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Weekend Escape: San Francisco

Frisco Kid : Some piers are a little 'mallish,' but the city rates

September 01, 1996|SHARON BOORSTIN

SAN FRANCISCO — I recently read some statistics that placed Disney World, in Florida, and Disneyland as the first and second most popular amusement attractions in the U.S. That didn't surprise me, but the attraction listed as No. 3 three did: Pier 39 in San Francisco. I'd only been to Pier 39 once, years ago, and found it to be more a shopping-mall-on-a-pier than an amusement attraction. When I learned that in April Pier 39 had opened UnderWater World, billed as "America's first and only diver's-eye-view aquarium," I thought it would be a good excuse to introduce my 12-year-old son, Adam, to San Francisco. It's known as an adult heartthrob, but we discovered that the city's compact and distinctive neighborhoods make it a natural for children.

As if to prove the cliche, "everyone's favorite American city," there were hundreds of tourists waiting in line at the Market Street cable car turnaround when Adam, my husband, Paul, and I arrived on a Saturday morning in midsummer. Determined to give Adam the fabled trolley ride he'd seen in umpteen movies, we climbed to the top of Nob Hill. There, as I'd suspected, we were able to squeeze onto a passing cable car that was letting off passengers. As the cable car lurched down one incredibly steep hill after another toward Fisherman's Wharf, I watched Adam's eyes widen in amazement and his lips broaden into a smile, his mind, I'm sure, spinning fantasies of runaway cable cars. On a scale of 1 to 10, he gave the experience a 9.

I have vivid memories of eating fresh Dungeness crab at an outdoor seafood stand and looking through a telescope at Alcatraz on my first visit to Fisherman's Wharf when I was Adam's age. Today, the seafood stands and telescopes are still there, but they are surrounded by a hodgepodge of shops selling souvenirs and T-shirts with such logos as "Alcatraz Swim Team." Adam's hopes of taking a cruise to the famous "Rock," which was visible through the lifting fog, were dashed because tickets were sold out for the next three days. He was appeased by an acrobatic turn on what is best described as a "bungee trampoline" near the entrance to Pier 39. In Adam's opinion, it was a definite 10.

Seeing Pier 39 a second time, I'm still surprised that it attracts the visitors it's reputed to--for unlike Disney World and Disneyland, it lacks both a theme and a theme park's thrill rides. What it does offer is over 100 shops selling everything from glass tchotchkes to NFL merchandise, innumerable snack bars and restaurants, plus video game arcades, a carousel, a stage for street performers, a Cinemax theater, a jolting cinema "turbo ride" akin to Disneyland's "Star Tours" and bumper cars. And now, it has UnderWater World. We paid our $12.95 each, hooked audiocassette machines over our shoulders, and, as our audio guide led the way, prepared to "dive."

In reality, what we did was stand for 30 minutes on a moving sidewalk that snakes through a 300-foot-long acrylic tube beneath two aquariums, the first stocked with herring, perch, starfish, smelts, sardines and the occasional halibut, the second with sturgeon, bat rays and moderately sized leopard, six-gill and seven-gill sharks--all native to San Francisco Bay. The most exciting thing about being in UnderWater World was when a bat ray or shark would skim over the acrylic ceiling just above our heads, allowing us a unique view of its underside and mouth. The least exciting aspect was listening to the quasi-educational audio narration, which included a discussion of sharks against a background of screaming women's voices, and a comparison of life in a kelp forest to that in a high-rise building. When we emerged from UnderWater World, Adam gave it a 5, and compared it to the Shark Encounter at San Diego's Sea World, which also features a moving sidewalk through an acrylic tube beneath an aquarium. The walk-through may be shorter at Shark Encounter, he admitted, but the aquarium there is filled with huge--and many man-eating--sharks.


Before leaving Fisherman's Wharf, however, we stumbled upon two discoveries that made the trip worthwhile. The first was K Dock, on the west side of Pier 39. For some mysterious reason, beginning in 1990, California sea lions began gathering here in droves to lounge, one furry body on top of another, on wooden rafts. Adam was so fascinated by the playful and noisy sea mammals that we stayed glued to the railing watching them--some not more than 20 feet away--for almost an hour, twice the time we'd spent in UnderWater World. And it was free.

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