 1970, the rejuvenated Belmont Park was again drawing families, making money and resuming community support. The March 14, 1973, San Diego Union touted the “squeaky clean” and “family” quality of the “new” park.
Park Gone Dark
But in 1976, when San Diego enthusiastically offered Bill Evans a new lease, he surprised the city by refusing to sign, citing rising insurance costs, utilities and the rise in minimum wage. In December of 1976, Belmont Park closed for what appeared to be forever.
Everything that could be auctioned off was, leaving the 1925 Giant Dipper rollercoaster and a shamble of buildings that offered a haven for drug dealers and transients. By 1978, local citizens were so outraged they erected a banner on the rapidly deteriorating wooden structure of the Giant Dipper that read “San Diego’s Tax Free Home For Drug Pushers and Vagabonds!” Within weeks the City Council voted 4-1 in favour of having the coaster removed.
But the Giant Dipper seemed to have a magic charm in its favour. In 1978, Tony Ciani, a local architect, managed to have the coaster registered by the United States Department of the Interior to the National Register of Historic Places. This meant that, under California law, the coaster now fell under the jurisdiction of the California Coastal Commission, and the coaster could not be removed without the owner’s request. San Diego may have owned the land, but Bill Evans still owned the coaster. Apparently Evans had a sentimental side, as he refused requests to dismantle the Giant Dipper.
In 1981, two fires started by the same arsonist failed to bring down the ride, damaging only the two-tunnelled sections. This 1925 wooden twister, acknowledged by the American Coaster Enthusiasts (ACE) as one of the great coasters from the Golden Age of Coasters, refused to go down without a fight.
In 1982, local general contractor Norm Starr sprang into action to save the coaster. “I could see the Giant Dipper from my bedroom window,” Starr said, “and as I’ve always been involved in preserving San Diego’s history, I just didn’t want to see it go. I started publishing a small newspaper that used saving the coaster as its focal point. Eventually the Save The Coaster Committee [STCC] was formed.”
Evans donated the coaster to the STCC and the city gave them a generous $1 per year lease, containing the clause that the coaster must be restored and fully operational by August, 1985, a short three years away.
The STCC began the work by excavating and re-pouring some of the coaster’s foundations and replacing the posts that were destroyed in the fires, all the while holding fund raisers to save the coaster.
But time quickly ran out, and by the August 1985 deadline, the coaster still wasn’t operational. Belmont Park Associates, a development group, had obtained the development rights to the remainder of Belmont Park and was planning to build a shopping mall. Certainly the new mall wouldn’t have wanted the old coaster next to it and, with the impending expiration of the STCC’s lease, would have no legal obligation to keep it. But at the last moment, the San Diego City Council extended the STCC’s lease until December 31, 1987.
National Historical Landmark
The Giant Dipper’s magic charm continued to work, as the United States National Park Service declared it a National Historical Landmark on March 5, 1987, giving the coaster much-needed legal protection. Additionally, the STCC had by this time earned about $380,000, plus a $150,000 grant from the State of California. While these monies allowed the STCC to continue work on the coaster, including stripping and whitewashing the entire structure, adding chaser lights and the necessary electrical equipment, it still wasn’t enough to make the ride operational.
In the meantime, the Mission Beach-styled outdoor shopping mall was rapidly nearing completion, and even with the coaster’s apparent legal protection, its ultimate operation was threatened. “[Belmont Park Associates] were powerful and moneyed,” Starr recalls, “and we originally thought they were against the coaster operating again. They were talking about turning it into a restaurant, even using the structure as scaffolding for a water slide.”
Instead, possibly because of the amount of public support for the coaster, Belmont Park Associates went to the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk for help. The Boardwalk owned and operated the famous 1924 Santa Cruz Giant Dipper (a common name for California’s coasters in the 1920s), and the Belmont group thought it might be interested in the ownership/operation of the San Diego coaster. Ed Hutton, at that time Santa Cruz general manager, determined that they should get involved and convinced Charles Canfield, the Boardwalk’s owner, to do so. Hutton and Canfield invited Dana Morgan and Bob Mazurik of Morgan Manufacturing to join them, and the San Diego Coaster Company was created.
