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In Coney Island, The Wonder Wheel Spins Again

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Visitors leave the Wonder Wheel ride after the re-opening of Coney Island's amusement parks on Friday.
John Minchillo, AP

Visitors leave the Wonder Wheel ride after the re-opening of Coney Island's amusement parks on Friday.

Coney Island's eccentric orchestra is back: Roller coaster carts tick up, up, up and then plummet and swerve along winding tracks. Rides hum, buzz and creak to the beat of carnival music.

After a year of being shut down due to the pandemic, Coney Island's two amusement parks, Luna Park and Deno's Wonder Wheel Amusement Park, have reopened — at a third of their normal capacity.

At Deno's, kids and adults face off to see who can squirt water into the mouth of a clown fastest — and get a balloon to pop like a firecracker.

Emily Dobbins, 10, says this is her first time at an amusement park since the summer of 2019. Her favorite ride is the iconic Wonder Wheel. It's a 15-story Ferris wheel — but some of its carts are stationary and others shake and swing. She always picks the shaking carts and loves the views from the ride.

"I can actually see like the whole amusement park and it's really beautiful," Emily says.

The Wonder Wheel was actually built during the 1918 pandemic.

"It's the thing that makes us who we are. We're the family that runs the Wonder Wheel," says DJ Vourderis. His family has owned and operated Deno's Amusement Park since it opened over a century ago.

Vourderis has worried about losing his family's identity and closing down for good — he says Deno's has made virtually no money for the past year.

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"The financial hole that we're in is deep. And we have creditors knocking on the door," he says.

In Coney Island, the amusement parks and local businesses rely on each other — no visitors at the parks for the past year has meant less revenue for nearby shops.

Haim Haddad owns the Coney Island Beach Shop, a couple blocks from Deno's.

He usually has up to seven employees. "Last season I had only one employee," he says.

Haddad says the parks will bring more customers to his shop, especially if the weather is good. He still doesn't expect the kind of sales he used to see, just better numbers than in spring and summer 2020.

At Coney Island Brewery, Victoria Pitula, the assistant general manager, says she's already seeing more traffic and visitors.

Pitula has lived in Coney Island her entire life and says when the amusement park rides are open, they give the whole neighborhood a joyful, captivating energy.

"Just seeing them almost brought tears to my eyes. Like you can see the Thunderbolt is right behind us and we hear it like come by and the screams of people. That's what gives us energy here," she says.

Outside the Thunderbolt roller coaster, Gerald White watches riders get strapped in. He says his stomach is too weak for most of the rides, but he did grab some classic Coney Island food.

"I had some frog legs and some raw clams and a Corona," he says.

White came to Coney Island a lot as a kid and wanted to cheer the parks on. He says the crowds are small compared to normal but that's probably a good thing, for now.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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