The Coney Island Amusement Park was the first amusement park of any significant size, and it became an entertainment empire for the masses, working class and wealthy alike, by the early 1900s. Known as the “nickel empire” for the cost of a subway ride to the seaside park in Brooklyn, it eventually came to offer family-style amusements, food and lodging. For decades the beach site had been the realm of the well-to-do class, with grand hotels and a shell road for access. The subway changed the landscape as well as the type of amusement park patrons who could afford the trip in 1920.
Transportation advances made a large impact on the growth and changing face of the Coney Island Amusement Park. What started as a seaside resort for the wealthy, accessible by carriage in the 1800s, eventually welcomed the middle class and then those who scrimped to afford a nickel subway ride. About 100,000 people went to the Coney Island Amusement Park on summer days at the turn of the 20th century, when Sundays were a day of leisure for the working class, and that number increased to 500,000 a day over the following two decades. The subway doubled the number of visitors after 1920 to a million.
At one time there were three parks at Coney Island: Luna Park, Steeplechase Park and Dreamland. Its famous roller coasters included the Thunderbolt and the Cyclone. The park also had more than a dozen carousels and, beginning in the mid-1950s, the Ferris wheel that was called the Wonder Wheel and the Spook-a-Rama, a spooky ride in an open car that rolled on tracks past dark and scary scenes. Today the amusement park has about 50 attractions, including rides. There is also a Coney Island Museum.
Subway riders in the 1920s couldn’t afford all the games and rides offered by the Coney Island Amusement Park, such as the 25-cent gallery where visitors could shoot at targets, or the many rides, some of which charged 15 cents. In 1923 many privately held beaches were made public, and people came in droves to enjoy the sand and ocean on hot summer days, packing their own food and drinks for lack of a dime to buy a hot dog, and wearing their bathing outfits under their street clothes to avoid having to pay 50 cents for a changing room. Despite economic hardship, the Coney Island Amusement Park, the nickel empire, gave the masses a place to have fun.
The boardwalk was erected in 1923, and the beach was made larger with the addition of 2.5 million square feet (232,257.6 square meters) of sand. Lifeguards paid by New York City were not employed until the boardwalk was constructed. Before that time, each bathhouse employed its own lifeguards. The advent of publicly employed lifeguards improved safety, with drownings decreasing from more than four dozen annually to about six.