SANTA CRUZ — If you ask Ollie Tyra, 85, what sets her apart in this sleepy town on the Central Coast, she will tell you with tears that she is Andy's widow, with pride that she's her church's premier "prayer warrior."
Then, with a laugh, she will tell you the real reason the big shots down at the boardwalk invite her to lunch on a regular basis: Ollie Verne Olds Tyra is the last known living human to have ridden the famous Giant Dipper roller coaster the day it was unveiled in 1924.
"They can't do anything down at the boardwalk without doing it with me," boasts the diminutive dignitary. "It was 1924 when I first became a teenager and they built the Giant Dipper. . . . I was one of the first to ride it on the first day, and I've been riding it ever since, every chance I get."
In its low-key, NorCal kind of way, the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk turned 90 this summer, and Tyra took yet another spin on its big white coaster, a wooden screamer from the golden years of amusement parks that rises above the Monterey Bay. In an equally low-key kind of way, the boardwalk is at the center of a revival in the world of seaside amusement parks. It has been joined in recent years by a revitalized Santa Monica Pier and a restored Mission Beach in San Diego. Plans are afoot to rebuild the famous Cyclone Racer roller coaster that once rose above the Long Beach Pike. Coaster construction of all kinds is at an all-time high.
But as the oldest beachfront amusement park on the West Coast celebrates its advancing age, this 900-pound gorilla of Santa Cruz tourism is slowly being surrounded by a different kind of attraction.
Long a free-thinking bastion of the ecologically correct--and the home of California's very first state park--Santa Cruz of late is fashioning itself into a playground for the environmentally friendly.
Santa Cruz Mayor Cynthia Matthews likes to point out that environmental tourism here actually started in the late 1800s, as the redwoods began their fall to logging and hardy souls would venture out to see the mighty evergreens, with their Japanese lanterns and pianos in tow.
In the last few years, pleasure cruise companies have added biologists to their catamarans and sailboats, capitalizing on Monterey Bay's designation as a national marine sanctuary, where the environment is actively protected and researched.
O'Neill Yacht Charters, for example, touts an "on-board Marine Naturalist to show you the Sanctuary and it's [sic] Creatures Accompanied by Live Acoustic Guitar."
But the boldest pronouncement that green is encroaching comes from activist Paul Lee, who vows that this motel town of tank tops and tattoos will someday be known as "EcoTopia.'
For the uninitiated--likely everyone but the 50,000 or so who have logged onto Lee's Web site--Santa Cruz will become EcoTopia when it "symbolically secedes from the United States as an industrial society, rejecting the national forces of self-destruction, still running unchecked."
If you don't like that, Lee writes, "then think of Santa Cruz as a kind of environmental Club Med." Basically, Lee would like to bring 2 million environmentally friendly tourists here by 2000. If the boardwalk can get 3.2 million annually, why can't an environmentally friendly tourism industry come close, he asks.
In a futuristic manifesto about the direction of his home town, Lee envisions monthly festivals for ecotourists and green consumers, who would be registered at "border kiosks" and required to lease electric vehicles. CD-ROMS at centralized locations would lay out the parameters of a green vacation. The concept raises some eyebrows, particularly among hard-core amusement park aficionados, for whom Santa Cruz is really a synonym for the Giant Dipper.
"Turning Santa Cruz into EcoTopia, like a Disneyland for ecology?" asks an incredulous Gary Kyriazi, author of "The Great American Amusement Parks" and an unabashed Dipper lover. "My initial reaction is: Oh, here we go again."
Some Santa Cruz officials call Lee a visionary, even as they slide their eyes a little sideways when they say it. To this bearded herbalist and former philosophy professor, who likes to chat about the various uses of the herb thyme, they might as well just call him a crank and get it over with.
"The corollary is, 'The poor son-of-a-bitch can't follow through with anything,' " snorts Lee, who has pushed successfully for a Homeless Garden Project and the area's early homeless shelters. "They might as well call me a Utopian."
As he says this, he is hiking along his most recent brainchild. Called the Circle Trail, it is the first--and so far only--tangible evidence that EcoTopia could actually loom large in the future.
The trail is really two long loops, each about 12 miles. Still somewhat of a work in progress, the Circle Trail links the highlights of this city of 50,000.