Arts and Entertainment | Style

More to Coney Island than run-down rides and littered sand

Many New Yorkers think of Coney Island as a relic of the past—an ancient amusement park of the post-Civil War era with little to offer besides a rundown beach, a rickety wooden roller coaster, and an overrated hot dog stand.

This Saturday, April 16 marks the year-old Luna Park’s 2011 season opening, for which the park will debut four new Scream Zone rides. Such developments indicate that Coney Island still has relevance today.

Named by 17th-century Dutch colonists as Conyne Eylandt (“Rabbit Island”) for its abundant rabbit population, Coney Island is indeed a fall down the rabbit hole, with plenty of quirky Alice in Wonderland-esque surprises that make good attempt to win over the most skeptical New Yorkers.

After spending the Fourth of July before my senior year of high school at Coney Island, I was charmed into going back for repeated visits. Coney Island turned out to be more than the last stop of the Q train.

The Luna Park rides may not be Six Flags-caliber thrills, but they guarantee the adrenaline rush. A personal favorite, “The Tickler” is a roller coaster that took me and my friends on dizzying turns and steep drops, all while rotating. I had the crazy idea of filming the entire experience with the camera clutched in my hand. Needless to say, it was a blurry and scream-filled disaster, though it made for a good laugh afterward. Luna Park classifies “The Tickler” as a high-thrill ride.

Those looking for a more relaxed experience can opt to ride rotating hot air balloons on the moderate thrill “Balloon Expedition.” Leave the turning and dipping mild thrill ride “Beach Shack” for the kiddies, though.

A Coney Island visit would not be complete without rides on the classic “Cyclone” and “Wonder Wheel.” Yes, the “Cyclone” was constructed around the time your grandparents were born and is one of the oldest roller coasters in the nation. And yes, the ancient construction makes horribly suspicious rattling sounds as the carts shoot along the wooden tracks, looping and turning at up to 60 miles per hour. But thrill-seekers shouldn’t let that stop them from experiencing this New York City landmark. The highest peak of the “Cyclone” stands at 85 feet, affording a breathtaking view of the beach and shoreline—if you manage to keep your eyes open, that is.

The majestic 150-foot-tall “Wonder Wheel” is a better bet for more complete views of Coney Island and the Atlantic Ocean, with both stationary and rocking cars. Tip: Always choose the rocking cars, which slide along the track. I felt like I was falling into the ocean—but in a good way.

If the amusement park rides aren’t enough to fool visitors into thinking they’re out of the city, the three-mile beach and boardwalk wipe away any doubt. The spot’s rolling waves and white sands were what made Coney Island the ideal vacation getaway for urban elites in the olden days. Admittedly, the water was chilly even when me visited on the Fourth of July, but that didn’t stop my friends and I from alternating between taking dips in the ocean and lying on the beach to get our tan on.

Icy temperatures are not a challenge for members of the recreational winter bathing organization Coney Island Polar Bear Club, who take weekly plunges into the Atlantic from November to April. At least they don’t have to navigate the crowds (read: tourists) that swarm the beach as summer nears.

Lining the beach, the bustling Riegelmann Boardwalk is a huge part of Coney Island’s charm. It is dotted with dozens of restaurants, bars, and food stalls. Sip on piña coladas out of supersized, neon-colored cups with oversized sunglasses on and pretend to be in Hawaii. Wearing bold Hawaiian prints would be totally acceptable here, too.

Strolling down the wooden slats of the boardwalk, munch on Nathan’s Famous hot dogs with sauerkraut and crinkle-cut French fries with bacon and cheese. Overrated? Perhaps. A deliciously gooey, guiltily caloric feast? Definitely. Though imagining the annual Nathan’s Famous Fourth of July International Hot Dog Eating Contest—think 70 hot dogs in 10 minutes—always makes me feel better.

Coney Island has more obscure charm, too. Take, for example, the “Congress of Curious Peoples,” a 10-day festival celebrating the best of bizarre personalities until Sunday, April 17. Koko the Killer Clown, the bearded lady Jennifer Miller, and other characters have already made appearances. Guesses are that it will only get more curious and more curious. No stranger to the oddball and the bohemian, Coney Island is also home to the now-demised “Shoot the Freak” and the annual “Mermaid Parade.”

Offering the laid-back vibe of the beach and boardwalk right along with the eccentricity of the thriller rides and offbeat events, Coney Island is both uncharacteristically and quintessentially New York. Once you fall in love with Coney Island, it’s down the rabbit hole, and there’s no turning back.

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