the urbanist

The Urbanist’s Guide to Coney Island

The scariest car on the Cyclone, the best time to hit the Sideshow and where to get a incognito Paloma.

Photo: Newsday RM/Getty Images/Newsday RM via Getty Images
Photo: Newsday RM/Getty Images/Newsday RM via Getty Images

It’s commonly understood that the best way to explore a new place is to go straight to the locals. Each week in the Urbanist, we take that wisdom one step further by seeking out not just locals but local experts — those who are especially well versed in their cities’ newest and most noteworthy scenes — to give us insider tips. This week, we asked Jonathan Anderson and Alex Delare, a.k.a. the History Couple, who give regular tours through the amusement park, for their recommendations on an ideal day (or night) at Coney Island.

Get a coffee at the Dunkin’ Donuts in the Stillwell Terminal.

There aren’t many places in the park to caffeinate. Starbucks is opening near the aquarium in the near future, but, as of now, that Dunkin’ is the best option.

Take the last car on the Cyclone.

Coney is split up into Luna Park and Deno’s Wonder Wheel Amusement Park. The bulk of the rides — which, by the way, rarely have lines longer than a half-hour, even in the middle of the day — are in Luna, so buy a day pass there and head straight to the Cyclone at the park’s entrance. It goes 60 miles per hour, really fast for an old coaster. If you like being very terrified, sit in the back row: Friends of ours have felt it literally jump off the rails.

Hold hands in the Tickler.

We love the Tickler. It’s based on a ride that was put into Luna before WWII, when it wasn’t socially acceptable to touch your partner in public. The idea was to stick men and women into this little cart and jumble them around. It’s the perfect dating ride still. Right next to the Tickler are Luna’s two new rides, both of which opened in June and both of which are very high thrill: Clockworkz, where you sit in a gondola at the end of a mechanical arm that swings around, and Atlantic Aviator, which is similar except you’re in a little swooping plane.

Don’t sleep on the Soarin’ Eagle.

If you walk west, you’ll find two really reliably fun coasters: the Soarin’ Eagle, which you ride on your stomach, and the Steeplechase, where you’re on a horse; a bell starts it, and then you lurch forward as you might on a living horse.

Illustration: MARK NERYS

Head over to the Wonder Wheel.

This is when you’ll have to exit Luna and go into Deno’s, which is a two-minute walk east. Deno’s has only five adult rides, including bumper cars and the Spook-a-Rama, where you’re pulled through a kind of dark, haunted house. We buy single-ride passes so we can just do the Wonder Wheel. It’s a classic — it opened in 1920 — and it’s just fun. There’s an outer circle and an inner circle; the outer-circle carriages stay put, but the inner-circle carriages are rickety and slide up and down, and it feels like you’re going to fall off backward.

Win a stuffed SpongeBob on Jones Walk.

The 270-foot strip between the Wonder Wheel and Surf Avenue is the last place in Coney where they have the classic carnival-barker-type guys standing outside their games screaming at you. They will practically come up to you, put the ball into your hand, and say, “Throw this.”

Walk north to Surf Avenue.

The last ride you should do is operated separately from either of the parks: the Eldorado bumper cars, which are only a half-block from Jones Walk. You’ll often find Coney Island locals and celebrities there, like Dick Zigun, Coney’s “unofficial mayor,” and Lola Star, a Rollerblading queen who has a shop in the area.

Get to the Sideshow early.

It’s two doors down from Eldorado. Go when it opens, at 1 p.m., so the performers still have lots of energy. It’s a classic sideshow style called a ten-in-one, which means you get ten acts for one $12 ticket. They tend to have a snake charmer, a contortionist, and a sword swallower. Once we saw a performer called Dr. Claw, who put fish hooks in his eyelids and then picked up a clock with them.

Then go to the Freak Bar.

It’s where all the performers hang out when they’re not performing. Strike up a conversation, because trust us: Every single one of them (this season, the cast includes Jelly Boy the Clown, Insectavora, and KooKoo the Birdgirl) is good for a chat.

Get a disguised Paloma by the beach.

Paul’s Daughter, a boardwalk bar that has seating out on the beach, has been around forever; a lot of the wait staff are family members of the original owners. Get fried calamari or a knish and then a Boardwalk Paloma to go: They open a San Pellegrino, pour a little out, pour some tequila into the can, put salt around the rim, and ram a lime in there. It looks like a regular soda, so you can walk around the park with it.

Use the bathroom at the Nathan’s on Surf Avenue.

The old bathhouse on the boardwalk has the most stalls, but it’s always mobbed. The public bathroom at Nathan’s is just as clean and easy to get to, but fewer people know about it. It’s fun to eat there, too: it has the old menu with fried frogs’ legs.

Or do the whole thing at night instead.

We sometimes like spending the day swimming at Brighton Beach, then walking over to Coney in the evening; the rides at Luna run till midnight on summer weekends. There are movies on the beach on some Fridays plus, of course, the famous fireworks at the Cyclones games. If you go to one of those, sit facing the Parachute Jump, which is a giant defunct ride; the fireworks go off at its base.

Then take a walk to the end of the pier.

The sounds are a little dim, so it feels like you’re watching a movie about Coney Island.

*This article appears in the August 5, 2019, issue of New York Magazine. Subscribe Now!

More Destinations

See All
The Urbanist’s Guide to Coney Island