How Coney Island's renovators drew on the past to embrace the future
Business is booming at the once-dilapidated amusement park.
Mon, Jul 02, 2012 at 12:05 PM
When the Economic Development Corporation of New York City and Mayor Michael Bloomberg put out an open call accepting proposals for the renovation of Coney Island, it represented an opportunity to improve the crown jewel of the amusement park industry. The company that was ultimately chosen to take advantage of that opportunity was Central Amusement International.
"Coney Island to us represented the history of our industry," said Valerio Ferrari, president of Central Amusement International. "In the early 1900s, there were six manufacturers of amusement rides based in Coney Island. Some of the greatest products in our industry came from these manufacturers in Coney Island."
Not only was Coney Island a hotspot for the production of amusement park rides, but it was also a popular tourist destination that came to be known as "the people's playground." In recent decades, though, the area had fallen into a state of disrepair, which prompted the call for its renovation.
The 293-page proposal for revitalizing the area, put forth by Central Amusement and Zamperla, the company that owns Central Amusement, followed a simple formula that modernized the area while also embracing its history. Consistent with that mission, Central Amusement opened Coney Island's Luna Park in 2010, less than a year after winning the bid. Luna Park was the first amusement park to open in the area in past 40 years, opening on the former site of Astroland which had closed in 2008. In a symbolic nod to the past, the park was named after an amusement park that operated in Coney Island from 1903 until fires wiped out a majority of that park in the mid-1940s.
"Their specific proposal was a nice blend of honoring the history of Coney Island while developing it as a modern 21st-century amusement park,” Seth W. Pinsky, president of the New York City Economic Development Corporation, said in a 2010 New York Times article.
Central Amusement and Zamperla had plenty of experience producing amusement park rides. Zamperla has grown into one of the leading ride manufacturers in the world since being established in the 1960s. Their rides are most notably featured in Six Flags, Disney parks and many other amusement parks around the world.
However, it was a smart decision made several years earlier that set the company up to take advantage of the opportunity that Coney Island presented.
"We decided to do some vertical integration and go directly from the manufacturing of rides with Zamperla to the operation of rides and parks with Central Amusement," Ferrari said. "We had our first opportunity to work in this field in Central Park at the Wollman Rink, where along with the parks department, we opened Victorian Gardens in 2003."
The previous work with the city helped the company when they sent their proposal for the renovation of more than six acres of city-owned land in Coney Island. Central Amusement's winning bid gave the company ownership and the freedom to operate the site at Coney Island for the next 10 years, through 2020.
"We have a fantastic collaboration going on with the Economic Development Corporation of New York," Ferrari said. "It is rewarding and a pleasure because you can see yourself being a part of an area that is being run down for many years and you can see the change you are making with people and their lives."
To that end, Ferrari had just one word to describe winning the bid and the prospect of renovating Coney Island.
"It was exciting, very exciting," Ferrari said. "I worked at Astroland when I first came to the United States. Now Coney Island has that iconic appeal, but it is also very edgy as well."
That excitement, however, has been tested at times, most notably when the company began implementing the vision included in their proposal.
"In some cases, it has been challenging for us," Ferrari said. "Right now we are renovating the businesses on the boardwalk. We have kept a few of them and replaced some with new tenants. It has been a challenge to get people to understand and believe in our vision. We are looking forward to opening these new places so people can see our ideas."
Despite that controversy, the company has experienced immense success in the short time that Luna Park has been open. The park opened in 2010 with 19 rides and several more concessions areas. In 2011, the company took over the legendary Cyclone roller coaster, which is celebrating its 85th birthday on June 30, and opened the Scream Zone phase of their development which features several thrill rides includuing new roller-coasters and a go-kart track.
"This year, we are opening a new area with more attractions; next year, we will move and get new rides," Ferrari said. "Our goal is always to have new attractions."
That drive to always be innovative is a large factor behind the success of the new incarnation of Luna Park. In its first season, 450,000 visitors came to the park and rode the rides more than 1.7 million times. Attendance hit 640,000 visitors and more than 2 million riders in the second year of operation and the hope is to improve on those numbers this coming season.
Ferrari, however, believes the key to improving those numbers lies not only in the innovation the company strives for, but also in following the vision the company laid forth in their proposal. Following a vision is something that all businesses can benefit from, Ferrari said.
"Sometimes you need to challenge yourself because if you are waiting for all the right numbers to come in you never will get done," Ferrari said. "You need to step ahead. If you really believe your idea is good and it can happen you need to try because of your belief and vision."
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