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With the public locked out during coronavirus, stuffed animals ride this San Diego roller coaster

Stuffed animals ride the Giant Dipper roller coaster at Belmont Park in Mission Beach on June 1, 2020.
Stuffed animals ride the Giant Dipper roller coaster Monday at Belmont Park in Mission Beach.
(K.C. Alfred / San Diego Union-Tribune)

Like many tourist attractions, the Giant Dipper roller coaster at Belmont Park in San Diego’s Mission Beach was closed to the public in mid-March when stay-at-home orders were announced because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

But the historic roller coaster couldn’t just shut down and ride out the virus.

The 95-year-old amusement ride must be operated multiple times a day to keep its machinery from tightening up for lack of use. So rather than have the six-car coaster train barreling down the tracks with empty seats every day, its operators decided to strap in some riders who are immune to the coronavirus.

That’s why a dozen or so giant stuffed animals were loaded into the coaster’s 24 seats last week and secured with lap bars. They’ve been riding the coaster ever since, twice an hour, from noon to 6 p.m. every day.

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Steve Thomas, general manager of Belmont Park, said the plush pets don’t serve any real purpose in the ride’s maintenance plan. They’re just riding the rails to give passersby something to smile about in difficult times.

“We have to keep the coaster running on a daily basis, so why not have a little fun with it,” Thomas said. “People are loving it. We’ve seen tons of videos and pictures that people have been posting online.”

The Mission Beach Amusement Center was opened in 1925 by industrialist John D. Spreckels. He built the seaside park at what’s now Mission Boulevard and West Mission Bay Drive to bring attention to his nearby real estate development and electric railway.

One of the park’s main attractions was the Giant Dipper, which was named after a similar coaster that opened a year earlier at the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk. Both were co-designed by famed early 20th-century ride engineer Frederick Church and both are among the last operating historic wooden coasters in the U.S.

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Standing 75 feet tall, the Giant Dipper at Belmont Park is a 2,600-foot, gravity-driven roller coaster. In 1925, it cost $150,000 to build the ride, and it cost riders 10 cents for a ticket.

Over the years, Belmont Park had its ups and downs. After a long period of decline, the park shut down in 1976 and the Giant Dipper was tagged for demolition. But a citizens committee was formed to save the park and coaster and the Giant Dipper was declared a U.S. National Historic Landmark in 1978.

Although Belmont Park reopened in 1987, it would take another three years and $2 million before the Giant Dipper was restored with a new track, new lumber, 11,000 bolts, a modern seat restraint system and a new train. It’s been running ever since.

An undated photo of the Giant Dipper roller coaster at Belmont Park in Mission Beach.
(Courtesy photo)
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When the pandemic arrived in March, Belmont Park was forced to temporarily close its three sit-down restaurants, its fitness club built around the historic Plunge indoor pool, and all its rides. But mechanical rides such as the Giant Dipper need daily maintenance, so the park’s mechanics have remained on the job running them and tending the steel tracks to make sure none of the moving parts seizes up.

Thomas said he was talking a few weeks ago to colleagues at the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk about how they might adapt their Giant Dipper coasters once the parks’ rides are allowed to reopen with social-distancing guidelines. They talked about putting riders in every row and filling the empty rows with the enormous plush animals that are given away as prizes in the parks’ milk jug midway games.

That’s when Belmont Park officials decided to give the midway plushies — some of which are 3 to 4 feet tall — a test ride. It was such hit with the staff, that the furry prizes earned a golden ticket to keep rolling ever since.

All of the park’s restaurants and outdoor recreation games have reopened, but the rides remain closed. Thomas said the coaster and other park rides are on standby until state and county officials give them the green light to reopen. In order to be able to reopen the Giant Dipper and other rides at a moment’s notice, the coaster is being sent around the track 12 times a day.

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Because the park’s main parking lot is open and the public can stroll in to play games and visit restaurants, many families have been coming just to watch the animals ride. Because they’ve been such a hit with the public, Thomas is considering keeping them aboard in every other row as part of social-distancing measures when the ride reopens.

“We haven’t tried loading it with people yet, but I would probably stick to something like that to add a little bit of fun. Everybody loves it,” he said.

Kragen writes for the San Diego Union-Tribune.


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