The Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk is one of the most quintessential California experiences. Nothing says California like a day at the boardwalk by the beach full of sun, roller coasters and cotton candy. Once a year the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk has a unique event that ups the fun a notch by allowing people to camp on the Boardwalk. Yes, you heard me right, you get to spend a night on the Boardwalk itself, camping right between the rides. The event happens only once a year on a Friday night in September and in addition to camping it comes with free parking, dinner on Friday night, several hours of free arcade play followed by a movie on the beach, breakfast the next morning, several more hours of free arcade and miniature golf play AND finally an all-day ride pass for Saturday. All you need to bring is a tent and a sleeping bag, although the weather is generally mild so some people just bring a sleeping bag with some padding and sleep under the stars. The cost is around $80 per person – a steal considering that a Friday night hotel in Santa Cruz can easily run over $200 just for a room.
My wife, daughter and I live in Sacramento so we picked up our daughter right after school and headed straight down to Santa Cruz, arriving at 4:00 PM. The event officially starts at 5:00 PM but we were surprised to find that others had already arrived and had set up in the choice spots nearest to the beach. Note to self, next time arrive earlier! Although we weren’t the first to arrive we were one of the first so we were able to find a great parking spot in the paid parking lot right next to the Boardwalk. Check in was easy, we just gave our names to the lady in the check in booth and she gave us our wristbands and validated our parking.
Then we went onto the Boardwalk and chose a spot to set up our tent. There is a fenced off area with 24 hour security guards and you can set up pretty much anywhere you want. It took us a few trips to bring our tent, clothes, bedding, and air mattresses to our chosen area but luckily we had brought a cart to help us move everything.
We finished setting up our tent just as the Carousel opened. The hand carved 1911 Looff Carousel is a National Historic Landmark and as the name suggests has been operating since 1911. In addition to be gorgeous it is one of the few carousels that have a real brass ring you can grab and attempt to throw into a target while riding on the carousel. It is not easy hitting a target when you are moving around, I have never been able to hit the target but it was fun trying!
After a few rides on the Carousel we went to the Casino Arcade where we played a few arcade games before going outside for dinner. Dinner was buffet style and included veggie crudité, dinner rolls, fruit salad, pasta, meatballs and chicken strips along with soda. It was really cool eating under the sun outside next to the beach. The weather was great, sunny, low 70’s with little wind although some years it can get a bit chilly. After dinner it was back to the arcade where we enjoyed video games as well as air hockey, skeet ball and laser tag.
At 8 PM the arcade closed and we all headed to the main stage on the beach to watch a movie and this year it was Goonies. Along the way my daughter made a Lumina which as basically a light in a decorated paper bag to be hung on the fence around the movie. We set up the chairs we bought and enjoyed the movie under the night stars.
After that it was time for bed, lights out was 10:45 so there was plenty of time for everyone to go to the bathroom and brush their teeth. Fortunately the night was not cold and we fell asleep to the sound of the nearby waves.
The next morning we woke up early to the sound of the seagulls and we quickly packed all of our camping gear back into the car before heading to breakfast. Breakfast was also buffet style with bagels and cream cheese, fruit, oatmeal, scrambled eggs with bacon along with juice or hot chocolate. After quickly eating breakfast we went to the miniature golf building to enjoy a game of golf, some more video games, pinball and air hockey. At the same time some people joined the sand sculpture contest but we were having too much fun in the arcade. Right at 11:00 AM we headed out to the boardwalk rides and since we were there early we were able to knock out a couple of the more popular rides right at opening before the lines got long. After that it was off to the kiddie rides since my daughter is only five. Fortunately the kiddie rides never have much of a line. It was another perfect Santa Cruz day, sunny without being hot and we had a wonderful time enjoying the various rides. We were pretty full after the big breakfast so we managed to avoid most of the temptations by having a light lunch although I must admit we couldn’t pass up the cotton candy and caramel apples. If you want to have a taste of the essence of California you can’t go wrong with a night on the Santa Cruz Boardwalk.