The amusement park industry has had several legendary parks during its history - parks that are held in special esteem and looked upon with fond memories or special reverence. Riverview, Euclid Beach and Palisades are few that come to mind, but the one on the top of nearly everyone's list is almost sure to be Coney Island. Coney Island is unique as it not only was the name of the New York resort that was the center of the amusement park universe in the early part of the century, but also the name of the famed amusement park in Cincinnati, OH, which is regarded by many as one of the best operated amusement parks in history.
Cincinnati's Coney Island is also holds a unique place in the industry as one of the few parks to "close" because of its success, and unlike most of other parks that close, refused to die and is still entertaining visitors to this day.
The roots of this special place date back to 1867 when James Parker, an apple farmer, purchased a 400-tree, 20-acre apple orchard on the shores of the Ohio River, about ten miles east of downtown. In 1870, a group of Cincinnatians rode their horses out to the land to ask Mr. Parker if they could rent the land for a private picnic, intending to charter a steamboat to bring their group out to the orchard.
Parker, realizing that this was potentially more profitable than apple farming, began renting out his land and built a dining hall, dancing hall and bowling alley. He even added a mule-powered merry-go-round. As the apple trees died out, Parker replaced them with the maple trees that still shade the grounds. Soon, Parker's Grove was becoming a popular gathering place for residents of the area.
In a crucial turning point, Parker sold the land in 1886 for $17,500 to the Ohio Grove Corporation, a group headed by two steamboat captains - William and Malcolm McIntyre. Like the trolley parks, that were just starting to spread throughout the United States to stimulate trolley ridership, the two captains purchased Ohio Grove to encourage travel on their boats.
The park was renamed Ohio Grove, The Coney Island of the West, in hopes that they could link themselves to the well known New York resort. Ohio Grove was proclaimed to be "Cincinnati's Moral Resort" and visitors were assured that everything would be first class, safe for women and children. The park was not that much different from Parker's Grove; offering picnicking, dancing, refreshment stands and fireworks. Ohio Grove officially opened on a rainy day on June 21, 1886, with the steamer Guiding Star delivering the first passengers.Initially, the boat made runs to the park four times a day at 9am, 1pm, 4pm and 7pm, for a fifty-cent round trip that included park admission.
Guiding Star was the first of 19 boats to serve the park. Ohio Grove's riverfront location and Cincinnati's role as a major inland port meant that riverboats were a natural way to get customers to the park in the age before automobiles and widespread trolley usage.
The relaxing 60 minute riverboat ride from the crowded city to the wooded grounds of Coney Island was a relaxing getaway and was immediately popular, becoming as big a part of the day at the park as the attractions themselves.
A day at Ohio Grove quickly became a tradition and by the start of the 1887 season, the name Ohio Grove was dropped and the park became known simply as Coney Island. In 1889, a new company, the Coney Island Company, took over the park. The group was led by Commodore Lee Brooks who got his start selling tickets on riverboats and made a fortune in tobacco, retail, trolleys and steamboats. The new group continued the success of the original operator, purchasing neighboring farms to expand the park, and in 1893 added one of Coney Island's landmark features - Lake Como. Named after the famous lake in Italy, Lake Como was located away from the river in a former cornfield and became the focal point for many of the park's early amusements such as the Giant Circle Swing, Shoot the Chutes and row boats.
As the century ended, a new boat, the Island Queen began service to the increasingly popular park in 1896 and a column walkway was built to lead visitors from the boat landing to the midway. Other attractions featured at the park during this era included one of the region's first movie theaters, the Fun Factory, a wooden Ferris wheel and Hales Tours, an early simulator attraction that recreated a railroad trip through the countryside.
In the early 1900's, T.M. Harton, the famous roller coaster builder from Pittsburgh, built several rides at Coney Island including a carousel and a Figure 8 roller coaster. In 1911, he built the Dip the Dips roller coaster, while the Little Dipper joined the line up the next year. The next year (1913) Coney Island's long time nemesis, floodwaters from the Ohio River inundated the park, signaling a troubled era for Coney Island. By now Chester Park, which was located closer to Cincinnati and served by trolleys, was providing heavy competition for Coney Island, while World War I further hurt business. In 1918, the Princess, one of Coney Island's boats was destroyed in an ice flow, while the Dip the Dips, Figure 8 and Little Dipper were removed. Harton, however, did build a new Dip-the-Dips.
