Coney Island had its allegedly grand opening on Sunday, but the signs of desolation were everywhere — from the vacant former Astroland site to the empty lots near Keyspan Park. It’s obvious that the area, which has always been a place of freaks, geeks, wonders of human curiosity, spills, chills, thrills and vaudeville, is not going to change. But its scale has.
The area’s central attraction — the beach — will still be there, but even longtime visitors are wondering what else will be waiting when they get off the subway at Stillwell Avenue?
And, more important, will it be fun?
There’s nothing less enticing than an empty amusement area, so the key to a fun summer for the remaining businesses will be a steady stream of customers. And that’s where the bad economy is good.
George Shea, the chairman of Major League Eating, which runs the annual July 4 hot dog-eating contest at Nathan’s Famous, predicts that the economic pinch will have New Yorkers looking for more affordable and less expensive beach trips rather than going to the Hamptons or the Jersey Shore.
“The phenomenon this year is the much-talked-about stay-cation. Fewer people are going away,” Shea said. “More people are going to go to New York beaches. … In some ways, the economy is our ace in the hole.”
Here’s GO Brooklyn’s guide to playing the cards this summer at the “People’s Playground.”
Astroland bit the dust last fall, and even if there’s only one true amusement park left — Deno’s Wonder Wheel — there’s a smattering of other attractions sprinkled around the area to titillate the visiting hordes.
“Coney Island has sort of a permanent infrastructure,” said Shea. Sure, the closing of Astroland and, before that, the go-carts and batting cages on Stillwell Avenue sucked some of the life out of Coney Island, but they weren’t knockout blows, Shea insisted.
“Coney Island is going to attract an enormous number of people regardless of what’s open,” Shea said. “The pattern [of going to Coney Island] is ingrained in people’s minds.”
So here’s what you’ll find:
• Deno’s, the Boardwalk mainstay, opened on Sunday and will remain open every weekend through Memorial Day, when things kick into full gear. As always, there will be Friday night fireworks in the summer.
• The vaunted, bone-rattling Cyclone roller coaster is also open for weekend business until Memorial Day. The first ride is $8 (if that’s not enough, ride again for another $5).
• Nathan’s. Famous in song (the Drifters’ “Under the Boardwalk”) and story (like the hundreds we write every year), this 83-year-old frankfurter emporium still sells the best, if wildly overpriced, hot dog in the neighborhood. And the annual July 4 contest draws thousands of spectators. This year, Joey “Jaws” Chestnut will defend his championship against documented cheater Takeru Kobayashi.
• The Shoot the Freak booth, Cha Cha’s bar and the Dreamland roller rink, plus other Boardwalk carnies, have renegotiated their leases with the locally reviled landlord Thor Equities, so they will be back where they belong. One exception: the Lola Staar boutique has moved from the Boardwalk to a tiny space in the Stillwell Avenue subway station. It’s sort of like Siberia — except with lots of foot traffic.
• Get your freak on at the popular Coney Island Circus Sideshow by the Seashore. Chainsaw juggling, snake charming and sword swallowing are par for the course.
• Batter’s up. The Brooklyn Cyclones get ready to wallop their minor league competition starting with the home opener on June 19 against their bitter cross-Narrows rivals, the Staten Island Yankees.
• The New York Aquarium survived a scare worse than scurvy in this year’s state budget process, so for now, the decades-old fishhouse will remain open seven days a week. This summer, the big weekend will be the June 13–14 birthday bash for Tuusaq, the beloved offspring of the famous (and dead) masturbating walrus, Ayveq, who is not forgotten.
• Gargiulo’s Restaurant has been serving Italian fare since 1907, and, of course, it’ll be back. But if you plan on eating there after a day at the beach, make sure you bring a pair of long pants, because this is a classy joint.
• Regular summer events such as the Mermaid Parade on June 20 and the Siren Music Festival on July 18 will also return. And, thankfully, a lot of hot women and men will be back in the annual AVP Beach Volleyball tournament from July 3–5.
• The legendary brick-oven pizzeria Totonno’s was damaged by a fire in March , and there’s no word yet when the Neptune Avenue pizza place will reopen. The shop’s phone line has been temporarily disconnected.
• Some of the Boardwalk merchants mentioned above — including Ruby’s Old Tyme Bar late last week — have negotiated new leases with Thor Equities. They all should reopen soon.
The wild cards
The odds of creating an energetic, enlarged amusement area rest on the shoulders of the Bloomberg Administration and Thor Equities. The two sides continue to tussle over the city’s plan to rezone the area, and each side has its interim activities in the works for this summer.
• As reported in The Brooklyn Paper, the city is negotiating to bring the alleged Greatest Show on Earth, Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus, to a beachfront lot this summer.
• Thor Equities, which has amassed a fiefdom in the amusement area, has announced that its vacant lots, including the former Astroland theme park, will be bustling with rides, sideshows, and “foodie tents,” including stalls manned by the beloved Latino food vendors from Red Hook Park.
“Once Thor puts in its tents and rides, Coney Island is going to look bigger than it has been in years,” said a normally critical Dick Zigun, who founded the Coney Island Circus Sideshow.
And if the city inks a deal with Ringling Brothers?
“The amusement area would look huge if that comes true,” Zigun told The Brooklyn Paper.
Brooklyn Cyclones at Keyspan Park [1904 Surf Ave. at the corner of 17th St., (718) 229-8497].
The Cyclone [834 Surf Ave. between West Eighth and West 10th Streets, (718) 265-2100], weekends only until May 23, opens at noon.
Coney Island History Project [834 Surf Ave. between West Eighth and West 10th Streets, (718) 265-2100], free.
Coney Island Circus Sideshow [corner of Surf and West 12th Street, (718) 372-5159].
Deno’s Wonder Wheel [3059 West 12th St., (718) 372-2592].
Dreamland Roller Rink [3052 West 21st St., (800) 362-5116], opening May 23.
El Dorado Bumper Cars [1216 Surf Ave., between Stillwell Avenue and West 12th Street].
Gargiulo’s Restaurant [2911 West 15th St., between Stillwell and Mermaid avenues, (718) 266-4891].
Lola Staar boutique, Stillwell Avenue subway station [corner of Stillwell and Surf avenues, (718) 855-8773], opening May 23.
New York Aquarium [Surf Avenue at West Eighth St., (718) 265-3474].
Totonno’s Pizzeria [1524 Neptune Ave., between West 15th and West 16th streets, (718) 269-1062], closed for repairs.