Coney Island amusement park owners face ‘financial ruin’ amid closures

coney island amusement
The Coney Island amusement district faces an uncertain future as it remains closed during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Photo by Todd Maisel

As summer months begin to wind down, the owners of Coney Island’s amusement park rides are bracing for the increasingly likely prospect of missing out on their entire money-making season — which, they fear, could send them into “financial ruin.”

“We are hanging by a thread, waiting to hear the news,” said Dennis Vourderis, the owner of the iconic Wonder Wheel. “Bowling alleys and gyms are reopening, but I didn’t hear anything about amusements.”

Business owners like Vourderis — whose family has owned the historic landmark since 1983 — are appealing directly to Gov. Andrew Cuomo, arguing that they could open the 100-year-old ride while adhering to stringent social distancing measures. 

“If ever there was ONE New York State attraction that has safe social distancing designed right into its operation, it is the WONDER WHEEL — the centerpiece of the skyline of the Coney Island Boardwalk is an open-air gondola ride with separation,” Vourderis wrote in a letter to the governor. “We invite you to visit and we await approval to open so that we may celebrate our 100th year of safe operations.”

The plea to Cuomo comes after state regulators gave the go-ahead for the New York Aquarium to reopen on Aug. 27 — giving the operators behind the amusement district some hope that they may be able to return this year. 

“[We thought] oh, the amusements may be next week — but nothing,” said Vourderis. “So it’s hard to understand rationale. We want to spread the love, not the virus. Time is ticking, and it’s getting closer to Labor Day, our traditional end.”

Coney Island Councilman Mark Treyger, citing the potential damage to the neighborhood if the amusement district goes under, called on the various levels of government to help support business owners like Vourderis however they can.

“At the start of this year, we were in talks with Dennis and a number of Coney Island stakeholders — this was supposed to be a historic year, to celebrate the 100th birthday of Wonder Wheel. But now, Dennis is asking the city leaders how he will survive,” Treyger said. 

Alessandro Zamperla, who serves as the president of Central Amusements International, which owns Luna Park and other Coney Island attractions, said their “financial situation is devastating,” and claimed that they “won’t make it” through the summer without outside help. 

“This is a family-owned business, and to survive, we will need a financial lifeline or we won’t make it,” Zamperla said, noting that Luna Park had recently completed a $13 million renovation. “The season is almost over, we are here at September, and we are financially done. The federal government needs to come through with a small business program, we have creditors and financial obligations and we need this help now.”

And on top of losing out on the revenue — which they typically generate only between Memorial Day and Labor Day — the park closure has caused substantial job loss in the neighborhood. While Zamperla usually employs over 1,000 people, they’ve cut that number to less than 100 for the 2020 season. 

Zamperla’s company leases and manages the amusement park, as well as some surrounding storefronts, from the city’s Economic Development Corporation — prompting Treyger and others to call for the city to provide rent relief to the struggling amusement district. 

“We don’t need platitudes, Tweets, statements — we need concrete actions and it is within the control of the city to cancel rents of the city’s tenants and subtenants to get through a difficult period. After all, the amusements are ordered to remain closed,” Treyger said. “The mayor is the landlord so the city needs to take steps to cancel rent until they can open.”

The legislator framed the situation in moral terms, saying it was the city’s obligation to help their struggling tenants. 

“These businesses never gave up on New York or the neighborhood, and they believed in Coney Island. They hired locally, took part in community events. Dennis and others from the amusement district helped people to ride out Hurricane Sandy, even providing emergency supplies even when they themselves were going through enormous challenges,” Treyger said. “There is no New York City without Coney Island, and we’ve come so far I will work my heart out to make sure we don’t go back.”

Community Board 13 District Manager Eddie Mark agreed with Treyger, worrying of the potential ripple effect from losing businesses in Coney Island. 

“With the possibility of a lack of businesses open, will it look like the 70s, 80s, and become an undesirable place?” wondered Mark. “We’ve done so much work over the past 10 years, we don’t want things to slip back to what it used to be.”

This story first appeared on AMNY.com.