Like a rollercoaster, New York City’s Coney Island has had a lengthy and bumpy history. The area transformed from a small farming community to a seaside vacation retreat in the 19th century with the introduction of rides and obscure, questionable attractions that entertained visitors. In the 1920s, thanks to the subway system, Coney Island became known as the “People’s Playground,” where the working class could head for a daycation.
Coney Island weathered the Great Depression, street crime, and redevelopment (NYC public official Robert Moses disliked its raunchy carnival atmosphere). Now both a neighborhood and destination in Brooklyn, it continues to entice visitors. Here are 11 facts about the iconic New York attraction.
1. We don’t know how Coney Island got its name.
One theory points to the Dutch word konijn, which translates to “rabbit.” In the 1600s, Dutch settlers who came across this stretch of coastal land reportedly saw that it had a large wild bunny population. Prior to the Dutch, the Lenape called it Narrioch, which meant “land without shadows.”
2. Coney Island once had an elephant-shaped hotel.
The Elephantine Colossus, also referred to as the Elephant Hotel, was built in 1884 on Surf Avenue near West 12th Street. It was designed by James Lafferty, the man behind New Jersey’s “Lucy the Elephant,” built in 1881.
The 12-story hotel had 31 rooms with organ-themed guest rooms, a tobacco store, and an observatory. As its novelty wore off, the Elephantine Colossus essentially became a brothel; according to the New York Historical Society, the old hotel’s seedy location inspired the phrase seeing the elephant as a euphemism for picking up local sex workers. Similar to the fate of other structures throughout Coney Island’s history, Elephantine Colossus succumbed to fire on September 27, 1896.
3. Coney Island has hosted a number of amusement parks throughout its history.
Sea Lion Park was Coney Island’s first attraction of its kind. Captain Paul Boyton, an aquatic showman, opened the park in 1895. Boyton is credited with introducing the concept of having the public pay per ride to see attractions like animal acts or his own stunts.
Two years later, entrepreneur George C. Tilyou opened Steeplechase Park, which became famous for its signature mechanical horse ride. Steeplechase Park also included more elaborate attractions, from a boat ride across the Grand Canals of Venice to the Human Roulette Wheel, in which riders would sit in the middle of a gigantic polished spinning disc.
After a fire in 1907 decimated half of Steeplechase Park, Tilyou had it rebuilt with new offerings. The park continued on after his death in 1914; it finally closed in 1964. A Tilyou family member sold the property to Fred Trump, the father of Donald Trump, in February 1965.
Fred Trump decided to have the park bulldozed. He intended to build a residential development, but was unable to do so. Instead, the leased property temporarily became an amusement park; today it’s Maimonides Park, where the minor league Brooklyn Cyclones baseball team plays. Another reminder of its past is the Parachute Jump, which was built from the 1939 New York World’s Fair and then purchased for Steeplechase Park.
One of the current parks in Coney Island is Luna Park, which first opened in 1903. Its name in part comes from a “Trip to the Moon,” a turn-of-the-century outer space-themed ride that became a Luna Park attraction.
Like its predecessor, Luna Park also was affected by a fire. It closed down two years after a 1944 blaze. The current version of Luna Park opened in May 2010—the new first amusement park in Coney Island in over 40 years. In the summer of 2022, Luna Park introduced two new rides to its roster: a family-friendly coaster called Tony’s Express and Leti’s Treasure, a massive log flume. It also welcomed in a 50-foot custom-designed Sky Chaser Ropes Course.
Other parks in Coney Island’s history include Dreamland Park, which went bankrupt in 1910 and burned down in 1911, and Astroland, which opened in 1962 and closed in 2008.
Another Coney Island longtime attraction is Deno’s Wonder Wheel Amusement Park, whose namesake is a 24-car, 150-foot-tall Ferris wheel that opened in 1920. The ride was originally called “Dip the Dip,” but got its current name when Denos D. Vourderis, a Greek immigrant, bought it in 1983. Vourderis often visited Coney Island and joked to his wife, Lula, about buying the Ferris wheel as a wedding present.
4. Coney Island introduced rollercoasters to the United States.
In June 1884, Coney Island welcomed not only its first ride, but also what’s considered to be the first roller coaster in the U.S. The Switchback Railway was invented by LaMarcus A. Thompson, an Ohio native and businessman.
Thompson was inspired by riding the Mauch Chuk Switchback Railway in Pennsylvania, which was built to transport coal but then became a tourist attraction.
The Switchback Railway Thompson created was 600 long, ran at 6 mph, and was powered by the use of gravity. It didn’t operate as coasters do today. Instead, the coaster's car was simply turned around and moved back to its starting spot.
5. The Coney Island Cyclone has been around for over nine decades.
The roller coaster was given landmark status in New York City in 1988, then added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1991. It’s located in the current Luna Park.
The ride remains a beloved Brooklyn institution: When the Cyclone opens each season, it's christened with a bottle filled with chocolate egg cream. Couples have gotten married while zooming around. In the summer of 1977, a Staten Island teenager named Richard Rodriguez set a record for spending 104 hours continuously riding the Cyclone.
