Santa Cruz’s Giant Dipper still a thrill

Kaila Young, Staff Writer

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SANTA CRUZ – The Giant Dipper was built on the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk in 1924, making it the fifth oldest rollercoaster in the United States.

It took 47 days and  $50,000 to build this old-fashioned wooden coaster.

Today, it costs six times that just to repaint it in its signature red and white colors.

But a coaster this old requires much more maintenance than the occasional new coat of paint. The ride is checked by  mechanics every two hours daily, and parts of its structure and trains are replaced annually.

In 1987, the Giant Dipper was named a National Historic Landmark. It also received the Golden Age Coaster and Roller Coaster Landmark awards in 1994 and 2007, respectively, for its “unusually curved station” and “innovative track design.”

The ride is popular among critics and the general public as well. The coaster saw its 50 millionth rider in 2002 and its 60 millionth last July.

The Giant Dipper is 70 feet tall at its tallest point, has a 2,640 foot long track, and can reach a speed of up to 55 miles per hour.  The ride is about two minutes long and includes twists and turns inside a tunnel, a brief climb followed by a 65-foot drop, a few angled turns, and several hills.

“[The coaster] creaked a lot,” said sophomore Vidhi Sachdeva. “And creaky things break. It was so scary and exhilarating that I didn’t breathe for the whole ride.”

All wooden coasters are creaky and look ancient no matter how old they are, and the Giant Dipper is no exception. But its many years of operation show in more than just its appearance.

The trains have been remodeled many times over the years, but most of those times were changes in paint color. Very few changes have been made to the actual restraint system, so the harnesses remain nearly the way they were nine decades ago.

Compared to more modern rollercoasters, the Giant Dipper is strikingly relaxed in terms of rider safety despite three deaths in its 89 years of operation.

The first fatal incident occurred four months after the rollercoaster’s initial opening when a 15-year-old boy stood up during the ride, fell head-first onto the track, and was run over by the oncoming train.

The other two deaths occurred in 1940 and 1970 under similar circumstances.  Despite these deaths, the Giant Dipper still has one lap bar that is suspended several inches above the rider’s lap.

In comparison, The Grizzly, a wooden coaster in Great America, is equipped with a seatbelt, a lap bar, and an additional seatbelt to secure the lap bar in place.

“There was a huge space between me and the bar,” sophomore Ngoc Mai said about the Giant Dipper. “I kept sliding around and I thought I was going to die.”

The difference in restraints results in two very different experiences.  On the Grizzly, the restraints prevent the rider from moving much more than an inch.

On the Giant Dipper, however, the rider is jostled around quite a bit. The sharp turns throw riders first against the side of the coaster, then into the person seated beside them.  It also leaves riders suspended in air above the seat when the coaster takes a sudden dip.

The relaxed safety measures don’t stop there.

Anyone who has ridden a rollercoaster within the last decade has undoubtedly been read their “Roller Coaster Miranda Rights.” This prologue usually runs along the lines of “don’t stand during the ride, keep all body parts inside the ride, and don’t throw anything off the ride.”

But the Giant Dipper required no such long-winded speech. As soon as everyone is in their seats, the ride begins.

The lack of protocol is only one of many reasons why people keep coming back for more. In an age where it’s often preached that it’s better to be safe than sorry, the Giant Dipper is one of the few coasters that still has the “thrill” in “thrill ride.”