Arcade Tour: Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk

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As we all know, arcades are disappearing around the world – even in the largest of cities.    I know that here in the Midwest part of the US, there are only a handful of quality arcades and not many “mega arcades” .  Since I was making a trip out to California to visit my brother, I wanted to make a special detour to Santa Cruz to revisit the one massive arcade that made the biggest impression on me in the last ten years.

The Santa Cruz Boardwalk is a beautiful location to spend a sunny day.  The beach-side location is mostly known for the amusement rides, but it is also home to one of the largest remaining arcades in the US.   The arcade has been around for decades and has built up a well-rounded collection of games over the years.  Of course, some of the machines have become casualties of disrepair and retired, but there is a strong lineup of vintage titles that have been well-maintained by the Boardwalk’s five-person, on-location repair staff.   (Not every machine is perfect, but they were all playable)

See Photo Set of Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk Arcade

I visited Santa Cruz late Fall on a couple of weekdays, so it was one of their slowest times of the year (the Boardwalk rides were only running during the weekends) and the arcade wasn’t especially busy.  I visited previously back in the summer of 2004 and it was quite lively.  I remember actually having to wait in lines to play the newest games.  That year one of the big ones was King of Fighters NeoWave and there was always a small swarm around that machine.  I saw that the machine was still there – the color on the monitor was off, but it was still quite playable (and no lines six years later).   Needless to say, it’s quite a thrill to visit a thriving arcade these days.   I’m not sure if the arcade is quite as vibrant in its peak times (any locals here to verify?), but considering they are still investing in new machines and have a solid staff, it seems to still be doing well.

There are actually two buildings at the Santa Cruz Boardwalk that have arcade video game machines.  The primary arcade is the Casino Arcade, but there is also Neptune’s Kingdom, which is primarily a mini golf area, but has an arcade area inside to the side (the Smuggler’s Arcade) and an area upstairs with more machines and pool tables.  (I also saw the area labeled “Cannonball Arcade” was closed off, but it mostly looked like skeeball and other redemption games)
I thought the game selection was pretty strong in both arcades.  The genres that were probably most strongly-represented were light gun shooters, fighters, music, and racing games in addition to a big handful of 80s mainstays in the retro corners.

In order to stay financially strong, the arcade has boosted its selection of redemption games (the ones that spit of tickets for prizes).  I know most of us here don’t really care for those, but I’m told that’s what most people look for now in an arcade.  [sigh]   But I would guess that the redemption games still only account for 20 to 30 percent of the floor space in the Casino Arcade.

The staff at the Santa Cruz Boardwalk was nice enough to set up some discussion time with me – including a bit of an interview with the lead technician, Brian.  After warming up to the video camera, Brian shared some great insights into running a large arcade and shared some of his memories.  I’m sure he had many other great stories to share and, perhaps we will be able to touch base with him again in the future (maybe as a podcast guest?)

Based on both of my visits to the Santa Cruz Boardwalk, I can strongly recommend stopping by if you are ever in Central California.   I recommend going in the peak season as the area is livelier and the Boardwalk rides will be up and running so you can make a full day of it.

If you have visited the Santa Cruz arcade any time in the past, I look forward to hearing your experiences in the comments!

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