As the Roaring 20's started, the outlook for Coney Island improved when noted roller coaster designer John Miller built the Sky Rocket in 1921. Unfortunately, the Island Queen was destroyed in a fire in 1922 after 26 years of faithful service. That same year, ownership in the park and two of its riverboats was transferred to riverboat owner J. J. Hubbard of Pittsburgh. His tenure was short-lived, however, as in 1924 he sold the park to Coney Island, Inc. a group led by George Schott, who would run Coney Island along with his brother Edward. The sale turned out to be the best thing that ever happened to Coney Island. Throughout their entire tenure, they maintained the highest standards in maintenance and operations and Coney Island became known throughout the industry.
They immediately spent $1 million to rebuild Coney Island, expanding it to 120 acres and adding the now famous entrance gate and the wide grassy mall between Lake Como and the river, which became the focal point for all of the amusements. The circle swing ride was relocated from Lake Como to a prominent location on the mall, joining several new attractions including the Jack & Jill, an immense slide, and the Zoomer, a unique propeller driven monorail. Among the other attractions soon making their debut along the mall were the Custer Cars, an early turnpike, Bumper Cars and a Noah's Ark.
Also added was one of the industry's first kiddie-lands. Reportedly built to entertain the owners' grandkids, it included a variety of scaled-down rides including a Merry-Go-Round, Train and Airplane Swings.
Although their new owners' first year was significant, it was their second, 1925, that forever changed the park. First and foremost, the new owners set out to replace the Island Queen, the beloved riverboat that had burnt three years earlier. The replacement, also called the Island Queen, was a masterpiece. Measuring 300 feet long and 80 feet wide, the new Island Queen featured five decks with a ballroom, bar, cafeteria, squeal arcade, arcade games, souvenir stands and refreshment counters. It could accommodate 4,000 passengers per trip. The boat quickly became the preferred method of traveling to Coney Island and was also the beloved trademark of the park, plying the Ohio River with its calliope music drifting over the waters and into the hills of Ohio and Kentucky. But while they respected long time traditions, the new owners also made it a point to keep up with the times and began adding parking so that visitors could drive to the park in their newfangled automobiles.
The amusement area was not neglected in 1925 either, as a substantial amount was invested in new attractions. A Tumble Bug ride was added to the ride line up, while some of the park's most enduring features were constructed. At one end of the mall, the Philadelphia Toboggan Company (PTC) constructed Moonlite Gardens, an open-air dance hall, while Sunlite Pool was constructed next to Lake Como. Sunlite Pool was and still is an engineering marvel. Measuring an incredible 200 by 401 feet, it remains the largest recirculating swimming pool in the world, holding over 3 million gallons of water at depths ranging from six inches to 10 feet. Up to 10,000 swimmers could be accommodated at a time.
The 1926 season saw the introduction of two roller coasters from PTC. Dominating the end of the mall opposite Moonlite Gardens was the Wildcat, a large double out-and-back style roller coaster. It soon became the park's premier attraction. In the middle of the mall was the Twister. Replacing the second Dip the Dips roller coaster, the Twister, while a small ride, was unique in that the entire track was enclosed in a tunnel.
Coney Island added yet another signature attraction in 1927 when they purchased a magnificent hand-carved three-row carousel from the PTC. Also joining the attraction line up was Bluebeard's Castle, a large fun house. Following the 1927 season, management decided to remove the Jack and Jill slide as it was the scene of numerous accidents, and a new water ride from PTC, the Cascades, made its debut in 1928.
