Thursday, September 19, 2019

Coney Island As It Was In September 2019


Water has always played a part in Coney’s destiny.



- Coney Island's river landing.


It was the water of the Ohio that carried the Guiding Star and its first guests to “Ohio Grove, Coney Island of the West” in 1886. Those anxious to escape the noise and commotion of the Queen City had already been coming here for nearly two decades, though. To the dance hall, the bowling alley—to James Parker’s property and the apple orchard that he realized made more money as a rentable picnic grove than farmland.

The grove was so popular that two steamboat captains bought it from Parker and began ferrying passengers from the city to the shore. They first added “Coney Island” simply as a reference to the famed New York attraction, but ended up adopting the name as their own.

And it stuck.

- Coney's river gate. 


Coney followed the prototypical path of so many early American amusement parks—the ones that evolved from rural leisure areas into resorts while welcoming the latest tastes in entertainment and popular culture. As owners and management came and went, so did the first Island Queen—steaming along the Ohio River and bringing more and more guests to “America’s Finest Amusement Park.”

- The first Island Queen in 1906. Image via the Library of Congress.


In the eyes of many, the park had certainly deserved that self-imposed title when it first appeared in 1926. It had been just one year since the park had added a slew of thrilling rides and the second Island Queen began sailing on the Ohio. Their marquee attraction of the time, though, was one based around water.

- Vintage postcard of Sunlite Pool. Image via Pinterest.


Sunlite Pool was one of the world’s largest recirculating bodies of water when it opened in 1925. It's still one today. It helped further cement Coney Island’s status as a Cincinnati institution alongside the park’s thundering wooden roller coasters and midways lined by carnival barkers. But the water of the Ohio was still there, rising each Spring in the way it was known to do.

Sometimes it was just a nuisance.

Other times it was devastating.

Like in 1937 when water rose 28 feet above the park and consumed much of Downtown Cincinnati, as well as, several other communities between Pittsburgh and Cairo, Illinois.

- Flood marker within Coney Island.


Still, Coney Island persisted.

Come hell, high water, or the Great Depression, "America’s Finest Amusement Park" reopened right on schedule for 1938. And it seemingly maintained that fine reputation, so much so that Walt Disney himself visited in 1953 to gain some inspiration for the iconic park he would soon build—just two years before civil rights icon Marian Spencer lead the charge to desegregate Coney in 1955 (Sunlite Pool would not be integrated until 1961).

Crowds and new attractions kept coming. So did the river. Two replica steam locomotives began circumventing the park’s lake in 1963, just before another strong flood engulfed the park in the Spring of 1964.

- Coney Island's midway and Shooting Star roller coaster during the park's heyday. Image via Pinterest.


Times were changing. Walt Disney had seen to that when he revolutionized the amusement industry in 1955. He was about to do it again with a second, larger park in Florida.

Coney, on the other hand, was out of space.

Both for new rides and for more parking to accommodate the automobiles that had replaced the steamboats and streetcars. A proposed competitor loomed on the horizon, supposedly planned to spring up in nearby Northern Kentucky where the interstates converged. And the river—the river kept paying its annual Springtime visits. Coney’s owners looked for new investors who could potentially facilitate the dream of relocation.

- The park's picnic grove is named in honor of the institution's original name, Parker's Grove, while the shelters are named after defunct attractions such as the "Land of Oz."


Cincinnati’s Taft Broadcasting Corporation was interested in entering the amusement industry. They were one of many enterprising corporations and individuals across the United States who sought to replicate Disney’s success with destinations of their own. They completely purchased Coney Island in 1969.

- Historic view of Coney Island. Image via Pinterest.


Rather than rebuild Coney brick-for-brick, the broadcasters planned to open an entirely new resort north of the city, just off a relatively new interstate that offered easy automobile access to other population centers. Kings Mills, Ohio would see several of Coney’s rides, policies, staff, attractions, and traditions reborn on a grander and larger scale when Kings Island opened in 1972. With a full-service hotel, campground, golf courses, zoo, and state-of-the art amusement park (one stocked with brand new rides in addition to the classics that made the trip from Coney), this new park even featured an entire area themed in recognition of its historical predecessor. And the river by this new park never threatened a flood.

