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Where to Find SoCal’s Vintage Amusement Parks

Santa Monica Pier

If nothing else, we Southern Californians are pretty good at amusing ourselves.

In the late 1800s, we climbed our mountain peaks just for fun in the Great Hiking Era. A few decades later, we turned our attention to the sea, where we built great fishing piers, elaborately carved wooden carousels and other waterfront attractions.

But those turn-of-the-last-century Victorian amusements proved to be incredibly fragile, susceptible to violent storms, earthquakes, fires and, of course, wood rot.

The days of “racing to the clouds” in Venice of America eventually gave way to the kind of abandonment and blight that the crowds ran away from.

In the mid-20th century, of course, we saw the emergence of the theme park, thanks to Walt Disney’s little development in Anaheim — but contrary to the tourists and locals who flock Disneyland, it’s not the only remnant of our Golden Age of Amusements.

Because before Southern California’s amusement and theme parks became so corporate — and so filled with “X-treme” experiences, with their iron-girder “hypercoasters” — they were hometown destinations for family adventures.

Here are five quaint amusements in Southern California where you can recapture that charm of the Victorian Era and get plenty of vintage thrills — with a few modern touches to boot.

1. Castle Park, Riverside

After a successful stint designing rides for Knott’s Berry Farm, Wendell "Bud" Hurlbut opened Castle Park in 1976 — and today, he’s considered one of the country's first creators of the “theme park.” When you go, you'll be transported back to the days of Camelot and King Arthur — or even to the Victorian era, if you take a spin on its historic Dentzel carousel from 1905 (which Hurlbut relocated here from Knott’s). But Castle Park’s most landmark amusement fits into neither category, but rather is a slice of Americana: a miniature locomotive ride called the Castle Park Railroad. A two-foot narrow gauge railroad built by the same guy who created the Calico Mine Train at Knott’s (a ride that was even said to inspire Walt Disney himself), it’s still the centerpiece of the park, though “thrill rides” and a water park have since popped up around it. Palace Entertainment now owns and operates Castle Park — and although the company operates 20 other parks across the country (including Raging Waters), it manages to retain a small, hometown feel. For the amount of rides and other amusements it offers, Castle Park’s admission fees are reasonable — even when combined with the $10/car parking fee. Discounts are available for advanced purchases online as well as the annual and “Summer Saver” passes.

Pro Tip: Because no outside food or beverages are allowed inside the park, and its own dining options are somewhat limited (falling more under the category of treats rather than a real meal), be sure to have a hearty meal before you go.

Castle Park
Sandi Hemmerlein
Castle Park
Sandi Hemmerlein

2. Belmont Park, San Diego

If find yourself on your way to SeaWorld in San Diego, take a small detour to the sandbar to the west — known as Mission Beach — where you’ll find plenty of seaside amusement at Belmont Park. Its main attraction is The Giant Dipper, a 2,600-foot wooden rollercoaster built in 1925 and only one of two of its kind remaining in California. And boy, does it dip. This truly nerve-wracking ride will shake you to the core, but it’ll only give you a mild case of whiplash. It only lasts about a minute and a half, but the restored coaster — whose planks of original wood are fastened together by modern screws — will twist you and turn you on your way to great heights, peaking at 75 feet off the ground. Most of the other rides don’t recall the “Mission Beach Amusement Center” that was developed for recreation by John D. Spreckels in the early 20th century — but yet another relic from its early days, the former “Natatorium” (the largest salt-water pool in the world at the time), can still be found at the Wave House Athletic Club (although it’s currently closed for renovations). Admission and parking are free, which means you must purchase your ride tickets and refreshments a la carte. Discounts on combos and unlimited wristbands are available online.

Pro Tip: If the adjacent parking lots are full, you can proceed to off-site parking and take advantage of the free shuttle.

Mission Bay
Sandi Hemmerlein
Mission Bay
Sandi Hemmerlein

3. Santa Monica Pier, Santa Monica

The first concrete pier to be built on the West Coast, the Santa Monica Pier has a relatively unsavory history — having been built in 1909 as part of a utility to dispose of city sewage. It wasn’t until the next decade that it joined the ranks of its neighboring amusements, the Ocean Park and Venice piers. While today the Santa Monica Pier has its own modern-day amusement park that features a solar-powered Ferris wheel and nearly a dozen other family-friendly rides, your first stop at the pier should be its historic carousel building. Built in 1916 by amusement entrepreneur Charles Looff, it’s the oldest building on the former “Pleasure Pier” — and the landmark is pretty much the last of its kind, having survived fire, wear and tear, and threats of demolition. Inside, you’ll find the third such carousel to occupy the building — a Philadelphia Toboggan Company masterpiece from 1922 that was relocated here from Venice Beach in 1947. No two horses on this carousel are alike — they all sport different scarves and sashes and hooves and coats and bridles. Most of these fierce (but friendly) beasts are open-mouthed, chompers glaring and tongues wagging. Some even appear to be smiling. Choose which animal to mount carefully, whether it’s one of 28 of the "jumpers" on the inside row or one of the 16 stationary ones on the outer row. Or don’t choose a horse at all — because it’s a menagerie carousel that also features a goat and a rabbit. And that’s because when older horses are retired, master wood carver Ed Roth replaces them only with new creations of other animals.

