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Coney Island

Wonder Wheel at Coney Island Fog over Luna Park at Coney Island Foggy boardwalk at Coney Island Swings in Luna Park at Coney Island View of Luna Park from the top of the swings

New York City is filled with magical experiences for kids, from the simple joy of riding the subway or the tram, to the more outsize adventures of peering down on the cityscape from great heights or spinning around in a carousel at the foot of one of the world’s more recognizable bridges. But putting yourself in a child’s shoes and frame of mind, it’s hard to imagine much topping the heady mix of joy and thrills to be found at Coney Island. Sand and surf, rides and people watching, hot dogs and pizza and gelato – Coney Island has it all. We took our daughter to Coney Island for the first time late last fall, when we guessed she’d finally be tall enough to ride at least a few of the rides (she was 3.5 years old then), and it’s not an exaggeration to say she had one of the best afternoons of her whole life. We’ve been back this spring and summer, bringing along my in-laws in April for my father-in-law’s first visit to Coney Island in nearly 60 years.  There’s something about the mix of history, nostalgia, and outright fun at Coney Island that makes it appeal to all ages. It truly is a quintessentially New York experience.

Den's Wonder Wheel Amusement Park at Coney Island Paul's Daughter on the Coney Island boardwalk Luna Park sign in Coney Island Deno's Wonder Wheel View from the top of the Wonder Wheel at Coney Island

We’ve spent most of our time during our visits in the two amusement parks located just behind the boardwalk. The larger of the two, Luna Park, has rides for thrill seekers of all ages, with ride ratings that range from “Mild Thrill” (like the very gentle Mermaid Parade boat ride) to “Extreme Thrill” (like the Thunderbolt roller coaster). The rides are broken into several sections over quite a distance, starting with the Cyclone roller coaster on the east end, followed by the bulk of the rides in the Luna Park section next to that, and proceeding to the Scream Zone (all rides for taller/older riders), the Thunderbolt roller coaster, and finally, the B&B Carousell on the very western end.

Inserted in the middle of this stretch is the second amusement park, called Deno’s Wonder Wheel Amusement Park, with its own set of rides (and its own, separate, ticketing system). For the most part, the rides at Deno’s are aimed at children, with the majority of available options being pretty gentle (though still plenty of fun; the Sea Serpent Roller Coaster is one of the more exciting exceptions). One option for the entire family is the landmarked Wonder Wheel, perfect for a ride that takes you far above the boardwalk, with views stretching out over Coney Island and all the way to the New York City skyline. Make sure to get one of the cars on the outer circle of the wheel for the best views! My daughter’s favorite rides at the moment are Lynn’s Trapeze and the Brooklyn Barge, both found in Luna Park, and my son loved the B&B Carousell when we rode it for the first time this past weekend (I loved learning that there were once over two dozen carousels at Coney Island and this is the very last one!).

Ticket from Zoltar at Coney Island Swings at Coney Island Dragon coaster and Cyclone at Coney Island Nathan's Hot Dogs at Coney Island

A few of the food choices at Coney Island are every bit as historic as some of the rides. Nathan’s Famous hot dogs have been served in the same spot at the corner of Surf and Stillwell Avenues since 1916 with a second Coney Island location on the boardwalk (Nathan’s is the home of New York’s annual 4th of July hot dog eating contest, and you can find Nathan’s franchises worldwide), and Totonno’s Pizzeria Napolitana has been in business since 1924. Lines and waits at both places can be long, especially in the summer, so we often go a bit off the beaten path for tacos at Doña Zita, just off the boardwalk on Bowery Street between Stilwell Avenue and W. 12th St. There you’ll find plenty of shaded picnic tables for enjoying your meal, and only a fraction of the crowds queuing for hot dogs at Nathan’s. Back on the boardwalk you can finish your meal with gelato from Coney’s Cones.

Coney Island nostalgia Thunderbolt at Coney Island Watching the Thunderbolt roller coaster

Fortified with lunch or dinner and ice cream, you might head back to the rides, walk across the beach to dip your toes in the ocean, or receive a fortune from Zoltar under the Wonder Wheel (anyone remember him from the Tom Hanks movie Big?). With so much to do at Coney Island we always seem to stay until well after nap time, heading home with tired, sticky, and sandy children. Smiles abound, though, and even though we didn’t manage to fit in everything we’d hoped, we know there’s always next time.

A few additional details:

  • Both amusement parks are open April-October. Operating hours on any given day are variable – be certain to check for the day you’re planning to visit (Luna Park, Deno’s Wonder Wheel). We’ve really preferred our visits in the spring and fall to the one we made last week in the height of summer – the temperature is pleasant instead of hot, and crowds are much smaller.
  • Getting there: we drive (and typically park at a parking lot on W. 12th Street between Neptune Avenue and Surf Avenue), but it’s easy to take the subway – the D, F, N, and Q trains all stop at Coney Island – Stillwell Avenue.
  • Tickets
  • Height requirements: There are a few rides in each park without height requirements as long as the child is accompanied by an adult, but children over 36″ tall will have many more rides available to them. At Luna Park, being taller than 42″ opens up a whole new world of rides – my daughter can’t wait!
  • Restrooms: In Deno’s Wonder Wheel Amusement Park you’ll find restrooms down under the Wonder Wheel. At Luna Park, look for the restrooms near the Air Race ride. Outside of the amusement parks you’ll find public restrooms on the boardwalk at regular intervals.
  • Don’t miss the Coney Art Walls, an outdoor museum of street art located just behind the boardwalk between at 3050 Stillwell Avenue.
  • The New York Aquarium, where a huge new exhibit on sharks just opened, is located just down the boardwalk from the amusement parks. We tried visiting last weekend and it was very crowded; we’ll try agin on a weekday.
  • The Brooklyn Cyclones, a minor league baseball team affiliated with the New York Mets, play at MCU Park near the carousel. We haven’t been to watch a game, but I’ve heard from friends that it’s a lot of fun.

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