The Coney Island history buff
Poet and artist Amanda Deutch works for the Coney Island History Project. She tells us about the New York beach’s fascinating past, including its iconic amusement park
I grew up in Manhattan, but was surrounded by the myths of Coney Island. My mother and grandmother grew up on Coney Island’s 29th Street, above Tommy’s Radio. Back in the 1940s and ’50s, the shop had the only TV in town and crowds would gather round it.
I remember them telling the story of Abe “Kid Twist” Reles, a Jewish gangster who died a mysterious death in 1941 at Coney Island’s Half Moon Hotel, just days before he was due to testify against the Mafia. I only heard parts of the story, but it all sounded so poetic, mysterious and magical.
When I got to work for the Coney Island History Project in 2008, it was a dream come true. I work at the free museum, where I give walking tours, show people around the exhibition centre, conduct oral history interviews and direct some of our educational outreach programmes. Every weekend after work, I ride the Wonder Wheel ferris wheel to relax – I call it my Zen therapy.
The now-deceased amusement parks – Dreamland, Astroland, Steeplechase and the old Luna Park – are central to Coney Island’s history, but you can still sense that magic at today’s parks. There’s an updated Luna Park, where the Cyclone wooden rollercoaster runs on the same site as in 1927, and Deno’s Wonder Wheel Amusement Park, which is still family-owned like the old parks. I’m not a ride buff or a sideshow obsessive, though – to me, rides like the Cyclone and the Wonder Wheel are simply exquisite structures.
They’re also part of a wider history that’s endlessly fascinating. When there were only a few hotels here in the early to mid 1800s, the poet Walt Whitman would come here for solitude, walking up the dunes and shouting Shakespeare and Homer into the surf. But it gradually developed, and the hotels and amusement parks tried to outdo each other.
One example was the Elephantine Colossus hotel, built in 1885, a 46m-tall elephant that was said to be the first man-made structure immigrants saw until it burned down in 1896. The rooms were in the elephant’s thighs and its eyes would light up – it was like something from a child’s imagination.
You can still feel that history today just by walking along the wooden boardwalk, smelling the sea breeze and taking in the sights – the handpainted signs at Paul’s Daughter clam bar, which has been there for 60 years and is classic Coney Island, or listening to musicians along the boardwalk playing everything from salsa to jazz and blues.
You can see a traditional freak show or win prizes at skeeball, a bowling-meets-amusement park game that rose to popularity in Coney Island. Another must is Nathan’s Famous, the legendary hot dog stand which opened in 1916, especially since the hot dog was invented in Coney Island. Around 1870, German immigrant Charles Feltman ran the splendid Feltman’s, which was then the largest restaurant in the world. He didn’t want to buy napkins, so wrapped his sausages in bread – and the rest is history.
Feltman’s is gone, like the bathhouses where Houdini practised his escape acts, but the sense of things happening is still here. It has always been somewhere where all walks of life can come – black, white, rich, poor – and just enjoy taking it all in.
The Tivoli gardener
Tom Knudsen is the head gardener at Copenhagen’s Tivoli Gardens, which celebrates its 170th anniversary this month. He says Tivoli’s magic goes beyond the rides
I’ve been working here since 2004 and it’s amazing to be part of something that’s such a big part of Copenhagen life. And it’s not just Copenhagen – Tivoli Gardens are a national symbol of Denmark and known throughout the world. I think lots of Danes feel that in some sense they own part of it.
The Gardens take up 82,000m2 in the centre of Copenhagen and we have 14 gardeners and between us we plant a lot of bulbs, around 100,000 tulips every autumn, which bloom from the end of the April to the end of May. We close for two and a half weeks on the third Saturday of September to prepare for Halloween, which involves around 20,000 pumpkins.
Tivoli’s founder, Georg Carstensen, said Tivoli will never be finished and that inspires us. Even after 170 years, Tivoli is always developing, expanding and growing in different ways. From a horticultural point of view, we can have far greater variety throughout the year than in the past because nurseries have developed new ways of growing plants.
The Tivoli Flower Show [which takes place on 25 August this year] is a highlight of the summer. We get 30 to 35 of the best floral decorators in Scandinavia to compete for the prize – they start at 8am, three hours before the park opens, and every year they’re set a different challenge. I can’t give much away but this year’s competition will involve models, and lots of movement and colour.
