To most people, Coney Island is a famous New York City amusement park. In fact, it is a collection of several smaller parks and independent concessionaires. A century ago Coney Island had been the standard to which other traditional amusement parks of its era were compared and it was the veritable epicentre of new ride innovations. Today it is at a crossroads. Paul Ruben reports.
“What crowds of people – light-hearted, laughing people, rich, poor, citified, country-clad, all sorts, all thrilled by the tonic of the atmosphere and all active, yet wondering at their activity.”
This was said anonymously about Coney Island in 1900. Then this small oceanside island captured the imagination of a nation. Visitors’ senses were overwhelmed by the unprecedented production that was Coney. Steeplechase, Luna, and Dreamland Parks outdid every World’s Fair in the exotic, overblown scope of their architecture. Every building gleamed with the futuristic splendour of electric light. Oompah music, animal noises, and the cries of a joyful crowd mingled with the smells of taffy, hot dogs and waffles to make the air intoxicating. People saw villages of dwarves, the world’s largest woman, exotic dancers, simulated spectacles, and all for the cost of a train ride from Manhattan.
At the height of its cultural influence, from 1893 to 1911, Coney Island functioned as a fantasy escape for the masses and a catalyst for social change in America. With its overwhelming and unending array of spectacle, Coney Island captured the public’s imagination.
Now, however, Coney Island is struggling for its very existence. Today’s Coney Island is just a remnant of the grandeur of earlier times, threatened by developers. Astroland is no longer, having closed at the end of 2008 and the rides removed. The property was sold to developer Thor Equities in 2006. Of the legendary Coney Island attractions, only the Parachute Jump, the Wonder Wheel and the Cyclone rollercoaster remain, because they are designated historic landmarks. The Parachute Jump no longer operates. Deno’s Wonder Wheel Park, which was adjacent to Astroland and contains the 1918-built Wheel, was not sold to Thor and continues to operate.
New York City has proposed establishing a 27-acre entertainment district, with 9.4 acres devoted exclusively to arcades, freak shows, rollercoasters, Ferris wheels and other rides. Thor Equities favours a smaller amusement park and many more large stores and taller, time-share condominiums to offset the costs of the entertainment district. The City believes that Thor really wants to build housing and a mall in the specially-designated district, which would ultimately overwhelm the amusements. The City even offered to buy Thor’s 10.5 acres from them at a reasonable profit, but Thor declined. The City could confiscate the property, claiming eminent domain, but is resisting this alternative.
“As the planning goes ahead for the future of Coney Island,” urges Jasper Goldman, senior policy analyst for the Municipal Art Society of New York, “the City should not lose sight of the area’s immediate future. It will be several years — even decades — before redevelopment is complete, and the city should create an interim plan to ensure that Coney Island remains a vital destination during this period.”
Carol Hill Albert, the former owner of Astroland who continues to operate the Cyclone coaster, says, “I am hoping that whatever solution is arrived at will be one that keeps Coney Island affordable, and keeps the beach and boardwalk open to the public, which it has always been.”
As a short-term solution, Thor Equities has invited Anthony Raffaele to operate more than two dozen portable rides on the former Astroland site, including a Scrambler, Ferris wheel, giant slide and bumper cars. The new park is called Dreamland Park, named after the park that burned down 98 years ago. There are no plans for the amusement park beyond this summer, however.
“We’ll have more rides than Astroland,” says Raffaele, “and people will get new memories at Dreamland.”
Dennis Vourderis, who with his brother Steve own Deno’s Wonder Wheel Park, is optimistic for the future of his park. “The future has never been brighter,” he believes. “Not only do we have two different influential parties, Thor and the City of New York, actually developing plans for Coney Island, we have upgraded our amusement park with many infrastructure improvements and a new ride for the kiddie park. We have also developed a co-operative promotional group with the other major Coney Island attractions including the Cyclone rollercoaster, Brooklyn Cyclones baseball team, New York Aquarium and Nathan’s Original Famous Hot Dog Restaurant.”