Much of what had remained at “Old Coney” met the wrecking ball, but not Sunlite Pool. It was far too big and expensive to replicate such an iconic attraction up north. So Taft kept it open. Even as their corporate ambitions led them to open new parks across the United States, Canada, and Australia—Sunlite’s water still provided a cool summer respite for swimmers on Cincinnati’s East Side.

- 1980s era view of Coney's Sunlite Pool. Image via Pinterest.


Over the ensuing years, Old Coney, received the occasional new attraction—a private tennis club, the reopening of its picnic grove, a Ferris wheel, and an outdoor amphitheater to serve as a summer home for touring musical acts, as well as, the Cincinnati Symphony and Pops Orchestras.

Taft, Kings Island, and the entire new chain of parks birthed from the inspiration of Old Coney, eventually went their own separate way. A man named Ronald Walker came to purchase Coney and he brought with him a handful of classic, small rides over the next few years in addition to a multi-million dollar renovation of Sunlite Pool. The river was still there, being dramatic once more in 1997, but Coney slowly grew back into a full fledged amusement park—although one much smaller than it had been in its heyday. Still, it was a fun and welcoming spot for families and guests who wanted to visit a place that wasn’t as corporate as Coney’s descendant up north.

- Plaque commemorating the 1997 flood within the park.


And for years, the combination of Sunlite Pool with a collection of carnival-style rides, classic games, live entertainment, and a few other attractions sprinkled in—seemed to work just fine, no matter how much the river acted up. Even when it did so again in 2018.

- Markings of various flood heights within the park over the years.


But then, in the Fall of 2019, Coney announced that it would be removing its rides at the end of the season. Water was the announced reason, the water in Sunlite Pool.

“All of our consumer research, all of our consumer feedback, and all of our in-park data shows that the vast majority of our guests come to Coney Island because of the fun they have while in the Sunlite Pool area.”

That’s what Park President Rob Schutter Jr. said in a press release which explained the park’s reasoning to focus further investment solely on its water attractions. A decision that would cause the layoff of 13 full-time and 272 seasonal positions, many of them occupied by passionate employees who had been there for years.

And so, I went to Coney Island to document how the park looked before all the rides disappeared.

- A magician performs on the Moonlite Gazebo Stage.

- Pedal boats on Lake Como.

- Boat dock, Lake Como.

- Moonlite Square Games of Skill.

- Moonlite Square Games of Skill.


- Scrambler.

- The Tempest.

- River Runner.

- Sign for the Flying Bobs.

- Lighting on the Dodgems.

- Wipe Out.

- Top Spin.

- Tilt-a-Whirl.

- Lighting fixture on Wipe Out.

- Rock-O-Plane

- Ferris Wheel.

- Freshly made corn dogs.


Back when I still worked in the amusement industry, I had heard a rumor from multiple sources. The story went that Coney was actively pursuing the construction of a wooden roller coaster from a modern manufacturer. The new medium sized ride would cater to both children and adults, rumbling “out-and-back” in classic fashion around the park’s lake.

- Rides on the shore of Lake Como.


Had it been built, it would’ve brought the historical park not just another attraction, but something that would’ve continued to harken back to Coney’s halcyon days and further cement its place as not just a local institution, but the kind of amusement park now rarely seen across the American landscape.

Sadly, it never came to be.

- Coney's historic Moonlite Gardens.


In his 2002 book, “Cincinnati’s Coney Island,” Charles J. Jacques Jr. wrote:

“Coney is like Cincinnati—a wonderful mixture of old and new. It has always been a place of abundant laughter. From the moment James Parker decided to rent his grove out for music, dancing, and other innocent amusement, the site has helped lift the spirit of Cincinnatians.”

