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SURROUNDINGS SANTA CRUZ

Roller Coaster's Thrill Is Stuff of Romance

Beach boardwalk's old-fashioned, wooden Giant Dipper can still work its magic on receptive couples.

October 03, 2002|DAVID FERRELL | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Nights at the beach, on a speeding roller coaster, inspire many sensations.

One is romance.

Even as a youngster, Nancy Orrock Shutt felt the magic while riding the huge white roller coaster, the Giant Dipper, on the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk. Hearing the couples screaming, seeing the flashing lights and neon of the amusement park below, created thrills she would never outgrow.

"It was always my dream to have a boyfriend with me," remembered Shutt, now 42, who exceeded the fantasy by a long shot 10 years ago, while riding the coaster with her beau, Robert Shutt. He turned to her as they began ascending the enormous first crest and popped the question--still the best moment among great moments too numerous to count. There's no telling how many times they had ridden the Dipper leading up to that instant, or how many times they have ridden it since.

"Hundreds of times--thousands of times," said Robert Shutt, a Sunnyvale banker, after they had piled off it again, laughing, to celebrate his 42nd birthday.

Callie Gray, who's been riding the Giant Dipper for more than 40 years, understands completely. Romance? Her parents dated on the landmark 1924 roller coaster before World War II. She and her first husband courted there, later bringing their two children. She and her second husband, Brad, also made regular drives down the coast to spend afternoons and evenings riding the Dipper--and still do.

"We love roller coasters," said Gray, 55, an interior designer who lives in Campbell, 15 minutes from Santa Cruz. "We've actually thought about traveling the United States and riding all the big coasters." They're off to a good start, she added, having tried 50 or so as far east as Hershey, Pa.

So far, Gray said, the Dipper is her favorite, partly for the feel you get on an old wooden coaster--noises and vibrations missing from slick modern rides. "I'm a purist," she said. "The wooden ones are the best."

The Giant Dipper, built for $50,000, using about 30 tons of steel and iron and well over a quarter-million feet of lumber, is the oldest operating roller coaster on the West Coast, said Jan Bollwinkel-Smith, a boardwalk spokeswoman. The half-mile track, rimmed with flashing white lights, rises as high as 70 feet and propels the low-slung trains up to 55 mph.

That pales in comparison to today's marvels. Monstrosities such as the Texas Tornado in Houston and the Millennium Force in Sandusky, Ohio, are said to be pushing the limits of human tolerance. Millennium Force rises more than 300 feet and reaches 92 mph, making it a mecca for hard-core coaster fans.

Still, the Giant Dipper provides a formidable adrenaline rush. After the lap bar presses down, the train immediately bolts forward, dipping into a tunnel and twisting left and right in the dark. The blackness lasts a long time before you emerge and begin the long first climb, looking out over the beach and pier.

Flying down the first dip, you're suddenly forced back in the seat, driven downward as the train shoots skyward again. There are places, in the middle and lower levels, where it appears the cars are rushing straight toward overhanging beams. At the last second the cars dip again, twisting into new turns.

Roller coasters trigger feelings of helplessness and danger--hurtling out of control, locked in, not knowing what lies next. The sensory bombardment raises your pulse, puts you face to face with death and, many enthusiasts say, is more satisfying on a wooden coaster. The hushed clatter of the tracks is one of those sounds that defines childhood, like the sprocket noise of a derailleur bicycle.

From the street, the Giant Dipper appears impossibly long and intricate, as if built of thousands of painted Popsicle sticks. It is a National Historic Landmark in an amusement zone that is itself a tale of survival.

The boardwalk dates to 1907, when the Cocoanut Grove ballroom and conference center opened. That complex still exists in a park that now contains more than 30 amusement rides.

The boardwalk is a protected state landmark that retains a small-town feel despite the soaring real estate prices that doomed two of the other great beachside fun zones: Santa Monica's Pacific Ocean Park, shuttered in the 1960s, and Long Beach's Pike, which lost its own legendary roller coaster, the Cyclone Racer, about the same time. The Pike was dead by the mid-1970s.

The Giant Dipper this year celebrated its 50 millionth rider, a milestone that's something of a misnomer, considering how many people have ridden it more than once.

Look at Art Warner, 67, of Santa Cruz: He's been climbing aboard since before there were seat restraints--at least 100 times. Susan Grinstead of Sacramento? Same thing, plus she's brought her son, Zachary, 12, for 10 or more trips.

Miles Jolly, barely 20, of Sacramento already puts himself over the century mark. He's one of those who like to see how many times he can ride in a row. Mark Vega is another.

"We rode it 16 times" in one day, said Vega, 48, of Orangeville, whose large family broke their old record of 13 straight trips.

The Shutts ride over and over every New Year's, starting out the year right.

"It's an icon of the West Coast," Robert Shutt said, citing one reason he proposed on the Dipper. Another is the state of mind you see people in after that final drop. "When you get off that thing, everybody has a smile."

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