Luna Park (CAI)

The park has a nice collection of attractions.

Whenever people discuss Coney Island’s history they seem to speak of it in two terms- before and after Steeplechase Park closed.  When the park, by all rights an American institution, shuttered to little fanfare in the fall of 1964 it cast a shadow over the Island from which it never quite recovered.  With time the fortunes of the area at the foot of Brooklyn ebbed and flowed, but there was never a clear, new direction.  Some efforts were made to kick start projects, such as Horace Bullard, the fried chicken king who had beautiful concept art but little foresight or financing, and Thor Equities, run by developer Joe Sitt, who only seemed interested in making Coney little more than the malls that dot the Garden State next door.  Things looked extremely grim when Astroland Amusement Park closed in 2008, leaving Deno’s Wonder Wheel Park as the only facility at Coney Island that offered rides for everyone in the family.

 

Vestiges of old Coney Island are all around the new Luna Park

The city had been watching Coney Island for some time and had made significant investments in the area.  KeySpan Park, home of the minor league Brooklyn Cyclones, was added in 2001.  That same year a 3-year construction project began in the run-down Stillwell Avenue station, which was under the prevue of the MTA and decades overdue.  Then resulting structure was a beautiful piece of architecture that combined the old and the new.  The city’s investment was matched by sweat equity and perseverance by groups like Coney Island U.S.A., which began operating Sideshows by the Seashore and other art gatherings in the 1980’s, and Deno’s Wonder Wheel Park, which had been an island mainstay for decades.  However, all of these things together could not provide a tipping point and show Coney the light at the end of the tunnel.

Coney Island’s biggest supporter, and some might say savior, was not a developer or dreamer, but the City of New York, specifically the Bloomberg administration.  While the city certainly had a history of bad decisions, they pursued new goals for Coney.  Mayor Bloomberg and the team at the New York Economic Development Corporation (NYCEDC) saw the area as a key economic corridor needing growth.  In 2003 they formed the Coney Island Development Corporation and on November 13, 2009 issued an RFP for redevelopment of the area, and received several responses.  On February 16, 2010 they awarded the operation of a new amusement park, Luna Park, to Central Amusements International.  The company, a sister of ride manufacturer Zamperla, pledged to invest $30 million over the life of their ten-year contract.  The city committed to invest $6.6 million into the area for infrastructure upgrades.

The Disc-O, Vertical Swing and Family Swinger on a warm summer day.

With the contract to Central Amusements being awarded so late in winter there was obviously a lot of work to be done.  The former Astroland site, located at Surf Avenue and West 10th Street, was torn apart and an entirely new set of water, sewer, and conduit lines were laid.  After that, the ride work began; it was a mad dash to open.  On a time-lapse construction video provided by the NYCEDC[1] asphalt does not appear at the site until less than a week before opening.  Even though the majority of the rides were trailer-mounted or on base frames, the sheer amount of work that went on in such a small amount of space was astounding.  Every day between February and Memorial Day workers were seen scurrying around the unfinished park.[2]  In April Valerio Ferrari, Central Amusements’ CEO, told the New York Daily News, “We’re working in three shifts, around the clock, 24/7.”[3]

Nineteen rides were brought to Luna Park, all of them except the Reverchon flume (also the only non-Zamperla ride), were new.  For coaster lovers there was the “Tickler”, a Zamperla Twister Coaster, and the “Circus Coaster”, a Family Coaster.  The company debuted a combination of family and thrill rides, the most notable being the Air Race, which held 24 guests and offered an upside down flat ride experience that is unmatched.

After a busy spring Luna Park opened to much fanfare.  At the opening day events on May 28, 2010 Mayor Michael Bloomberg said “Around the world, Coney Island is one of the most famous and beloved neighborhoods, largely because of its storied amusement traditions, but decades of disinvestment and neglect allowed the amusement district to shrink to a shell of its former glory.  Today we’re reversing a trend, Luna Park will provide Coney Islanders, Broolynites, all New Yorkers and visitors from around the globe a world-class amusement destination, and it marks a major step in the long-term revitalization of the area.”[4]

The Air Race garners a lot of attention.

The new property took not only the name from the famed amusement park that once stood on the north side of Surf Avenue; it also took Elmer “Skip” Dundy and Frederick Thompson’s pension for lights and showmanship.  The new Luna Park was ride-oriented, but it still had every attraction decked out in light packages that could be seen from anywhere on Surf Avenue.  One of the best tributes to the past the park made was its new entrance, which utilized the famed half moons and pinwheels that made up the old Luna Park gateway.

The great experiment at Coney Island has been dubbed a success by almost everyone.  There are the few who carp that the amusement area is not large enough or it was not done correctly.  However, the vast majority of those who make their living or have their fun at Coney Island believe that everything came off perfectly.  Getting Luna Park open in a matter of months was a miracle in itself, and the fact that Coney Island had one of its busiest summers in decades fosters hope that the area has finally turned a page and its best days are once again ahead of it.  When asked about why the “new” Coney was such a success Dick Zigun, head of Coney Island U.S.A., said, “I think it’s the rezoning and the hubbub and people realizing Coney Island isn’t going to be totally torn down for condos and doctors offices.  I think it’s people realizing Coney Island is here to stay and it’s just going to get better and better.”[5]   George C. Tilyou once said that, “Coney Island, between June and September, is the world.”  Hopefully it will one day again approach that pinnacle of greatness.

This article originally appeared in”RollerCoaster!” magazine.



[1] The video is available on the NYCEDC’s youtube channel: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qYd30tlUfCc .

[2] Jim McDonnell, a fan of Coney Island, provided a lot of great photos of the park’s construction on his photo site, http://jimvid.smugmug.com .

[3]Durkin, Erin.  “Coney Island’s new Luna Park, modeled after original, will debut 19 thrilling rides on May 29.”  The New York Daily News.  May 29, 2010.

[4] The City of New York.  “Mayor Bloomberg and Central Amusement International Celebrate the Opening Weekend of Luna Park at Coney Island.” May 28, 2010.

[5] Chaban, Matt.  “Luna Park 2.0 Brings Zillions Back to Coney Island.  New York Observer.  September 16, 2010.