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A Tip of the Mouse Ears to Old Amusement Parks

Nostalgia * Disney's new California Adventure is inspired by fun zones of yore, but you can still visit some of the originals.


Now, here's a California story: Amusement parks open and prosper. Then a new park opens with fresh ideas and drives old parks out of business. Decades pass. New park needs theme for expansion. "Aha!" somebody says. Play on public nostalgia for the old parks.

And so we have the Paradise Pier at Disney's California Adventure, which opened Feb. 8 in Anaheim next to the old Disneyland. If parks like this rank high on your family's list of preferred destinations, you've probably already seen it or planned a visit. If theme parks don't ring your bell, you may have written off the whole enterprise.

But whether or not you have any interest in staying at the 502-room Paradise Pier Hotel, where the most affordable rooms are listed at $195 to $235 nightly, you should remember this: Some of those old California parks, roller coasters and arcades that inspired bits of Disney's California Adventure can still be found up and down the state, mostly along the coast.

Several of these amusement parks date to the first years of the 20th century--long before the arrival of that "new" park, Disneyland, in the 1950s--and many of their buildings and attractions are now historic monuments. In fact, most amusement park historians cite the rise of Disneyland as the fatal blow to the old-fashioned playgrounds.

Not all of California Adventure is built around amusement parks of the past, of course. The main hotel is designed to echo old California hotels. Disney's 750-room Grand Californian Hotel pays homage to the architecture of Greene and Greene and Frank Lloyd Wright, a revival of the Craftsman style that was popular in the early 20th century. And in a sense, the hotel is competing with its own inspiration.

For a more weathered version of the Grand Californian's woodsy, river-rock exteriors, look toward the mountains and forests into another old California park, Yosemite. There in Yosemite Valley stands the Ahwahnee Hotel. Dating to 1927 and designated as a National Historic Landmark, the 123-room Ahwahnee is often booked months ahead.

The Ahwahnee, telephone (559) 252-4848, is a bit more expensive than its Disney imitator: Standard room rates are $279.50 nightly, rising to $305.50 starting March 23. Brochure rates for the most affordable rooms at the Grand Californian run from $225 to $265. But the Ahwahnee is surrounded by scenery that's competitive with anything a Disney Imagineer can conjure up.

As for California's old seaside parks, here's a quick tip sheet, moving south to north:

* San Diego: Belmont Park was revived a decade ago, and the whitewashed crest of its 1925 wooden Giant Dipper roller coaster rises high above the Mission Beach area. The complex opened on 33 acres in 1925 as the Mission Beach Amusement Center. But it closed in 1976, having fallen deeply into disrepair, and the city-owned site became a haven for the homeless. In 1990, after years of fund-raising, re-engineering and political wrangling, the old coaster reopened. It's one of two dozen rides, along with an indoor swimming pool, various shops and a carousel (under renovation and due to reopen in late March).

* Orange County: Newport Beach's Balboa Fun Zone was built in 1936, although much of the operation now dates to a 1986 reconstruction. It includes a Ferris wheel, boardwalk, merry-go-round, bumper cars, the Balboa Pier and Balboa Island Ferry nearby.

* Santa Monica: Pacific Park offers about a dozen rides (including a nine-story-high Ferris wheel), plus games and eateries on the Santa Monica Pier. But it's really a recent development (it opened in 1996) in an area that in decades past played host to various amusement parks. (Many Angelenos still remember Pacific Ocean Park, which opened in 1958 and closed in 1967.) The Santa Monica Pier dates to 1908, and its Looff Hippodrome building has housed carousels since 1916. The carousel in there now, however, didn't arrive until 1946. You might recognize it from the 1973 film "The Sting."

* Santa Cruz: The Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk dates from 1904 and is designated a state historic landmark. It calls itself "the only remaining major seaside amusement park on the entire West Coast." It features a 1911 carousel (with horses carved by Charles Looff) and the wooden Giant Dipper roller coaster, built in 1924. The board's signature building, the Moorish-style Cocoanut Grove ballroom-casino, was renovated in 1981 for $10 million. The park has added various features over the years and now has 47 rides plus several arcades and eateries. It too has gotten feature film exposure: 1987's "The Lost Boys" with Kiefer Sutherland and his fellow vampires.

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