San Diego really has a lot to offer when it comes to history. Many regard San Diego as the birthplace of California, as it is home to the first Spanish Mission and many more historic locations. It is also home to southern California’s oldest rollercoaster, the Giant Dipper at Belmont Park, built in 1925. I knew I had to visit, and so I grabbed my friend, and fellow blogger, Carla of Tiny Angry Crafter, who lives in San Diego, and she accompanied Patrick and I to Belmont Park for a day of rides and games.
Opening July 4, 1925, the wooden rollercoaster known as The Giant Dipper was the product of John D. Spreckels. I mentioned Spreckels earlier, in my Old Town San Diego post, but didn’t talk about just how vital this man was to San Diego. Son of Claus Spreckels, the founder of the Spreckels Sugar Company, John Spreckels was born in 1853 and would go on to join his father in the family business. In 1887 he married Lillie Siebein, and the pair lived in Hawaii, tending to the family’s sugar plantations, but they soon moved to San Fransisco. It is during this time Spreckels first visited San Diego. Here he saw opportunity in the real estate boom, and wanted in. His ventures included the Hotel Del Coronado, the street car, two San Diego newspapers, and as mentioned in my Old Town post, Ramona’s Marriage Place. Following the 1906 San Fransisco earthquake, he and his family moved to San Diego. One of Spreckels’ more whimsical ventures was the Mission Beach Amusement Center, which included building the massive wooden rollercoaster The Giant Dipper, along with The Natatorium, an indoor pool.
The Giant Dipper was constructed in just four weeks and was designed by Frederick Church, a well-known rollercoaster engineer, who also designed the infamous Cyclone Racer at the Long Beach Pike. The Natatorium was a 60 by 175 foot salt water pool, that would later become known as The Plunge.
However a year after his beach side amusement center opened, Spreckels passed away, leaving the place to the city of San Diego. In 1940 the Plunge faced filtration issues, and became a fresh water pool, making it the largest indoor heated pool in southern California. The Mission Beach Amusement Center was renamed Belmont Park in 1955, but like so many aging beach side amusement zones, it limped along throughout the 60s and 70s, closing in December of 1976.
In the early 80s the Dipper was faced with the possibility of demolition, but thanks to a grassroots movement known as the Save the Coast Committee the Dipper was saved and received a historic preservation grant in 1981, but still lacked the proper funding to fully restore it. However in 1987 the Dipper was designated a National Historic Landmark.
In 1988, the area surrounding the 20s icons was turned into a shopping center. The developers saw opportunity in the rollercoaster and pool, and contacted the Santa Cruz Seaside Company, and together they worked with the city of San Diego, leasing the land and forming the San Diego Coaster Company. Together they created a small amusement park, with arcade, games, and restored the Giant Dipper, reopening it in 1990. The Plunge served locals well, but in desperate need of repairs, closed in 2014 for an extensive renovation, and just reopened, although it looks nothing like it once did.
Housed inside the ticket stand is a small museum, featuring vintage photographs of Belmont Park in its heyday, as well as one of the original Giant Dipper cars.
Belmont Park is free to enter, and then you can either pay per ride, or purchase a wristband for unlimited rides. So if you just want to ride the Giant Dipper, then it is only a couple bucks!
Oh, and in case you’re wondering where California’s oldest rollercoaster is, it’s also called the Giant Dipper, and it’s located on the Boardwalk in Santa Cruz. It beats out San Diego’s Giant Dipper by one year, being built in 1924.
Ride the Giant Dipper in Belmont Park at 3146 Mission Blvd. in San Diego. Learn more about Belmont Park on their website.
Sources History. Belmont Park. Accessed 16 July 2019
Plaques on site John D. Spreckles. San Diego History Center. Accessed Accessed 16 July 2019