I have been to San Francisco before. Many many moons ago I spent a month training for my certificate in Teaching English as a Foreign Language at an institute on Market Street. I also attended graduate school in Monterey and spent a weekend or two in the Bay Area. I have been to Alcatraz and Golden Gate and Fisherman’s Wharf; I visited Chinatown and the fortune cookie factory; I rode the cable cars; I hesitantly enjoyed my first Japanese bath experience in Japan town; and I salsa-ed the night away in the Mission district. My biggest reason for visiting San Francisco was to meet up with some friends I had not seen in awhile, so entertaining C with fun activities was just icing on the cake.
We went places tailored for toddlers that I had never been: the Aquarium of the Bay, the Children’s Creativity Museum, the San Francisco Zoo, and the California Academy of Sciences and Koret Playground in Golden Gate Park. Second day in and my friend D.O.1 points out my four planned destinations all include carousels. Who knew San Francisco is a carousel mecca? Not me. But C is a horse/carousel lover, so that works out well.
Since we ended up taking part in an unexpected and enchanting tour of San Francisco’s four carousels (Pier 39, Yerba Buena Park, San Francisco Zoo and Golden Gate Park) I might as well review them.
We first rode the Italian-made double decker carousel at Pier 39, one of the country’s most visited attractions. Thankfully we were visiting on a Monday so the crowds were at a minimum, including a short line for the carousel. As carousels go, this is a young one, designed in the 2000s specifically with San Francisco and Pier 39 in mind, carved with iconic city landmarks and themes. It’s beautiful. The second level is not full, but more like a loft.
The upsides: it is easy to pay for it with three separate token machine, which accept cash and credit cards. There are also a wide variety of animals to ride and even “tea cup” seats that spin and benches that swing. C rode a horse and then a zebra and planned on a dolphin before I carried her away kicking and screaming…
The downsides: $3 a token or $5 for two tokens, yet if you want to ride twice you need to disembark and get in line again. We were lucky our day as the lines we not long and we could ride again right away. However, I imagine on many days, especially weekends, the wait could be quite long. Also, parents, even if just standing next to their toddler need to use a token as well.
Then we rode the carousel at Zeum/Children’s Creativity Museum. This lovely carousel dates from 1906. Carved by a renowned craftsman in Rhode Island specifically for San Francisco, the great earthquake and fire of the same year sent this carousel first to Seattle and then to San Francisco in 1913. It had several homes in the city until moving to it’s current location in 1998.
Upsides: The carousel is housed in a glass enclosure which not only preserves the artwork, but makes it more an all weather attraction. Its mostly horses, but there is a row each of goats, giraffes, and camels. There is one stationary lion and benches with a carved dragon. It costs $4 for two rides, and only $3 if you show your ticket or hand stamp from the museum. You purchase the ride at the carousel. There is no need to get off between rides and standing adults do not need to pay!
Downsides: Only that the seats are a bit large for a toddler and there are no seatbelts (which the Pier 39 carousel has). I attribute the larger seats to the times in which it was designed. I would expect more adults than children rode carousels in the past.
Third in our quest was the Golden Gate Park carousel. This large and beautiful carousel dates from 1912 and is also housed in an enclosure. There were quite a few animals to choose from including two cats, two dogs, two pigs, and two frogs. There was also one each of a rooster, an ostrich, a lion, a ram, a zebra, a giraffe, a deer, a tiger, and a camel. Also every horse appeared unique including one with medieval armor. (outer most animals do not move). Tickets were purchased from a nearby snack shop and cost $2 for 12 and up and $1 for ages 6-12. Under 6 ride free with an adult. C rode a horse, a cat, and the ram. I found no downsides to this carousel though I read it’s not open daily outside of the summer months despite the covering.
We then rode the carousel at the San Francisco Zoo. This 1921 antique has been located at the zoo since 1925. A little smaller than it’s Golden Gate counterpart, it too had some unusual animals to ride. There are pigs and cats, also a giraffe, lion, tiger, and deer. In addition there are two ostriches and two rabbits. It is $3 per ride and standing adults ride free. I paid for the first two rides at the entrance when I bought our zoo ticket, and the third ride in cash at the carousel. I imagine it’s not cheap to keep an antique carousel in working order but I thought this pricey per ride, especially on top of the zoo entrance fee ($17 for me).
By this time I am hooked. Now I have discovered there is a National Carousel Association. It focuses on keeping the remaining antique carousels in operation. Who knew there is such an organization? Well, I did not, but now I do. And now I have a teensy weensy infatuation with carousels.
My aunt has said addictions run in the family and that we have “addictive type personalities” in the sense that we can easily become fixated. I rarely drink alcohol, I don’t smoke, I have never done any harder substance. I love Diet Coke but even that I keep to no more than two cans a day. Yet I still have my addictions, though many are travel related. (Such as visiting as many U.S. National parks, UNESCO World Heritage Sites, aquariums, children’s museums, and now carousels, as possible)
So on Friday the original plan was to head over to Berkeley to have dinner with friends. I emailed my friend to ask if she might consider driving C and I over to Tilden Park to visit the 1911 carousel if we arrived a little earlier… And she did! This 100+ year carousel is on the National Register of Historic Sites and has been located at it’s current location since 1948. Like several of the other carousels this one also had unusual animals including cats, dogs, and frogs. There is also a spinning cup, which I had only found otherwise on the one at Pier 39. I did not much care for the pricing: $2 per ride or 7 rides for $10. The seven rides sounds a great deal except that adults have to pay to ride and must stand alongside kids under 42 inches tall. And I’m not sure about you but after three rides on a carousel I start to feel a bit queasy.
And on the sixth day…
I had no specific plans for Saturday other than treating D.O.1 and D.O.2 to dinner for their incredible hospitality – they put us up for the whole week! The couple knows all about travel obsessions so were more than willing to enable my new carousel fixation. So off we went to the Oakland Zoo, where one can find the “conservation carousel,” and includes animals such as rhinos, gorillas, leopards, and giant pandas. This is a modern metal and fiberglass carousel, though it mattered little to C who is always game to ride. She rode an elephant, a zebra, and a horse. I suspect V is a traditionalist. She’s fine with trying another animal but she always wants to ride a horse.
The carousel is located in Adventure Landing, which it turns out, does not require zoo admission. We did not know that and paid the $15.75 per adult entrance fee. ($11.75 for kids 2-14) Regardless, parking is $8. The carousel is $1.50 per ride and adults standing next to small children do not have to pay. It’s a nice carousel. There were always children ready to ride but we got on each time. The biggest drawback to this carousel would have to be the music. I had paid little attention to that of the other carousels – they sounded just as expected, the classic cheerful organ music that makes you think of carnivals and cotton candy. Yet the conservation carousel turned only to a single sugary French pop song, which played over and over and over again.
So six days and six carousels!
Overall, the Golden Gate Park and Children’s Museum carousels are tied as my favorites. Given that days later C still babbled on about riding the blue horse, I would say she found Golden Gate her favorite.
I loved our week in San Francisco. The carousel hunt added an unexpectedly fun element to an already cool place.