Superstorm Sandy had stampeded through Coney Island the previous night, its surge drenching amusement rides and leaving behind mud and debris. The electricity was dead. Now it was the morning of Oct. 30, 2012, and a fearful Steve Vourderis was focused on the magnificent treasure that belonged to his family: The nearly century-old, 150-foot-high Wonder Wheel.
Would this beloved mechanical marvel ever turn again?
While the 200-ton Bethlehem steel structure had been tied down with dozens of ropes to keep it safe from the storm’s powerful winds, the Wheel’s 24 cars had been stowed away in the underground workshop that was now filled with gallons of corrosive salt water. And its computer-controlled system had been rendered lifeless by the surge.
Reviving the Wheel was more than a matter of fixing the signature ride at Deno’s Wonder Wheel Amusement Park. It was a matter of family pride and legacy — for three generations, the very lives of the Vourderis family have revolved around the Great Wheel. They are the caretakers of a city icon that has shaped the summertime thrills of millions of people.
During their stewardship of the Wheel, the family had restored it from a state of near ruin in the 1980s to make it one of Coney Island’s most famous rides and have continued a spotless safety record with no major accidents or injuries to passengers stretching back to 1920.
A BEACON AT CONEY ISLAND
This year, the Vourderis family kicked off a summerlong celebration of the anniversary of the Wonder Wheel, with a birthday celebration on Memorial Day marking the day when it opened 95 years ago. Two generations of the Vourderis family that has owned Deno’s Wonder Wheel Amusement Park gathered to sing “Happy Birthday” and handed out party hats and favors.
Besides the Cyclone, the Wheel is the only large thrill ride of its kind still operating from the heyday of the 1920s, and is among the oldest pleasure wheels in the United States. Its fame has spread globally, its image appearing in movies like the cult-classic “The Warriors” and on television shows like this summer’s cable hit “Mr. Robot” with Christian Slater. It has even inspired sibling rides in Japan and at Disney California Adventure. More than 30 million people have experienced it.
To this day, the ride largely remains the same as it did back when it first thrilled passengers with its unusual design.
Unlike a typical Ferris wheel, only eight of the Wonder Wheel’s cars remain stationary; 16 others swing on rails. Its inventor, a little-known Romanian-born engineer named Charles Hermann, had wanted to combine the excitement of the early rollercoasters with that of the Ferris wheel.
Because of the design, riders can choose from two very different experiences of the Wheel.
In the white, stationary cars, passengers experience an almost meditative journey as the car slowly rises to the topmost arch where they can get a view of the expanse of Coney Island, the beach and Atlantic Ocean on the left, while on the right the skyscrapers of the Manhattan skyline come into focus. It’s so pleasant a baby can ride it without alarm (there are no height restrictions).
Choose one of the red or blue swinging cars and the experience is more like a catch-your-breath thrill. As the car swings forward along the rails, it seems perilously fast, before dipping. “You feel like you are going to just fly off,” said first-time rider Tyler Richards, 25, of Harlem, who admitted to being terrified of such rides.
An estimated 200,000 people take the ride each year, when the it is open from Palm Sunday to late October. The record for the most people riding in one day was set July 5, 1947 when 14,506 passengers were recorded, going only one rotation at a time. Nowadays it costs $7 a ride (or less with package discounts) and goes for two rotations.
Steve Vourderis is often standing less than 25 feet away whenever the Wheel is in operation, keeping an eye on the wheels of the swinging cars, or listening for the telltale screech of metal-on-metal that could mean something needs to be adjusted or replaced. This is how Vourderis, 53, spends his summers: in a nearly all-day, all-night vigilance that sometimes keeps him at the park until the very early morning hours. On weekends, he sometimes stays the night in a full-size RV parked just steps from the Wheel.
Such intense focus has taken a toll, he said at one point, half-joking that he might only have a couple more years left in him. After all, he has been working on the Wheel since he was a teenager, when his father bought it in the 1980s. “It’s tough. It’s tough on family life,” he said. “I’m here all the time.”
Vourderis, who co-owns Deno’s Wonder Wheel Amusement Park with his brother Dennis, doesn’t think his business or Coney Island would be the same without it. “The Wheel attracts the people,” Vourderis said. “It’s a centerpiece, a diamond in the center.”
His brother, Dennis Vourderis, said people see a Ferris wheel moving and automatically are drawn to it. “It serves as a beacon for all the businesses in the area, not just ours. It signals that Coney Island is open.”
Today Deno’s Wonder Wheel Amusement Park stretches across two acres of prime Coney Island real estate, and is split between the kiddie park that Dennis Vourderis manages and the adult rides including the Wheel. In all, there are 21 rides, two arcades, two concession stands and two group games. It is the last family-owned amusement park in Coney Island. The only other amusement park, Luna Park, is owned and operated by Italian-based global ride manufacturer Zamperla. Other rides and concessions are independently owned.
Deno’s has also become something of a living museum to Coney Island.
It is home to the oldest arcade machine, Grandma’s Predictions, which has been telling fortunes since the 1920s; some of the earliest children’s rides ever built by the canny inventor William F. Mangels, all of which continue to attract hordes of kids each summer; and remnants of the famed Astroland Amusement Park that once neighbored Deno’s, such as the Scrambler ride. It also houses the Coney Island History Project.
It employs 100 people, 75 percent of whom are from the neighborhood.
Two generations of the Vourderis family continue to work there. Denos Vourderis, the patriarch, died in 1994. His wife, Lula, is living out her retirement.
Beside two of Steve’s sons, his wife, Stacey, is often working on site as a “cleaning lady,” as she puts it, but she also assists Steve whenever he needs help. The couple has been married 34 years, but she said she considers it a privilege to work there. Dennis Vourderis’ son Denos, 29, works at the concession stand, helps hire staff and does maintenance. His brother, Timothy, 20, also helps out at the concession stand. He has two other sons, ages 24 and 27, who come on busy days to help out along with his wife.
Dennis Vourderis said the amusement park has allowed them to have a comfortable life and to be able to put their children through school. But it’s also a commitment of 12 to 16 hours a day, six days a week. He even pitches in when needed to run rides or work in the sweet shop, the original concession stand his parents owned. They sell funnel cakes, churros, cotton candy, pretzels and other sweets.
“I just love to watch people dig into this stuff,” he said one day this summer as the park hosted a group of hundreds of summer camp children. Wearing a white polo shirt, red apron, baseball cap and aviator glasses, he took special pride in handing out sweets to the children, and whipping up pillows of cotton candy.