Coming full circle: Deno’s Wonder Wheel at 99

Family business: Dennis Voudaris, left, and his brother Steve in front of the wheel with their mother Lula, who passed away in February 2019 at 87.
Dennis Vourderis

Big wheel keep on turning!

Coney Island’s oldest remaining ride, Deno’s Wonder Wheel, is spinning towards its centenary. The 150-foot-tall, 99-year-old landmarked hoop has weathered the ups and downs of the People’s Playground since it was erected in 1920, and continues to hold its own alongside newer rides, according to a second-generation owner.

“What was old once is new again! It’s very rewarding to see a 99-year-old piece of machinery that’s a marvel right next to the [virtual-reality ride] Stop the Zombies, and both are equally busy,” said Dennis Vourderis, who owns and operates the wheel and its adjacent amusement park with his brother Steve.

The wheel was built on site and opened on Memorial Day 1920, back when the area was dominated by Victorian amusements and you still had to pay to access the beach, according to a local history buff.

“This comes from a different world,” said Charlie Denson, director of the Coney Island History Project. “You look at old pictures of Coney Island with the ancient rides, and all of them are gone.”

The Wonder Wheel has outlived icons such as the Comet roller coaster, the original Thunderbolt, and all of Steeplechase Park — which had its own Ferris wheel, and was razed in 1966 by local developer (and father of the current President) Fred Trump.

Unlike its fallen predecessor in Steeplechase Park, the Wonder Wheel was a true innovation; combining a Ferris Wheel’s stationary cars on the outside with swinging cars within its rim, offering both a thrilling ride and a slow ascent to stunning views that stretch from the distant isle of Manhattan to the Atlantic Ocean — a vista that has made the ride a hotspot for romantic gestures, according to Denson.

Wheely big: The Wonder Wheel in Coney Island turned 99 this year! When it was built in 1920, it was the first ride to add moving cars to a Ferris wheel.
Coney Island History Project

“There are more marriage proposals in that than any other ride in Coney Island’s history,” he said.

Dennis’s father Deno, a Greek immigrant who left his native country at the age of 14, bought the wheel in 1983 from owner Fred Garms, whose father Herman was its first owner-operator, and christened it Deno’s Wonder Wheel.

Deno had promised the 400,000-pound ring to his future wife Lula when he proposed to her in 1947, and once their dream became a reality, the couple dedicated their lives to meticulously maintaining it, taking its cars down for servicing at the end of each season and constantly giving the structure a new lick of paint, a ritual that continues to this day, according to Vourderis.

The Vourderis family’s hard work paid off with a perfect safety record over its entire history; the city honored the ride by landmarking it in 1989.

Dennis said he and family continue to take inspiration from his parents’ hard work and optimism during tougher times as the giant circle reels in another 99 years.

“I remember my dad covered in grease, working his butt off and putting in a labor of love to restore it, and my mom standing beside him all the way,” he said. “He knew that some day this place would come back big time, he knew it would come full circle again.”

Take a ride on Deno’s Wonder Wheel [3059 W. 12th St., between Bowery Street and Riegelmann Boardwalk in Coney Island, (718) 372–2592, www.denoswonderwheel.com]. Open daily at noon. $10.

Founding father: Deno Vourderis with his sons Steve and Dennis in front of the Wonder Wheel in 1992.
Newsday/Phillip Davies

Reach reporter Kevin Duggan at (718) 260–2511 or by e-mail at kduggan@cnglocal.com. Follow him on Twitter @kduggan16.

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