In terms of the size and breadth of the rides and attractions it offers, Pacific Park in Santa Monica doesn't come close to matching gargantuan amusement parks like Disneyland and Six Flags Magic Mountain.
But the folks who operate the small but festive venue offer something their higher-profile brethren can't: Located on the Santa Monica Pier, this 5-year-old complex is the only park of its kind in Southern California at the beach.
Those who hop on Pacific Park's solar-powered Ferris wheel or steel roller coaster can be treated to a spectacular aerial view of the ocean, the city of Santa Monica and nearby communities, and the mountains.
With the hot summer season fast approaching, the park holds another distinct advantage: The location's breezier, cooler climate offers inlanders a choice opportunity to beat the heat. Just strolling along the pier in a light, late afternoon ocean breeze can be a supremely soothing experience.
There is also no admission fee at Pacific Park. Rides and various carnival-type games are individually priced between $1.50 and $4.50. Guests can also buy an all-day, all-ride access wristband--$8.95 (for those under 42 inches tall) and $15.95 (for those over 42 inches tall).
Pacific Park offers 12 amusement park rides. A few attractions are geared toward older kids and adults, but most are suitable for younger children.
"We have a few rides that might be considered thrilling," notes Stacy Glazer, Pacific Park's director of sales and marketing. "But we're not a thrill park. We market to families.... We host tons of private kids' birthday parties at our birthday party cabana [at the park]."
Two new rides are being added this summer. Pier Patrol recently debuted and features eight themed miniature trucks that small kids ride on a track. There's also room for a parent on these vehicles.
The park will unveil the La Monica Swing later this month. The ride, which holds 24 passengers, whirls riders 20 feet above the pier deck in a circular motion.
Since there is no room for significant expansion on the pier, new attractions replace older rides. The La Monica Swing is supplanting the Action Ride Theater, an indoor, motion simulator ride.
"We keep the park fresh and new," Glazer says. "It takes a little bit more effort for us [because of the space limitations]. We're an outdoor park and the Action Ride Theater was indoors. So it didn't draw people. So we demolished it and we're putting in a custom-made swing ride. When people think about the nostalgia of an oceanfront park it always had that swing ride. We wanted to do something that was evocative of past times."
Oceanfront Park Recalls a Bygone Era
Indeed, there was a period when oceanfront amusement parks were quite popular and not so rare. An amusement park flourished in the 1920s at the Santa Monica Pier, which was erected in 1909. Severe weather patterns and changing entertainment trends subsequently diminished the park's attractiveness.
In 1990, a new concrete substructure was added, thus allowing heavy-duty rides and various restaurants to be placed atop the wooden pier. The only remnant of the pier's early 20th century past is the Hippodrome building, which houses a vintage merry-go-round at the foot of the pier.
Pacific Park offers casual eateries with outdoor seating, such as Harbor Grill, Pizza Hut Express and Nescafe. The pier also houses an arcade and several restaurants, such as the Mexican-flavored Mariasol and Rusty's Surf Ranch. The latter restaurant-club features live entertainment and dancing.
By itself, Pacific Park is not likely to be an all-day destination. But there is plenty to do around the pier area.
Visitors can bike and skate along a concrete path that runs parallel to the ocean (there are several shops near the pier that rent bikes and in-line skates). And Santa Monica's trendy Third Street Promenade area is within easy walking distance, featuring restaurants, shops and movie theaters.
The UCLA Ocean Discovery Center below the pier on the beach is also open to the public on weekends. Beginning July 1 and ending Labor Day weekend, the center will also be open Tuesdays through Fridays between 3 and 6 p.m.
Created specifically to educate school groups and other organized groups about the local sea environment and its importance, the UCLA Ocean Discovery Center features a variety of displays reflecting the various ecosystems that exist in the Santa Monica Bay. Hermit crabs, sea urchins and sea cucumbers can be found in an exhibit simulating a tide pool area. A rocky reef tank and a touch tank are also part of the center's presentation.
Beyond all this, there is, of course, the ocean itself. Cathy Campbell, the Discovery Center's manager, says the dry, summer season is a safe period for people to swim in the Santa Monica Bay.
"This time of year is great," she says. "Jump in and have fun. During the wet season, the rain washes [toxic material from land into the bay]. But it's not likely we're going to be getting much rain [in the near future]."
If possible polluted waters at any of the local beaches is a concern, Campbell recommends logging onto http://www.healthebay.org, a Web site that grades pollution levels at the local beach areas.
* Pacific Park, 380 Santa Monica Pier, Santa Monica. Sunday, 11 a.m.-9 p.m.; Monday-Thursday, 11 a.m.-8 p.m.; Friday-Saturday, 11 a.m.-12:30 a.m. Hours may vary. Hours expand on June 18. Free admission. Rides and games range between $1.50 and $4.50. Unlimited use of rides, $8.95 (under 42 inches tall); $15.95 (over 42 inches tall). (310) 260-8744 or http://www.pacpark.com.
* UCLA Ocean Discovery Center, 1600 Ocean Front Walk, Santa Monica. Saturdays and Sundays, 11-5 p.m. $3; ages 2 and under, free. (310) 393-6149 or http://www.odc.ucla.edu.