The increasing popularity of ballroom dancing prompted Coney Island to hire PTC to partially enclose Moonlite Gardens in 1928, while maintenance problems prompted the removal of the Zoomer. By the end of the 1920's Coney Island was one of the largest amusement parks in the country. Among their rides were three roller coasters - Wildcat, Twister and Greyhound, two water rides - the Cascades and the Mystic Chute, two fun houses - Devils Kitchen (the converted Noah's Ark) and Bluebeard's Palace, the Tumble Bug, Custer Cars and the Carousel.
Regrettably, the Depression hit at the end of the 1929 season, which led to the closing of Coney Island's main competitor, Chester Park in 1932. While Coney Island fared better, money was tight and the park changed little. The Mystic Chute ride, one of Coney Island's oldest attractions was removed after the 1931 season, while the smaller of Coney Island's two boats, the Island Maid burnt in 1932. However, a combination of smaller crowds during the Depression and the increasing popularity of the automobile meant that the boat was not missed and the larger Island Queen was more than adequate to handle demand.
Big band dancing reached its peak of popularity during the decade and in 1933, Lena Home made her debut in Moonlite Gardens. With the economy improving, the kiddieland received a major makeover in 1934, becoming the Land of Oz. The Teddy Bear, a kiddie roller coaster was added in 1935.
However, just as business started improving, George Schott passed away in 1935 and was succeeded by his son Edward and son-in-law Ralph Wachs. At 28, Edward was the youngest amusement park operator in the country and before he knew it, his management skills were put to the test.
Coney Island's riverside location meant that dealing with occasional flooding was a part of doing business. Every winter, the park took special precautions to ensure that the impact from the high waters would be as minimal as possible.
In 1937, one of the largest floods in Ohio history hit Coney Island, submerging it in 28 feet of water. Carousel horses became unglued and floated away, with parts recovered as far away as Paducah, KY. Moonlite Gardens' dance floor floated on top of the water, while its tables and chairs were deposited in the ballroom's rafters. Horse barns from the neighboring River Downs racetrack were washed into the park, buildings collapsed, lumber for a new roller coaster was washed away and Sunlite Pool filled with mud and debris. While the pool's pumphouse floated away, the massive filtration system was too solid to be moved and remained intact. Devastation was complete and Coney Island's board of directors met three times to determine whether or not to rebuild the park. If not for an abundant supply of inexpensive labor due to the Depression, it would have been likely that Coney Island would have never reopened.
Although the park had to be almost totally rebuilt, in the long run, the flood turned into a blessing in disguise as most of the old wooden buildings were replaced with substantial art deco style masonry structures with steel foundations. Miraculously, the park was rebuilt in three months at a cost of $300,000 and everything but the cafeteria opened on schedule including the Clipper, an all new roller coaster from PTC that replaced the Twister. The cafeteria itself was replaced by a substantial structure featuring a rebuilt cafeteria on the first floor and the Top of the Mall, a sit down restaurant, on the second floor.
The rebuilt Coney Island was just as popular as the original, but almost as soon as it recovered from the flood, World War II reared its ugly head. In 1941, the Cascades were rebuilt as the Lost River, featuring a higher, steeper hill, resulting in a larger splashdown. However, by the following year, with America fully involved in the war, Coney Island faced new pressures. Gas rationing made it difficult to drive to the park and the Island Queen was almost docked for the duration due to fuel shortages. To keep the Island Queen running, the park applied to the rationing board and it was determined the boat was an essential morale booster.
By the time the war was winding down in 1944, adult rides included the Wildcat, the Laff-in-the-Dark, Tumble Bug, Flying Scooter, Dodgem, Flying Tigers airplane swing, Carousel, Clipper roller coaster, the Showboat fun house, Moon Rocket, Cuddle Up, Whip, Ferris Wheel, Lost River and Boats and Canoes in Lake Como. Kiddie rides included a Ferris wheel, airplane swing, Rub-A- Dub, Swan, Teddy Bear, Train and Pony Track.
