Friday is National Roller Coaster Day and, in San Diego, one historic ride offered a freebie to its first 100 thrill-seekers to take the plunge.
The first 100 visitors to complete the approximately 2-minute ride on the Giant Dipper at Belmont Park were gifted with a commemorative mug. The park opened at 11 a.m. and, already, a group was lined up to ride the wooden coaster.
Some of those visitors were locals, some were tourists. All were ready to ride.
“They lined up very bright and early in the morning and camped out with some breakfast, ready to go. And they got off and got a souvenir cup and some goodies,” said Michelle McKee, director of marketing at Belmont Park.
The beachside roller coaster, which offers views of the Pacific Ocean as it dips and zips, turned 94 years old this past Fourth of July. It is considered by many to be one of San Diego's most recognizable attractions.
“It’s an iconic beachfront amusement park. There are not many of those that exist at all,” McKee said. “It’s a unique experience.”
Located at Belmont Park on the corner of Mission Boulevard and West Mission Bay Drive, the Giant Dipper is one of only two remaining antique wooden coasters in California.
Looking back at the ride's history on this roller coaster-themed national holiday, one could say the local landmark’s life has been full of ups and downs.
The ride opened to the public on July 4, 1925. It was meant to be the key attraction for the 33-acre Mission Beach Amusement Center that had opened just a few weeks prior.
The coaster and amusement park was a project of business magnate John D. Spreckels, an influential figure in San Diego’s development. Back then, it cost $150,000 to build the roller coaster, including its two 18-passenger trains.
“He fell in love with San Diego, and when he came to Mission Beach, he saw a gem,” McKee said.
The Mission Beach Amusement Center was popular through the 1930s and 1940s and the Giant Dipper rode some highs.
The amusement park was later renamed Belmont Park. By the late 1960s, Belmont Park fell into disrepair and the park and Giant Dipper closed in December 1976.
Then came a low point for the Giant Dipper.
In the 1980s, the roller coaster became an eyesore in the heart of Mission Beach. It survived several fires and became a home for transients. Feeling pressure to get rid of the roller coaster once and for all, its owner set a date to tear it down.
But the Giant Dipper would rise again.
According to a spokesperson with Belmont Park, a group of concerned San Diegans established the "Save the Coaster Committee" and worked to save the Giant Dipper from being demolished.
The group succeeded in having the coaster designated as a National Landmark and requested ownership be transferred to the committee. The San Diego Coaster Company was established in 1990 and $2 million was poured into restoring the ride. The project included restoring all elements of the track and track bed, plus 11,000 new bolts, thousands of feet of new lumber, and two new passenger trains featuring six 4-person cars with a modern restraint system.
After 14 years of repose, the renovated roller coaster reopened to the public on August 11, 1990.
Today, the Giant Dipper is both a National and State Historic Landmark (No. 1044). It is also an iconic part of San Diego beach culture.
Now well into its golden years, the attraction enjoys an active life, welcoming patrons daily who dare to take its dips, twists and turns. The top of the coaster, as always, still offers breathtaking views of Mission Beach and the ocean.
“You go up that lift hill and it has that ‘click, click, click, click’ as you get to the top, and everybody gets excited,” McKee said. “And then you crest over, and you dip into this just gorgeous view.”
If you’re taking a stroll along the boardwalk near Belmont Park, you can often hear the enthusiastic shrieks of thrill-seekers enjoying the ride. Spectators are known to stop along the sidewalk and look up at the Giant Dipper, contemplating whether to hop on.
According to the Roller Coaster Database, the coaster is 2,600 feet in length and ride lasts a little more than two minutes. The Belmont Park website said the Giant Dipper travels at speeds up to 48 mph and reaches a maximum height of 75 feet.
Riders must be at least 50 inches tall to enjoy the Giant Dipper. A single ride costs $7, although some Belmont Park ticket packages – including the $31 Ride Pass – do include unlimited rides on the iconic coaster.
The Giant Dipper is open anytime Belmont Park is open, which is 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. daily. On Saturday, the park stays open until midnight.
Mission Beach, the longtime home of the Giant Dipper, spans nearly two miles of oceanfront views and boasts a boardwalk frequented bicyclists, joggers and casual strollers. Along the boardwalk, dozens of eateries and small shops offer snacks and trinkets, and a wall offers a relaxing place to rest and gaze out at the ocean.