It’s true that New York summers are special and no summer is truly complete without a visit to Coney Island. The Mermaid Parade, Nathan’s, the Cyclone, extreme eating contests, cotton candy; spectacle and excess have long been a part of the scene where urban Brooklyn runs smack into the sea.

Vintage Bettmann Collection imagery from the park’s heyday gives us a peek into Coney Island’s past. But is the “People’s Playground” any less glorious in the present?

These then-and-now images not only capture the essence of Coney Island, but also visually illustrate the concepts most associated with summer: freedom, playfulness, exhilaration, joy.

The more things change, the more they stay the same – and we wouldn’t have it any other way:

1. The rides are still amazing

 Then: The Cyclone, Gyro Globe and Virginia Reel rides were legendary.

Michael Boodley Being Congratulated by Fans
Michael Boodley, of Trenton, NJ, completes a record-setting 1,1,000th ride on the Cyclone roller coaster at Coney Island’s Astroland Park 8/14. Family and friends greet the hero. The consecutive rides covered a distance of 606 miles of drops, curves and banks on the 3,200 feet long ride. Michael Boodley is shown looking forward smiling.


Now: There are plenty of captivating rides at Coney Island’s Luna Park, but nothing says summer quite like a giant spinning swing.

<> on March 29, 2015 in New York City.
People ride amusement park rides at Coney Island on March 29, 2015 in New York City. Various Coney Island businesses, including Luna Park, opened for the season today. (Photo by Andrew Burton/Getty Images)


2. Daredevils still walk among mere mortals

Then: In the 1920’s Ida Schnall and her outdoor school students could be found on the beach, doing their “daily dozen” exercises. A 1922 article in Physical Culture explained:

“Miss Ida has won a peck of medals, awarded for proficiency in long distance running, sprinting, jumping, pole vaulting, shot putting, discus throwing, bicycle riding, tennis, dancing, horsemanship, golf, cricket, basket ball (sic), tumbling and ice skating. Also as recognition for a performance of numerous hair-raising stunts…Ida Schnall, be it remembered, is the same young daredevil who dove from the wing of an aeroplane (sic) into the ocean in Brighton Beach one fine day last summer, giving the spectators the thrill of their young lives.”

Women Running on Beach
Photo shows Ida Schnall and her girls dashing out of the icy waters of Brighton Beach after a period of exercises.


Now: The icy waters are still a draw, but modern day Polar Bears participate as a fundraiser for Camp Sunshine and the Special Olympics.

Several hundred hardy New Yorkers became Polar Bears, plunging into the frigid waters off of Coney Island in a tradition dating back to 1903 that raises funds for Camp Sunshine and the Special Olympics. (Photo by Andy Katz/Pacific Press/LightRocket via Getty Images)


3. For kids, no space = no problem

Then: Empty spaces to stretch out were hard to find, but the effort was always worth it. And for kids, just being there was enough.

Teenagers Enjoying the Sun
Brooklyn, New York – 1938: Crowded is the word for Coney Island. Only early arrivals are lucky enough to claim a six foot plot on which to stretch out. But these fun loving adolescents solved this problem. They doubled up and found peace under the sun.

Now: The only thing that’s changed are the swimsuits.

New Yorkers Flock To The Beach On Labor Day Ocean Coney Island
Kids play in the water at the beach on Labor Day in Coney Island September 7, 2015 in the Brooklyn borough of New York City. Labor day signals the traditional, if not the calendar, end of the summer season. (Photo by Stephanie Keith/Getty Images)

4. Crowds. But hey, this is New York… What do you expect?

Then: Famed photographer Weegee may have preferred crime scenes to the beach, but that didn’t stop him from getting his pictures. Louie Liotta, Weegee’s assistant, said that his boss climbed up onto a lifeguard station, dancing and screaming until everyone was looking at him, and then he took the shot.

Heat Wave at Coney Island
7/20/1940-Brooklyn, NY: Crowd scene at Coney Island during heat wave. Photograph by Weegee.


 Now: It’s still the place to be.

Memorial Day Ushers In Beach Season In NYC
People crowd the beach at Coney Island on Memorial Day May 26, 2014 in the Brooklyn borough of New York City. Memorial Day, originally celebrated as Decoration Day after the Civil War in 1868, became a federal holiday in 1971 and commemorates those who have died fighting for the U.S. in wars. (Photo by Eric Thayer/Getty Images)


Explore more imagery of this iconic summer hotspot from then and now at Getty Images