My kids and I had a really enjoyable time on this one day outing to Santa Barbara via the Amtrak San Diegans! There are a lot of things to do in Santa Barbara. We couldn't come near covering them all in just the 6 hours we were there, but we covered enough to have a fun filled day!
I made my reservations for the very first train up (#759) which arrives into Santa Barbara at 11:20 AM and the very last train back (#786) which leaves Santa Barbara at 6:29 PM. It was very fortunate that we were doing this on a weekend rather than a weekday. On weekdays, the first train (#769) up doesn't get to Santa Barbara until 11:30 AM, which isn't too bad being just 10 minutes later than the weekend train. But, the real cruncher is that the last San Diegan (#784) leaves Santa Barbara on weekdays at 3:53 PM, reducing the amount of time that you can spend in one day in Santa Barbara from 7 hours and 9 minutes to just 4 hours and 23 minutes! There is one alternative way that you can spend almost as much time in Santa Barbara on a weekday as on a weekend day, and that is to take the Amtrak Coast Starlight round-trip or just one way from Santa Barbara. The northbound Coast Starlight (#14) gets to Santa Barbara about a half hour later than the Amtrak San Diegan, but the southbound (#11) leaves Santa Barbara at 6:15 PM every day. You will find that Coach fare on the Coast Starlight is a bit more than regular Unreserved Coach fare on the Amtrak San Diegans.
Normally, I start my Amtrak journeys out of the Fullerton Santa Fe Depot, where the office of TrainWeb is right upstairs. When I travel with my children, I'll often go to the Santa Ana Depot which is just 2 stops before the Fullerton Station. Both stations are about 20 minutes from my house. If you are not familiar with the geography of Southern California, Fullerton and Santa Ana are about 30 miles southeast of downtown Los Angeles. That makes them about a 45 to 75 minutes drive from Los Angeles depending on traffic. Amtrak lists them as only 32 and 50 minutes out of Los Angeles, which is about the right most of the time.
The reason I start out in Santa Ana when I travel with my children is that we like to get seats with a table on the Amtrak California Cars. Getting on in Santa Ana gives us a chance to find such a table before a lot more people get on at Anaheim and Fullerton. It also gives us a chance to look at the seat checks and be the first to get a table if anyone is leaving at any of those stops. If you are not familiar with the tables in the Amtrak California Cars, they are big! They are not like the narrow tables in many Commuter Cars. These are every bit as big as the tables in the Dining or Cafe Car with enough room to completely open any size board game! There is also plenty of leg room under the table for the people sitting across from each other. These seats and tables are so enjoyable for the train ride that I even prefer them over the big comfy seats in Custom Class, mostly because those seats don't have tables except for the fold down seat back trays.
There were a couple of dozen people getting on with us in Santa Ana. We waited far down the south end of the platform because I knew that doors would be opening as far down as that. Most people usually clump by the part of the platform that is right by the depot building, and that is true at all stations. Most either fail to realize just how long the train will be when it pulls into the station, or just don't want to walk the extra steps to a less crowded entrance. On the Amtrak California Cars, all the doors in the train open of which there are 2 big double doors on each car. In the train was an Amfleet or Horizon set, then only 2 or 3 single doors would open at most since a Conductor has to be at each stairway to fold down the steps and help passengers with that first big step. There is usually no attempt made to open a door closest to the depot, so passengers waiting to board often have to walk a long way down the platform anyway!
The train was more crowded than I had expected. That may have been because the weather was so warm for January and many people decided to get out for the day. The train wasn't crowded in the sense that every seat was taken. It was more "psychologically crowded" as I like to call it. From the way people pick seats, it seems an obvious psychological factor that people like to sit alone if they have that option. Thus, trains first get filled with one person at each pair of seats. A train can end up with only one person sitting at every pair of seats and give the impression that it is sort of full, even though it is half-empty. That was the nature of this train.
As long as there are still plenty of seats left for couples and families traveling together, this doesn't bother me. Like most others, I'll sit by myself if such a place is available on the train, rather than move into someone else's "space." The one item that does bother me is the people traveling alone that sit at tables for four. Families and groups that later board the train will often break up and sit at individual seats throughout the train because those are the only empty seats remaining! I'm sure that really puts a damper on their rail travel experience.
With this experience in mind, I made note of the overhead seat checks as we walked the length of the train seeking a table. There were a few other families also heading to Santa Barbara who had gotten on before Santa Ana, but most tables were taken up by just one person at each. Although I knew that the majority of passengers would be getting off in Los Angeles, I didn't see any seat checks with "LAX." However, many had nothing written on them at all. I just took a guess that a tag without writing probably meant LAX. The 3 of us took two pairs of seats that were within easy view of almost 6 tables that all had these green seat checks above them without any written destination.
