Beach view at Dream Inn hotel, Santa Cruz Boardwalk, Santa Cruz, California

Santa Cruz Boardwalk for Twenty Four Hours of Teenage Fun

Story and Photos by Deborah Grossman.

Checking out the ’60s jukebox and the wall of classic surf boards at Dream Inn

This summer our granddaughter, Lauren, visited California on her own for the first time. On her last family visit from the Midwest, she was not yet a teen. I tapped friends for recommendations on teen-friendly experiences, and Santa Cruz topped the list. Exploring a quintessential California beach town made sense for a teenage Midwesterner. My husband and I promptly booked the Dream Inn in Santa Cruz. Though her stay in California was shortened by a flight disruption, we made the most of the Santa Cruz Boardwalk for twenty four hours .

To get her up to speed, we talked about the upcoming drive through redwood forests to Santa Cruz and shared photos of the beach-hugging town with its many teen-friendly activities. The opportunity to touch a shark at Seymour Marine Lab, walk around Natural Bridges State Park, and shop at Swift Street Courtyard made her smile. But she was thrilled to learn about Santa Cruz Boardwalk. “I love scary rides,” she exclaimed, and we took note.

Lauren also knew beforehand that the surf-themed Dream Inn was more like a resort than a standard hotel. She could join the Limbo/Hula Hoop contest and the Ice Cream Happy Hour, even if it came before dinner. We noted the Tequila Sunsets Happy Hour also on the pool deck.

Colorful surfboards line the wall next to reception. Lauren was mesmerized by the jukebox and liked the 1960s color scheme of orange and her favorite color, turquoise. The hotel honors Jack O’Neill (1923-2017), the renowned surfer who grew up in Southern California but lived most of his adult life in Santa Cruz. O’Neill coined the name “surf shop” and opened one in Santa Cruz in 1952 to rival the So Cal surf shops of Hobby Alder, Hobby, and Gordon Smith, G&S. He branded O’Neill neoprene wet suits, improving their durability and style which popularized NorCal cold-water surfing. On cue in the elevator, two gentlemen entered behind us wearing wet suits. After walking down wave-patterned rugs, we gravitated to the stunning balcony views of the beach and boardwalk from our spacious tower room.

Dream Inn Beach view from our room

We were as eager to explore the boardwalk as Lauren. As kids, we spent time in Atlantic City, N.J., watching the famous diving horse while munching on Planter’s peanuts and saltwater taffy. Fred Swanton, a developer of the Santa Cruz boardwalk in the early 1900s, was a transplanted Brooklynite who wanted to create a “Coney Island” of the West. He succeeded, and the boardwalk is considered one of the last dynamic seaside amusement parks in the country.

As we walked along Beach Street to the main boardwalk attractions, volleyball player Lauren paused to watch the quintessential California beach sport. The Challenge Court is near the City of Santa Cruz wharf, a destination for shopping, dining, bocce ball, boat rentals, and more.

Santa Cruz Beach volleyball pick-up game

When young, Lauren’s father had accompanied us to the Santa Cruz boardwalk at about the same teenage. At the time, he headed straight for the Skeetball Arcade at Neptune’s Kingdom. Now the attractions include laser tag, air hockey, video games, and mini golf. But instead, Lauren hustled off to the first scary ride near the entrance. The Typhoon thriller nearly turned upside down as it sailed through the air.

Santa Cruz Boardwalk with Sky Rider above

Next came the Double Shot scary that swooped to the sky like a rocket and then up-and-down two more times. After hopping on the pirate ship, Lauren announced the next ride would be the Giant Dipper, located farther down the boardwalk. Along the way we saw the colorful Sky Rider floating high above us.

The Giant Dipper roller coaster is one of two National Historic Landmarks on the Santa Cruz boardwalk, the other being the famous Looff Carousel.

We ambled along by numerous shops selling popcorn, cotton candy and Slush, where you can mix flavors. I savored a cherry and lemon blend on the hot, sunny day while Lauren enjoyed her full-on blueberry, which paired well with her tub of blue cotton candy. By this time, it was clear we would miss the hula hoop competition so Lauren’s top priority evolved into a return to the boardwalk that evening for more scary time.