As the war ended, the park was able to resume expansion. While improvements in 1946 were modest, with only the replacement of the Rub A Dub with a Doodle Bug kiddie trolley in the Land of Oz, the improvements in 1947 were truly significant. Moonlite Gardens was renovated with a new Southern Plantation style entrance building. Capacity was increased to 3,700 people and a second floor was added. In the park, several new attractions were added including a Mirror Maze and Caterpillar. Most significantly, the Clipper, which was never a popular ride, was replaced by the Shooting Star. PTC retained the Clipper's lift hill and final spiral, but added nine hills creating a large L-shaped out-and-back style roller coaster that ran along the river. The Shooting Star was an instant hit and almost immediately became the park's most revered ride.
While the 1947 season was a huge success on all measures, the end of the year was bittersweet. Following the park's closing on Labor Day, the Island Queen made its way up the Ohio River to Pittsburgh for off season maintenance. On September 9th, a welder's torch ignited an oil bunker and the stately ship disappeared in a huge fireball, killing 19 people. Coney Island debated whether to rebuild the boat, but the $4 million cost, combined with the increasing popularity of the automobile, prompted the park to emphasize a bus program. Coney Island's steamship era and the park's most beloved symbol were gone forever.
Fortunately, Coney Island was as popular as ever. In 1948, 132,000 people enjoyed Moonlite Gardens including 4,700 on a single night. Rides included the Shooting Star, Mirror Maze, Rocket Ships, Tumble Bug, Dodgem, Laff-in-the-Dark, Whip, Wildcat, Lost River, Flying Scooters, Ferris Wheel, Cuddle Up, Caterpillar, Boats and Canoes and eight kiddie rides in the Land of Oz.
As the 1950's dawned, many of Coney Island's peers were feeling the pressures of a changing world. While many parks were deteriorating in the face of aging facilities, disinterested family members and urban unrest, Coney Island remained under the careful oversight of the Schott/Wachs family. They continued to maintain the highest standards. All of the rides appeared new and the grounds featured intricate, lush landscaping. In fact, the park had such a stellar reputation in the industry, that a gentleman by the name of Walt Disney visited Coney Island in the early 1950's to get ideas for Disneyland. He presented the park a check for $1.00; signed by Disney, for consulting services that remains in the park's archives.
In 1954, Coney Island improved several of its existing attractions, adding a new facade to the penny arcade, building a new miniature golf course four times bigger than original nine hole course and putting new space ships on the Circle Swing.
Several rides were added in 1958 including a Wild Mouse roller coaster and a large turnpike ride that traveled over and around Lake Como. A kiddie turnpike was even added for the little ones.
Unlike most of its peers across America, which were experiencing hard times and even shutting down, the 1960's was a golden age for Coney Island. Its tradition of high standards meant that it remained a favorite family getaway and its marketing area expanded from Cincinnati to Dayton, Columbus, Indianapolis, Lexington (KY) and Louisville all of whom were seeing their beloved amusement parks fall by the wayside. But Coney Island was not content to rest on its laurels. Throughout the decade, the park spent over $2.5 million to modernize the park and added attractions comparable to those being added at the new theme parks.
In 1960, The Spook dark ride replaced Laff-in-the-Dark and a Round Up was added. In 1962, Ralph Wachs took control of Coney Island and his son Gary began working at park. In addition a motorboat ride and Calypso joined the ride line up. The motorboats were a short-lived attraction as they were removed after the 1963 season to add a major train ride. Starting on the shores of Lake Como, the steam powered train traveled along a 4,678-foot long track, over a huge trestle that crossed the lake and into the woods where scenes of frontier Ohio including Indians, wolves and a rustic fort entertained riders.
However, the park's old nemesis, flooding, returned in 1964 submerging Coney Island under 14 feet of water. Gary Wachs, who had become increasingly involved in management, decided that the park, although it had grown to 165 acres, could not accommodate its increasing crowds and compete in theme park era at its current location. His family made the decision to look into relocation options for the venerable facility, feeling that the best strategy to keep Coney Island the leading amusement facility would be to develop a new theme park outside Cincinnati. This did not mean that the strategies that made Coney Island a success would be ignored.
