Coney Island first enchanted day-tripping New Yorkers in the 1830s, and its sandy shores have been providing good old fashioned R&R to city inhabitants and visitors ever since. The “People’s Playground,” as it was called in the early 20th century, has been in the news of late due to the devastating effects of Hurricane Sandy and an ambitious redevelopment plan spearheaded by Mayor Michael Bloomberg, which many think will squeeze the character right out of the neighborhood. Despite these challenges, it’s still the de facto New York escape for those looking to ride some rides, eat some dogs and soak up the sun. But with so much to see, how to prioritize?
When you want to see the best the neighborhood has to offer, ask a local. We turned to Stanley “Stan” Fox, who began working in Coney Island as a 12-year-old in his family’s arcade and now volunteers at the Coney Island History Project’s free exhibition center a few steps off the boardwalk on West 12th Street. Fox steered us to the best of Coney Island, old and the new.
Deno’s Wonder Wheel Amusement Park
“They’ve built bigger, taller wheels, but they haven’t beat the Wonder Wheel as far as thrills,” says Fox of the official New York City landmark and Coney Island’s “most historic ride,” which dates back to 1920. It has roller coaster-like swinging cars as well as stationary cars for the squeamish. Also in the park is Spook-A-Rama, a classic dark ride which Fox describes as “scary enough for the adults but not too scary for the kids.” Operated by three generations of the Vourderis family since the 1980s, the park has 21 rides, 17 of which are kiddie rides, including a few that Fox say are “1950s classics made in Coney Island.” 1025 Boardwalk at W. 12th St., 718-372-2592, wonderwheel.com
Luna Park opened in 2010 on the site of the former Astroland amusement park and contains what many consider Coney Island’s highpoint: the world-famous Cyclone wooden roller coaster. The official NYC landmark built in 1927 impresses even longtimers like Fox, who says it’s a must-do. Of course there’s more to Luna Park than the Cyclone, and with 27 rides it can be hard to pick a favorite. Fox recommends “two of the newest high-tech rides”: Zamperla’s Wild Mouse-style coaster, which was re-themed “The Tickler” in homage to an old Coney Island ride, and the Air Race, which he says “lets you fly like a test pilot.” Check out Luna Park’s gate for some extra history; it pays tribute to the original Luna Park, which was open from 1903 to 1946. 1000 Surf Ave., 718-373-5862, lunaparknyc.com
Eldorado Bumper Cars
“The Eldorado is the first disco bumper car ride anywhere in the world, and its sound system is still the best,” says Fox. It opened in 1973 and its famous “Bump Your Ass Off” sign has called to visitors since 1983, but it’s the “beautiful bare bulb marquee” that attracts Fox. 1216 Surf Ave., 718-946-6642, facebook.com/EldoradoAutoSkooter
Miss Coney Island and Coney Island Always
“Who said you can’t get something good for a quarter? You still can in Coney Island,” says Fox. He recommends going to West 12th Street under the Wonder Wheel, where you’ll find Miss Coney Island the dancing doll (“25 cents to fall in love”) and Coney Island Always, a miniature amusement park behind glass, also a quarter. These old-fashioned arcade attractions are on a row with other classic games of skill including Skin the Wire and Feed the Clown. 3059 W. 12th St., no phone, twitter.com/MissConeyIsland
“Carrying on the tradition of Gregory & Paul’s, Paul’s Daughter has the best clams on the Boardwalk and a variety of other food,” says Fox, who has been a regular customer since he was a teenager. The 50-year-old family-owned stand is a local favorite, and like other boardwalk stores is now open daily (weather permitting) for the season. 1001 Boardwalk at W. 10th St., 718-449-4252, facebook.com/pages/Pauls-Daughter/137891982929286
“This is where it all began, in Coney Island,” says Fox of the circa 1916 stand on Surf Avenue that’s currently closed to repair damage cause by hurricane Sandy. The original stand “known worldwide for their hot dogs” plans to open by Memorial Day weekend and host its hot dog eating contest as usual on July 4. For now, the Nathan’s location on the Coney Island Boardwalk is open seven days a week. 1205 Boardwalk at W. 12St., 718-714-7207, nathansfamous.com
Ruby’s Bar and Grill
“Ruby’s is the best bar in Coney Island, where you can sit at the bar summer or winter and look out at the beach,” says Fox. “There’s nothing like it in the world!” Named after its founder Ruby Jacobs, who also has a local street named after him, it’s Coney Island’s oldest bar (circa 1985) and is family owned. Its historic location started out as Shifrin’s Hebrew National Deli in 1934 and is the only place in Coney Island where you can still walk “under the boardwalk,” as the ceiling was made from salvaged 1920s Boardwalk planks. 1213 Boardwalk between Stillwell Ave. and W. 12th St., 718-975-7829, rubysbar.com
What’s a trip to the beach without candy? “You can smell the jelly apples, cotton candy and marshmallow treats from a block away. All of the candy is homemade, not pre-packaged,” Fox says of Coney Island’s oldest candy store situated next door to Nathan’s Famous. Prepare to travel back in time at this small storefront vending candy apples, giant lollipops, cotton candy, ice cream and the like. The store is open daily year round and also does mail order. 1318 Surf Ave., 718-372-0302, candytreats.com
A note on hours: All of Coney Island ‘s legendary seaside rides and amusements opened as usual for the 2013 season on Palm Sunday and are on a weekend schedule until after Memorial Day. A few Sandy-damaged attractions—the New York Aquarium and the Coney Island Sideshow—will re-open by Memorial Day weekend, which is when the antique B&B Carousell is also slated to debut in its new home in Steeplechase Plaza.