Dream Inn pool

Returning to our room for a break before dinner, Lauren had no interest in diving into the Dream Inn pool though she agreed it looked tempting. Our dinner at Jack O’Neill’s was a delicious experience with views of the beach, boardwalk and wharf. Upon learning that I was a journalist interested to learn about the menu, Chef de Cuisine Greg Karjala arrived at our table to talk about the provenance of items on our “relish tray.” The name belies the character of the dish—a summer harvest cornucopia from farms such as nearby Sea to Sky Farm. Karjala noted that he and executive chef Gus Trejo apply a local and sustainable approach to sourcing for the restaurant.

Jack O’Neill Restaurant Relish Tray

Vegetable lover Lauren dove into the vegetables while we enjoyed crab-packed crab cakes. My wedge salad, a throwback honoring the 60th anniversary of the Dream Inn, was elevated with a sprinkling of fresh Bay shrimp. My husband’s literal catch of the day was halibut from Gracie Fish, a hyper-local Santa Cruz-based fishery. My generous portion of half-roasted Fogline Farms chicken in mushroom-bone jus was an umami-packed, savory delight. When we commented on the uber flavorful, crunchy flakes of dark salt atop the veggies and crab cakes, the chef noted the source was nearby Big Sur Salts. We took a slice of memorable, chocolate-peanut-caramel Dream Pie, back to the room for later.

Santa Cruz Boardwalk Typhoon at Night
Jack O’Neill Restaurant Crab cakes and salads

That night we fast-walked about eight minutes to experience the nighttime vibe at the boardwalk. The thriller rides seemed more thrilling and the excitement level higher. After several more rides, Lauren asked Grandpa for extra money to enter the updated Fright Walk adventure below the boardwalk. She begged us to join her. As non-thrill seekers, we demurred but asked a family behind her to keep an eye out for her. When they came out, the Mom said, “She helped us navigate the walk!” Lauren had become the penultimate boardwalk aficionado by 10:00 p.m.

The next day dawned cool and grey. As we watched, the Santa Cruz Junior Lifeguards donned wet-suits and, braving the cold, paddled out on rescue boards to practice their skills. Nearby, surfers at Cowell Beach waited for a big wave, or perhaps any wave.

Cowell Beach surfers await the waves
Jack O’Neill Restaurant Brunch time

Later, we stopped by Jack O’Neill Restaurant to review the family-oriented brunch menu. The bartender was already busy behind the bar with its feature photo of Jack O’Neill in his classic ’50s Jaguar roadster. According to Dream Inn General Manager, Jack stopped by for martinis at the restaurant and met with his surfer pals at the bar and hotel until his passing in 2017 at age 94.

A short walk away, the Picnic Basket served up several tasty and warming dishes: Goldilocks hot cereal, frittata panini and macaroni and cheese. On the way back to the Dream Inn, the Big Trees & Pacific Santa Cruz Beach Train chugged by along Beach Street. The train starts in the Santa Cruz Mountains, runs through Henry Cowell Redwoods State Park, along an old tunnel and then arrives at the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk.

Big Trees and Pacific Railway

As train lovers, we look forward to riding the rails and strolling the boardwalk. Next time, with Lauren or her siblings, we’ll see if anyone wants to limbo. Both the young adult activities and pool bar are open year-round, weather permitting. The dreamy look in Lauren’s eye on the sight of Santa Cruz beach may portend future visits. Hopefully, she will want to return to beach life and the Santa Cruz Boardwalk. We hope that is the case.

IF YOU GO LINKS: Santa Cruz; Dream Inn; Natural Bridges State Park; Swift Street Courtyard; Santa Cruz Boardwalk; Jack O’Neill’s; Picnic Basket; Big Trees & Pacific Santa Cruz Beach Train.

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Jack O’Neill Restaurant Dreaming for Lauren and Grandpa


Dream Inn dreaming