Game arcades have grown cinematic, terror-filled, and sadistic. Where are those innocent games kids used to love, featuring clowns and vampires, big-bosomed motorcycle chicks, and space girls battling aliens? Where are those tiny metal balls that would carom from bumper to bumper, shoot up ramps, then drop—tragically, oh so tragically—into that huge hole in the rear that leads to nothingness?
You'll find good old-fashioned pinball machines at a Bay Area joy spot, Playland-not-at-the-Beach in El Cerrito, which includes a room stocked with 30 period pinball machines, lovingly restored and set for free play—after paid admission, natch! Kids love it, and so do their parents.
This indoor amusement-park-cum-museum also features a Laughing Sal from San Francisco's much-mourned Playland at the Beach, plus other mementos from that amusement park, which closed for good in 1972.
On the museum side, there's a lovingly hand-carved miniature circus that fills a good-sized room, plus a collection of sideshow art. On the fun side, Playland-not-at-the-Beach features active carnival games and a party room.
Another spot for children and nostalgia buffs is Fairytale Town, a 50-plus-year-old play park in Sacramento. "If you had just one place to go" in Sacramento, Gretchen Steinberg says, "that place should be Fairytale Town."
It's got its original 1950s castles and pirate ships. "Many things have not changed at all," Steinberg says. And recent additions have been in the spirit of the old. "It's where childhood is celebrated and honored," she says.
• Playland-not-at-the-Beach (10979 San Pablo Ave., El Cerrito): playland-not-at-the-beach.org
• Care to learn more about S.F.'s original Playland? Check out the new documentary film, 'Remembering Playland at the Beach' ($15 DVD) by Tom Wyrsch: garfieldlaneproductions.com
• Fairytale Town (3901 Land Park Dr., Sacramento): fairytaletown.org
Sometimes, even in the mid-century, people just had to get away. Then, as now, one of the farthest-out spots was also one of the closest—just 26 miles off the coast of Southern California. Catalina Island gets the nod from Charles Phoenix as the place to go today to discover yesterday.
"Seven-tenths of it is total time warp," he says, "1920-ish through 1950-ish. It's a little time-warp village."
Catalina's 'village,' the gem known as Avalon, really does seem like a blast from the past—in part because there are so few cars. The sound of chimes—every 15 minutes of the day from the charming hilltop Chimes Tower—helps, too. Life just slows down. Phoenix loves the town's alternative transportation—on land ("two 1952-era tour buses that are in perfect condition") and at sea.
"A 1920s boat takes you away from the village," he says, providing nighttime views of flying fish winging it 100 or so feet into the sky. "I'm totally serious," he says. "I didn't believe fish could fly until I saw them sailing across the sky with my own two eyes."
• Catalina Island: visitcatalinaisland.com
We all know the charming roadside inns with their flaming neon signs. Route 66 through California used to be a grand route for spotting them—but less so these days.
"Route 66, not much left," Charles Phoenix reports dourly. Still, there is always the Wigwam on Route 66 in Rialto, near San Bernardino, where the road-weary traveler can stay in a real—okay, not really real—wigwam. For one thing, these wigwams have windows—and flat-screen TVs. They also share a pool that's kidney shaped, of course.