The shores of Coney Island and Brighton Beach open for the season on Memorial Day weekend, but the amusement park rides have been spinning for a month, and the boardwalk and New York Aquarium are open year-round, making this season the perfect time for a Brooklyn day-cation!
The big news on this slice of sand is undoubtedly the arrival of Ocean Wonders: Sharks at the New York Aquarium later this summer, but before the predators arrive, there's still plenty of fun to be had. Catch a thrill at Luna Park, enjoy the old-school favorites like the carousel and Deno's Wonder Wheel, visit the Coney Island Museum or Circus Sideshow, and scarf down a Nathan's Famous hot dog. And we haven't even mentioned the sandy beach and waves and Friday-night fireworks. Without further ado, here are the best things to do in Coney Island with kids this season.
Hang out on the expansive beach for the day. Photo by Julienne Schaer for NYCgo
Hit the Beach
Yes, we realize this sounds like a no-brainer, but you'd be surprised how many folks are afraid to dip even a toe into the water. (Urban beaches get a bad rap.) Well, we love swimming at Coney, and kids dig (no pun intended) the two and a half miles of sand. If you are planning on swimming, make sure you arrive wearing your bathing suit, as changing in the public bathrooms isn't allowed: If you're caught, you will be chastised.
Enjoy the Rides
Luna Park, which opened in 2010 and is run by the folks behind Central Park's Victorian Gardens, also has a bunch of family-friendly rides, including the Seaside Swing and the Tea Party spinning teacups. The beautifully restored B&B Carousell is also a Coney Island must-see, though it's located outside of Luna Park, off the boardwalk. Looking for more of a thrill? There are several high-octane rides like the Thunderbolt and the Cyclone, which is on our list of 100 Things to Do in NYC with Kids Before They Grow Up. It opened on weekends for the season in March, and will expand to daily hours, beginning June 1. Tickets can add up, so purchase ahead of time online if you can, and don't miss out on its annual June promotion that awards kids with rides for good grades!
Deno’s Wonder Wheel Amusement Park has been around a while, although not as long as its namesake Ferris wheel, which began turning in 1920 and offers breathtaking views of the ocean. The park has 16 carnival rides for kids, like spinning dragons, a tame roller coaster, and a carousel, plus a handful of "adult" rides, including the Spook-a-Rama and a virtual-reality experience. Since the Wonder Wheel has no height requirement, you can even take babies, though all passengers need an $8 ticket. If you don't want your stomach jumping into your throat, opt for a stationary car over one of the swinging cars, which aren't as high on the wheel but are positively terrifying for riders of all ages! Print out a coupon to take with you.
MCU ballpark is an amazing place to watch the Brooklyn Cyclones. Photo by Jen Davis for NYCgo
Catch a Ballgame
At the western end of the boardwalk, you'll find MCU Park, home of minor-league team the Brooklyn Cyclones. Games are inexpensive ($10–$19) and extremely family-friendly. The stadium is small, so every seat has a great view of the game (and of the ocean beyond), and there are lots of promotions, giveaways, and special activities, like fireworks nights or the chance to run the bases at select games. Plan ahead, as tickets sell out quickly. The first 2018 home game is Saturday, June 16.
See the Fireworks
The iconic Wonder Wheel's namesake amusement park delights beachgoers with fireworks most summer Friday nights. Photo courtesy of Deno’s Wonder Wheel Amusement Park
On Friday nights from June 29 through Labor Day weekend, the Coney Island sky comes alive with fireworks starting at 9:30pm. Meanwhile, the Cyclones set off blazing displays after select games.
Visit the New York Aquarium
Rendering of the Coral Reef in Ocean Wonders: Sharks opening this summer. Photo courtesy of the New York Aquarium
The New York Aquarium was absolutely devastated by Hurricane Sandy. Prior to the storm, the Aquarium had begun a $151.7 million overhaul. The storm delayed construction, but the wait is nearly over. This summer, the much-anticipated new exhibit Ocean Wonders: Sharks! is slated to open in a sprawling 57,000-square-foot building. Get an up-close look at tiger sharks, nurse sharks, whitetip, and blacktip reef sharks, and others while learning all about the fascinating creatures.
Gawk at the Coney Island Circus Sideshow
Admittedly, this won't be every family's cup of kooky, but the performances bill themselves as family-friendly, and I've brought my kid to enjoy an afternoon of good, old-fashioned, not-too-freaky fun. Six performers tackle 10 outrageous acts using scripted, traditional dialogue that goes back half a century, as they present feats including magic, contortion, sword swallowing, fire eating, snake charming, and more. Upstairs, the Coney Island Museum showcases boardwalk relics, including parts of old rides and funhouse mirrors. It also an ongoing, family-friendly magic show.
See a Free Film
We're still waiting on the schedule for this annual outdoor movie series. In the past, family-friendly flicks have been shown on Monday evenings in July and August on a 40-foot inflatable screen.
Attend an Iconic Annual Event
You’re never too young (or old) to watch Nathan's Hot Dog Eating Contest! Photo by Julienne Schaer NYCgo
There's always something wild going on in Coney, but there are certain annual celebrations every family should try at least once. Warning: These events are insanely crowded!
- Pet Day and Pet Costume Contest — Saturday, June 9
The eighth annual event features not only a pet costume contest but the chance for pets to ride Deno's Wonder Wheel for FREE, accompanied by their owner, from noon to 7pm.
- The Mermaid Parade – Saturday, June 16
The procession kicks off at 1pm, but revelers sporting sea-themed ensembles begin arriving much earlier. It's a great spectacle, but be warned that younger kids may get bored, as there's a lot of waiting around. Take the subway; parking is next to impossible, and even the New York Aquarium and MCU Park lots tend to fill up long before noon. You can register to march or just come to watch the spectacle.
- Nathan's Famous International Hot Dog Eating Contest – Tuesday, July 4
The name says it all: Hearty eaters compete to see who can chow down on the most franks. Joey Chestnut earned a contest record of 72 hot dogs in 10 minutes at the 2017 contest while Sonya Thomas downed 45 to take the women's crown.
- Sand Sculpting Contest and Unity Day – 2018 date TBD, but usually in late August
This annual gathering attracts sand-sculpting pros and neophytes, all of whom show off their skills in this friendly competition. Lots of families participate, including actor Vincent D'Onofrio and his brood, who have won in the past.
Eat Unhealthy Food
Coney Island is a great place to indulge in over-the-top sweets and treats. Photo by Jody Mercier
Totonno’s, highly regarded in the high-stakes world of NYC pizza, started on Neptune Avenue back in 1924. The restaurant's Brooklyn-style brick-oven pies are seriously good and heavy on the tomato sauce. Be sure to go when you're hungry or with friends: no slices, and it's cash-only.
Nathan's Famous serves delicious hot dogs, of course, but you can also get burgers, beer, clams on the half shell, chicken, and Nathan's famous crinkle-cut french fries.
Classic boardwalk-strolling snacks include cotton candy, popcorn, candied apples, saltwater taffy, and other treats. Local landmark Williams Candy, right next to Nathan’s on Surf Avenue, is an old-school candy store that makes its own sweets, including fudge, marshmallow sticks, and ice cream. Kids and parents alike will literally eat it up! If you need a modern rendition, there's an outpost of the slick gift-and-treats chain IT'SUGAR, but we say stick with local businesses and help Coney Island keep its classic seaside Brooklyn character.
Find more of our favorite eats in our roundup of Family-Friendly Restaurants on Coney Island and in Brighton Beach.
This article was originally published in May 2010 but is updated annually.