Bright lights, boardwalks, hot dogs, Coney Island had us at hello. Growing up in Australia, it sounded like an amazing place, mentioned in Saturday morning cartoons like a mecca for kids. Sadly it’s not as pristine or exciting as an adult, but gladly not as seedy as ten years ago. The Coney Island of today is a quirky place, the closest beach to Manhattan, yet only a few hundred meters from housing projects. You could say it’s experiencing a renaissance with the opening of the Thunderbolt roller coaster, but in the age of iPads and Playstation 4s, it’s got its fair share of competition.
The modern Coney Island still has the freak shows; some would say that it’s the visitors and there is certainly no shortage of characters. Popping our Coney cherry on Memorial Day, it’s the unofficial start of summer. Several thousand New Yorkers and their kids are riding the subway out. It’s like nothing I’ve seen before. Instead of the standard silence and avoiding eye contact, the parents and children are chattering like parrots. People who would never look up from their book, tablet or in-depth study of the dirt on their shoes are engaging in random banter with strangers. Suddenly we’re all kids again on a train to the seaside.
The train disgorges its rumbling load directly across from the iconic Nathan’s Hot Dogs. The island isn’t really an island or an amusement park. It’s more like a district of operators, just like a regional fair. There are the big players, but then there are the mums and dads sideshows too. And there’s no shortage of carnies. It’s a strange amalgam of hot dogs, cotton candy, fried clams and sunscreen.
On the boardwalk, people walk, ride and roller skate their way to relaxation. Old Coney Island watches over them all in the form of the Parachute Drop, only a hulking frame now, but an iconic, stoic ambassador of the seaside, a gentle reminder of its roots in the British seaside culture. The jetty extending out to the sea is full of hopeful fishers. One lands a bizarre catch, a crab-like ray that looks like a beast from the Aliens movies.
The heart of modern Coney Island is the array of amusement rides and games. There’s the sketchy ball tossing games with the chance to win a poorly stitched copyright-infringing cartoon character plush toy, just waiting to have its poisonous, polystyrene guts spilled out of it during its first hug. There’s the haunted houses, the tilt-a-whirls, the big wheel and the most famous addition, the Cyclone, an old wooden roller coaster that rattles the bones and the nerves (more so out of its maintenance status). At the other end of the scale is the ultra new Thunderbolt, which is more on par with the kinds of rides you’d dfind at a Six Flags. Families can purchase all day wristbands or buy tickets on specific rides.
Back on the beach, the people of the five boroughs are desperately sunning their glow in the dark complexions, starved of light from the longest winter in the last twenty years. The morbidly obese dive between the minuscule waves, while families bond in the only place you can keep everyone away from digital appliances – the water.
But it’s not a trip to Coney Island without visiting Nathan’s Hot Dogs. For five minutes of my life, any gluten intolerances are ignored as my stomach rejoices and my organs cry. The line is never ending, but boy, it’s worth the wait. Two chili dogs, fluorescent yellow cheese, hot, soggy fries and the biggest takeaway beer you’ve ever seen! I will have to go to church to confess my enjoyment. Ah Coney Island, you’re as cheesy as your hot dogs, stale as your buns, but still as warm and bubbly as your beers.
Coney Island is a classic seaside town and New York’s beach playground back a hundred years ago. Now it’s an amusement park, beach and home to hot dogs and freakshows.
It is on a peninsula in the lower part of Brooklyn. The stretch of beaches include Brighton and Manhattan Beach.
Catch a D, F, N or Q MTA subway train and get out at the Coney Island station. From there it’s a two minute walk to the boardwalk.
For more info, visit the Coney Island site.