Joseph Thompson, 6, stared out the window Tuesday as the trolley traveled down Laguna Canyon Road from the Act V lot to downtown.
He was ready for a day at Main Beach — with three friends, beach towels and toys in tow.
"How did Laguna Beach get its name?" he wondered out loud. "Maybe because it has a lot of lagoons."
Joseph was just one of the 178,000 riders the trolley has had in its first three weeks of this season.
If projections are correct, ridership will have increased 70% in the last five years, said Mayor Toni Iseman.
Joseph, a Fontana resident who said he enjoyed every minute of the ride, isn't the only trolley supporter.
Fun and convenience
Adrienne Santiago hopped on the trolley for the first time Tuesday, while her kids were doing the Junior Lifeguard program at Diver's Cove.
She recently moved to Aliso Viejo from Chicago. The morning ride through town made her feel like a local, she said.
"It's beautiful," she said. "It's a wonderful convenience during the summer."
It was Iseman's request about 11 years ago to make the trolley service free and charge for parking instead, which doubled ridership in the seasons that followed.
"Initially, it was not seen as something for locals, but over the years it has become a favorite thing to do," she said. "It's just a great way to see the city."
In the 2000-01 season, the trolley had 207,840 passengers. In 2010-11, it had 586,543 riders — nearly three times the first year's total.
"People can get off the trolley and jump back on," Iseman said. "They have the advantage of being able to stop where they want to without the dreaded: 'Do I have the right change?'"
On Tuesday, Diane Miller and Betty Dickson were visiting from Albuquerque, N.M. They were on their way to the Sawdust Art Festival.
The trolley stopped right by their hotel, and Dickson said she liked that they could just hop on to go wherever they wanted.
Keeping the wheels going
Director of Public Works Steve May said that while the trolley service has expanded with additional vehicles and lines, the revenue coming in has not. The service is dependent on federal, state and city funds.
May said that future funding from the Orange County Transportation Authority will go down about 20%.
OCTA funds for this season were $202,000. Those funds are a mixture of a federal funding program and state money from the Transportation Development Act.
"Right now we're fully funded for this year's operations. We're fine," he said. "Whether we can sustain this level of service, I can't answer that right now."
May and Iseman said the city will need to find additional revenue sources.
Ken Fischer, deputy director of Public Works, is working on 10-year projections that will be unveiled to the City Council in March, May said.
The trolley — which has routes in the canyon and North and South Laguna — expanded farther south last year and added Three Arch Bay, which required an additional trolley.
A new trolley costs about $240,000, May said, but because it only runs for three months a year it can last up to 20 years.
"I think there would be a groundswell of people protesting if there was any reduction in any trolley service," Iseman said.
A way of life
For some, the trolley is a part of their summer routine.
On Tuesday, trolley driver Maria Elias rang a bell as she rounded the corner of Forest and Ocean avenues to alert riders that the trolley was nearing its stop.
She paused in the street, let a group of kids cross and waved to familiar faces along her route.
Elias, a Garden Grove resident, has been driving the trolley for nine years. She's a school bus driver during the academic year.
"Every summer my life changes," she said.
On her day off, she brings her family to Laguna and takes them to Sawdust and the beach.
Elias greets confused riders with a schedule and tells them when to get on, off or switch.
As passengers disembark, she made sure to call out, "Have a nice day!"