The Conductor usually removes the seat checks of those people that are getting off at the next station just after we pull out of the prior station. My plan was to target a table as soon as the Conductor did this, and then move to that table as soon as the person vacated. It is important to not wait at all after the seat is vacated or someone else may move to that seat, plus it will definitely get taken by someone that boards at that station once the train does stop.
One couple surprised me by making a last minute move to get off at Fullerton. Their seats checks hadn't been pulled by the Conductor yet. I immediately moved to that seat and watched out the window to make sure they were really getting off and staying off the train. They did walk out the door and walk far across the platform away from the train. My assumption might have been wrong about the blank seat checks only being for Los Angeles, but then why hadn't the Conductor pulled the tags as is usually done prior to arrival into the station?
I didn't know, but I knew these people were not coming back! I moved my children and our seat checks to this table and pulled down the old seat check that the Conductor had not removed. As soon as we sat down at the table, my children quickly snapped out of the glum mood they had been in ever since we boarded the train and found that we could not sit together.
The rest of the journey to Santa Barbara went quite pleasant. We purchased bagels, juice, milk and coffee from the modern Amtrak California Cafe Car and had breakfast at our table on the train. We then proceeded to play card games all the way up to Santa Barbara! The train ran close to "on time" and we arrived into Santa Barbara well before noon. The first thing we did was to go into the station building and pick up a number of brochures of various activities and places in Santa Barbara.
Since we were so close to lunch time, we decided to have lunch and look over the brochures that we had picked up. We went one block south on State Street, just past the California Hotel, and stepped into "BeBop Hamburgers." This was heaven to my kids! They have every hamburger you can imagine, plus hot dogs, chicken tenders and fried cheese sticks. For the more health conscious, they also have salads, turkey burgers and turkey hot dogs. The decor and theme is of the 1950s and 1960s. We got a big kick out of a big board they have listing the top new TV shows and what years they came out from 1950 through 1965! They also have a classic car from that timeframe on display. They change the car each month.
After lunch, we walked one more block south and rented a "surrey" for 4. This is a bicycle type vehicle that has four wheels, four seats, peddles for everyone and a steering wheel like a car. They also have surreys for 2 people and 6 people, and other types of bicycles for rent for individual riders. We paid $20 per hour for this surrey for 4.
There is a special bicycle path in Santa Barbara that goes parallel to the beach for about 3 miles. There is no auto traffic on this bicycle path, though there can be quite a bit of pedestrian, rollerblade, and other bicycle traffic. There are two lanes to the path, so it usually isn't difficult to pass others or to let them pass you if they are traveling at a different speed.
State street almost bisects this path in the middle, so you have to decide if you want to do the left or the right path first. We headed off to the left. At first, we all peddled all the time. Then we decided that it might be a good idea if we all took breaks in shifts. So, it was decided that each person would get a 10 minute break of no peddling in turn. This worked out quite well. It kept us going at a good clip all the time. We noticed others that had pulled over to sometimes just rest. We probably would have had to do that also if one of us wasn't taking their 10 minute break while riding!
We went all the way down in the eastern direction as far as we could go, well past the Santa Barbara Zoo. Then, we turned around and headed west again. When we got back to where we started, we crossed State Street and headed along the new territory of the western bicycle path. That lead down to the harbor area with all the boats. This direction seemed a lot shorter. A rough guess would be that the eastern path is about 2 miles and this path is about 1 mile. Complete round trip of the entire path in both directions was about 6 miles! We felt pretty well exercised and thirsty at the end of that activity, but we all thought it was a great deal of fun!
Next we walked one block down to where State Street meets Sterns Wharf. We waited about 10 minutes for the Santa Barbara electric trolley. There are two electric trolley routes in Santa Barbara. One starts right at Sterns Wharf at the waterfront and takes you way up State Street past all the downtown shopping. The other electric trolley goes along the street that is parallel to the waterfront. It goes from East Beach to the Zoo. We took that one to the zoo. The trolley only costs 25 cents and you can even get a transfer from one to the other!
The trolley let us off at the entrance to the zoo. It isn't a very large zoo, but they did have lions, elephants, giraffes and many other interesting animals for that size of zoo. Admission is normally $6 for adults and $4 for children, but our $14 total was brought down to just $11 using our AAA card. There is also a train that goes around the zoo that costs $1 for adults and 50 cents for children. The entire ride takes 5 to 10 minutes at most. We took that around the park and found that it is mostly there just for the ride and not to give you an overview of the zoo. You actually can't see too many of the animals from the train.
We all enjoyed the zoo, and unlike some of the larger world famous zoos, we were able to take in this entire zoo easily in under two hours. You can certainly enjoy spending a lot more time there if you like, but you can also leave without having missed anything even if you only have 2 hours available!
