Coney Island Was… Not What I Expected

I always imagined Coney Island to be different to modern amusement parks. More nostalgic landmark than weekend activity. A relic of the glory days of carnivals and rides. A throwback to the classic amusement park tropes.

I thought about ferris wheels for a nickel, haunted houses with a guy dressed as a ghost to scare you (boo!), winning a toy bear for your sweetie with the ring toss, crooked carnies, and little kids wearing their sunday best to eat a fairy floss.

Coney Island ferris wheel
Coney Island ferris wheel

Coney Island’s popularity dropped off in the second half of the 20th century due to a crazy, turbulent, fascinating history. When we arrived, I expected a handful of local dog walkers, creaky warped boardwalks interspersed with weeds, outdated roller coasters built of wood, all the old-fashioned stuff like bumper cars and ferris wheels.

…And we found all those things.

But then the sun came out, and Coney Island was full of life!

The history of Coney Island

Coney Island has had a very colourful history, see-sawing between popularity and destruction. It’s a place that New Yorkers love dearly, and have also turned their back on it at times.

Coney Island started attracting visitors in the 1870s, when luxury hotels began to open, and the train line was extended to the beach, allowing anyone to easily visit. In 1875, the first carousel was built by Charles Looff, with hand-carved animals and powered by steam.

Rise in popularity

1884 saw the arrival of the Switchback Railroad, one of the world’s first rollercoasters. In 1895, the first self-enclosed amusement park opened, Sea Lion Park. It had the aquatic show, as well as rollercoasters, and water-themed rides. Coney Island was gaining traction as a fun summer destination.

Competition soared, and Sea Lion Park closed within a few years (despite buying an elephant to boost visitor numbers), being replaced by Luna Park. The grand Dreamland and then Steeplechase Park soon followed, and the area boomed. This was the heyday of the three major parks, all running at the same time at Coney Island. It was known as nickel empire, where hot dogs and ride tickets could be bought for a nickel.

Disaster for Dreamland, and decline

The golden days didn’t last long, however. Things started to go badly in 1911, beginning with a major fire at Dreamland. During roof repairs of (ironically named) Hell Gate, an electric light malfunction, combined with a spilled bucket of hot pitch, started a great fire which destroyed the first of the three iconic parks.

In the other two parks, dozens of fires followed in the next decades, with varying degrees of severity. The nail in the coffin was the 1944 fire of Luna Park, which was not rebuilt right away. Legal battles and another fire shut it down for good in 1946. Beaches and attractions at Long Island became the new summer destinations, and Coney Island’s crowds evaporated.

Fred Trump and Steeplechase Park

Donald Trump’s father Fred Trump acquired Steeplechase Park when it closed its doors in 1965, and intended to raze the site to build low cost housing on the site. He couldn’t get change the zoning on the area, however,so he settled on bulldozing Steeplechase before landmark status could be applied.

Trump sold the site to New York City in 1969, and the grounds were leased to Norman Kaufman, who had dreams to revive the park, which he named Steeplechase Kiddie Park. His park lasted until 1981,and was demolished in 1983. Today, the site is home to a minor league baseball stadium, the MCU Park. All that remains of the old Steeplechase Park is the Parachute Jump tower.

Luna Park and Astroland

After Luna Park closed in 1944, Dewey Albert and a group of friends created Astroland on the old Luna Park site. In 1962, the park opened, which was supposed to be a futuristic, space-age theme. The rides were smaller than their competitors, but offered more in kitsch.

Astroland suffered a major fire in 1975 as well, and despite rebuilding, the park became more and more dated. The beloved park closed in 2008, keeping the Cyclone wooden roller coaster and the Wonder Wheel on site as reminders.

Today, a new park with the classic Luna Park name is on the site.

Luna Park today

The site looks very much like it’s been ripped up and rebuilt, abandoned and revamped. Classic rides like the Cyclone and the Wonder Wheel provide a dab of nostalgia as they tower over the newer, slicker attractions.

The shops and rides, with their hand painted look, especially when compared to modern rollercoasters. Its a vintage charm that gives Coney Island character.

There’s a few vacant lots spattered around, with unkempt and littered with long-abandoned equipment. I wondered what used to stand there a hundred years ago – maybe a ring toss stall yelling “step right up!”, or a street juggler entertaining a group of kids.

Fun mixed with neglect - modern day Coney Island theme park
Fun mixed with neglect – modern day Coney Island theme park

With history setting a precedent, today the theme parks at Coney Island are not one big centrally managed park (like Disneyland or Asterix in Paris), but many small businesses, a colourful patchwork quilt draped upon the boardwalk next to the sea.

It’s open from roughly Easter to Halloween, taking advantage of the summer weather, although the boardwalk is open year round. Each section has it’s own rides, and is fenced off from the one next door. For $35, we bought a fun card with 40 credits. I think the ride credits are transferrable from park to park.  

We I didn’t realise this until after we already rode the upside-down airplanes at Luna Park ride twice in a row! Up, around, over, upside down, barrel roll, and feeling queasy!

The planes. Up and around, and over!
The planes. Dizzy!

With our passes exhausted, we turned our attention to the massive boardwalk and the sparkling beachfront, and on this particularly hot summers day, half of NYC had come to catch the sunshine.

Coney Island boardwalk

The Riegelmann boardwalk, wide as a highway, is a nice enough place to amble along. Along the way, there are volleyball, handball, and basketball courts to play at.

Soon enough, however, the clouds rolled in and stinging sand starting spitting across the beach, and the crowds dispersed.

Clouds rolling in over the boardwalk
Clouds rolling in over the boardwalk

The Coney Island Beach

Coney Island beach on Surf Avenue is long, flat, and easy to access. It’s really long, in fact – 5 kilometers (3 miles) of sand are available! Swimming is permitted, when the lifeguards are on duty.

During the season, fireworks are launched every Friday night from the beach.

Nathan’s hot dog eating contest

Coney Island is the home of the annual hot dog eating contest. I discovered the scoreboard for this weird event as we wandered past, honouring some past champions, and with a countdown until the next event on July the 4th.

The current record holder is Joey Chestnut, who scoffed 71 hot dogs (and should probably go home and re-think his life). There’s good money in winning; $40,000 prize money goes to the winner!

The apocryphal story of the first hot dog eating contest was in 1916, when four immigrants challenged each other to see who was most American. The real competition has been going most years since 1972.

The countdown is on...
The countdown is on…

New York Aquarium

Despite Sea Lion Park closing more than a century ago, there is still lots of aquatic life to see! A year round attraction on the boardwalk is the New York Aquarium, which is home to seals, sea lions, sharks and walruses. New York aquarium even has Squirt, a giant pacific octopus!

More things to do at Coney Island

If you still need more to see, there’s the Coney Island Museum, and even the outrageous Mermaid Parade in June!

For something a little different in New York City than walking through busy streets, Coney Island is an awesome day trip for a sunny day. And it was a busy day out! Coney island is reachable by several subway lines (D, Q, N or F trains), around 45-50 minutes on the D train from Bryant Park.