By Sarah Brockett
Luna Park, one of the world’s first amusement parks, operated at Coney Island from 1903 until 1944. The park played a major role in the development of Coney Island into one of the country’s greatest resorts of the early twentieth century. Its revolutionary rides and roller coasters ushered in a new era of technology in entertainment.
In 1901, Frederick Thompson and Elmer "Skip" Dundy unveiled their fantastical Trip to the Moon cyclorama at the Pan-American Exposition in Buffalo. The ride, which gave visitors an impression of journeying to the moon, was such a hit that George C. Tilyou secured it for the 1902 season at his Steeplechase Park at Coney Island. The ride proved to be an enormous success. Thompson and Dundy then bought the ailing Sea Lion Park, believed to be the world's first enclosed amusement park, on the north side of Surf Avenue between West 8th and 12th Streets. They spent roughly $700,000 to turn it into an amusement park of their own for the 1903 season, called Luna Park. Their new venture featured the popular cyclorama as well as the central Shoot the Chutes, a water slide left over from Sea Lion.
Anticipation for the new Luna Park built through the year as curious locals and vacationers watched its towers rise from the sand. The fantastic spires and domes made Luna Park look like a city out of another world. The park opened to the public at 8 p.m. on May 16, 1903. By 10 p.m. as many as sixty thousand people had paid the ten cent entry fee to get a look at the new fantasy land. The park was so wildly popular that Thompson and Dundy earned ninety percent of their investment back by the end of the summer. In 1904 Senator William Reynolds attempted to mimic the success of Luna Park in his own Dreamland Park, and, until it burned down in 1911, the three parks--first Steeplechase, then Luna, and then Dreamland--together formed the heart of the now world-famous Coney Island.
Over the years Thompson and Dundy added new rides to Luna Park to keep audiences returning each summer. The park continued to be immensely popular, but the cost of maintaining it took its toll. Dundy passed away in 1907, and in 1912 Fred Thompson died in bankruptcy. Barron Collier assumed management and worked to keep the park afloat. In 1920, the subway reached Coney Island. Suddenly thousands of New Yorkers could reach Coney Island for just a nickel. The middle class resort began to give way to a working-class clientele. The "People's Playground," as Coney became known, now drew a million people, most of them locals enjoying their day off, on a summer day.
Still, the crowds could not match the cost of upkeep, and the park lost money over the years. New amusements began to draw visitors away, especially the movies and the automobile. The Great Depression of the 1930s drained purses, making even dime leisure a luxury. The urgent need for metal and machinery during World War II, coupled with blackouts that darkened Luna’s skyline, further curtailed business. On the afternoon of August 12, 1944, a fire broke out in one of the bathrooms. It soon destroyed the Dragon’s Gorge, one of the park’s major rides, and then spread to the Shoot the Chutes and the tower at the heart of the park. Most of the western side of the park lay in ruins, and the park did not reopen the next season. During the battle over the insurance money, the bank holding the park’s mortgage sold it to developers. As they prepared to bring the park down, another blaze erupted on October 5, 1945. It destroyed all but three buildings on the property. Under the influence of Parks Commissioner Robert Moses, what was left of Luna Park became the site of a housing development.
An "Electric Eden"
The design and technology involved in Luna Park were truly revolutionary in the park's heyday. The park originated at a time when fairs and expositions across the country demonstrated American technological prowess to thousands of curious onlookers. Fred Thompson, Luna's architect, had gotten his start on the midway fairgrounds of the 1893 Columbian Exposition and had designed rides for fairs until the 1901 exposition in Buffalo. He knew that light, motion, and fantasy would awe and impress. "I have tried to make Luna Park...a part of the carnival spirit...to keep it active, mobile, free, graceful, and attractive," he professed. These elements permeated the park, from its curved onion domes and brilliant lights to the elephants freely parading the concourses. In such an atmosphere of fun and fancy, it seemed anything was possible.
Indeed, Thompson and Dundy experimented with technologies that did in fact make the impossible a reality. The cyclorama brought the senses to life with movement, sound, and light to give the impression of journeying to the moon or beneath the sea while a painted canvas turned. During A Trip to the Moon, visitors experienced a virtual reality as they sat in a wooden ship with wings that flapped. The ship swayed and lurched, breezes blew across their faces, and lightning flashed as a voice narrated the journey. Other cycloramas during the park's first decade recreated naval battles, and its final one, staged in 1930, presented a trip to the North Pole.
As the technology advanced, Thompson and Dundy also staged increasingly fantastic shows. Their first spectacular, "Fire and Flames," debuted in 1904. It featured a four-story building alight with fabricated flames, from which hired firemen rescued "trapped" actors and actresses. Other shows dramatized a train robbery, complete with real locomotive and cars, historic battles, floods, and biblical epics. Each was an intricately choreographed spectacle that employed hundreds of actors and impressive simulations and effects.
Luna's roller coasters offered still more chances to impress visitors with all the speed, height, and daring that new technology could muster. The earliest coaster was the Buzzard's Roost, better known as an L.A. Thompson Scenic Railway (named for its architect). Others were the Grand Canyon Scenic Railway, the Dragon's Gorge, another scenic railway featuring geographic wonders, the Mountain Torrent, and the Trip to the Moon (a coaster added in the 1920s). The most impressive coaster arrived in 1924. Stretched around nearly half the park, with drops of more than 70 feet, the Mile Sky Racer became the biggest and longest ride at Coney Island.
The park's signature ride was the Shoot the Chutes, located in the center of the park. Built in 1895, the ride had originally been part of Sea Lion Park. Visitors rode wooden boats up a tracked hill and then swooshed down a slide in a rush of water to skim the surface of the lagoon below. The lagoon was surrounded by festooned colonnades and the park's 125-foot central tower rose out of it, for a time with circus rings at its base.
In fact, the entire park itself was a testament to modern technology in the early 20th century. On opening night, Luna's towers illuminated the night with 250,000 light bulbs. This required so much electricity that the Edison Company anticipated a cost of $250 a day to operate them, and constructed a power house on site. By 1912, the number had risen to 1.4 million lights on Luna’s two thousand towers. The park employed more than fifteen hundred people and had its own wireless and telegraph offices. Visitors were awed by this "electric Eden" and Luna Park quickly became the "heart of Coney Island."
Aron, Cindy. Working at Play: A History of Vacations in the United States. New York: Oxford University Press, 2001.
Brooklyn Public Library, Brooklyn Collection
Brooklyn Daily Eagle
Coney Island History Project at www.coneyislandhistory.org 
Denson, Charles. Coney Island: Lost and Found. Berkeley: Ten Speed Press, 2002
Immerso, Michael. Coney Island: The People’s Playground. New Brunswick: Rutgers UP, 2002
Snow, Richard. Coney Island: A Postcard Journey to the City of Fire.New York: Brightwater’s Press, 1989
Stanton, Jeffery. Articles and sources at www.westland.net/coneyisland/articles/researchsources.htm .
[Posted, Jan. 2008]
Luna Park was the grandfather of all amusement parks, delighting and entertaining generations of visitors from 1904 to 1945. The site is now occupied by a strip of commercial buildings and a housing development.