Coney Island has a lot to offer—food, the beach, baseball and, sometimes, mermaids, to name a few of its draws—but it made its bones as America’s playground with thrill rides and sideshows. If you’re looking for the classic Coney Island experience, that’s where to start. To help you make the most of your visit to the seaside district, we’ve picked out the best of those amusements.
834 Surf Ave., 718-373-5862
Think “Coney Island” and this roller coaster is likely the first image that comes to mind. Heck, think “roller coaster” and the Cyclone might be the first thing that comes to mind. The ride’s famous 85-foot first drop and harrowing barrage of 60-mile-per-hour twists and turns have inspired extreme reactions of either fanatical devotion or lifelong terror since 1927. Just ask the ride’s biggest enthusiasts—the fear that your car might fly off the track at any time is part of the fun. Riding in the front car affords riders the best view, while sitting in the rear gives the feeling of greater speed. Whether you ride or just watch (and listen to the screams), it’s a must-visit summertime destination.
West 16th Street and the Boardwalk, 718-373-5862
Much of the excitement in Coney Island in the past couple of years has centered on the Thunderbolt, the first custom-built roller coaster to be constructed on the grounds since the Cyclone back in 1927. The ride, which features 2,000 feet of steel track, a vertical lift (and subsequent vertical drop of some 115 feet), a 100-foot loop and a corkscrew, is a modern spin on the classic Coney Island coaster of the same name. It occupies the same patch of turf next to the boardwalk as the first Thunderbolt—the twisty, turny wooden roller coaster immortalized in the film Annie Hall. The original was shut down in 1982, after nearly 60 years of operation, and demolished in 2000.
1000 Surf Ave., 718-373-5862
The modern incarnation of Luna Park boasts such rides as the Tickler, a spinning Wild Mouse–style roller coaster featuring maddeningly tight turns; the speedy Air Race, which subjects riders to forces of four Gs—up to 25 percent more than a space shuttle launch would; and the Wild River log flume, with its 40-foot splash landing. More extreme thrill seekers may enjoy such rides as the Sling Shot (in which participants are shot into the air at 90 miles per hour). It’s classic Coney Island fun at a place that takes its name and aesthetic from one of the “Nickel Empire” parks of yore—the old Luna Park, which operated from 1903 until it was destroyed by fire in 1944. The crescent moon and pinwheel motif will look familiar to anyone who remembers the original. And while the rides cost money, it’s free to enter and poke around.
Deno’s Wonder Wheel Amusement Park
3059 Denos D. Vourderis Pl. (formerly W. 12th St.), 718-372-2592
When Constantinos Dionysios Vourderis—otherwise known as Deno—bought the Wonder Wheel in the early 1980s, he fulfilled a longtime promise to his wife: he'd vowed on more than one occasion to purchase the Ferris wheel for her as a wedding present (an oversize ring, if you will) so that everyone could see how much he loved her. And what a gift it was—the Wonder Wheel has actually stood next to the boardwalk even longer than the Cyclone, having been built way back in 1920. Riders have two options: the swinging red and blue cars, which appeal to the more adventurous, and the stationary white ones, for those who just want to enjoy the view. Deno has passed away, but the Vourderis family continues to run the 400,000-pound landmark and its attendant park, which boasts 16 kiddie rides and five (including the Wonder Wheel itself) for adults. Dennis, Deno’s son, has worked at the park since he was 9 and is already passing on the family business to his own kids. “My brother and I have our sons working here now,” he told us in the shadow of the ride that gives the park its name. “Third generation.” As for surprises at his venerable attraction, Deno has one tip that may prove especially valuable for visitors hanging out at the boardwalk, especially if they’re staying hydrated on a hot day: it only costs a quarter to use the restroom at the Wonder Wheel.
Coney Island Circus Sideshow
1208 Surf Ave., 718-372-5159
The Coney Island Circus Sideshow, also known as Sideshows by the Seashore, transports visitors to the old-time Coney Island of odd delights and freakish talents. Cast members like sword swallower Betty Bloomerz and your fire-eating, sword-juggling host, Ray Valenz, have a jaw-dropping effect on viewers as they (along with a procession of special guests) perform amazing—and sometimes stomach-churning—feats by the ocean.