It’s an iconic feature of the Mission Beach landscape and it has been so since 1925. Its lines are truly beautiful and the sounds it makes are as vintage as its ride. It’s not a white-knuckle ride by any means, but it’s one of the most important coasters in the United States because it exists at all. Let me explain.
It was built in 1925 by legendary designers/engineers Frank Prior and Frederick Church. Prior & Church were prolific coaster builders in the golden age of coasters, being involved with (as designer or builder or both) such classics as the Cyclone Racer at Long Beach, the Aeroplane at Rye Playland, and the Bobs at Riverview Park. All of those designs were iconic and groundbreaking. All of them are gone. In fact, only three of Fred Church’s designs remain and only two of the three were collaborations with Frank Prior. This is one of them. The other, also called Giant Dipper (but a different design), resides a few hours up the beach in Santa Cruz.
The age and pedigree of this ride are historically important, but that’s not the whole story. This coaster is significant because it proves that history is worth saving and can be commercially successful as well. Coasters are fun, they’re structural art, they’re engineering marvels, but they are also a part of business. If the thing doesn’t generate enough revenue to sustain itself, it is doomed. Sadly, the Great Depression caused the closure of many classic coasters from the Golden Era for just that reason.
The Giant Dipper at Belmont somehow survived through the Depression and even got repaired and reopened after a devastating fire in the 1950s. However, by the mid-1970s, things were pretty bleak. Belmont Park had fallen into disrepair. A nationwide gas crunch kept tourists away. When people did travel, they headed for the big names like Disney, Knotts, and the like. Belmont Park and the Giant Dipper closed in December of 1976. The coaster began to deteriorate. Even some locals considered it an “eyesore” and called for it to be taken down. News of the coaster’s impending doom didn’t sit well with some locals, however. A grass-roots effort saw the formation of a group called the Save The Coaster Committee who sprang into action and fought to have the coaster registered as a National Historical Landmark, since structures on that list cannot be demolished. Their success saved the coaster from the wrecking ball, but it would still be many years before it would reopen.
The committee, after all, didn’t have the massive funds needed to restore the coaster. They had ownership of the coaster and some money from a preservation grant, but it wasn’t enough. They did what they could to keep the classic ride from deteriorating further and worked to find volunteers who would donate money and time to that effort. The coaster sat in that state of suspension for nearly 14 years.
In 1989, something of a miracle happened. A new developer now owned the Belmont Park property with plans to bring it back to life with shops, restaurants, and other attractions. The coaster wasn’t part of the development plan - but it was sitting right there in the middle of everything and the developer knew that having it up and running would generate interest and would bring people to the area, thereby generating more income for the surrounding shops. The developer contacted the group who owned and ran the coaster in Santa Cruz and invited them down to see if they were interested in restoring and reopening the Belmont coaster. They were. After a year of fundraising (the refurbishment cost more than $2 mil) and negotiating with the city of San Diego, the Belmont Giant Dipper finally reopened in 1990.
The success of this endeavour cannot be overstated. On the initial test run, the car was hauled up the lift a few feet at a time and checked after every movement. In the hour or so that it took for the train to finally crest the hill and run the course, a traffic jam had clogged Mission Blvd for miles, crammed with people who were simply not going to continue their journey until they saw the coaster finally race the tracks again. Once opened, the projected ridership that first year was not only exceeded but tripled. It was so popular, in fact, that a second train had to be bought to handle the crowds.
And now this “eyesore” is the crown jewel of civic pride in San Diego. The city actively promotes the coaster with signage on freeways directing you to the site. Signage on and around the coaster spell out its history and the importance of its preservation. The coaster and its neighbouring businesses help each other bring both tourists and locals who enjoy a day sunning on the beach, riding a classic coaster, and munching classic fair food like “hot dog on a stick.”
I said at the top of the article that the Giant Dipper is one of the most important coasters in the US, but that’s not just because of its history. It was also one of the most significant preservation success stories in the industry. It proved that restoring a classic coaster (or keeping one open and running in good condition) was not only worth the effort in preserving history, but it can be a financially lucrative endeavour as well. Parks are a business after all, and money is the driving force behind decisions.
Plus, and let’s not forget this: it’s a fun ride! At just 75 ft tall, it’s exciting and fun enough to keep coaster veterans happy, but it’s also tame enough to be a perfect “first big coaster” for newbies. The ride is jittery and rough around the edges like you’d expect from an old-school woodie, but not uncomfortably so. The front and back of the train offer very different ride experiences, so you’ll want to try various seats to get the full effect. Generally speaking, the front row offers the smoothest and tamest ride, while the back row is the most exciting, but also the roughest. Personally, I found the 4th row from the back, left-hand seat to be my favourite.
If you’re in the San Diego area, make it a point to stop by and take a spin on the Giant Dipper. It’s a classic in every sense of the word, it’s one of the last of its kind, and it very nearly became extinct. Celebrate the history, marvel at the classic ride, and applaud the efforts taken by those who couldn’t bear to see the old girl die. We are forever in their debt.