6. A sideshow at Coney Island saved premature babies.
Coney Island has a history of sideshows, in which performers who were considered oddities would entertain audiences. Yet one show was more of a lifesaver—it provided a breakthrough in the medical care of premature babies in the U.S.
In 1903, a man named Dr. Martin Couney developed a public exhibit in Coney Island that drew crowds with a sign saying “Living Babies in Incubators.“ The setup involved rows of premature or weak babies in see-through glass cases, tended to by a team of doctors and nurses. Viewers were charged admission, but the parents didn't have to pay for their kids to receive care in the infantorium.
Couney also put on a similar showing at the 1933–34 Chicago World’s Fair. After that, the Windy City became the first city in the country to adopt a comprehensive health policy for premature babies.
At a time when obstetricians might have viewed premature babies as weaklings, Couney recognized they still had a fighting chance. Some spectators criticized the exhibit for being invasive—but anxious and hopeful parents continued to turn to Couney for help. (He wasn't the first to attempt such a method, however: In the late 18th century, French physicians also looked to incubator machines to counter declining birth rates.)
Couney might have been more of a showman than an actual physician. Though he claimed to have European medical credentials, there was no valid proof confirming he was really a doctor.
7. The Coney Island Mermaid debuted in the 1980s.
Coney Island has a procession that’s both seafaring and mythical in its pageantry. The annual Mermaid Parade was started by Coney Island USA, a nonprofit arts organization, in 1983. Its former artistic director, self-proclaimed “Mayor of Coney Island” Dick Zigun, is also credited with founding the parade.
Each parade is led by a Queen Mermaid and a King Neptune. New Yorkers can register to march in the parade wearing handmade costumes set by the parade’s guidelines and themes. Many often dress like they’re merchants or sea captains‚ and parade onlookers should note that they might see very much—or very little—detail in the often-revealing costumes.
8. The Mermaid Parade wasn’t Coney Island’s first parade.
Before the Coney Island Mermaid Parade, Coney Island had a Mardi Gras-style celebration. Running from 1903 until 1954, the Coney Island Mardi Gras parade was a weeklong event that was also quite a glittery and gaudy affair.
Instead of taking place before Lent, as others do, the Coney Island Mardi Gras Parade happened in September. According to the New York Daily News, though the Coney Island Mardi Gras Parade was raunchy in appearance—and over time had police coming in to break up hijinks—the driving factor behind its origin was more noble: The inaugural parade was a fundraiser to rebuild a charity home for pregnant girls and castoffs.
9. Coney Island hosts a famous hot dog eating contest ...
Nathan’s Famous has two locations within Coney Island, with the most well-known one placed along the boardwalk.
The legacy of this famous hot dog company begins with its namesake, Nathan Handwerker, a Polish immigrant. According to the story of Nathan’s, Handwerker, armed with $300 he borrowed from friends and his wife’s grandma's secret spice recipe, began a hot dog stand in Coney Island in 1916. He charged only a nickel.
Each July 4, Nathan’s hosts a Hot Dog Eating Contest. Competitive eaters have 10 minutes to consume and keep down the most entire hotdogs (including buns). Joey Chestnut continues to dominate the men’s division, while Miki Sudo has racked up numerous wins in the women’s. The winners of each division get a cash prize of $10,000.
Nathan’s Hot Dog Eating Contest proclaims that, according to legend, the culinary competition began as a friendly food competition on America’s Independence Day in 1916—though that’s really just some clever marketing.
10. ... and the hot dog has a long history at Coney Island.
While Nathan’s is prominent in Coney Island, Handwerker wasn’t the first vendor to come up with this culinary fixture.
Though the history of hot dogs is debated, some credit Charles Feltman, a German immigrant and baker, for making it possible to consume frankfurter sausages more conveniently on a long-sliced bun. Feltman’s “Coney Island Red Hots” became hot with customers at his Feltman’s Ocean Pavilion. By the 1920s, Feltman’s was selling up to 40,000 hot dogs each day.
Handwerker was originally a Feltman’s employee. He quit his job there in 1916 and set up his rival hotdog shop. Sadly, Feltman’s story took a different turn from Nathan’s; the shop closed its doors in 1954. Two brothers, Michael and Joe Quinn, decided to resurrect the brand in 2015 in honor of their late brother, Jimmy, who died in the 9/11 attack on the World Trade Center. Today, frankfurter fans can purchase Feltman’s hot dogs online or grab some from a grocery store.
11. Coney Island has an aquarium.
The New York Aquarium is the oldest continually operating aquarium in the U.S. It was based in Lower Manhattan, in the Battery’s Castle Clinton, from 1896 until 1941, then relocated to Coney Island in 1957. Oddly, a penguin was stolen from the facility in 1965.
In 2012, Hurricane Sandy hit the aquarium hard; it fully reopened in July 2022 after extensive repairs.