Help is on its way beyond this summer. As the city pushes ahead with its plan for a massive multi-year redevelopment of a broad desolate swath of Coney Island, plans are quietly taking shape for a temporary amusement park on at least six acres near the boardwalk.
Officials are hoping to open the interim park by the summer of 2010, years before the planned rides, apartments and retail space that are all part of its redevelopment plan for the area would be built. The interim park would operate for five to seven years as needed infrastructure work, such as sewer and water lines, is completed that will allow the larger redevelopment of the area.
“The city is fully committed to making sure that Coney Island is open, Coney Island is active and Coney East is full of amusement,” said Lynn Kelly, president of the Coney Island Development Corporation, referring to the area within the development zone slated for rides and attractions.
To support this effort, a Coney Island Amusement Advisory Panel has been formed by the New York City Economic Development Corporation and the Coney Island Development Corporation. Comprising several notable industry names, the panel will help “structure and expedite the city’s plans for interim amusements at Coney Island in Summer 2010,” The group will also assist the city in continued planning efforts for a permanent amusement operation and development of a 27-acre amusement and entertainment district.
“The City’s plan will transform Coney Island into a vibrant and dynamic amusement district that honours its iconic history and creates an exciting new experience for millions of New Yorkers and visitors,” says deputy mayor for economic development, Robert C Lieber. “Over the past months, the City has been working to develop an interim plan to ensure continuing summer fun and thrills at Coney Island.”
The panel will be chaired by Jim Seay of Premier Rides, be moderated by Jack Rouse, CEO of Jack Rouse Associates and also include include Chip Cleary of Palace Entertainment, Jim Pattison of Ripley Entertainment, Tony Catanoso from the Atlantic City Steel Pier, Nikki Nolan from Great Wolf Resorts, the Rockwell Group’s David Rockwell, Zamperla USA’s Valerio Ferrari, Kieran E Burke of Six Flags and Vin Cipolla, president of the Municipal Art Society (MAS).
“It is an honour to chair a panel that that includes so much experience and talent with respect to the amusement industry,” observed Seay. “As someone who grew up very close to Coney Island, and as a child gained a lifetime of memories from visiting the world famous location, I am excited to be a part of New York City’s historic and critically important effort to restore the magic to this storied destination.”
“The amusements are at the heart of the Coney experience,” added City planning commissioner Amanda Burden. “The City’s rezoning proposal sets the framework for the long term preservation and expansion of the amusements in Coney Island. This important panel of amusement experts will not only assist the city in crafting and implementing a exciting plan to bring back summer rides and attractions in 2010 and thereafter, but their expertise will also play a key role in developing a strategy to return Coney Island to its historic place as the most unique beachfront urban amusement destination in the world.”
The city’s Coney Island Plan is expected to generate more than 25,000 construction jobs and 6,000 permanent jobs. When complete, the project will create 500,000 sq ft of retail and neighbourhood services.
“Coney Island will remain the people’s playground,” insists Deno’s Wonder Wheel’s Vourderis. “The largest public beach on the entire Atlantic Seaboard, a Historic Landmark Boardwalk, free Friday night fireworks, the Mermaid Parade and much more provide entertainment for the entire tri-state area and a fun day for tourists from all over the world.”
<p>”Coney Island,” Seay muses, “by its very historic nature and due to the fact that its magic has been experienced by literally millions of visitors, has an incredibly wide array of stakeholders who each have their own passionate independent ideas about the future. Looking ahead, the one point that everyone can agree on is that a vibrant and entertaining Coney Island is a benefit to everyone and this fact alone will help guide and push all of the parties to a consensus that will return the splendour to the classic location.”
“I am confident that Coney Island and the existing businesses will continue to thrive today and in the years to come,” Vourderis concludes. “It has survived world wars, recessions, depressions, and even 9/11.”