by Paul Ruben
New York’s Coney Island opens for the season each year on Palm Sunday. This year that was April 5. I was there, as it is the symbolic kick-off for the start of the amusement park season in this part of the world. But this year was different. Although the sun was shining, the area had a patina of gloom.
Astroland, which opened in 1962, is no longer there. The property was sold to developer Thor Equities in 2006. In its place is a wasteland, what looks like a war zone (see for yourself on page 29). Except for a few shells of buildings, the park is empty, the area fenced off. Across the street, the venerable Coney Island Cyclone opened on cue. It remains a thrilling ride, albeit as rough as ever. Carol Hill Albert, the former operator of Astroland, continues to operate the coaster, which is designated a historic landmark and cannot be removed. Beneath the Cyclone in a former souvenir stand the Coney Island History Project has set up shop, hoping to preserve the legacy of the area.
Next door is Dino’s Wonderwheel Park, which was not sold to Thor. It has opened for business. Good for owners Steve and Dennis Vourderis. The park’s signature ride, the classic 150ft Wonder Wheel, was built in 1918 and continues to charm guests. More than 30 million riders have enjoyed its 16 swinging cars and eight stationary cars. It, too, is an official New York City landmark.
There are also several smaller operators at Coney Island, each with a collection of anything from one to six portable rides. Independent game operators dot the area, but none appeared busy when I was there in April.
Meanwhile Thor Equities and the City of New York are at an impasse. Thor wants to build what appears to be a token amusement park and surround it with condominiums and shopping venues. The City wants to maintain the recreational nature of the area, and has blocked Thor’s plans and offered to buy the property. Many of the former businesses on the Boardwalk are now closed, having been sold to Thor. Their stores eventually have been rented, and are now expected to open for the summer. I walked the Boardwalk, wistfully imagining the glory days of Coney Island. This former playground of the masses now stands forlornly by a beautiful bathing beach.
A new “amusement park” at the former site of Astroland will be open by the time you read this. There will be more than two dozen carnival rides operated by Anthony Raffaele on behalf of Thor Equities. The new park is called Dreamland Park, named after the legendary Coney Island spot that ruled the Boardwalk for seven years before burning down in 1911. For all of us wishing for a Coney Island renaissance, this small step brings us hope.