The 1965 season saw a major change along the mall as the beloved Wildcat was removed. While it was a tough decision, the park needed the land that the Wildcat occupied to expand the mall to accommodate growing crowds. In addition, nearly 40 years of flooding had taken its toll on the aging ride. Coney Island replaced the Wildcat with a modern sky ride that traveled from one end of the mall to the other. In addition, three venerable attractions, the Rocket Ships, Ferris Wheel and Flying Scooters were moved to the new midway area, while a Giant Slide was built in the Flying Scooters' former home near Land of Oz.
For the 1966 season, the Spook dark ride was replaced by the Bat Cave dark ride, while the Cloud 9 and Skydiver joined the ride line up.
In late 1968, an announcement was made that sealed the fate of Coney Island. Actor Fess Parker, star of the Davy Crocket television show, announced plans for a new theme park in Northern Kentucky, not far from Cincinnati. Realizing that the proposed competition would kill Coney Island's theme park project and severely hurt Coney Island's competitive position, Coney Island's owners decided to forge ahead with the new theme park. However, to build a park the size and quality that would be an adequate legacy for Coney Island, the Wachs family realized that they needed a well-capitalized partner.
In July 1969, while the season was at its peak and the park's new Log Flume from Arrow Industries was attracting record crowds, Coney Island was purchased for $6.5 million by Taft Broadcasting, a local company best known for its Hanna Barbera cartoon characters. Taft saw a theme park as an excellent way to increase exposure for its stable of television programs. It was soon announced that 1,600 acres had been purchased northeast of Cincinnati for an all new $29.5 million theme park to be known as Kings Island. Coney Island would close forever following the 1971 season.
Investment continued in Coney Island as the new theme park rose, with a Galaxi roller coaster replacing the venerable Circle Swing and Ferris Wheel in 1970, while a large theater was added featuring theme park style shows starring the Hanna Barbera cartoon characters, who also roamed park grounds greeting visitors.
Unlike many grand old traditional parks that slowly faded away, Coney Island's final year, 1971, was a season long party celebrating the life of this special place along the banks of the Ohio River. All of Cincinnati seemed to turnout to say goodbye as the park drew 2.75 million visitors its final season. On September 6, 1971 in a blaze of fireworks, Coney Island said goodbye.
As with the other parks that were succumbing during the early 1970's, Coney Island's smaller rides were dismantled and most of them including the Turnpike, the Log Flume, the Carousel, the Tumble Bug, Monster, Scrambler, Giant Slide, Round Up, Flying Scooter, Galaxi, Sky Ride Rotor, Cuddle Up and Dodgem, were moved to King's Island to continue to thrill the residents of Southwestern Ohio. Unfortunately other old favorites such as the Shooting Star, Teddy Bear and Lost River were left behind and demolished. Since Taft had not yet decided what to do with Coney Island, they kept most of the substantial buildings including the Penny Arcade, the Souvenir Shop, the Beer Garden, the Games Building, the Cafeteria, the Carousel Pavilion and the Office. Although the wooden portion of Moonlite Gardens was demolished, the substantial brick and steel front section proved to be too tough for the bulldozers and was left intact.
As if to justify Coney Island's decision, the Ohio River overflowed its banks and inundated the abandoned amusement park in the Spring of 1972 as the finishing touches were being put on Kings Island.
While much of the focus in 1972 was on the new theme park, some life remained at the old amusement park. Naturally the immense Sunlite Pool could not be moved to King's Island, so Taft continued to operate it, although it attracted fewer than 100,000 visitors, compared to more than 1,000,000 the year before.
With its attentions focused on Kings Island and on building Kings Dominion near Richmond, VA, Taft unsuccessfully tried to find a buyer for Coney Island. While many uses were proposed, including a campground, a state park and a convention center, its flood prone location discouraged potential investors.
In an attempt to make the most of their holding, Taft reopened Coney Island's sprawling picnic groves in 1973 and added a private tennis club in 1974 near the pool. People gradually started returning to the beloved riverfront location and in 1976, Taft renamed the facility Old Coney and renovated the 15,000 square foot former DodgenvWhip/Cuddle Up building into the Moonlite Pavilion dance hall. It was soon followed by a large waterslide at the pool, Paddle Boats in Lake Corno and a few kiddie rides. Even the old miniature golf course was reopened. Coney Island was slowly but surely returning to life.
