NYC's Coney Island hopes for rebound after Sandy
NEW YORK (AP) — At the beginning of each tourist season, the entrepreneurs who pitch the thrill rides, hot dogs, sideshows and souvenirs at gritty Coney Island gather along its famous boardwalk to pray for two things: good weather and large crowds.
Never have they prayed harder than now.
Five months after Superstorm Sandy's surge swamped New York City's most storied beach destination, many businesses are pinning their hopes on a strong season to help them make up for the hundreds of thousands of dollars they have spent to get back up and running.
"We're almost dead, but we're open," said D.J. Vourderis, whose family owns and operates Deno's Famous Wonder Wheel Amusement Park. "We've built it; now we're just waiting for them to come."
Vourderis logged 92 hours the week leading up to Palm Sunday, when Brooklyn Borough President Marty Markowitz smashed a bottle of egg cream on the famous Cyclone roller coaster to officially christen the new season at Coney Island — not really an island, but an American institution on a peninsula where, at the turn of the 20th century, it became one of the country's largest and most popular amusement areas.
The late October storm ravaged Vourderis' business, and he was forced to replace all the corroded relays, circuits, breakers and wiring on the Ferris wheel. The family has borrowed to stay afloat and is about $500,000 in the red after paying for the repairs to the iconic 1920 Wonder Wheel, replacing 24 new bumper cars and redesigning the entire inside of the Spook-A-Rama ride, which was waterlogged.
The boardwalk itself was left largely unscathed — but storm surge below the wooden planks flooded storage areas used by the Wonder Wheel park, with water reaching as high as 5 feet in some places, submerging equipment stowed away during the off season. The Wonder Wheel, like other seasonal businesses, was already due to close around the time of the Oct. 29 storm, so the time off was spent making repairs.
"It's going to take years to get us back to where we were," said Vourderis, standing over hundreds of mint-green quarters that were oxidized so severely that banks won't accept them without first having them cleaned in bleach. "I'm trying to look at the glass half full."
Some Coney Island staples that have been shut since the hurricane have no choice. The flagship Nathan's Famous hot dog stand won't reopen until Memorial Day. The New York Aquarium will reopen, only partially, in late spring. And the Brooklyn Cyclones baseball team is set for its June 18 home opener, though it's unclear whether its damaged field will be replaced with sod or artificial turf.
Gordon Lee's Eldorado Auto Skooter on Surf Avenue has an arcade room with nearly 40 percent fewer arcade games, after salt water ruined much of the machinery.
"I'm functional at this point," said Lee, demonstrating a metal coin wrapper that can no longer turn because its bearings have seized from corrosion. "Look, I'm open and operational. Am I 100 percent operational? No."
Lee has sunk about $100,000 of his savings into recuperating the arcade, buying new machinery and replacing 30 new bumper cars.
"We're open; we're on schedule," he said. "Now we just need people to start coming."
Nearly 11 million people flocked to Coney Island Beach last year between Memorial Day and Labor Day, according to city figures. Many attended well-known attractions, like the Nathan's Famous July 4 International Hot Dog-Eating Contest. And most of Coney Island's boardwalk bars, shops and restaurants are now open to sell cold beers, tchotchkes and fried clams to tourists and New York's most quirky characters alike.
But the strongmen and sword swallowers who perform at the Coney Island Circus Sideshow will be out of work until May 24, when owner Dick Zigun is able to open the first floor of the landmark building that houses it as well as a bar, gift shop and dressing room destroyed by Sandy.
After tallying $400,000 in damage from Sandy, Zigun's nonprofit Coney Island USA is hard-pressed to pay for this summer's Mermaid Parade, an annual gathering of more than 1,500 people marching in wacky — and often revealing — costumes to celebrate the kooky seaside culture of Coney Island.
"We're moving forward, even though it's questionable," Zigun said, adding that weather will be the deciding factor. "We are savvy Coney Island carneys; once we reopen, we are damn good at making money."
Luna Park amusement park says its nearly 30 rides are all open, including the wooden Cyclone Rollercoaster. Last year, 759,000 people visited Luna Park, 120,000 more than in 2011, according to the city.
Despite this recovery, many in the neighborhood surrounding the boardwalk are still looking for rebirth.
The Coney Island library is closed, and the post office is only partially open. More than two dozen unsalvageable buildings in or around Coney Island still need to be demolished, said Chuck Reichenthal, the district manager of the area's community board. With an unclear timeline for demolition, he said, air quality during the beach season could be an issue.
Still, he said, the fact that so much of the amusement park has opened already is an encouraging sign that Coney Island businesses will rebound and cover their losses.
"I am trying to be even more than cautiously optimistic and just be outwardly optimistic," he said. "The beach is ready; we don't find any more drifting materials from the Rockaways or other places. The ocean appears clean. Hey, let's have fun."