- The park's museum.

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Footnotes:

  • In 1996, Ronald Walker purchased Americana/LeSourdsville Lake in Middletown, Ohio (just 5 years after he bought Coney Island), and created the Park River Corporation. Walker passed away in 1997 and by 2000, Americana was sold to Jerry Couch. The Middletown park was closed for 2000 and 2001, but reopened for a single season in 2002 before closing permanently. That park’s story and its demise was the first topic ever covered here on QC/D and it’s been covered again several times since
  • One of Coney’s marquee attractions was the Rock-O-Plane. The ride originally hailed from Americana/LeSourdsville Lake and was built by the Eyerly Aircraft Company. Eyerly had originally built devices that could train pilots before shifting to the amusement industry. Coney's Tempest also came from Americana.
  • Several QC/D articles over the years have dealt with exploring the abandoned remains of amusement parks across the American Midwest. You can find all those stories here
  • While the post here only briefly skims Coney’s vast history, ConeyIslandCentral.com features both extensive and thoughtful coverage of the park. It’s well worth visiting and has been authored by a longtime employee of the park and friend. A few years back, I shot his engagement photographs within Coney. 
  • A few of Kings Island’s current rides (as of this post) originated from Coney Island. They are the Scrambler, Monster, Log Flume (now known as "Race for Your Life Charlie Brown"), and Kiddy Whip (now known as "Linus’ Beetle Bugs"). The "Peanuts Off-Road Rally" also hailed from Coney, but has been modified extensively over the years. The Sky Ride, Tumblebug, and Rotor were relocated to Kings Island, but were eventually removed from the newer park. 

Special thanks to friends (and fellow Kings Island veterans) Robbie Zerhusen and Tyler Mullins for their help with this article. 


16 comments:

  1. Very good, Ronny. A timeless rite of summer, amusement parks never cease to fascinate. They inspire carefree childishness and - from the Whip to the Cuddle-Up to the Lost River (tunnel of love) - an unabashed opportunity for "PDA," (public display of affection). And finall must be added, a nostalgic maturity.

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  2. Great post! It's sad to see Cincinnati's Coney Island undergo such drastic changes, but I hope the future remains bright. I also hope some of the classic rides now leaving, especially Rock-O-Plane, find new homes. I always appreciated the older rides the park had.

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    1. Thank you, Tyler and thank you for all your contributions to help make this post! I'm really hoping that Stricker's snags one or two.

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  3. Great article! Sad to see the rides go, even though the current park is a shell of what it once was.

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    1. Same. Would've loved it if they had actually brought back a true coaster.

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  4. Awesome stuff. I don't know if I told you, but my last long term job was working in the restaurant/bar at the Garfield Suites Hotel. The owner (when I was hired) was Gary Wachs. His family was part owners of Coney Island, and he was a major player in the opening of Kings Island. Here is a PBS/WCET documentary of Kings Island I thought you might be interested in (if you haven't already seen it). It is 1 1/2 hours long, so it's an investment. Also, thanks for including me in your previous blog post!!

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=o6bWZyXmsts&fbclid=IwAR2qrV7E0vab59nExHkneIa8hXruSj4r73koembJCAEZ4teW7AmbHbDT-Hs

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    1. I LOVE this documentary, but it's been a minute since I've seen it. Now's a good excuse to rewatch it! I had the opportunity to meet Mr. Wachs a few years ago when I worked for the park (he was there for an event). He was also heavily involved in the Covington Landing!

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    2. I know!! He owned Covington Landing with the Bernsteins, who owned Mike Fink's and the B&B Riverboats. Gary was a great guy to work for. :-)

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    3. Good to hear! Absolute Cincinnati legend status.

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  5. Good retrospective and current snapshot all in one. Nicely done.

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  6. I only recently moved to the area and hear about the park constantly. The photographs have really helped me understand the significance to the local community. Your efforts are appreciated.

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    1. Thanks for the kind words and for taking the time to check things out!

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