Pro Tip: The Ferris wheel doesn’t allow any single riders — so, if you go by yourself, its operator may add you to another group (or, conversely, your group may be joined by a single rider). But if all else fails, they’ll pair you up with one of their own employees so you can still ride — just not alone.

Santa Monica Pier
Sandi Hemmerlein
Santa Monica Pier
Sandi Hemmerlein

4. Redondo Fun Factory, Redondo Beach

Billed as the “largest indoor family entertainment center on the West Coast,” the Fun Factory at the Redondo Beach pier is a blast from the past. Not only can you ride a Tilt-a-Whirl inside there, but you can also try your hand at racing horses, shooting the clown, knocking down dolls, and playing any number of other classic arcade games like Skee-Ball and air hockey. If you win, you’ll get a line of tickets that you can redeem for various toys, tchotchkes, knick-knacks and giant stuffed animals — just like any good carnival or county fair. In addition to the rows upon rows of “claw” machines, there are also several classic coin-operated kiddie rides that still work, like the “Rodeo Pony,” Donald Duck and miniature carousels. The Fun Factory is like a little piece of Coney Island in the South Bay, only it’s open all year — that is, until December 2019. Earlier this year, the City of Redondo Beach bought the business (along with the Fun Fish Market) from Fisherman's Cove Company to the tune of $9 million. It’s all part of a major remodel of the Redondo Beach waterfront and the King Harbor area — a “reinvention” that promises to return the pier back to its “glory days,” when it once housed its own Looff carousel and was known as the “Pleasure Pier” (sometimes called the “Endless Pier”). Today’s pier structure dates back just to 1995 and is the seventh such pier to have been built at the Redondo Beach waterfront since the late 1800s.

Pro Tip: On rainy days, rides are only 50 cents — and since the Fun Factory as well as many other shops and eateries are inside on the pier, a little precipitation shouldn’t keep you away.

Redondo Fun Factory
Sandi Hemmerlein
Redondo Fun Factory
Sandi Hemmerlein

5. Balboa Fun Zone, Newport Beach

Technically, the seaside amusement park in the Balboa Peninsula area of Newport Beach in Orange County is the “Fun Zone” — and that’s where you’ll find the waterfront Ferris wheel as well as other rides and even an arcade. But if you want to step back in time to the turn of the last century, when Newport Beach made its mark on seaside recreation, visit The Balboa Pavilion, one of the last such waterfront recreational pavilions of the time to survive. Built in 1906 as a combination boathouse, bathhouse and event space, it was later used as a hub for sport-fishing, speedboat rides and performances by Big Band greats like Benny Goodman. In the mid-20th century, the Victorian pavilion saw itself repurposed as both a bingo hall and a shell museum. Today, it’s used primarily as the marine terminal for Davey’s Locker harbor sightseeing cruises and the Catalina Flyer, a daily catamaran ferry to Catalina Island. However, you can experience the pavilion on the inside by dining at the Harborside Restaurant, which has happy hour every day from 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. The biggest challenge to enjoying this area of the Balboa Peninsula is trying to find parking — which means you’ll save yourself a lot of heartache if you go during the week instead of the weekend. If you’re not a Newport Beach local, consider making your visit a staycation — spend the night somewhere nearby, so you can leave your car and bike the rest of the way or take either a rideshare service or the free Balboa Peninsula Trolley, which also provides free parking.

Pro tip: If you must drive, try taking the auto ferry from Balboa Island and reserving a parking spot in the Balboa Pier municipal lot in advance via the Parkmobile app.

Balboa Fun Zone
Sandi Hemmerlein
Balboa Fun Zone
Sandi Hemmerlein

Bonus: Irvine Spectrum Center, Irvine

OK, technically, Irvine Spectrum (which opened in 1995) is an outdoor shopping center. But the Irvine Company provided plenty of amusements for the families who visit — including a modern (but vintage-inspired) carousel. Added in 2001, its Spanish-themed design matches the aesthetic of the plaza it's located in — itself inspired by the Alhambra in Granada, Spain. Among its 32 figures are fiberglass horses, as well as other menagerie animals that represent the designs of many of the renowned carousel carvers of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. A year later, the Irvine Company added a “Giant” wheel that rises 108 feet off the ground and, at night, is brilliantly lit with LED lights. You have to be a certain height to ride the Ferris wheel, so for tinier tots, there’s also the Kiddie Train, which departs every day by the Giant Wheel. Tickets for all three attractions are available at the Guest Services booth and may be purchased at a discount in bulk.

Pro Tip: Adults are welcome to ride all three amusements without kids in tow, but all kids must have an adult with them.

Irvine Spectrum Center
Sandi Hemmerlein
Irvine Spectrum Center
Sandi Hemmerlein

Top image: Ian D. Keating/Flickr/Creative Commons License

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