On May 26th, 1996, Santa Monicans took their first rides at Pacific Park.
Following an unprecedented year for amusement parks and entertainment destinations, Pacific Park is reflecting on a quarter-century of operation on the Santa Monica Pier. After an unprecedented 13-month closure, the Pacific Wheel is once again turning over the crashing waves of the Pacific Ocean, a much-needed signal that Santa Monica and California are on the road to recovery. The reopening of Pacific Park comes after months of collaboration on safety guidelines with local, state, county and city officials based on California’s Blueprint for a Safer Economy.
During the month of May, Pacific Park posted memories and milestones on Facebook and Twitter. Each day, a new spotlight was added – one for each year of the Park’s operation. If you don’t already follow @PacPark, you can read all twenty-five milestones here or watch our recap video:
Pacific Park: 25 Years on the Santa Monica Pier
Pacific Park opens on May 26, 1996, becoming the first amusement park on the Santa Monica Pier since the 1930s. The two-acre amusement Park anchors the seven-acre Pier with its nine-story tall Pacific Wheel Ferris wheel along with 12 rides, 14 midway games, an over-the-ocean food plaza and beachside retail. Pacific Park is the first and continues to be the only admission-free amusement park in Los Angeles.
A star is born. In 1997, the first Hollywood production took place around Pacific Park and the Santa Monica Pier with the filming of Romey and Michelle’s High School Reunion. Pacific Park has now been featured in thousands of movies, television shows, and music videos.
Pacific Park and Southern California Edison Technology Solutions created the world’s first and still only solar-powered Ferris wheel in 1998. The solar panels located throughout the Park generate more than 71,000-kilowatt hours of renewable photovoltaic (PV) power from the sun’s rays off-setting the energy demand of the Wheel and its brilliant lights.
Pacific Park introduced Inkie the octopus, the lovable, huggable and memorable mascot to the two-acre amusement park. Standing more than six feet tall, Inkie can be seen with a big grin, giant eyes, large tentacles and a colorful Pacific Park baseball cap. Inkie can still be seen around Santa Monica today as Pacific Park’s ambassador to many civic, community and non-profit events.
Pacific Park introduces a new ride, The Chaos. Up to 36 riders are seated on the outside of a wheel that tilts while the gondolas flip individually. The Chaos ride makes an appearance in the Roller Coaster Tycoon 3 Soaked! video game as “Kaos”.
In a nod to the Santa Monica Pier’s storied history as a pleasure pier, Pacific Park introduced The La Monica Swing ride – reminiscent of the family swing ride that delighted families on the Pier in the early 1930s. Pacific Park’s La Monica Swing whirled riders 20-feet above the pier deck where they enjoyed 360° views of the Pacific Ocean and Santa Monica Mountains.
In just six short years, the Pacific Park Ferris wheel passes the 2 million riders mark in 2002. The sweeping views of the Pacific Ocean, Los Angeles coastline, Catalina Island, Malibu and Palos Verdes Peninsula from the top will make the Pacific Wheel one of the most iconic symbols of Southern California.
Pacific Park opened the all-new 4,500-square-feet Pier Pavilion in 2003, a one-of-a-kind over-the-ocean event facility for private or semi-private parties, banquets and receptions. A wide-range of events were held in the Pier Pavilion over the following 12 years for clients such as Microsoft, Universal Music, The Simpsons television group, the William Morris Agency, UCLA Mattel Children’s Hospital, Democratic National Convention and the Juvenile Diabetes Foundation, among others.
The inaugural PALpalooza took place in 2004 to benefit The Santa Monica Police Activities League in raising money to maintain and develop programs including cultural, educational and recreational curriculums for children in the Santa Monica area. PAL provides free programs for more than 1,600 youths throughout the City. Each year Pacific Park hosts more than 500 youth from Santa Monica PAL and California-PAL for a free day of fun, food and friendship while raising funds through the proceeds of event tickets.
Shiver me timbers – Pacific Park opens Pirates’ Pier Mini Golf in 2005 and is soon featured as “10 Great Places To Putt Up or Shut Up” in USA TODAY. Pacific Park’s over-the-ocean swashbuckling-themed Pirates’ Pier Mini Golf course was developed from stories of former pirates off the California coast from as far back as 1577.
While celebrating its 10th Anniversary, Pacific Park’s solar-powered Ferris wheel was named “Best of America” by the editors of Reader’s Digest magazine. In just 10 years the two-acre amusement park entertained more than 10 million guests, provided over 24 million rides on its 12 rides and awarded more than 1.9 million pieces of plush at the midway games.
Pacific Park continued to soar to new heights of over 55 feet to treat dads with a free ride on the West Coaster roller coaster on Father’s Day in June. Roller coaster riding dads weren’t disappointed with the oceanfront thrill ride on the West Coaster steel roller coaster that climbs to a height of more than five stories tall and trails from one end of the park to the other providing unparalleled views of the Pacific Ocean, beaches and Pier.
In 2008, Pacific Park introduced an all-new $1.5 million Ferris wheel featuring more than 160,000 energy-efficient LED lights. Pacific Park sold the original Pacific Wheel on eBay for $132,400 and shared the proceeds with Special Olympics of Southern California. The 10-day eBay auction pitted 6 bidders against each other; they bid over 30 times before Grant Humphreys, CEO of The Humphreys Company in Oklahoma City, won out as top bidder. The old Pacific Wheel would reopen to riders in Wheeler Oklahoma in 2016.
