90 years ago, this was the center of the amusement park universe. Home to no less than three world class wonderlands that were filled with what were then state-of-the-art rides and attractions.
Today, the only word that accurately describes New York's Coney Island area is sad. The bare steel skeleton of the long abandoned Parachute Jump towers over the run-down neighborhood. Down below, two small amusement parks - ASTROLAND and DENO'S - struggled to keep the tradition of seaside fun alive.
Is this really how it's going to end for Coney Island? That ASTROLAND's Cyclone and DENO'S WonderWheel ending up just like the Jump tower. Rusting hulks that offer hints of fun-times long forgotten.
Not if New York Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani has anything to say about it.
Using the successful turn-around of New York's notorious squalid 42nd Street and Times Square area as his template, Rudy is determined to buff up this part of Brooklyn. That's why he's working with the New York Mets and the Brooklyn Baseball Company to build a 6,500 seat baseball stadium right alongside the boardwalk.
Construction crews are currently hard at work on the old STEEPLECHASE PARK site, determined to have KeySpan Park ready for its grand opening on June 25th - when the Mets' minor league team, the Brooklyn Cyclones will play their home-opener against the Mahoning Valley Scrappers.
Giuliani has made no bones back about the fact that he hopes that baseball does for Brooklyn what Disney did for Times Square. "The new KeySpan Park will serve as a catalyst in the revitalization of Coney Island, much the way Disney's investment in 42nd Street helped turn Times Square around."
Of course, the owners of ASTROLAND and DENO's amusement parks are thrilled at the idea of the upcoming opening of KeySpan Park. They figure that - what with the hundreds of thousands of New Yorkers who are expected to come out to attend the Brooklyn Cyclones' 38 home games this summer - some of those folks will naturally want to sample the attractions found along the boardwalk. That could mean 2001 will be a record year - attendance and profits-wise - for these amusement park operators, who had a particular time of it during the 1990s.
Mind you, that's not to say that this Coney Island revitalization program hasn't had its share of controversy. Coaster fans - in particular - aren't very fond of the Mayor at the moment, given that Giuliani ordered the destruction of the Thunderbolt late last year.
ACE (American Coaster Enthusiasts) had always maintained a significant soft spot for this historic old coaster, given that it was designed and built by John Miller - the great innovator of the modern high speed roller coaster. Film fans also might recall this Coney Island favorite - given its memorable appearance in Woody Allen's 1977 classic, "Annie Hall." Allen actually shot scenes in the house that was located right under the coaster's track to give his audience some insight of his character's shaky start in life.
Coaster fans were in the process of getting Thunderbolt's remaining superstructure (The coaster itself shut down back in 1981) declared a historic landmark when Giuliani sent the bulldozers in early one morning last November. By 8 a.m., there was nothing left standing at the site of this Coney Island favorite.
Why did the Mayor order the Thunderbolt torn down? He considered the rusted old coaster an eyesore, which means it didn't fit in with hisplans to turn this part of Brooklyn back into a showplace.
The Giuliani administration has promised - in the wake of the imminent opening of KeySpan Park - to make $11 million worth of improvements to the area. These include new playgrounds, shade pavilions, information kiosks as well as sand volleyball courts. In addition, portions of the world-famous Reigleman Boardwalk will be rebuilt. And even the Parachute Jump tower will receive some desperately needed repairs.
To help make it easier for guests attending games at KeySpan Park to sample the fun to be found along the boardwalk, three new pedestrian corridors will be created to provide additional public access to the waterfront. Also, additional comfort stations and lifeguard towers will be built to help turn this bit of Brooklyn back into a fun and safe place to hit the beach.
But will this be enough to turn the tide at Coney Island? This part of the city has been on the decline since 1946 when Luna Park closed its door. And that decline began accelerating when Steeplechase Park shuttered in 1964.
Nowadays? ... Well, here's hoping that KeySpan Park really is the start of the revitalization of Brooklyn's Coney Island. It would be nice to once again be able to take the subway out to Coney to get a hot dog at Nathan's Famous, take a ride on the Cyclone and/or a spin on the WonderWheel without feeling that you were taking your life in your hands.
To learn more about this intriguing part of New York City as well as the history of many of the great amusement parks that were built in this area during the early 1990s, amusementpark.com suggests that you get in touch with the staff of the Coney Island Museum, which is located on the second floor at 1208 Surf Avenue (near West 12th Street). Admission to the museum is just 99 cents. The museum is currently open year round on Saturdays and Sundays, Noon to sundown, weather permitting. For further information, call (718) 372-5159.
ASTROLAND Amusement Park is located at 1000 Surf Avenue (at West 10th Street). Its hours of operation are weekends only during the Spring - with the rides opening at noon, and the park's closing time depending on weather. Mid June-Labor Day, ASTROLAND is open everyday noon to midnight. In September, the park reverts to its weekend only schedule. For further information, call (718) 265-2100.
Deno's WonderWheel Amusement Park is located right on the Boardwalk at W.12th Street. In April & October, the park is open only on weekends. However - starting in May and running through September - Deno's open every day 11 a.m.. to midnight. For further information, call (718) 372-2592.
KeySpan Park is located at the site of the former Steeplechase Park in Coney Island, at Surf Avenue and the Boardwalk between West 16th and West 19th Streets, just a few blocks from the Stillwell Avenue subway terminal. For further information on ticket prices and game schedules for this oceanfront stadium, call (718) 449-TIXS.
If you're looking to tack an extra bit of fun onto your trip to Coney Island, why not consider coming out to Brooklyn Saturday, June 30th to catch the 19th Annual Mermaid Parade? This year, this home grown entertainment will actually be taking advantage of the neighborhood's new sports venue by having the parade start inside KeySpan Park, then enter Surf Avenue at West 16th Street and roll down Surf Avenue to ASTROLAND. The fun kicks off at 2 p.m.
Those who wish to see the parade for free can stand out on Surf Avenue. However - in celebration of KeySpan Park's arrival in the neighborhood - the Mermaid Parade committee is offering a special Mermaid Parade package. For just $10 a person, visitors are guaranteed a spot inside the stadium - where they can view the parade from the comfort of one of the new baseball stadium's 6,500 seats.
For further information about Coney Island's 19th Annual Mermaid Parade, contact the parade's organization staff at (718) 372-5159.
Finally - if you're a hard-core hot dog fan - the original Nathan's Famous is located at 1310 Surf Avenue (Corner of Surf & Stillwell Avenue). For those of you who are gluttons for punishment (or just enjoy watching the punishment of gluttony), the Coney Island Nathan's annually holds a hot dog eating contest every July 4th. The current champion, Kazutoyo Arai, 32, set a new world record last year by consuming 25 hot dogs in 12 minutes.
This eating contest has been held in Brooklyn's Coney Island every Fourth of July since 1916 as a publicity stunt for Nathan's Famous hot dogs, which opened at the Atlantic Ocean amusement park that year.