A true turning point in the rebirth of Coney Island occurred on July 4, 1984, when the $9 million Riverbend Music Center opened on a 15-acre parcel donated by the park to the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra (CSO), near the former location of the Shooting Star's turnaround. The 20,000 capacity outdoor theater was the summer home of the CSO and hosted a variety of concerts. Designed by renowned architect Nfichael Graves, the theater features a lattice-work structure vaguely reminiscent of a roller coaster support structure. It is designed to withstand perennial flooding and features special high pressure water outlets to hose down the cement floor and heavy plastic seats. Drains in the orchestra pit and dressing rooms send water back into the Great Ohio River. Even the electrical and sound systems are built above the 100 year flood level. Every winter, the wooden stage floor is removed, along with the dressing room carpeting. In a unique arrangement, Riverbend is owned by the CSO and operated by SFX Entertainment, while Coney Island is the parking and food concessionaire.
The development of Riverbend by the CSO was not the only significant change at the park in 1984. Sunlite Pool added ZZIP!, another water slide, while the former souvenir store, which had been converted into a movie theater, was turned into a pizza stand.
In 1985, another $1 million was invested in the facility. While the Carousel Pavilion and Arcade were demolished, the cafeteria was converted into a maintenance shop and the abandoned remains of Moonlite Gardens were restored and reopened as an outdoor dance hall. In addition, the parking lot was expanded, Lake Como was recontoured, the old games building reopened and the golf course renovated. However, several of the old kiddie rides including the Duck Boats, Ferris Wheel, Lollipop Swings and Mixer were removed. But most importantly the park's name was changed back to Coney Island. The following year was Coney Island's most successful season since Kings Island opened.
In 1987, Great American Communications purchased Taft Broadcasting and with it Coney Island. They realized that Coney Island, just wasn't Coney Island without rides and slowly began rebuilding the ride line up. Getting back to its roots, the rides were clustered around Lake Como, as they were before the 1920's, rather than the old mall, which had largely disappeared.
In 1989, Krazy Kars and kiddie bumper boats were added, while adult Bumper Boats and a Ferris Wheel, joined the line up the next year. In 1991, Coney Island was purchased for $3.8 million by Ronald Walker, a Cincinnati businessman. Although Coney Island was once again hit with flooding in 1991, Walker responded with $2.5 million in improvements, primarily for a total renovation of Sunlite Pool and the bathhouse. Landscaping was improved and a Scrambler joined the ride lineup.
Over $1 million in rides were purchased over the next few seasons, including a Tilt-A-Whirl and Sky Fighter from Fantasy Farm, a defunct park in nearby Middletown, OH, in 1992, a Trabant and Round Up in 1993 and a Flying Bobs, Helicopter and the unique Spin A Ree ride in 1994.
By now, Coney Island had recovered to the point where its parent company was looking to expand its operations. As a result, it purchased Americana Amusement Park in Middletown, OH, in 1996. Ronald Walker passed away unexpectedly in 1997 and his wife, Brenda, assumed control of the company.
In 1997, the park survived yet another major flood, the worst in over 30 years, cresting nearly 14 feet over flood stage. Not only did the park open on time but also a Merry-Go-Round returned to the mall area for the first time since 1972. Another old favorite returned in 1999, when Coney Island opened the Pepsi Python, a small steel roller coaster, giving the park a total of 12 major and 8 kiddie rides. Once given up for dead, a victim of its own success, Coney Island is alive again. While it is no longer the region’s largest amusement facility, it retains many of its beloved traditions-swimming at Sunlite Pool, dancing under the stars in Moonlite Gardens, picnicking and strolling along the Ohio River.
The people of Southwestern Ohio are indeed fortunate. Their beloved local amusement park refused to die and gave its owners no choice but to rebuild it into what it does best — create memories.