Coney Island with Kids: Luna Park Rides, Aquarium, Mermaids

Luna Park, the Cyclone, NY Aquarium, Deno's Wonder Wheel, the Brooklyn Cyclones

The shores of Coney Island and Brighton Beach open for the season on Memorial Day weekend; the amusement parks opened on April 8, and the boardwalk and New York Aquarium are open year-round. Sounds like it's time for a Brooklyn day-cation!

From Luna Park's new(ish) Endeavor wheel and Thunderbolt roller coaster to old favorites like the carousel and Deno's Wonder Wheel, the Coney Island Museum and Circus Sideshow, and Nathan's Famous hot dogs—not to mention the sand and waves and Friday-night fireworks—here are the best things to do in Coney Island with kids this season, including a fun event with Mommy Poppins: the Summer Brain Game kickoff party at Luna Park.  

Cool down in the water. Photo by Jeffrey via Flickr.

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

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 this coupon to take with you.

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 a bunch of 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. Prices can be steep, so it's wise to plan ahead.

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–$17) 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 2017 home game is Tuesday, June 20.

See the Fireworks

In 2017 the iconic Wonder Wheel celebrates 90 years of thrilling spins. Its 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 23 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, usually on Saturdays.

Visit the New York Aquarium

The New York Aquarium was absolutely devastated by Hurricane Sandy. It's still only partially reopened (you can see effects of the storm firsthand), but there are plenty of animals and exhibits, and admission has been reduced to just $11.95 for ages 3 and up, making it a great time to visit and show your support.

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. 

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 screened on Monday evenings in July and August on a 40-foot inflatable screen.

Attend an Iconic Annual Event

You’re never too young to march in your first Mermaid Parade; registration starts at $15 for children and $25 for adults. Photo by Shinya Suzuki via Flickr.

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 10
    The seventh 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 7 p.m. Be sure to preregister for the contest, and bring two cans of cat or dog food as an entry fee, to be donated to a local shelter.
  • The Mermaid Parade – Saturday, June 17
    The procession kicks off at 1 p.m., 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.
  • The Cyclone's 90th Birthday Celebration — Sunday, June 25
    Details about the party are still to come, but what better chance to introduce your daredevil family to the historic wooden roller coaster?
  • 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 70 hot dogs in 10 minutes at last year's 100th annual contest; Miki Sudo won the women's competition with 38.5.
  • Sand Sculpting Contest and Unity Day – 2017 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, of course, 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.

Top photo by John St. John via Flickr.

This article was originally published in May 2010.

Coney Island
Surf Avenue
11224 New York 40° 34' 26.94" N, 73° 59' 21.0624" W