Coney Island’s Roller Coaster Ride: As Brooklyn’s Amusement Mecca Opens, Operator Zamperla SPA Takes Stock

With three days to go until the traditional Palm Sunday opening of Luna Park at Coney Island, the temperature was just above freezing.

Alberto Zamperla, 60, president and chief executive of the Italian amusement park operator and ride provider Zamperla SPA, steered The Commercial Observer into the company’s warm, modest offices across from the landmark Cyclone roller coaster.

A central hallway was lined with newspaper clippings that recount the area’s history as a summer retreat and amusement park destination.

“Coney Island, that marvelous city of lath and burlap, should always be approached by the sea, as then, and then only, can the beauty of this ephemeral Venice be appreciated,” began an article published on August 15, 1908, in Scientific American. “Landward, the trains run through squalid neighborhoods, and past the back of everything. Its best foot is put forward toward the sea.”

Coney Island peaked before cars and planes allowed New Yorkers to easily escape the city heat far outside the five boroughs. Its decay during the second half of the 20th century is as mythic as its halcyon days. Its boardwalk and amusement area rivaled the squalor of surrounding neighborhoods. The seaside was, to put it kindly, down at the heels.

Alberto Zamperla (Credit: Billy Gray)

Alberto Zamperla (Credit: Billy Gray)

Efforts to revive the faded Coney Island accelerated a decade or so ago and culminated in April 2010, when the city chose Central Amusement International, of which Zamperla is the majority shareholder, to operate the 6.2 acres of land it owned between Surf Avenue and the Atlantic Ocean. Mr. Zamperla, surveying the landscape three years later, was pleased.

“We’ve really turned around Coney Island,” the jovial Mr. Zamperla said in his refined Italian accent. “We are saving Coney Island. And we are preserving Coney Island. But we’ve renewed it. That is the most important element.”

Luna Park opened in 2010, replacing Astroland, which closed following the 2008 season after 46 years as Coney Island’s decidedly unglamorous amusement nerve center. (The area’s pre-eminent rides, The Cyclone and Deno’s Wonder Wheel, operated separately from Astroland; Luna Park took over the wooden coaster in 2011. The Wonder Wheel is still independent.) It was named after Coney Island’s second theme district, which operated from 1903 through 1944.

C.A.I’s attempts to duplicate the original Luna Park’s majesty and cleanliness, however well-intentioned, stoked fears in many Coney Island loyalists that the park’s gritty charms would be replaced by a sterile Disneyland Brooklyn. Their anxiety erupted in 2006, when the developer Thor Equities bought 10 acres of neighborhood property—including Astroland—and proposed the construction of a gleaming new park, hotel and even time-share units. (Mr. Zamperla said he has no professional relationship with Thor or its founder and chief executive, Joe Sitt.)

To the measured relief of those partial to Coney Island’s timeworn funkiness, the city in 2009 paid $95.6 million for 6.9 acres of Thor’s parcel. Still, change was clearly afoot, and each new ride and boardwalk business eviction continues to be closely analyzed.

Mr. Zamperla understands this trepidation, but does not kowtow to it. “I’m working on amusement projects in Baghdad,” he said. “Do you think I’m afraid to do work here? This company works all over the world—Russia, China, Arab countries—and we always respect the people. It would be stupid for me to work against them. We try to understand the local feelings and culture, and just use our knowledge to make things safer and bring the best rides and innovations. We know how to do our job.”

Indeed, this is the only job Mr. Zamperla has ever known. He said his family has been in the amusement ride business since the mid-1800s, which coincides with Coney Island’s birth as a summertime escape. The company had provided rides to Astroland since its launch in 1962 and, he said, currently delivers more rides to Disney than any of its rivals. And while Zamperla’s rides appear in theme parks around the world, conformity is not the goal.

“I love Coney Island,” said Mr. Zamperla, who has owned a home in the city for 10 years. “And I love New York. I respect the philosophy and mentality here. I consider New York my home. I prefer it here.”

Laughing, he asked, “Are you aware of all the problems we have in Italy?”

