Off Season: A Guide to Coney Island in the Winter

By Eden Gordon

For many, the name Coney Island is synonymous with images of fun, sun, and nostalgic memories of romance and youth. New York’s seminal amusement park by the ocean has long been a symbol of hedonistic thrills, sugar, and electricity, in spite of (or perhaps made more mythological because) of the series of fires and tragedies that have plagued it since the creation of its first major park, Luna Park, in 1903.

What most people do not think of when they think of Coney Island is the winter, the big freeze that encompasses the amusement park for around two thirds of the year. New York winters can be brutal. But Coney Island exists all year round, though it offers a very different kind of experience for the winter visiter than for the summer fairgoer.

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It takes about two hours to get from Barnard to Coney Island. You take the 1 to Times Square, and then ride the Q out all the way to the end of the line. Most likely, something happens to you on the ride—something ineffable but undeniable. As you rise out of the neon-lit underbelly of New York, maybe you realize that you aren’t quite in the same dimension as you were. Something shifts. Try it for yourself and see.

The ride takes you past tiny outer-Brooklyn houses, crammed together side by side, their walls often cloaked in tangles of ivy and graffiti. Where there were once skyscrapers and busy streets, now there is the odd vertigo of a residential neighborhood pressed up on the edges of the city, its inhabitants being edged out by gentrification as we speak.

Eventually you see the spires of Coney Island’s roller coasters rising up in the distance, backlit by the ocean itself. The subway travels upwards into the elevated station where the Stillwell Avenue stop is located. In the summer you might be surrounded by crowds of beachgoers, or at least a few people, but in the winter it is likely that you will be entirely alone.

A visit to Coney Island in the off season provides the kind of space for reflection that is rarely found anywhere in New York City. You can wander the desolate streets, read hidden messages in the cracked pavement, pass by homeless people asleep on slats of cardboard.

You can stop for a coffee in the Dunkin’ Donuts. You can wander around the outskirts of the locked gates surrounding Luna Park, observing the faded lights, the rides with their painted icons, the mermaids on the walls, everything chipped and faded, worn away by time and the sea air. You can walk along the boardwalk, perhaps past fisherman wrapped in their coats, perhaps past their bloody, still-breathing catches. You can almost feel the ghosts there—you can hear the memories echoing, clawing at the seams of the silence.

In a different time, in a different season, this place used to be one of New York’s most crowded attractions. There used to be three parks—Luna Park, Steeplechase, and the aptly named Dreamland, supposedly the grandest of them all. It had one million light bulbs and a variety of exhibits, including one named “The End of the World” and one that had firefighters put out a genuinely burning building, purposefully lit on fire every half hour, every day.

Dreamland burned down in 1911 just before opening day, due to an electrical malfunction. The other parks had their heydays in the early 1900s, but the onset of World War I and II led to the closing of Luna Park in 1944, and Steeplechase shut down in 1965 as the area became more dangerous. The park has never regained its glory; perhaps the world never regained the kind of hope it had before those wars—but Coney Island kept ticking on, becoming a place notorious for drug deals (it had always been a hotspot of dangerous pleasure, and is also known as Sodom by the Sea).

Today, the rebuilt Luna Park stands. In the summer it is still a tourist destination, and also hosts concerts and light shows and other events. The Coney Island museum is open all year round and hosts a variety of colorful events like burlesque and magic shows.

But there is an undefinable sadness, a kind of dreamy desire to the park as it stands in the loneliness of the cold months. To the beach, empty, frozen, to the roaring sea.

If you’re the sort of person who likes to visit graveyards, abandoned buildings, or other weird and liminal historical relics, add a visit to Coney Island to your bucket list. You might find ghosts and a haunting relic of the American Dream. You might find nothing but a shut-down theme park and a freezing sea wind. Hey, at least you can get a lot of reading done on the ride over.

Barnard Bulletin