The key thing about Tivoli is that sense of creating another world, one right in the heart of the city. Of course some people come here for the rides, but many others buy season passes and just come here to relax in a beautiful environment. It’s our job to keep it that way.
The Disney World record-holders
Shane Lindsay and Ted Tamburo, authors of the Parkeology blog, created and completed the WDW47 challenge – a daredevil attempt to ride all 47 rides at Orlando’s Walt Disney World in one day
I went to Walt Disney World in Florida every year as a child and became obsessed. I now live close to the parks and I’d be lying if I said Walt Disney World wasn’t a major reason for moving. Now I go to the parks around 100 times a year; I’d say I’ve been 800 to 900 times in total.
I had this idea of going on every Disney ride in a single day for a long time. As a child, our family wouldn’t have much time at the parks and I’d obsess for ages over how to maximise my time there. WDW47 required a lot of planning, perhaps three months in total. I don’t need a map, of course, but I needed to research operating times, predict crowd sizes, and think carefully about distances and park transportation.
I’d never met Ted, but we had a long friendship from theme park forums online – it’s surprising it took us this long to meet in person. We were confident we could do it, but we knew it would hinge on luck. Bad weather or big crowds could easily derail us. Unfortunately a late-night torrential downpour resulted in two rides being closed. We managed 45 rides and did three extra before closing time to prove we would have done it.
I love doing silly stuff so when Shane told me about WDW47 I thought it was so insanely stupid, in the best possible way, of course. Going with Shane was the first time I’d been with an equal, a nutcase like myself who knows everything there is to know about Walt Disney World. There were lots of in-jokes.
I know this sounds silly, but it was physically – and quite possibly mentally – the hardest thing I’ve done in my life. There were long stretches of sprinting, it was very hot and I fractured my toe about midway through.
At one critical moment – when we had to get from the Finding Nemo ride to Test Track in seven minutes – I was severely dehydrated, my foot was killing me and I felt totally defeated, like I would have to go home and tell my wife and daughter I’d failed. But I was somehow able to push on through.
Now I’ve got my energy back I want to go bigger. We’re talking about doing all the Disney rides in the US in one day. But I’m also looking at the possibility of going to all the Disney parks in the world – Japan, China, Hong Kong, France and two in the US – in one calendar day. It might just work with the time changes.
The rollercoaster designer
Andreas Simonis is a designer at Gerstlauer, a German company that has designed and manufactured more than 50 rollercoasters in the past 15 years. He tells us about his design for The Smiler at Alton Towers, near Manchester, which has 14 inversions, the most in the world
It was my dream from childhood to design roller coasters. When I was young, I was too scared to go on roller coasters, but I was fascinated by these massive pieces of steel that were so intimidating.
I’ve been at Gerstlauer for three years, but have been lucky to work on a few record-breaking coasters. I designed the world’s steepest roller coaster – Takabisha at the Fuji-Q Highland park in Japan – which has a drop of 121o, a negative angle, and Veil of Dark at Tokyo’s Joypolis, the world’s only spinning coaster with an inversion.
We started on The Smiler in 2011, when Merlin [owners of Alton Towers] came to us for a roller coaster with the most loops in the world. It’s definitely special. The idea was that people can’t figure it out – you look at the track and there’s no way of telling where it goes. Even I had trouble when I rode it – it’s total confusion.
There’s a lot of planning behind that feeling. We work with computerised 3D models and it’s always about being as creative as you can within certain restrictions. At Alton Towers, for example, you have to keep below the treeline and they also have old trees you can’t cut down. And you have to think about the person riding – is there enough clearance between the tracks? Will the G-force be too much? The maximum G-force allowed in European law is 6Gs, and even then it’s only allowed for a fraction of a second. The Smiler hits 4.8Gs.
When it comes to testing something like The Smiler, we use crash test dummies filled with water. They weigh the same as humans, but we can empty the water and transport them easily. You test the ride empty and overloaded – a packed train runs faster than an empty one – and eliminate all safety concerns. Most of the harnesses and bars have two locking devices, in case one fails.
I rode The Smiler before the public – it was a thrill, but it was less “I designed this!” and more just enjoying the ride like a child. Hopefully that’s a good sign.
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