Still, Mr. Zamperla’s reverence for the park and his adopted city’s history is not all-encompassing. Of particular concern to Coney Island purists—or at least those nostalgic for The Warriors-vintage Coney Island—is the boardwalk and the businesses lining it.

The so-called Coney Island Eight were an octet of modest boardwalk tenants put on the chopping block shortly after C.A.I. took over operations of the park. They included the beloved dive bar Cha Cha’s, which closed last month after relocating to Surf Avenue and sustaining damages during Superstorm Sandy, and Shoot the Freak, in which trigger-happy visitors trained a paint gun on a live human target. The game, maybe the finest representation of the antic Coney Island of old, was among the earliest victims of C.A.I.’s cleanup.

“How can you have something like that in this country in this century—shooting a human being?” Mr. Zamperla said when I asked him about the notorious amusement. “I cannot permit that.”

He said Shoot the Freak was one of the first things his company decided to do away with upon winning its 10-year contract and investing a current total of $35 million (Superstorm Sandy repairs excluded) in Coney Island’s rejuvenation.

Surviving boardwalk businesses include the fast food joint Paul’s Daughter, a noticeably spiffed-up Ruby’s bar and the boardwalk branch of Nathan’s. The original, 97-year-old Surf Avenue location of the hot dog shack is still closed for repairs needed after Sandy, but should reopen by Memorial Day.

On the subject of Sandy, Mr. Zamperla proudly pointed out that there was next to no structural damage, a testament to his company’s construction quality. But water damage was extensive, the storm surge coming not from the ocean but from Surf Avenue. “We were taken by surprise,” said Mr. Zamperla, who was in New York during the storm. “The enemy arrived from behind.”

Mr. Zamperla said Sandy caused around $10 million worth of damage. But the response to the storm was swift. “You know, we were able to build Luna Park in 100 days,” he said. “And as soon as Sandy passed, we already had a plan in place to be open on time.” Waterlogged mechanical systems were entirely replaced, and Mr. Zamperla emphasized that the rides are ready and secure.

“There were two important elements of the Sandy recovery,” he said. “First of all, make sure the park is safe. Secondly, show the people of New York that Coney Island is alive. Come back. It’s a fantastic place.”

Luna Park has had no trouble drawing visitors since opening three years ago. More than 640,000 people passed through during the 2011 season, a nearly 50 percent jump from 2010 and the biggest crowd since 1964. And while the area has been spruced up, Coney Island remains an affordable destination

Among this season’s new attractions is a spinning teacup water ride, a refurbished Spook-a-Rama haunted house and Place to BEach (capitalization intended), a Mexican restaurant and bar that replaces Beer Island. “We wanted to have something fresh,” Mr. Zamperla said of the Beer Island departure. “You can see that it’s an improvement.”

Also improved is the boardwalk itself. C.A.I. replaced much of the timeworn wood, although Mr. Zamperla said that, contrary to many reports, there are no plans to install concrete and plastic panels in place of wooden planks. The façades of the boardwalk businesses have been refined and given an almost old-timey veneer.

Meanwhile, despite a new ticket booth, the Cyclone looks more or less the same as ever. The 86-year-old roller coaster was deemed a New York City landmark in 1988, ensuring its survival as the surrounding park languished. But Luna Park has made some design changes to the famously rickety wooden coaster since it started operating it two years ago.

Indeed, Mr. Zamperla’s thoughts on the Cyclone’s rehabilitation could be read as a metaphor for Coney Island’s recent ride, the area’s adaptability and its unfurling rebirth.

“The last operators made the Cyclone rigid,” Mr. Zamperla said. “And a coaster has to be flexible. We are rebuilding and putting it back to the original way. I don’t know if you rode the Cyclone before we took over. It was too rough, too shaky. The ride has to be smooth. It can be fast, but without all this shakiness. We’re taking away all those bad parts. If the track wasn’t flexible, it created this friction. We can’t fix all the Cyclone’s problems in one shot unless we tear it down and rebuild. So every year, we’re changing and fixing some little part of the track.”

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