Deno Vourderis can see the moment: the family eagerly waiting in line, the question he’ll ask — “Swinging or stationary?” — before sliding the doors open to a cobalt-blue or creamy-white caged car, the Wonder Wheel churning into motion and lifting them 15 stories into the air for those sprawling Coney Island views. Dennis Vourderis, Deno’s uncle, can’t wait to work the funnel-cake line and watch customers scarfing down their fried dough dusted with powdered sugar and licking their sticky fingers in bliss. These are the everyday moments of running a theme park that the Vourderis family, which has operated Deno’s Wonder Wheel Amusement Park since 1983, lost last year when they were unable to open; they’ve been looking forward to them ever since.
The park was quiet in March, when Deno’s usually opens for the year, and stayed that way for the whole 2020 season. After it was branded a high-risk, nonessential business by the state, milestone holidays like Palm Sunday, Memorial Day, and the Fourth of July weekend — what Dennis calls “our Black Friday” — came and went with the park shuttered. The Wonder Wheel hasn’t turned with passengers inside for more than 15 months, the first time that has happened in its 100-year history, and the Vourderises are still awaiting reopening guidance from the state. But as painful as the 2020 season was, both financially and emotionally, they’re not just hanging on but looking to grow and are planning the launch of a new roller coaster: the Phoenix.
“I think it’s going to be a big part of our resurgence — that’s why we named it the Phoenix. It’s the symbolism of rising up,” said Deno, 39, who has worked at the park alongside his brothers, cousins, uncles, and father since he was in first grade. The $6 million coaster, originally planned in 2018 and financed before the pandemic, will be built alongside the park’s famed Ferris wheel and will zip young daredevils along its tracks at 34 miles per hour. That’s gentle compared to the Cyclone’s 60 miles per hour, but the Phoenix will have a 180-degree bank that’s about as close to going upside down as you can on a coaster intended for youngsters. The Vourderises are still getting their city permits, so there isn’t a firm opening date yet. But they hope to have it ready for riders this spring or summer — assuming the rest of the park can reopen.
The Phoenix has come to represent more than just a new attraction to entice adrenaline junkies to the park. In the context of the pandemic, it’s about signaling to New Yorkers that the People’s Playground will bounce back, just as the Wonder Wheel first spun to life in the wake of the 1918 flu pandemic a century ago. “It’ll symbolize hope and the return of some sort of normalcy for our community as well as the whole city of New York,” said Dennis. “It means a lot to New Yorkers to have fun. Let’s face it, we’re under a lot of stress all the time, and we need that relief valve.” That applies to the Vourderises, too.
The pandemic hit the family hard. It began just after they paid $5.5 million to expand the park westward onto land along West 12th Street and after borrowing to build the Phoenix. Since the park didn’t open last season, they couldn’t hire their usual roster of 100 seasonal workers. Instead, they’ve managed to stay afloat and pay their bills with a handful of loans, including one from the Payment Protection Program, and have functioned with about a dozen employees, mostly family.
But just because visitors weren’t allowed last season didn’t mean the work stopped completely. “The rides, whether or not you open them, need maintenance: to turn every once in a while, to be greased and oiled. So we still had expenses and work to do, just not as much,” said Deno. Someone has to go up and grease the axle at the center of the landmarked Ferris wheel, for instance. While doing this, Deno will sometimes have lunch perched on a ledge near the bold “WONDER WHEEL” lettering, listening to the hum of the machinery. “Maintenance on the Wonder Wheel is intense, but it’s a labor of love,” he said. “We used to pray for rain sometimes to have the day off; I will never pray for rain again.”
Much of their time last year was also spent getting the park pandemic-ready: adding Plexiglas in front of booths, installing hand-sanitizer stations, putting down social-distancing markers, and much more. Since the machine shop under the park wasn’t getting much use, Deno schlepped its 3-D printer, which he uses to fabricate parts for rides, and a laser cutter to the garage of his New Jersey home, where he made some 4,000 face shields for local hospitals last spring. The family donated the park’s PPE to a Coney Island nursing home after it became clear they wouldn’t be opening.
Now the Vourderises are back to making their reopening preparations, and in a few months’ time, they’ll begin assembling rides, optimistic that this spring will usher in families and screaming children. Dennis concedes that he lies awake worrying about the park’s survival if they’re unable to open yet again. “I often lose sleep at night thinking about that,” he said. “I have to remain positive because I believe that we will be able to open. I really do. I think we’re going to be okay. Things will be okay.”