If someone were to ask you to name one American amusement park, what would your answer be? It would be no surprise if you came up with that world-famous resort in Anaheim, California. However for many Americans the answer would be “Coney Island.” Coney Island was, after all, the home to the country’s first real amusement parks. For many Americans, memories of Coney Island also conjure up images of the typical American theme park: boardwalks, Ferris Wheels, merry-go-rounds and of course hot dogs and cotton candy.
Early History: A Resort Paradise
Although many Americans think of Coney Island as the home to roller coasters and Ferris Wheels, it didn’t start out that way. In fact, the island originally became popular as a resort area for those living in and around New York City. In the 1820’s a group of local businessmen set out to build a road to Coney Island. At that time, the island could only be reached by crossing Coney Island Creek when the tide was low.
In 1829, the group completed Shell Road, which would allow carriages access to the island. Along with Shell road, this group also built the Coney Island House, which was a resort hotel. With the road and the hotel, Coney Island soon became a resort destination. The hotels attracted rich and famous people from the area, including Herman Melville (Author of Moby Dick) and Washington Irving (author of “Rip Van Winkle” and “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow”).
The Carnival Comes to Coney Island
In the late 19th Century (1800’s), Coney Island was thriving as a resort area, but local entrepreneurs wanted to make the island an even greater attraction. In 1895, Sea Lion Park, the world’s first enclosed amusement park, opened for business. The completion of Luna Park, Dreamland and Steeplechase Park soon followed, transforming Coney Island from a resort getaway for the rich into a play land of carnival rides that many more New Yorkers could enjoy.
In 1920, New York completed its subway line to Coney Island, which meant that people could take the subway to the island for a mere five cents! With such a cheap and convenient means of getting to the amusement parks, crowds now flocked to Coney Island, which soon became known as “The Nickel Empire.” Shortly after that in 1923, the island’s world-famous boardwalk opened. From the beginning of the 20th Century to the early 1920’s the island’s weekend visitors jumped from about 100,000 to more than half a million people.
Coney Island Plunges after WWII
You would think that Coney Island’s business would have boomed after World War II; on the contrary, the island hit tough times after The Great War and continued to struggle in the 1950’s and 1960’s. A series of fires caused Luna Park to close in 1946. Increased gang problems in the 1950’s made the park a more dangerous place which kept more people away. Making matters worse for Coney Island, the local government provided greater access to the beaches on Long Island, meaning that people had more choices of places to spend their summer days. By the 1960’s and 70’s Coney Island had become a shell of its former self.
Coney Island makes a Comeback
The island slowly made its way back to prominence in the 1980’s and 90’s. In 1983 a local artists’ group started the Mermaid Parade, held even today on the first weekend after the Summer Solstice. During the parade, participants dress up as various mythical sea creatures and march in groups that include marching bands and dance teams. At the end of the parade, King Neptune, the grand marshal, “opens the sea” for people to begin summer swimming.
Beginning in the 1990’s the area of Coney Island became revitalized by a housing boom. Today the island is home to around 51,000 people with most living in 18-24 story towers. Soon after the housing boom began, the area’s amusement parks became revitalized. Dreamland opened in 2008 and Luna Park re-opened in 2010. Today, the park is home to the Brooklyn Cyclones Minor League Baseball team, the New York Cosmos soccer team, and the New York Aquarium.
Coney Island Fun Facts
- A Giant Elephant-shaped building was one of the island’s first hotels
- Coney Island is where frozen custard was first sold
- The world’s first roller coaster, built by LaMarcus Thompson, opened on Coney Island in 1884
- Before there was the Mermaid Parade, there was the Coney Island Mardi Gras from 1903-1954
- Coney Island was home to America’s first dedicated bicycle path