MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:
Brooklyn's Coney Island is famous for its bustling boardwalk and the two classic amusement parks that border it. But even there, the fun had to go on hiatus for more than a year because of the coronavirus. Yesterday, though, the parks reopened at one-third capacity, and reporter Camille Petersen was there.
CAMILLE PETERSEN, BYLINE: Coney Island's eccentric orchestra is back. Roller coaster carts tick up, up, up and then plummet and swerve along winding tracks. Rides hum, buzz and creak to the beat of carnival music. And at Deno's Wonder Wheel Amusement Park, kids and adults face off to see who can squirt water into the mouth of a clown fastest and get a balloon to pop like a firecracker.
(SOUNDBITE OF BELL RINGING)
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Go, go, go.
(SOUNDBITE OF BALLOON POPPING)
UNIDENTIFIED CHILD: Yes.
PETERSEN: Emily Dobbins watches her friends play. She's 10 and says this is her first time at an amusement park since summer 2019. Her favorite ride is the Wonder Wheel. It's a 15-story Ferris wheel, but some of its carts are stationary, and others shake and swing.
EMILY DOBBINS: So I always try to shake it because I think it was fun.
PETERSEN: What can you see up there?
EMILY: I can actually see, like, the whole amusement park. And it's really beautiful.
PETERSEN: The Wonder Wheel was actually built during the 1918 pandemic.
DJ VOURDERIS: But you can see how spaced out the cars are.
PETERSEN: DJ Vourderis' family has owned and operated Deno's Amusement Park since it opened.
VOURDERIS: It's the thing that makes us who we are, is we're the family that runs the Wonder Wheel.
PETERSEN: Vourderis has worried about closing down for good and still does. He says Deno's Amusement Park has made virtually no money for the past year.
VOURDERIS: The financial hole that we're in is deep, and we have creditors knocking on the door.
PETERSEN: In Coney Island, the amusement parks and local businesses rely on each other. No visitors at the parks for the past year has meant less revenue for nearby shops. Haim Haddad owns Coney Island Beach Shop a couple blocks from Deno's.
HAIM HADDAD: I usually have five, six, seven employee. Last season, I had only one employee.
PETERSEN: Haddad says the parks will bring more customers to his shop, especially if the weather is good. But he still doesn't expect the kind of sales he used to see.
HADDAD: Not good season like 2019 or '18.
HADDAD: Going to be better than 2020.
PETERSEN: At Coney Island Brewery, Victoria Pitula, the assistant general manager, says she's already seeing more traffic and visitors today. She's lived in Coney Island her entire life and says when the amusement park rides are open, they give the whole neighborhood a joyful, captivating energy.
VICTORIA PITULA: Just seeing them almost brought tears to my eyes. Like, you can see the Thunderbolt is right behind us. And we hear it, like, come by, and the screams of people - like, that's what gives us energy here.
PETERSEN: Outside the Thunderbolt roller coaster, Gerald White watches riders get strapped in. He says his stomach is too weak for most of the rides, but he did grab some classic Coney Island food.
GERALD WHITE: I have some frog legs...
WHITE: ...And some raw clams and a Corona
PETERSEN: White came to Coney Island a lot as a kid and wanted to cheer the parks on today. He says the crowds are small compared to normal, but that's probably a good thing for now.
For NPR News, I'm Camille Petersen in New York.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "CONEY ISLAND BABY")
THE EXCELLENTS: (Singing) You're my Coney Island baby, mean so much to me. You're my pretty little lady. I love you tenderly. You're my lucky star. That's what you are. You're my Coney Island baby. You're so precious and sweet. Since the day I met you, my life has been complete.
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