Could Coney Island become a New Year’s vacation destination?
Brooklynites rang in 2015 on the Boardwalk on Dec. 31 at a New Year’s Eve countdown party centered around the Parachute Jump. Borough President Adams promised that the inaugural bash would be a new annual tradition for Coney Island, and an aide suggested that the event could eventually draw tourists to sleep over in Sodom by the Sea.
“You could see people, in future years, coming here for New Year’s Eve, and staying the night for the Polar Plunge on New Year’s Day,” Borough Hall communications director Stefan Ringel said.
The idea of Coney Island as a year-round tourist destination really captured our newsroom’s imagination, so we put the hypothesis to the test by sending adventure correspondent Max Jaeger on an overnight trip to experience the festivities and soak up some local culture.
The first stop was the New Year’s Eve countdown on the boardwalk, then a stay at a nearby by-the-hour-hotel — the only available accommodations — and on New Year’s Day, in a feat of truly immersive reporting, our Florida-born reporter delved into the frigid North Atlantic as part of the Polar Bear Club’s annual plunge.
The Borough President really delivered on this one. The event was a free, all-ages fete that stimulated local business and local pride.
The head count in Steeplechase Plaza reached about 3,000, an Office of Emergency Management worker told me. Tom’s of Coney Island, Nathan’s Famous, Peggy O’Neill’s, and, yes, Dunkin’ Donuts overflowed with people at a time the amusement district would normally be a ghost town.
In lieu of bubbly, the crowd filled up on Brooklyn pride — it was a treat watching a usually restrained Councilman Mark Treyger (D–Sheepshead Bay) whip up the crowd with a frenzied “Brooklyn” chant while speakers blared Jay Z’s “Empire State of Mind.”
A DJ kept people dancing — and acted as a de facto emcee, because Adams was shuttling between New Year’s Eve engagements.
People seemed to like what the DJ was laying down, but a guy pushing play on a MacBook doesn’t cut it for me. Treyger said there should be more live entertainment from locals, and I couldn’t agree more. The plan for next year is to select live local acts through a battle-of-the-bands competition.
Of course, there were some drawbacks to partying at midnight in the middle of winter outside on the waterfront. For one, it was insanely cold. How about some propane heaters next time?
Then there were libation considerations. Tom’s was the only Boardwalk eatery open that evening, and Surf Avenue’s Peggy O’Neill’s levied a $10 cover, forcing thirsty revelers further afield for a flute of New Year’s cheer.
The biggest hiccup I saw was with the Parachute Jump’s light display — the side facing the crowded plaza failed to light up with “2015” at the decisive moment when the countdown finished, stalling at “2,” and skipping to a colored pattern instead. The post-countdown fireworks display also started a few seconds too early. But the real magic was bringing thousands of people together on the Boardwalk in 20-degree weather for a party.
If Adams keeps chipping away at this block of marble, he’ll have a real work of art in a few years.
After the festivities, my lovely assistant and I took a cab to the closest hotel — the luxurious Harbor Motor Inn 1.5 miles from the Parachute Jump on Shore Parkway and 24th Avenue. It was 12:30 am, and buses and trains were running on a Sunday schedule, so rides off of the peninsula were at a premium. We hailed a green cab on Stillwell Avenue. The driver told us his meter was broken and the ride would be $20. He dropped it to $15 when I asked if the Taxi and Limousine Commission knew his meter was broken and pretended to jot down his cab number. Price-gouging is a New Year’s tradition, and a boost to public transit would go a long way towards making New Year’s Eve in far-flung Coney Island a popular destination.
At the motel, the front desk informed us there were no overnight rooms available on New Year’s, so we booked a four-hour one — otherwise know as a hot-sheet suite.
Let’s talk amenities, because the Harbor Motor Inn was lousy with them. First, the sheets in our non-smoking suite were so hot they had burn holes — no kidding, burn holes! The bed had clearly seen a lot of action. Like a well-worn baseball glove, it was wieldy and responsive, but had that sag in the middle that can only come from lots of wear.
A large window treated us to a majestic view of Stop & Stor’s corrugated metal wall. But the breathtaking vista went largely unnoticed, as our eyes were glued to the fabulous in-room TV, which piped out round-the-clock, uncensored, close-ups of adult situations — on channel 69, of course. We both slept surprisingly well, except for a 5 am call from the concierge informing me that I needed to pay for another four hours or else hit the bricks.
If the Beep wants to lure tourists to Coney Island for more than a day, the novelty glasses crowd will definitely need somewhere else to stay. Some are speculating a hotel may be in the People’s Playground’s future. The Beep said he is looking to Airbnb to house travelers and help locals pay their bills, which won’t sit well with hoteliers elsewhere in the borough, but is likely a step up from where I spent the night.
The next day, I was contractually bound to jump headlong into the frigid Atlantic Ocean for that 112-year-old Brooklyn tradition, the Coney Island Polar Bear Club’s annual New Year’s plunge.
My lovely assistant and I had some time to kill between our 9 am motel checkout and the 1 pm affront to good sense on the beach. Lucky for us, there was plenty of local shopping right outside our front door at Ceasar’s Bay, the big-box mecca of Bensonhurst, boasting a Kohl’s, Best Buy, and Toys ’R’ Us.
A Best Buy employee named Joe told me the store doesn’t see a lot of tourists, save the occasional road-tripper in search of a phone charger. Perhaps the zinc-nosed droves will arrive one day, but for now, New Year’s Day was quiet.
Next, it was back to the Boardwalk for a traditional pre-plunge breakfast at Tom’s of Coney Island.
A health nut named Bernard Macfadden started the Coney Island Polar Bear Club in 1903, believing the frigid shock of mid-winter bathing conferred health benefits, club vice president Robbie Bailey told me. Given that, it seemed a bit odd that registration for the Polar Plunge consisted mainly of signing an indemnity waiver. If Macfadden was right, I was about to align my humors and boost my vitality with a mere 10-second dip, hopefully without that pesky side effect, hypothermia.
The term “polar plunge” is a non-sequitur in Florida where I’m from, since the weather rarely dips below 80 degrees. I did take part in a New Year’s plunge once — but it was in Key West, and I broke a sweat walking back to my beach towel. So with the water temperature in Coney Island hovering around 35 degrees, I was a bit nervous.
As 1 pm approached, I armored myself in my people’s native garb: floral print trunks, a smearing of tanning oil, and the tackiest hat I could find. Then the moment came. I assembled with the hundreds of other bathers in my heat. My fellow plungers steeled their nerves, humming battle hymns for strength. I whistled my own paean — “Cheeseburger in Paradise” and started trotting to the surf.
Bathers who had already made it to the water were laughing and splashing in the icy brine. Hearing them in front of me, my salty dread mixed with crystal-clear joy. Is this what it’s like to pass into the afterlife?
My spiritual musing ended the instant I hit the water. It didn’t really hurt — more a sensory overload. Everything but my lizard brain froze. “Get out as fast as possible” became the overriding impulse. But in a triumph of human folly over survival instinct, I waded in waist-deep and submerged myself in the frigid sea. It was painless and exhilarating, and anyone on the fence should absolutely do it.
As we beat a hasty retreat toward our respective changing rooms packed with shivering, bare-bottomed Brooklynites, my lovely assistant shouted to me, “We should make this a tradition!”