A nice summer for Roller Coasters.

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I live in Santa Cruz, a kind of Shangra-La-by-the-beach which gives a new meaning to the word decadence  (sometimes pushing it to extremes of outright corruption and depravity, but that’s a topic for a whole other blog post).  People come here from all over the world to enjoy a weekend in paradise, or a few years of what often amounts to a scholastic summer camp at the university.  In fact the affluent, transient populations of tourists and students are the two main drivers of the town economy, blue collar manufacturing having gone the way of Reaganomics. 

What makes this place such a draw for vacationers is partly the fortunate confluence of climate and surroundings, with the happy proximity of ocean to beautiful  redwood forests.  That’s one of the perks, certainly.  Oh yeah, and we also have a freakin’ wooden roller coaster.

Assuming you haven’t smothered your youthful sense of awe to death in the process of assimilating into the yuppie eat yuppie world of Serious Adulthood (what a horrid monster to become, someone who is overly serious!), than certainly your inner ten year old can play informant and advise you as to the prospect of “when I grow up I want to go on carnival rides all the time” actually being a rather bitchin’ aspiration.  Well guess what.  I’m the guy who’s able to do just that.  Most y’all come here for the weekend trip, your 2.5 bratty kids stacked like sardines into the back of your SUV, trying to pack as many Quality Family Moments as possible into your 3 day stay at Mediocre Motel USA (run by a family of plucky, hard working entreprenuers from India, naturally), topping it all off by leaving as much of your trash scattered across the beach as is humanly possible just to feel like you made mark.  Good for you, and for the innkeepers.  As for me, I’m not a tourist, I live here.  Which means I can ride the Giant Dipper and the Fireball and the even damn ponies on the carousel while honing my ring toss into clown mouth skills, all season long.  My inner ten year old gets what he wants dammit.

Not bad for the tolerable entry fee of a $75 season pass.  Which is a great price considering that day trippers pay $50 just for a single afternoon, or similarly exorbitant rates for individuals rides.  Seaside Company, which administers the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk, does some things better than others.  But at least they cut the locals some slack.  Discount tickets on Tuesdays after the out-of-town crowds have thinned is a nice touch, and so are the free movies, circus performances and concerts on the beach.  Well, sometimes the bands are a bit on the washed up side of things.  Like I said, some things better than others, but for the entirely reasonable price of exactly zero dollars, I’m not going to complain too much about the talent. Nice of all those 80s one hit wonders to come here and put on a show for us, really.

Of course, if there’s one thing the whole Boardwalk operation does really spectacularly well, it’s extracting money from out of the pockets of hapless yet enthusiastic beachgoing visitors.  Thirsty capitalists that they are, the Seaside Company has their methods down to a science.  Between parking, food concessions, rides, shooting galleries, miniature golf, knick knack souvenirs, video arcade, photo booths, and tasty intoxicating beverages, the machine-like efficiency with which wallets are drained and profit margins are maximized is truly a fantastic spectacle to behold.  Which dovetails around back nicely to what I said about the Santa Cruz residents having the best deal.  They’re so proficient at making excess cash off the tourists that it’s not really necessary to shake down the townies.  While I have no doubt that Seaside empresario Charles Canfield has in some small sliver of his heart an appreciation for all the dollars that I have pumped into the vintage Atari Star Wars stand-up coin-op tucked away in the Classics Corner of the arcade, I’m not really his main target market.  They can afford to curry goodwill with Santa Cruzians by handing out freebies and discounts because they’ve already made the bulk of their money before we even show up on the corporate radar.  Which is just gravy from my point of view, I AM the proverbial kid in the metaphorical candy story here, and loving every moment of it.  It really is an adrenaline junkie’s wet dream.

One striking feature of the engineering of carnival rides that may elude most people is their resemblance to those machine that NASA built to spin astronauts in training around at high velocities.  I always like to imagine that I’m preparing to go to outer space on those steel beasts.  They even have one that shoots you straight up in the air really fast.  Ground control to Major Tom.

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I have a friend who’s a bit of a savant.  Maths genius and computer programmer, he’s always busy trying to employ algorithms to optimize democracy or something.  A great person to philosophize or kick ideas around with.  A few summers back, a favorite theme of our conversations was the underlying sociology of the Boardwalk, with frequent tangents into game mechanics, the biological nature of “fun”, behavioral feedback loops in man/machine interfaces, etc.  I’m indebted to those discussions for some of what appears in this blog post, to be honest.  But I bring to up in order to leave you with one of the more interesting products of our musings:  what if the customer base had more of a say in what kinds of rides are at amusement parks?  I believe this started as a “wouldn’t it be cool if…” (a massively tall roller coaster build as an extra level on top of the already existing structures, in this case) which led us down a chain of logic culminating in a concept for crowdsourcing ride designs.  Picture a sort of wiki page where armchair imagineers could share open source concepts for new rides, which the ride builders would then use as a kind of idea pool for the engineers to perfect.  I always like that website concept, maybe I’ll throw something like that up one of these days just to see what happens.  The amazing (sometimes frightening) thing about the internet is how things get thrown out there grow to have a life of their own.

Thanks for reading, and I’ll keep you posted as to how the summer  of riding the Giant Dipper pretty much whenever I feel like goes for me.

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