Boardwalk Grand Arcades: Fun and Games for the 21st Century
Since the opening of the Santa Cruz Casino in 1907, arcade entertainment has had an important role at the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk.
A century later, Boardwalk arcades are thriving with both nostalgic and high-tech games for all members of the family. With more than 300 of the most popular video and pinball games, laser tag, simulators, games of skill, and special attractions, there are many choices for Boardwalk visitors ready to test their skills or simply to enjoy friendly competitions. In 2006, Giant Magazine rated the Boardwalk Arcades best in the country for the great collection of new and classic video games.
Housing a fantasy world of futuristic video games, pinball machines, and a laser tag arena, the Casino Arcade also offers a number of working arcade machines from its 100-year history.
In June of 1907 the Santa Cruz Casino opened as part of the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk. Although titled a “casino,” it housed no gambling and was promoted by famed developer Fred Swanton as a penny arcade, ice cream parlor, and greeting area for guests going to the ballroom, theater, and restaurant upstairs.
Some of the early arcade machines still in use by guests today include Grandma Fortune Teller, Estrella’s Prophecies, and for just one token, the 1920s charm of the The Old Swimming Hole flip-card machine.
While those and even later classic games hold their own—including Asteroids, Donkey Kong, Pacman, Frogger, and Tron (all located in the Classic Corner Section of the Casino Arcade)—there is little doubt that the attention grabbers are those attractions demonstrating the latest technology.
The Laser Tag Arena invites guests into a 3,500 square foot maze of seven black-light rooms. Teams outfitted with colorful light lasers and flashing laser-sensitive vests try to tag members of the opposite team while avoiding their own teammates.
The list of the arcade’s many high-tech games is one of the most extensive in the area and includes latest additions such as DDR: Super Nova, Ghost Squad, Time Crisis 4, Crimson Skies, Need for Speed Underground, and Super Mario Karts.
A variety of activities are available inside the Casino Arcade from the latest in high-tech adventures and interactive games especially for children, to pinball, air hockey, the Gold Rush Shooting Gallery, Old-time Portrait Studio, Whiting’s Ice Cream, and much more, guaranteeing hours of family entertainment.
The Casino Arcade also houses a Boardwalk Redemption Center where players who win coupons from games such as Skee Ball can trade in those coupons for prizes. The Redemption Center is near the west entrance on Cliff Street.
Both the Arcade and the Laser Tag Arena are available for private rentals. The Casino Arcade is open daily, with the exception of December 25. Call (831) 426-7433 for schedule information.
Neptune’s Kingdom, located steps from the beach and Boardwalk rides, is adorned with a pirate-themed, two-story miniature golf course, game deck with billiards, video arcade, restaurant, and historium.
The building once housed the Plunge, then a state-of-the-art swimming attraction—a gigantic indoor pool filled daily with heated saltwater.
The Plunge was part of local developer Fred Swanton’s dream of a “West Coast Coney Island.” In June 1907, one year after fire destroyed Swanton’s initial project at the site, the developer opened the Plunge, or “Natatorium,” along with a new Santa Cruz Casino and Boardwalk.
The Plunge’s massive, heated saltwater pool was adorned with statuary of King Neptune and bathing cherubs. It was decorated inside and out with replicas of Grecian statuary; John McLaren, father of San Francisco’s famed Golden Gate Park, designed the site with scores of tropical plants hanging from 50-foot-high girders.
Swimmers were a curiosity at that time. From Australia, the originator of the Australian crawl stroke came to entice the blossoming tourist trade. Hawaii’s legendary Duke Kahanamoku, an Olympic hero hailed as the “greatest swimmer of all time,” enthralled 1910 audiences with his aquatic prowess and proclaimed the Plunge his favorite pool.
The huge pool’s two tanks operated independently with a combined capacity of 408,000 gallons of water; until 1920 they were drained and cleaned almost every night. The infamously chilly Pacific Ocean water was heated from its usual 50ish degrees up to 85 degrees and then pumped into the pool.
In 1943 the Plunge’s warm saltwater was used for therapy by the local Naval Convalescent Hospital that was located across the street at the Casa Del Rey Hotel. The Plunge also hosted 1,000 Fort Ord troops for special aquatic training before being shipped to South Pacific action.
During the Plunge’s lifespan well over 7 million people enjoyed its facilities. In its heyday in the 1920s some 2,500 people could use lockers and dressing rooms at one time, and thousands of towels and bathing suits were kept for rental.
Generations of Santa Cruzans and visitors still recall the nationally famous Plunge Water Carnival with its “Standing Room Only” sign always out an hour prior to the opening splash. The last of these aquatic shows was held on Labor Day in 1945.
“Learn to Swim” programs and Red Cross Water Safety seminars were hosted in great number and volume at the Plunge; most native Santa Cruzans now over the age of 40 can boast they learned to swim there.
But times change. Due to ebbing popularity, tank damage, and aging equipment, the swimming palace was closed in 1963. The site was then renovated and reopened as a miniature golf course.
By the late 1980s the Santa Cruz Seaside Company decided to fully remodel the building. But before construction began, a 7.1 earthquake struck the area on October 17, 1989. Although the park sustained limited damage, the ‘quake hastened renovation plans by cracking away the Plunge building’s main facade, and the facility opened a year earlier than planned.
Dubbed “Neptune’s Kingdom,” in honor of the Boardwalk’s original 1904 Neptune Casino, the new attraction’s theme and design reflects an attitude essential to the historic park: the preservation of tradition imaginatively combined with the latest in technology and ideas.
The Neptune’s Kingdom concept was spearheaded by Boardwalk President Charles Canfield and Ed Hutton, then general manager. The project was developed under the direction of a number of company representatives and was coordinated by Director of Maintenance and Development Carl Henn.
The result is a pirate-themed entertainment complex complete with two-story miniature golf course, talking pirates, a video arcade, and the Barbary Coast restaurant. Special effects, fiber optics, and robotic figures are used to theme and enliven the facility.
Upstairs, the Historium displays the Boardwalk and beach area’s past and present glories; and a game deck offers pool, air hockey, Expert Ping-Pong, simulated video games, including Derby Owner's Club and a snack bar.
Neptune’s Kingdom, open year-round with the exception of December 25, also hosts special events such as golf tournaments, birthday parties, private rentals, and other celebrations.
Indeed,the Boardwalk Grand Arcades offer what the amusement park’s creators had hoped for 100 years ago: year-round beachside family entertainment for all.