Wonder Wheel operator hopes Coney Island landmark can soon reopen

Wonder Wheel owner Dennis Vouderis, joined by his nephew Teddy, says they can open safely under health guidelines.
Photo by Todd Maisel

Coney Island’s iconic Wonder Wheel turned 100 years young this summer — and attraction owner Dennis Vourderis had a big celebration planned for the Coney Island landmark.

But, when the COVID-19 pandemic hit New York City, leading to all kinds of shutdowns of social activities, Vourderis had to put his plans on hold. Nearly a week removed from the Fourth of July and still not a soul has taken a spin on the Wonder Wheel this summer — or, for that matter, on any of the other attractions at Deno’s Wonder Wheel Amusement Park.

The giant ferris wheel’s caged cars are open air, without any windows, and spaced 15 feet apart from one another — and Vourderis maintains that staff members are ready to sanitize each car after every ride. 

Yet the amusement park, and others in the city, have not yet been allowed to reopen. New York City is in Phase Three of reopening, and amusement parks — which generally bring about large crowds — are a part of plans for Phase Four, should conditions stay the same.

In the meantime, Vourderis — whose family has owned the ferris wheel since 1983 — keeps hoping to hear good news from a cautious governor and mayor who have kept to strict phases as to not make the same mistakes as other states now suffering from coronavirus outbreaks.

The Coney Island businessman said he worries about a real estate tax bill sitting on his desk, as well as his rent owed to the Economic Development Corporation. He also has a mortgage on an adjoining property his family bought to expand their amusement park.

With the bills piling up and only two concessions stands open to the public, business is just 15 percent of that during a normal Coney Island summer, Vourderis said.

“Give me a reason why they are keeping us closed. Why punish us for what Florida, Arizona and Texas have done?” Vourderis groused. “We are in the safety business, and we will make sure all our staff and visitors are safe. Look at the Boardwalk and the beach, very few people are social distancing and wearing masks – nobody is following the guidelines.”

Although Vourderis has been presented with a plan to reopen safely when the time is right, he and his fellow amusement park owners are worried — Rye Playland has already cancelled its summer season and Gov. Andrew Cuomo has cancelled the annual New York State Fair in Syracuse.

“I’ve had many sleepless nights thinking about what the hell, how will I pay real estate taxes that were due July 1,” Vourderis said. “[I] have to pay them. I have to pay a mortgage and real estate taxes — those bills must be paid.”

Coney Island’s Wonder Wheel.Photo by Todd Maisel

At a press conference July 6, Mayor Bill de Blasio promised to examine whether outdoor amusements like those in Coney Island can resume safely.

“The state rules have been very smart as we open in phases to avoid things that have too much closeness,” the mayor said. “Amusement parks are in that category – the Wonder Wheel may be different and that’s a fair point. I love Coney Island and I want people there and we want to continue to keep Coney Island alive. We will pursue this with the state — maybe we will find an appropriate balance.”

Vourderis insists his park will hold a high standard of safety when it reopens. Ticket takers will stay behind plexiglass and each ride will receive a thorough wipe down between customers.

“We will insist on social distance, use hand sanitizer, clean our rides and we will control entry to the park by selling tickets before people enter and control the number of people,” Vourderis said. “We are safer than being on the beach and boardwalk.”

And it’s not just about business, according to Vourderis. A bit of summer normalcy, he believes, will be good for the city’s state of mind.

“Don’t you think the mental health of kids cooped up is essential? We relieve some stress with people dealing with the COVID situation,” he said.“Don’t you think the mental health of New Yorkers is essential – going out for a ride, fresh air, sunshine, essential for mental health? We do that here.”

This story first appeared on AMNY.com.