Plush animals get rollercoaster joyride in the absence of human riders

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  • Tuesday, 23 Jun 2020

With the public locked out, stuffed animals are riding this rollercoaster every day. Photo: K.C. ALFRED/TNS

Like many tourist attractions, The Giant Dipper rollercoaster at Belmont Park amusement park in San Diego, the United States, was closed to the public in mid-March when stay-at-home orders were announced.

But the historic rollercoaster couldn’t just shut down and ride out the pandemic. The 95-year-old amusement ride must be operated multiple times a day to keep its machinery from tightening up from lack of use. So rather than have the six-car coaster train barrelling down the tracks with empty seats every day, its operators decided to strap in some riders who are immune to the coronavirus.

Last week, a dozen or so giant stuffed animals were loaded into the coaster’s 24 seats and secured with lap bars. They’ve been riding the coaster ever since, twice an hour, from noon to 6pm every day.

Stuffed toys ride the Giant Dipper rollercoaster at Belmont Park on June 1. The park has been running the coaster to keep it from tightening up during the recent closures. — K.C. ALFRED/TNSStuffed toys ride the Giant Dipper rollercoaster at Belmont Park on June 1. The park has been running the coaster to keep it from tightening up during the recent closures. — K.C. ALFRED/TNSSteve Thomas, general manger of Belmont Park, said the plush pets don’t serve any real purpose in the ride’s maintenance plan.

They’re just riding the rails to give passers-by something to smile about in difficult times.

“We have to keep the coaster running on a daily basis, so why not have a little fun with it, ” Thomas said.

“People are loving it. We’ve seen tons of videos and pictures that people have been posting online.”

The Mission Beach Amusement Center was opened in 1925 by industrialist John D. Spreckels. He built the seaside park at what’s now Mission Boulevard and West Mission Bay Drive to bring attention to his nearby real estate development and electric railway.

One of the park’s main attractions was the Giant Dipper, which was named after a similar coaster that opened a year earlier at the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk.

Both were co-designed by famed early 20th-century ride engineer Frederick Church and both are among the last operating historic wooden coasters in the United States.

Standing 75ft (23m) tall, the Giant Dipper at Belmont Park is a 2,600-foot (792m), gravity-driven roller coaster. In 1925, it cost US$150,000 to build the ride, and it cost riders 10 cents for a ticket.

Over the years, Belmont Park had its ups and downs. After a long period of decline, the park shut down in 1976 and the Giant Dipper was tagged for demolition. But a citizens committee was formed to save the park and coaster and the Giant Dipper was declared a US National Historic Landmark in 1978.

Although Belmont Park reopened in 1987, it would take another three years and US$2mil before the Giant Dipper was restored with a new track, new lumber, 11,000 bolts, a modern seat restraint system and a new train. It’s been running ever since.

When the pandemic arrived in March, Belmont Park was forced to temporarily close its three sit-down restaurants, its fitness club built around the historic Plunge indoor pool, and all of its rides.

But mechanical rides like the Giant Dipper need daily maintenance, so the park’s mechanics have remained on the job running all the rides and lubing the steel tracks to make sure none of the moving parts seize up.

Thomas said he was talking a few weeks ago to colleagues at the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk about how they might adapt their Giant Dipper coasters once the park’s rides are allowed to reopen with social-distancing guidelines. They talked about putting riders in every row and filling the empty rows with the enormous plush animals that are given away as prizes in the parks’ milk jug midway games.

That’s when Belmont Park officials decided to give the midway plushies – some of which are three to four feet tall (0.9m to 1.2m) – a test ride. It was such hit with the staff, that the furry prizes earned a golden ticket to keep rolling ever since.

All of the park’s restaurants and outdoor recreation games have reopened, but the rides remain closed. Thomas said the coaster and other park are on standby until state and county officials give them the green light to reopen. In order to be able to reopen the Giant Dipper and other rides at a moment’s notice, the coaster is being sent around the track 12 times a day.

Because the park’s main parking lot is open and the public can stroll in to play games and visit restaurants, many families have been coming just to watch the animals ride. Because they’ve been such a hit with the public, he’s considering keeping them aboard in every other row as part of social-distancing measures when the ride reopens.

“We haven’t tried loading it with people yet but I would probably stick to something like that to add a little bit of fun. Everybody loves it, ” he said. – Tribune News Service/The San Diego Union-Tribune/Pam Kragen

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