Every now and then I’m lucky enough to stumble upon a hidden gem, and when I do, the first thing I want to do is share it with everyone I know.
I must preface this by saying, I’m fascinated by historical forms of entertainment. I would love to go back in time, just for a day go to a World’s Fair, watch the circus come to town, see the Sutro Baths, or ride the roller coaster at San Francisco's Playland at the Beach. It should come as no surprise that I’m absolutely taken with the 9000 square foot El Cerrito, CA attraction, Playland Not At The Beach.
This place has been created with so much love it literally shimmers. So much so that it distracts the eye from the threadbare nature of some of the exhibits. Old photos and memorabilia might not be up everyone’s alley, but I was absolutely transported by the 10-minute movie about the Sutro Baths and the unbelievably detailed miniature model of Playland at the Beach. To see an actual bathing suit and changing stool tickles me, and that’s just a very, very small portion of the attraction.
Room after room, done up in the most intricate detail possible, leads the traveler through an impressive hand carved miniature replica of the 1930’s Sells-Floto Circus, the world of Charles Dickens, Santa’s Village, and the Halloween Hideaway! This is the kind of stuff you just don’t see anymore. Truly a lost art!
If miniatures aren’t your thing, there’s more! Around every corner is something new and fun. Old-fashioned penny arcade games, where kids can actually witness the evolution of video games! Pinball machines spanning the eras from when one simply rolled a ball into a series of holes to the holographic eye candy of Star Wars (complete with “trip Jar-Jar” video). Enough to fascinate even the most skeptical minecraft lover. I’m not generally one for 3D, but the funny glasses were worth donning in the blacklight pinball room, just for the floor alone! Talk about feeling like you are in a living video game.
Other attractions include a sculptural representation of an actual sideshow, complete with sliding doors hiding “true freaks of nature”, and an amazing series of carnival games, where one can win tickets for prizes. There is always a live show, usually magic, and thematic weekends, such as the upcoming Birthday Celebration for Dr. Seuss.
Freda and I were given a very special surprise on the day we visited. Instead of a magic show we got to see a real live FLEA CIRCUS! Talk about fun! I’ve heard about these for years and years. I even almost talked a client into hiring one years ago for a Halloween event. But I’ve never seen one up close and in person! I wasn’t disappointed! It was a blast watching the kids’ reactions! Some were skeptical, some were unsure, some were blown away, but each of them had a blast - literally, when the last little flea was shot out of a mini cannon).
“is he wearing a helmet”, asked one of the concerned children? A sure sign of our societies obsession with safety! That may actually be why I like this place so much. It takes me back to a time when things were a little more rustic, a little less “safe”, a bit more magical.
The attraction is only open on the weekends, school holidays, and twice a month for adult game evenings. You can schedule birthday parties and special events if you like. I recommend this to anyone with the heart and eyes of a child, from 4 to 94 and beyond! Opportunities like this only come around sporadically. You’ve got to grab them when you can. Just like the old brass ring on the carousel.
This is what two happy girls look like!