Coney Island had its humble beginnings as an apple orchard named Parker's Grove in the 1870s, which proved more lucrative hosting various society outings than cultivating apples. Once it was sold to a riverboat company, one of Coney's most enchanting elements became patrons' trips via steamboat. Park-goers embarked upon riverboats at the Public Landing, paying 50 cents for a day's worth of activities. As Coney's Web site details, the Island Queen II, with its 4,000-person capacity, featured five decks, a ballroom, bar, cafeteria, squeal arcade (whatever that is), arcade games and souvenir stands.
The "beloved trademark of the park" was indeed a destination in and of itself, "plying the Ohio River with its calliope music drifting over the waters and into the hills." After the Island Queen's 1947 sinking, however, visitors solely took roads to reach the park, entering through the massive entrance gate evocative of a Bavarian triumphal arch. Owner George Schott had the gate constructed in 1924, along with two more of the park's most well-known features the following year: Sunlite Pool and Moonlite Gardens.
Sunlite, the world's largest re-circulating pool, is consistently packed throughout the summer even today -- just ask their lifeguards.
Moonlite Gardens & Pavilion was constructed by the Philadelphia Toboggan Company as an open-air dance hall and now hosts receptions, concerts and other events. The popularity of big bands and ballroom dancing prompted gradual upgrades to Moonlite, including its second floor and Southern plantation-style entrance building.
Architecturally speaking, Coney Island's charm lies in the combination of several factors. Firstly, there's its landscape design marked with winding paths and the occasional streetlamp, plentiful greenery and flora, as well as ponds, fountains and one big ol' lake named Como, where canoes and paddleboats are abundant on warm summer days.
Subtly intermingled into the landscape, however, are the roller coasters, rides, carousels and general diversions that put the good old-fashioned "amusement" in "amusement park." The fact that these small-scale rides appear to be interspersed almost accidentally with the surrounding landscape and winding paths gives the merging of nature and machinery a much more organic feel than one would expect.
Considering its now-quaint nature, it seems hard to believe that in the 1960s Coney Island was one of the five largest amusement parks in the country. In fact, old pictures reveal many likenesses to entertainment giants King's Island and Disneyland. This is not happenstance, as Walt Disney visited Coney in the 1950s to gain inspiration for his own park (he even cut the park a $1 check for "consulting services"). Most of Coney's rides were dismantled and moved north to a plot of land we now know as King's Island after the park's 1971 closure due to frequent flooding, spatial limitations and traffic issues. This might have been the end of the story, if not for the 1984 opening of Riverbend Music Center.
Rollercoaster jokes aside, Coney Island has had its fair share of ups and downs throughout the years. For some it symbolized a fantasyland of childhood innocence. Others, however, painfully recall its many years as a bastion of racial segregation (the park remained stubbornly segregated until 1955, the pool until 1961). In whatever way individuals remember its past, the park has survived for more than a century, and its future is shared by all.
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