Coney Island opened for the season on Saturday — one of those sunny, early spring days where it seemed reasonable to have some hope for the future. By 10:30 a.m., a line of people waited to get into Luna Park, the first of Coney’s two amusement areas to reopen; Deno’s Wonder Wheel will follow next week on Sunday, April 10th, with the traditional Blessing of the Rides.
The main attraction, as always, was the Cyclone, the increasingly creaky wooden rollercoaster which turns 95 this year. Two performers on stilts stalked down the street between the coaster and the Wonder Wheel; another, on a unicycle with a traffic-stopping yellow vest and red suspenders, whizzed by, as Brooklyn United, a marching band and dance team, warmed up.
Dick Zigun, the area's unofficial mayor, worked the crowd, wearing a top hat and a long black robe over what looked like shorts, and clutching an extra-large homemade wooden key to the amusement district. Zigun was ousted by Coney Island USA, the nonprofit he helped found, at the end of 2021, but wasn’t in the mood to discuss contentious divorces.
“We’ll talk about that another day,” he said. “We’re here today for sunshine and for rides.” More recently, Zigun has been hired in the short term as a consultant for Luna Park, he said. While the rezoning of Coney Island happened over 12 years ago, he noted he was excited to see Luna Park finally expand into the space that rezoning granted them, with new rides and other attractions planned for later this year. He’d be there, he said. “I’m always here.”
Brooklyn United, the incredibly tight group of drummers and dancers who even kicked off the Met Gala last year, fired up the crowd — Natasha Banks filmed them with her phone, beaming, “This is Coney Island, y’all!"
Banks has lived in Coney Island for 30 years, since 1992; her son is a member of the Coney Island Sharks, the youth football league which was one of three charities this year benefiting from the $20 admission tickets from opening day; the other two were Children of Promise and Operation H.O.O.D.
“We’re out here to support the other youth organizations and let the kids enjoy themselves for opening day,” Banks said. “It’s a beautiful thing.”
Nearby, Senator Chuck Schumer schmoozed the crowd, as a man wearing an extremely long and well-worn rat tail and mask lurked nearby. He was, he explained, an extremely TikTok famous rat named Buddy, a.k.a. Jonothon Lyons.
A swarm of elected officials took the stage, with Schumer alongside Alexandra Silversmith, the executive director of the Alliance for Coney Island and Alessandro Zamperla, the president and CEO of Central Amusement International Inc., which owns Luna Park. With only a few direct references to COVID, everyone agreed it had been a very long winter indeed.
During the earlier part of the pandemic, Coney Island took a hit as attractions were shut down for 18 months before reopening last year.
“When Coney Island is back, Brooklyn is back,” Schumer declaimed. “When Brooklyn is back, New York is back. And we urge people to come to Coney Island. Get on the train. It’s a nice subway ride here. Enjoy the beach. Enjoy the rides. Enjoy the food. It’s safe, it’s fun and it’s a very reasonably priced nice time for your family.”
State Senator Diane Savino performed the traditional egg cream blessing, breaking a bottle of the beverage over the front car of the Cyclone, the first female elected official to ever do so. Savino will retire this year after 18 years in office; she lightly skewered Sarah Blas, one of the people running to replace her, who was in the crowd. “She’s never ridden the Cyclone,” Savino told the audience, who groaned in response.
Brooklyn Seltzer began whipping up free chocolate and vanilla egg creams and handing them out, as the first 95 people to get in line boarded the Cyclone for free. Buddy the Rat slipped on his head and dropped to all fours as a woman patted his head, and two of the Coney Island Sharks hesitantly stepped on his tail, which squeaked like a dog toy. In a moment he was mobbed, Pied Piper-like, by 20 more kids, shrieking and squeaking him energetically.
The elected officials all piled onto the Cyclone together, which seemed unwise from a continuity of government perspective, but it was, at least, a ringing endorsement of their trust in the old rollercoaster.