Coney Island's Astroland joins the theme park graveyard
Published: September 8, 2008 at 7:42 PM
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.
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.