Coney Island: see it before it becomes Coney 2.0

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This iconic New York funpark has had a checkered past. With a significant facelift due to start nipping, tucking and prettying up this legendary spot in 2011, we thought we'd look back at its history - and why you should visit it right now.

New York's famous Coney Island, named by the Dutch for the wild rabbits (konijn) that once ran rampant here, became known as 'Sodom by the Sea' by the end of the 19th century, when it was infamous as a den for gamblers, hard drinkers, boxers, racers and other cheery sorts you wouldn't want to introduce to Mom.

In the early 1900s, the family era kicked in as amusement parks were built as diversions from the summer heat for a growing New York population. Its most famous, Luna Park, opened in 1903 – a dreamworld with live camels and elephants and 'rides to the moon' – all lit by over a million bulbs (not surprisingly, fire eventually took it down in 1946).

By the 1960s, Coney Island's pull had slipped and the 'hood became a sad, crime-ridden reminder of past glories. Despite a slow comeback in the 1980s and a few promising changes in recent years – including the emergence of the wild Mermaid Parade, new carnival rides, a super new subway station, a minor-league baseball team (Brooklyn Cyclones) and the aquarium - much of it looks like the long-abandoned site of a Siberian carnival.

wonderwheelDerelict buildings now sit in a sea of weeds behind chain-link fences, right off the boardwalk.

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In 2005, real-estate developer Joseph Sitt (of Thor Equities) bought up 10 acres at the heart of Coney Island for $120 million, and released a controversial $1.5 billion plan to bring a Disney-style park (plus condos and shopping centers) to the area. Most locals worried about the condos it would bring to the boardwalk area, and the city backed up their concern.

In the economic downturn of 2008, Sitt decided to scale back his mega project and in late 2009, Sitt and Mayor Michael Bloomberg finally hammered out a deal that allowed the city to purchase 7 acres of Coney Island from Sitt (at $96 million) for the purpose of developing a year-round amusement district, though what exactly this entails remains uncertain.

nathansSo you may be wondering what there is to see there right now. US travel editor Robert Reid has a grab-bag of temptations that will send you boardwalk-bound:

  • The Brooklyn Cyclones play on the waterfront - a super place to catch baseball without the Yankees ticket price.
  • Shoot the Freak is not as freakish as it sounds - the 'freak' is only a guy with a shield and protective outfit. But you do get to shoot him with paint pellets. And you can watch for free. Right on the boardwalk with all the other freaks.
  • The aquarium has a toddler walrus!
  • The Cyclone is a great rollercoaster - even if a guy broke his neck and died on it a few years ago...
  • Brighton Beach is fun for a little Russian action. Real live Slavic signs. And 'spasibo' said when you hold open doors. People like the cheesy nightclubs, but Tatiana's is more low-key, affordable and tasty.
  • Be a spectator at the famous annual Nathan's Hot Dog Eating Contest, with hot dogs supplied by the iconic Nathan's. People take it very seriously - it's even televised on ESPN!