We then took the electric shuttle back to State Street and Sterns Wharf. A little interesting thing happened while waiting for the shuttle. The shuttle stop is only on one side of the street. That makes some sense since this is the last stop. However, after waiting a few minutes for the shuttle, my daughter noticed that it was parked up at the end of the block. We realized that when it was ready to head our way, it would be on the wrong side of the street! We weren't sure where we were suppose to catch it. Thus, we decided to run down to it and try to board it where it was parked. No sooner did we get half way across the street, than the shuttle started driving toward us! We quickly turned around and headed back to the shuttle stop, confusing the vehicular traffic to no end!
We waved our arms furiously so the shuttle would see us, but I think he already had intended to check the stop for any people waiting to board. He stopped in across the street and we crossed to board the shuttle. I explained to him that we did not know where to catch the shuttle in the direction that we wanted to go. He said that was O.K., as there was no stop on that side of the street! Where we were waiting was where he usually picks up the people leaving the zoo. We just happened to come along when he was in the middle of making his U-turn after picking up the zoo people and heading back. Thus, if you do take the shuttle to the zoo, the stop where you get off is the same stop where you are suppose to get back on.
Once we got to Sterns Wharf, we purchased some ice cream and we looked through all of the tourist shops. If you plan to spend any length of time in Santa Barbara, there are many fine restaurants right on Sterns Wharf! Once we were done looking around the wharf, my kids had to make a decision as to whether they wanted to eat dinner on the train or in Santa Barbara. I know they like the food selection in Santa Barbara more than what they have on the train, and sure enough, that was their decision! We headed back to BeBop Burgers because it was right around the corner from the station and because they have the food my kids like and serve it very fast.
Our timing was just about perfect. After eating, we walked over to the train station. The 6:15 PM Amtrak Coast Starlight was just getting ready to pull out. Our train pulled in right after the Coast Starlight pulled out.
I suddenly realized that I had forgotten that this very last train also uses Amtrak California Cars! I should know better since I've often been down at the TrainWeb office late at night and seen this very last southbound Amtrak San Diegan roll through! I had already purchased Custom Class tickets for the 3 of us thinking that we would be in Amfleet or Horizon Cars. Although I knew my kids would probably enjoy the seats with the tables in Unreserved Coach more, they themselves decided they wanted to take advantage of their "Custom Class" status and ride in the special car.
We went down to the front of the car where we found 4 seats facing each other. On the trainsets that have the Amtrak California Cars for Unreserved Coach, they use a standard Superliner Coach Car for the Custom Class section. For the trip from Santa Barbara to Santa Ana, they charge about an extra $10 per person. This entitles you to all the coffee, juice, or soft drinks that you want plus a newspaper. Plus, you get the big and comfy Superliner Coach Seats that recline and have a large leg rest that rises. You also get a good size fold down table in front of you.
Unfortunately, when you select the four facing seats, you don't get a fold down table and people facing each other can't both use their leg rests at the same time. But, that is a trade-off for groups of 3 or 4 traveling together. Unlike in Amfleet Custom Class, however, even the people in these seats can lean back! They have made it so that the opposite facing seats are near the ends of the car where there is nothing in the way to stop the seats from leaning back.
We were able to put up one of the leg rests all the way to a level position so that we could actually use that leg rest as a table! We played a card game called "Nichols" on the trip home. It took the entire 4 hours from Santa Barbara to Santa Ana to finish one complete game which has about 10 rounds of hands in it!
Sometimes there is a Car Attendant in Custom Class on the San Diegans, but not always. I haven't quite figured out why. I've heard that free wine is sometimes served and that the Car Attendant can sometimes be very busy of some of the trips on Friday evening. There didn't seem to be much point to a Car Attendant on this trip. I don't think there were more than a dozen people in Custom Class on this trip. He brought everyone their choice of beverages before we even left Santa Barbara. About an hour later, he brought everyone a large container of assorted cheeses and crackers. I saw him make the rounds one more time during the trip to see if anyone wanted anything. Unless there are a significant number of passengers in Custom Class, it seems like a waste of a Car Attendant. My daughter got up to get refills of her apple juice a couple of times herself and I once got up to purchase a glass of wine from the Cafe Car. I suppose we could have pushed the "Call Attendant" button and had him get these items for us, but it just didn't seem worth the effort.
In Unreserved Coach, I think there was a pretty sizable crowd for this last train out of Santa Barbara. There was a pretty good size crowd waiting at the station for the train. Once we got into Los Angeles, there was another big crowd waiting for the train. All of the Coast Starlight people that head south transfer at this station to this train. Plus, people that went to Los Angeles for activities on Saturday have to take this very last train south if they intend to return home by train at all!
We arrived into Santa Ana station at 10:28 PM, about 2 minutes early. We had finished our card game between Los Angeles and Fullerton and my daughters had already fallen asleep in those few minutes! I had to wake them up so that we could get off the train in Santa Ana. We walked the few yards to my car and were home well before 11 PM! We definitely decided this was an experience to repeat and recommend, though we will probably try for an overnight stay in one of the many hotels right along the beach next time!