THE sweet innocence of California-past rises next to a white seascape at dusk: neon reds, canary yellows, pistachio greens. Whiffs of corn dogs and cotton candy carry over salt air while the steady crash of surf swallows the fitful clanks of aging carnival rides.
The Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk amusement complex, built in 1907, is a slice of state and American history that escaped largely unscathed when the Loma Prieta earthquake of October 1989 leveled homes and bridges from San Francisco to downtown Santa Cruz.
A few sidewalk fissures and sunken pilings for a popular log ride were all that affected this amusement strip, the biggest tourist attraction in one of California's top tourist towns. But after the shaking stopped, owners read the handwriting between the cracks: modernize or bust.
Listed by the Santa Cruz County's 8.6 million yearly tourists as the No. 1 reason for coming, the boardwalk helps make tourism the top industry (in a virtual tie with agriculture), bringing in $385 million annually countywide. Once one of a string of similar boardwalks and amusement parks up and down the West Coast that included the Pike in Long Beach, Calif., and Playland in San Francisco, Santa Cruz's is the last of its kind.
California has declared it a state landmark and two of its 20 rides are named National Historic Landmarks: a classic 1911 carousel and the all-wooden Giant Dipper roller coaster built in 1924.
In the first two years after the earthquake, detours around the town's devastated Pacific Garden Mall and two damaged bridges nearby kept tourist business sluggish, according to tourism officials.
To bolster attendance, boardwalk operators have added several attractions. Neptune's Kingdom, which cost $5.2 million and opened in May 1991, is the largest-ever addition to the park.
An Italian-made metal roller coaster made its debut last year. This summer's newcomer was ``The Wipeout,'' which spins riders 20 revolutions per minute while tilting them at 45 degrees and blasting them with 1950s rock music.
This summer, the town's first after a formal reopening of downtown in April, tourists were back - but with thinner wallets.
``The earthquake is behind us but the California recession isn't,'' says Anne Parker, director of the Seaside Company, which runs the boardwalk.
``What we're finding now is that the numbers of people attending is back to pre-earthquake levels, but they are not spending as much money,'' she says.
To enhance the park's appeal and keep up with the New Age tastes of its host town, the boardwalk's cuisine has been expanded. Bottled water, upscale ice cream, and avocado sandwiches are now options.
``People love the old reasons to keep coming back,'' says Ms. Parker. ``But [you] also gotta stay current.''