The Cave Train is quintessentially Santa Cruz

August 21, 2013


There are certain things that just scream Santa Cruz to me, places I feel a dire need to bring visitors to in order to get the full SC experience.

One of those places is Swanton Berry Farm, another is the egg vending machine at Glaum’s. 

And then there’s the Cave Train Adventure ride at the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk.

A friend who grew up here told me this ride was a must-see, though she refused to elaborate before I checked it out for myself.

In theory, it’s pretty simple – you sit in a little train that takes you through a bizarre series of life-size dioramas featuring black-lit, dayglo dinosaurs and cave people portraying scenes reminiscent of “The Flintstones.” The ride prattles on a sort of faux-historical timeline as you move from scene to scene, eventually reaching a psychedelic ice age.

It’s weird, to say the very least. I can’t help but think it was designed by someone who had done a few too many drugs back in the psychedelic 60s. The ride screams acid trip, but the acid trip you might see in some sort of fake retro movie about the 1960s starring the Ashton Kutcher of his “Dude Where’s My Car?” days.

The first time I rode the Cave Train Adventure, I felt mildly stunned, unable to completely process what exactly it was that I’d just seen. I’m probably overanalyzing it but come on, it’s odd! It’s also oddly fun, and it’s a ride I insist upon taking my visiting guests.

Apparently this ride is something of a beloved cult classic ’round these parts. When it closed in 1997 for re-tinkering, fans were devastated and sent petitions into the boardwalk’s parent company.The kitschy favorite first opened in 1961, introduced by Seaside Co. president Charles Canfield’s father.

The ride also was immortalized in a book by UC Santa Cruz professor Donna Frank, “Local Girl Makes History: Exploring Northern California’s Kitsch Monuments.”

In the book, Frank writes:

“Almost everyone I talked to turned out to have a beloved breakdown story about the Cave Train Ride, old and new. What is it about the breakdown stories? Why do we love the breakdowns as much as the official ride? I think it’s because the breakdown stories replicate the essence of the dark ride experience. And at some level, we like the fact that the ride isn’t perfectly constructed and can thus offer another layer of surprise in the dark.

In the case of the Cave Train, the breakdowns add to our delight in the ride’s absurd funkiness.That’s why it was perfect that the redesigned Cave Train broke down on its maiden voyage with City Councilman Mike Rotkin and other local dignitaries aboard.The Cave Train Ride, in other words, is kind of stupid. That’s the key to why we loved the old Cave Train so much. Because it was an old, broken-down thing that didn’t work half the time and smelled funny and wasn’t the Pirates of the Caribbean by any stretch of the imagination. It was cheap; it was local; it was bad at being a ride. It was “cornier than Iowa,” said the Sentinel, “a thrill ride without thrills.” All the opinions about the new one revolve around its ability to measure up to that tackiness. The Cave Train Ride, in both renditions, is all about happy cheesiness: our joy in the fact that it doesn’t quite measure up, that it’s funky and weird, that this is Santa Cruz, and we like it that way. That’s why I could learn to love the new one: although it’s a bit too coherent and well-designed to be as bizarre as the old one, it’s successfully bad at being good, and therefore good.”

I think Frank sums up the appeal of the Cave Train nicely and succinctly – it’s wonderful because it’s weird, much like the city of Santa Cruz itself. And really, what more of a reason do you need to love it?


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