Pacific Park joined in the celebration for the Santa Monica Pier’s 100th birthday party on September 9. The Pier was originally constructed in 1909 as a public utility for the City of Santa Monica. The Pier community also celebrated the 25th anniversary of the Twilight Concert Series.
Summer got a little cooler at the beach in 2010 with the official opening of Pacific Park’s two newest rides for kids: Inkie’s Pirate Ship and Inkie’s Wave Jumper. Inkie’s Pirate Ship was a swashbuckling-themed, family-fun ride that lifted mini-mateys to-and-fro as if they were sailing out for a high-seas adventure. Inkie’s Wave Jumper features 5 speedboats where young riders “jump” up and down, and bounce around.
In 2011 Pacific Park on the Santa Monica Pier is purchased by CNL Lifestyle Properties, Inc. The Park’s management company, Santa Monica Amusements, continued to operate the Park led by then CEO and General Manager Mary Ann Powell who purchased the operating interests the following year.
What goes around comes around and that’s especially true for Los Angeles Police Officer Gus Martinez as he set the Guinness World Records title of 25 hours on a Ferris wheel on June 1, 2012, riding the Pacific Wheel. The World Record attempt also raised funds for Special Olympics Southern California (SOSC) and Southern California Law Enforcement.
Pacific Park’s Ferris wheel was named by Travel + Leisure magazine as one of the “World’s Coolest Ferris Wheels.” The magazine cited The Pacific Wheel’s solar power and fantastic LED light shows as features that distinguish the Santa Monica attraction amongst other Wheels across the globe.
When looking for love, look no further than a turn on the Ferris wheel, so says USA TODAY in 2014. The national newspaper named Pacific Park’s Ferris wheel a “can’t-miss spot” in its review of “The Romantic Places for Couples in Los Angeles.” Hundreds of romantic hopefuls have popped the question at the top of the Pacific Wheel over the years and the Wheel continues its tradition of displaying a heart-filled Valentine’s light program every February.
Score one for the little guy – so to speak as Yahoo! Travel announced in 2015 its “The Best Amusement Park in Every State” with Pacific Park on the Santa Monica Pier taking top honors in California. In their review Yahoo! stated, “In a state so packed with great amusement parks, Pacific Park on the Santa Monica Pier stands out for fun, atmosphere, and the sheer joy of playing on this famous landmark.”
In light of its 20th anniversary celebration, Pacific Park on the Santa Monica Pier introduced a new Ferris wheel lighting package in 2016. Standing 130 feet above the Pacific Ocean, the nearly $1 million lighting system allows the Park to display dynamic, unique, and brilliant light programs every evening.
Putting a new spin on a classic ride Pacific Park debuts Shark Frenzy, a shark-themed Tilt-a-Whirl ride. Guests sit in the jaws of the ocean’s most iconic sharks including the Blue, Bull, Great White, Lemon, Mako, Sand Tiger and Tiger species. The seven colorful breaching shark cars are accentuated on deck with eclectic beach trappings such as shark warning signs, shark-bitten surfboards, lifesaving buoys and beach warning flags.
Top competitive eaters arrived at the Santa Monica Pier to compete in the first-ever Pacific Park World Taco-Eating Championship in 2018. The inaugural event took place on “National Taco Day” and set a new world record as the #1-Ranked Competitive Eater In The World Joey Chestnut ate 62 Pacific Park street-style carnitas tacos in 8 minutes to claim the Major League Eating title.
Netflix takes over the Santa Monica Pier with their “Stranger Things” premier celebration. Pacific Park was awash in eerie red lights and filled with synthesized sounds of 1985 as the cast, crew and producers of “Stranger Things” celebrated the premiere of the hit show’s third season. Fans of the show were invited to walk through an immersive 1980s Hawkins, Indiana, experience complete with 1980s bands, theming from the show, and specially curated treats and prizes.
Pacific Park honored doctors, nurses, medical staff and healthcare workers for more than 300 nights on the Pacific Wheel during the unprecedented shutdown caused by the global COVID-19 pandemic in 2020. Although rides at the amusement park were closed, the 90-feet-tall Ferris wheel served as a beacon of hope and thanks to frontline workers displaying illuminated messages, patterns and icons of thanks and love to appreciation. Pacific Park also honored the passing of Los Angeles Lakers Legend Kobe Bryant on the world-famous Ferris Wheel with “LA + + 24” and “LA + + 8” along with displays of Los Angeles Lakers gold and purple colors in a variety of patterns and transitions.
Following the closure of Pacific Park’s rides for more than 13 months due to the coronavirus, guests were once again invited into the amusement park on April 2, 2021. Pacific Park worked closely with state, county and city authorities to safely resume operations while honoring the spirit of the closure intended to reduce guests’ potential exposure to the contagious virus. Building on its 25-year operation and presence on the Santa Monica Pier, Pacific Park will continue to operate with the health and safety of guests and employees at the forefront of planning and operations, which will be guided by health experts and industry standards.
The entire Pacific Park team is thankful for the partnership of City of Santa Monica officials and is grateful for the efforts invested in getting the amusement park back open for guests. The Park is cautiously optimistic that the continued easing of restrictions for venues and entertainment destinations will get more of the park back to regular operation. The next 25 years looks even more promising and exciting!
Feature image courtesy of @artist_lenses.