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Coney Island's Astroland joins the theme park graveyard

By Robert Niles
Published: September 8, 2008 at 7:42 PM
I know that I am late on this, and, frankly, I don't have much to say about the specific situation. But I thought that I should note the closing of Astroland at Coney Island in New York.

For people who are not from and have not visited New York, "Coney Island" is not a single amusement park, a la Disneyland or Cedar Point, but a boardwalk district that over the years has included several separately-ticketed parks and attractions. Astroland, which opened in 1962, was one of the more popular, home to the historic Cyclone roller coaster. The coaster will remain open, as it is a landmark operated by the city. For that matter, the investment company which owns the land the park sits on says that it will bring new rides to the park site next year, so there will be something operating there.

But it won't be Astroland. Granted, this was not a popular park, at least not when compared with those from Six Flags and Cedar Fair, much less Disney and Universal. It wasn't among the most-visited theme parks in the country, and its attendance never was large enough to merit being including in the park listings on this site. I've visited New York several times since I started Theme Park Insider back in 1999, and I've never had any desire to go see Astroland, or anything else at Coney Island. Yeah, a lot of people older than I feel nostalgic about the place, but, to me, there's just so much more I'd rather see when I'm in New York. And I'm a professional amusement park fan. ;-) That doesn't say much good about what Coney Island has become, IMO.

Astroland's hardly alone. Many parks lie in the amusement graveyard: Opryland, Boardwalk and Baseball, Busch Gardens L.A., just to cite a few I once visited. And many folks seem ready to consign Hard Rock Park to that list. Why does a theme park die? Let me count the ways:

1) Lack of capital

This seems to have been Astroland's problem. To make it in the theme park business, it's best if you own your land, as well as lot of commercial land around your park and have enough bucks in the bank to run the place despite a lean year... or three.

Theme park fans demand new attractions of a frequent basis. You'd better be prepared to invest in a major new attraction every three years or so, with minor new attractions and promotions (give-aways, discounts, festivals, etc.) to keep the turnstiles moving in other years. This business can make companies rich. But, as the saying goes, you have to spend money to make money.

2) Zoning

Having land to expand won't help you if your local government won't let you do it. Why do you think Walt Disney was so keen to get the Florida legislature to create the Reedy Creek Improvement District and place it under Disney control? Ask a fan of Six Flags New England. I worry for SeaWorld San Diego in this regard. That park could be putting through another million-plus visitors a year if it had a couple of B&M coasters (Kraken? Griffom?), but local authorities long have clamped down on any development that they see as straying from a vision of the park as purely an educational center.

3) Bored or indifferent owners

Hmm, do we want a theme park, or a shopping mall? (Goodbye, Opryland.) A theme park, or a larger brewery? (Buh, bye, Busch Gardens L.A.) The end of Michael Eisner at Disney can be traced to the fury unleashed by Web-connected Disney fans when they saw that company becoming indifferent to its theme parks, in the mid-1990s. It's hard to raise the money to pay for expansion, and play politics with the local zoning board to approve it, if you don't care... or have another part of your business to which you'd rather attend.

I hope the folks in New York figure out something to do with Coney Island. But they need to find someone who cares enough to throw some money at Coney Island and stick with it over complaints from others, including politicians, business leaders and residents who'd rather not see things change, even if for the better. If that happens, maybe I'll make it down that way next time I'm in New York.

Readers' Opinions

From Robert Niles on September 8, 2008 at 7:55 PM
Ugh. My apologies to Ben James, who submitted a post on this that I missed as I was writing mine. I wanted to include this from his post, though:

Interesting to note, Thor [the investment company that owns the park's land] plans to break ground next year on a $1.5 billion complex including high-rise hotels and New York's first new roller coaster since the wooden Cyclone was built 75 years ago.
From Danny Melillo on September 9, 2008 at 4:57 AM
Ehh I'm from the Bronx so I knew about this. Tried to make it out once a year. The only rides really worth doing were Cyclone and Wonder-Wheel. And from what I understand those will remain open.
From Raul Araoz on September 9, 2008 at 11:22 AM
It is a sad day here in New York City. Granted, Astroland was an old run down park. However, it was the only real amusement park in the City. Otherwise, one has to go to Rye Playland upstate or Adventureland on Long Island and these are nothing special either. There was some excitement when Disney was eyeing the land on Coney Island before Thor bought the property. Unfortunately, that never came to pass and was unlikely in the end. Nevertheless, someone needs to come in to New York City or somewhere nearby to build a quality theme park. It is a shame that this great city doesn't have a quality park to call its own. A well-invested park that takes the weather into account could be a huge success in the biggest city in the country.
From Andy Guinigundo on September 9, 2008 at 2:07 PM
Still want to ride the Cyclone. Yes I love the mega-parks getting down to Disney World about once a year and squeezing my local Kings Island. But, there is something so historic and "Americana" about a ride like the Cyclone that draws me. Alas - haven't been yet...
From Tony Duda on September 9, 2008 at 4:33 PM
I grew up in NJ but never went to Coney Island so I don't have any deep feeling about Astroland ending. However, I spent many days at Palisades Park before it ended around 1970 and know that I missed going there. It was sort of local, kind of weird and a lot of fun for a kid. Palisades Park died because the land became so valuable it would have been super stupid for the owners not to sell. Astroland found a similar fate and I feel sorry for all the locals and kids who will miss it.
From Derek Potter on September 9, 2008 at 10:45 PM
Astroland was squeezed out by the company that bought the land a couple of years back. There has been an ongoing struggle between the city and Thor Equities, the owners of the Astroland real estate and everything around it. Plans for a overhauled amusement district have been floating around for quite a while. The plans look pretty good from an amusement standpoint, but the problem is that they involve the construction of a handful of high rise condos in the amusement district...which is zoned as non-residential. The city wants to keep whats left of the Coney Island amusement district (it used to be several times it's current size) intact, so the grand plans that Thor has for Coney Island have hit a few walls.

According to what I've read, the owners of Astroland wanted more than just a one year lease...a fair request given the nature of the amusement park business, but according to the owners, Thor Equities did not respond. Of course there are two versions of the story, but I can see why Thor would want them out. They were by far the most high profile, and most profitable amusement operation on Coney, and one that hindered the "progress" of the company.

While the renderings and ideas for the amusement district show promise, building condos would spell the beginning of the end of 120 years of Coney Island's amusement district. Once they get hooked on the money coming from those condos, they will get greedy and want more, and the amusements will be slowly squeezed out. It's the nature of the beast...always needing fed more and more money. Amusement parks can be a good investment and a money maker, but not nearly as profitable and safe as a bunch of condos.

While many theme park fans don't appreciate the significance of Coney Island because of it's current state, the fact remains that the theme/amusement industry was born and developed in, and copied several times from Coney Island. Without it's past success, there may have been no industry, no Disney, no Universal, no Busch, etc..etc. It's decline is a rather sad story, and it's appreciation came way too late. Coney will be a sad place next summer.

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