“I stepped out of the picture at that time,” Norm Starr said, “but I was relieved the coaster was, at last, going to be operational again.”
“It was definitely the Save The Coaster Committee that saved the San Diego Giant Dipper,” Ed Hutton graciously conceded. With the blessings from the city, the SDCC also installed a carousel, bumper car ride and several kiddie rides, bringing back, in a very strong sense, the old Mission Beach Amusement Center, reopening on August 11, 1990.
“We saved an icon,” Ed Hutton said happily. “People were so grateful to be able to ride the Giant Dipper again, and that their children and grandchildren could now ride it too.” The San Diego Coaster company was happy too – the Giant Dipper’s first year alone brought in over $1 million.
“That first year was kind of expected,” Belmont Park’s present day general manager Wendy Crain explains. “It was an exciting time for San Diego, and we knew everyone wanted to ride the coaster. But what we didn’t expect was that, while we had projected a $400,000 per year revenue, we got $600,000 the next year, and it’s held steadily at that amount since then.”
Managing The Fun
Forty-two-year-old Wendy Crain didn’t have a background in the amusement industry per se, but she had logged several years as a manager in the hotel and food industry. “Management is management,” she tells us. “It’s all about guest relations, working seven days a week and always putting out fires. The amusement industry is a lot more fun though! People come here happy, expecting a good time, and our job is to maintain that level of expectation.”
With just three major rides (besides the coaster, there is a Chance Morgan Revolution and Chaos), five family rides and two kiddie rides, Belmont Park is a small operation. “We’ve got just 12 full-time employees, and as such I wear a lot of hats,” Crain says. “We’re open seven days a week except in January and February, when we’re open weekends only.” Part-time employees number from 40 during off-season to 75 in peak season.
The park as it stands now is a living testament of what Disney’s California Adventure recreated in its Paradise Pier homage to the great California seaside parks. Still, Belmont Park is an abbreviated version of what it used to be. However small, its location at San Diego’s most popular beach, and its open gate policy, allows a flow of traffic and revenue for several hours longer than a similar-sized land-locked park. Would more rides be nice? Sure. Are they necessary? Probably not.
“That’s our biggest challenge,” Crain points out, “adding more rides. Space of course is an issue, but it could be done with some imagination. However, for every new ride we may propose, it has to be put to a vote to not just the San Diego City Council, but to the entire city.”
Still, Crain forges ahead. Her most noteworthy contribution is getting directional signs off Interstate 8, the main freeway into San Diego as far as beach traffic is concerned. “I wrote letters and jumped through all the hoops to the California Department of Transportation for those signs. The Giant Dipper had been designated a National Historical Landmark, but it wasn’t a California historical landmark!” So Crain hustled and ultimately garnered state historical status for the Giant Dipper, and Interstate 8 now has not one but two “Exit Here” signs for the Belmont Park Giant Dipper.
Crain and Belmont Park’s most recent issue was raising the ticket price for the Giant Dipper from $5 to $6 per ride. “We were a little nervous about that,” she admits. “But we really had no choice, what with the rise in minimum wage. However, it hasn’t hurt us, and I think the reason is that in nearby Las Vegas, families are willing to pay from $12 to $15 a ride for its various standalone coasters. Also, our guests appreciate that there’s rarely any line to our coaster; you hop right on.”
In the meantime, the San Diego Giant Dipper just keeps on rolling. When I took my own ride, I listened to two kids seated behind me as we exited the long pitch-black tunnel and began climbing the lift.
“Wow, that tunnel was neat! But, it’s like it feels really different. And they don’t have that bar-thing that goes over your shoulders. Why is that?”
“It’s like dad said, you dummy! This is an old, wooden rollercoaster! Now hold on!”
And we dived into the wonderful 180-degree first drop and raced over 10 more twisted drops and turns. When we sped around the final banked turn and into the original ornate 1925 station, the two kids behind me cried:
“That was sooo cool!”
Thank you Save-The-Coaster-Committee, and thank you everyone involved for keeping the 1925 San Diego Belmont Park Giant Dipper alive.
You did it for our kids. And for us.