Edit ModuleShow Tags

On the Road with Nancy Brown: Magical Merry-Go-Rounds

Travel Writer Nancy D. Brown spins on seven carousels within reach.

Who doesn’t remember Mary Poppins on her trusty merry-go-round steed, leading Bert and the children in an animated horse race?

While these Disney characters morph from real life to animation, there is something nostalgic about the sights and sounds of merry-go-rounds. Like classic cars of bygone eras, hand carved carousel horses are difficult to maintain and require expensive upkeep. Of the 7,000 carousels that existed in the world, only 300 remain—four of those circling inside San Francisco. Of these seven merry-go-rounds listed below, all are within a car ride of Diablo country.

Historic Carousels worth a Spin

San Francisco Zoo Historic Dentzel Carousel The Dentzel Carousel was built by William H. Dentzel in 1921. This hand-carved wooden carousel is one of the finest examples of an expensive and lavish art that ended during the Great Depression in the 1930s. Carousel horses these days are made of cast metal and fiber glass. The Dentzel Carousel is located near the Fisher Family Children’s Zoo.

Address: 1 Zoo Road, San Francisco
Hours: 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily
Cost: $11 adults, $5 children; San Francisco residents: $9 adults, $2.50 children

Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk The Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk’s Looff Carousel, built in 1911, features one of the last brass ring machines in the country. In 1987, the U.S. National Park Service declared the Looff Merry-Go-Round a National Historic Landmark along with the 1924 Giant Dipper roller coaster. As a child growing up in Northern California, I have fond memories of grabbing that brass ring and aiming it for the clown’s mouth. I can’t remember if I ever made the shot, but I’ll never forget my visits to ride the carousel horses on Santa Cruz, California’s beach boardwalk.

Address: 400 Beach Street, Santa Cruz
Hours: 12 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays
Cost: $3 per ride or purchase an all day unlimited ride wristband

Bay horse at the Nut Tree in Vacaville. Photo by Nancy D. Brown.Tilden Park Merry-Go-Round Where else can you ride a frog or an ostrich other than the Berkeley hills of Northern California? Built in 1911 by the Hershel Spillman Company for Ross Davis, the Tilden Park Merry-Go-Round has had a tilt a whirl history. It began its carousel circuit appearance in San Bernadino County in a Urbita Springs Trolley Park from 1912 through 1916. The carousel then visited San Diego, but was put in storage due to poor weather and remained there until 1935. After a short stay at Griffith Park in Los Angeles and more time in storage, the historic carousel made its way to Berkeley, California’s Tilden Park in 1948.

Address: 600 Canon Drive, Kensington
Hours: 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. weekends (closed January)
Cost: $2 per ride

Yerba Buena Gardens This hand carved carousel was built in 1906 and formerly inhabited San Francisco's Playland at the Beach, where it ran from 1912 through 1972. In 1998, it was purchased by the City of San Francisco, fully restored, and brought to Yerba Buena Gardens. Yerba Buena Gardens opened on October 11, 1993, but it wasn’t until 1998 that the carousel debuted when San Francisco Mayor Willie Brown opened the Children’s Garden and took the first ride.

Addresss: corner of Fourth and Howard streets, on the Rooftop at Yerba Buena Gardens
Hours: 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. daily
Cost: $3.00 for two rides 

Other Whirling Rides to Check Out 

Golden Gate Park Carousel
Address: Martin Luther King Drive and Bowling Green Drive, San Francisco
Hours: Fri.-Sun., 10 a.m. to 4:30 p.m.
Cost: $1.50 adults, $.50 children

Palomino horse at the Nut Tree. Photo by Nancy D. Brown.Nut Tree Carousel
Address: 1681 East Monte Vista Avenue, Vacaville
Hours: Sun.-Thurs., 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. and Fri. – Sat. 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. (closed on rainy days)
Cost: $2 per ride

Address: First Level at the North end, San Francisco
Hours: Sun.-Thurs., 10 a.m. to 7 p.m.; Fri.-Sat., 10 a.m. to 8 p.m.
Cost: $3 per ride

Have you taken a magical merry-go-round ride? Share your comments below.


A lifelong resident of Contra Costa County, Nancy D. Brown grew up in Moraga. When she’s not traveling, she lives in Lafayette with her husband and teens. Nancy is the Uptake.com Travel Editor, writes the What a Trip blog and is a Contra Costa Times Lamorinda Sun columnist. Horse lovers will find her at writinghorseback.com. Follow Nancy on Twitter at twitter.com/Nancydbrown.