Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk president Karl Rice.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)
COVID Economy

Reopening Day Q&A: Beach Boardwalk president Karl Rice looks back on a trying year and forward to the future

Unlike any other local business throughout Santa Cruz County, the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk carries a symbolic weight. Often, economically speaking, how things are going at the Boardwalk is how things are going in Santa Cruz generally.

As is the case with so many businesses across town and across the globe, the Boardwalk is only now emerging out of an unprecedented year of closure and constriction (in which the Boardwalk was able to open some of its rides for all of two days last fall). Today, April 1, marks a new era in the Boardwalk’s long history as it reopens a limited number of rides and attractions, including the iconic Giant Dipper rollercoaster. Food concessions and retailers will be close to 100 percent open.

As Santa Cruz County inches out of the pandemic, Lookout is chronicling the changes in our lives and the accomplishments of everyday people. “People in the Pandemic” is one of eight Lookout initiatives documenting all aspects of life amid COVID. For more, go to our COVID 2021 section, and sign up for COVID Text Alerts and our COVID PM newsletter here.

Lookout sat down with Karl Rice, the president and CFO of the Santa Cruz Seaside Co., the Boardwalk’s parent company to talk about what his company has faced, and what he expects looking to a brighter future, one he hopes includes rollercoaster rides of the literal kind, rather than the economic kind. This year marks the 114th year that the Boardwalk has been in operation, but none of those years have been remotely like the most recent one.

Karl, tell us what people can expect when they show up at the Boardwalk on April 1.

Rice: It’s an important day for us in present tense, but also in the history and the legacy of many years of the Boardwalk being in operation. Our goal is to provide an experience that as much as possible, resembles what our guests have been accustomed to for many years in terms of that quintessential Seaside/Boardwalk experience. Now having said that, the challenge is ‘How do you provide an experience like that, in the midst of a pandemic, which is still ongoing, although certainly seems at least locally like we’re headed in the right direction?’ So, there’ll be a selection of rides, games, sort of all those normal things that people have grown accustomed to when they come to the Boardwalk, but some of our operating procedures, some of our measures to control capacity. Those will all be on display in one way, shape, or form. But I think we have a good operating plan in place to strike a balance between the safety of our guests, and certainly our employees, but also with providing the typical Boardwalk experience. So that’s the goal going into it. I’m pretty confident we can deliver on that.

Take our Boardwalk history trivia quiz. If you need help, find a local old-timer.

We want to ask you about the upcoming summer because, of course, that’s the big season. What do you think June and July might look like?

Rice: Our sense is that we will be open this summer, again, that’s not a certainty. But I think all of us at the Boardwalk are feeling pretty optimistic that there will be some level of operation this summer. I doubt it will be exactly the same as what everybody might be used to and that we can call it a normal summer. You know, that certainly could mean that we’re still implementing some level of health and safety protocols, I don’t see that going away. Mask-wearing, sanitation, distancing, spacing, some level of capacity control. So, this summer will be different for those reasons. But having said that, I think we’ll be able to open enough of the Boardwalk to have it still feel like that classic Boardwalk that everybody loves.

Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk president Karl Rice at the storied amusement park shortly before its April 1, 2021, reopening.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

In the communications you’ve had with your clientele, do you get a sense that people are really eager to get back and experience a typical Boardwalk summer?

Rice: The response we’re getting, at least from my vantage point, overall is very positive. People are excited. They’ve gone a year or more without really any form of entertainment, not just being able to come to the Boardwalk. It’s all over the map. Certainly there’s some that probably feel that it’s too soon, there’s some that have been knocking at our door saying, ‘Why aren’t you open?’ and ‘You should be open,’ But the vast majority of people I think are ready, at least in our universe, are ready to come and have fun. But I do think they expect that we will take all these health and safety protocols seriously. That’s our commitment, and we intend to do that.

You haven’t announced any programming for this year so far. What can you say about live music on the beach or movies on the beach. Are those things still in the planning stages, or are you kicking that down the road to 2022?

Rice: We haven’t announced one way or the other what our plans are with respect to concerts and movies and other various forms of group entertainment. Part of the reason for not announcing anything yet, is wanting to see what the state’s guidelines for reopening those types of entertainment are going to be, not knowing necessarily where we might fall within the summertime in terms of the state’s tier system. So, you know there’s still a lot of uncertainty around whether or not we would have the ability to operate those if we wanted to. And then of course there’s just the challenges of those, those two in particular the concerts in the movies are designed to draw a crowd. And how do you safely manage in the midst of COVID, a crowd of people that need to sit close together to enjoy those types of things, so I think we’ll be making some further announcements about those things soon, but right now they’re up in the air.

When you look into the future beyond this year, do you see the Boardwalk experience being pretty much the same it was pre-pandemic? Or has the pandemic in some way changed the course of the river for you?

Rice: Our core business, in one way of thinking, is pretty simple. It’s to draw families to us so that they can have fun, recreate together and enjoy what we have to offer. So that’s not going to change. There likely could be some tweaks in terms of how we might sell tickets or sell experiences to our guests. I mean there’s an example right now that we’re requiring or strongly encouraging advanced registration if you want to come down and enjoy a day at the Boardwalk, which we’ve not done previously. But fundamentally, I don’t think you’re going to see a much different boardwalk one, two, three years from now than what people have been accustomed to in the past. And that’s exactly what people want to hear who love the boardwalk they want that touchstone to something that they’ve always known.

Let’s talk a bit about the past year. We’re still in the pandemic, so there’s no point in spiking the ball right now, because we’re not quite out of it yet, but we’re wondering what it feels like emotionally for you and your staff coming up out of this year, as things begin to open up. Is there a sense of triumph? Relief?

Rice: The last year for us, as it has for everybody, has been a very challenging year, with a lot of lows and dark times, so to speak. And we at the Boardwalk spent most of the past year trying to figure out how to remain closed and how to keep people away. Those efforts certainly require a specific mindset and a mental fortitude that can be very difficult and challenging. There’s a lot of emotion that comes with those difficult decisions along the way. So comparing that kind of feeling and environment over the last year to where we are now, we’ve been focusing our attention on how to get the park back open and how to start welcoming our guests back. That focus is very different, and the mood and the emotion is very different than what most of the last year felt like. So there’s very much a tangible sense and feeling of excitement and optimism from our employees. Everybody’s working really hard to get ready to welcome our guests back and it’s been refreshing after so much time not being able to focus on what we’re good at, to now being able to figure out ways to reopen and to drive business and to ultimately get smiling faces back in our facility, the mood is very different, in a very good way.