A season at Coney Island—Memorial Day weekend through Labor Day—drew millions.
Many of them were there to ride the park's famed high-speed roller coasters.
The Flip-Flap Railroad, which opened in 1895, was the world's first looping roller coaster.
The only thing that held riders in their seats was centrifugal force. The dangerous whiplash
that many riders experienced on this ride forced Coney Island to shut it down. But improved
looping coasters became a mainstay of amusement parks.
Why was Coney Island a special place for turn-of-the-century Americans?
Coney Island was home to three giant amusement parks: Steeplechase Park, Luna Park,
and Dreamland. Teachers, secretaries, and shop clerks; immigrants, children, and factory
workers—saved up their pennies during the year for an outing to Coney Island.
By buying a combination ticket—25 attractions for 25 cents—visitors to Steeplechase Park
could live out many fantasies. Due to the popularity of horse-racing, one ride put visitors
in a jockey's seat. On eight parallel tracks, riders sat on mechanical horses and sped up or
slowed down, vying to be the first to pass the judge's stand at the end of the course. Visitors
could then imagine themselves on Italian gondolas along the canals of Venice. One of the memorable
experiences was "A Trip to the Moon." Sixty people could ride a simulated spaceship and view
imaginary moonscapes through the windows.
For the price of a ferry ticket, working people could imagine themselves on distant shores.
Luna Park attracted visitors with its 250,000 lights, exotic buildings, and costumed people.
Visitors could take in a mock Eskimo village (complete with sled dogs), a Japanese garden, or
street scene from New Delhi. The India exhibit featured chariots, trained elephants, soldiers, and dancers.
Visitors also came to Luna Park for its rides. Among the most successful was "Shoot the Chutes."
For ten cents, riders would climb aboard a boat which was pulled to the top of a hill and then
splashed down into a lagoon. One of the park's builders, Frederick Thompson, captured the essence
of the ideal amusement park experience when he proclaimed, "Everything must be different from
ordinary experience. What is presented to them must have life, action, motion, sensation,
surprise, shock, swiftness, or else comedy."
In writer O. Henry's story "The Lickpenny Lover," a millionaire proposes to a clerk. "Marry me,"
the wealthy suitor pleads. "After the European cities we will visit India and the ancient cities
there, and ride on elephants and see the wonderful temples...and the camel trains and chariot races
in Persia." The indignant clerk refuses him. The next day she explains to her co-worker that her
suitor was cheap, "He wanted me to marry him and go down to Coney Island for a wedding tour!"
Credits: Cy Young © Bettmann/Corbis; Roller Coaster © Culver Pictures;
Bumper cars © Getty Images; Luna Park at night © Bettmann/Corbis;
Shoot the chutes ride © Getty Images; O. Henry © Bettmann/Corbis.
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