(Rant updated, December 20th, at the bottom of the page)
the storm finally struck Coney's shores on July 29th, 2009. A mayor and city council that had already teamed to change the will of the people, re-write laws and give themselves the opportunity to run for third terms, united to rezone the historic amusement zone. With Astroland already dead and with crowds at their smallest levels in nearly a decade, the future of Coney Island seemed bleak. They still seem bleak because they are. Despite selling his recently acquired and dismantled Astroland lot to the city, Joe "full of" Sitt still owns various other smaller parcels of land throughout the amusement area. Those parcels and the historic buildings on them like the Henderson Music Hall, Shore Hotel and the Bank of Coney Island buildings are all in danger of being leveled. In their place, nothing. Nothing that is until Sitt flips (as he always does) the land to developers looking to turn Coney Island to Condos Island.
Those dark clouds however are hard to see through the silver lining's blinding light. While the city has been as negligent in Astroland's demise as Sitt, it has indeed followed through on promises to replace Astroland. That replacement was rushed into the old Astroland lot in just over three months by amusement rides manufacturing giant, Zamperla. Based in the small northern Italian city of Vicenza, the Zamperla family has been in the carnival entertainment industry for over 120 years and in the manufacturing industry for 50 years. They even have a 15 year history on Coney Island where they built the Zipper-like "Power Surge" ride for Carol Albert's Astroland.
In January of this year they were awarded a ten year contract by the barely re-elected Mayor to start from scratch in creating a new amusement park. Although Zamperla is a global leader in building rides, the contract caused a few to scratch their heads. Zamperla is not known for the large hyper coasters that the city has been touting in all of their artistic renderings of a revamped Coney Island. They're not known for super-sized rides of any kind. In fact, what they are known for locally is in building the summertime kiddie park, Victorian Gardens, on Central Park's Wollman Rink. For years the ice rink, a moneymaker during the winter months suffered from apathy when converted to a summertime roller rink. In 2003 Bloomberg hired Zamperla to transform the summer rink into a small collection of portable, family friendly rides. To their credit, the rides have been a hit, particularly with tourists.
Victorian Gardens would not work on Coney Island. Thankfully Zamperla went in a different direction. After winning their bid, Zamperla, their American division led by Valerio Ferrari, went on a building frenzy in February. The ground was bulldozed, new cables and pipes for electricity and plumbing were laid, and 19 new rides were built over the smoothly paved land at a cost of about 20 million dollars.
Thanks to his leadership and crews working 24/7, Ferrari did what was seemed impossible just six weeks ago. He took what was still a construction pit in mid April and had it ready to open for Memorial Day Weekend. He even brought back some of Coney's storied history by naming the new and improved Astroland, New Luna Park. Although not nearly as awe inspiring as the original Luna Park (replaced by Luna Park Housing in the early '50s) Zamperla did build an elaborate entrance reminiscent of the original. Other ties to the past include splashing the "Tillie" logo, a staple of old Steeplechase (razed by Fred Trump in 1966) to the new Luna Park. While using Steeplechase's old logo and reviving the Luna name alone will not make Zamperla's creation a great park in its own right, it is already an improvement over Astroland. The park is now cleaner, offers more space, better rides, and more lights. Unlike the Albert family (running their park since 1962) the Zamperla corporation has also been given the greenlight by the city to expand beyond their 3.5 acres for next season. With much more capital than the Alberts, Zamperla is better capable of creating something grand but it must also be noted that their niche has always been in smaller rides. In short, their addition is a definite improvement but still far from matching the greatness of previous parks.
It will still be another year, after Zamperla builds on their added land, before we can call the Zamperla experiment a success but they're off to a very good start. By then we'll also know what the city plans on doing with the rest of their land and what Sitt does to his historic buildings. Until then, the summer of 2010 looks to be Coney's most exciting one since Tillie's face was being featured on Steeplechase. Between New Luna Park on the east end (featuring of course the Cyclone which is still owned by Carol Albert and now has an Astroland sign on it!) and the Ringling Brothers Barnum & Bailey Circus on the west end, the amusement is now bigger than its been since the mid '60s. Even if the rezoning of that district makes these gains only temporary.*
UPDATE - December 20th, 2010: Thanks to New Luna Park, Coney Island experienced its biggest crowds since 1964. An amazing testament to what new rides and NOT new condos can do to revive the Electric Eden. Our thanks go to Zamperla and the city for bringing amusements back to the amusement district. Unfortunately, the news and good will since has not been as good. Zamperla and the city have spent the post-summer season looking to close and knock down current boardwalk bars and grills in favor of sitdown restaurants. The thought of replacing Ruby's and Cha Cha's with an Applebees or TGIFridays further illustrates the city's obsession with widespread gentrification.
It's not that there is no need for restaurants, but that they should not be built over the honkytonks. Especially with all the empty lots which surround the local businesses. Speaking of empty lots, Joe "full of" Sitt once again proved that he would not be done. He too was back in the news for making good on a promise to bulldoze and level the historic buildings on his property. In the process he has stolen more history and added to Coney's collection of empty lots. We wonder if he has chosen the Christmas season to add to his Grinch persona.