Coney Island has been a staple of US culture for over a century. Though people around the world may not always be aware of Coney Island’s specific contents, they likely conjure an absurd mental image upon hearing the name.

Coney Island is unconventional, kitschy, clunky, loveable, and outlandish. But what exactly is it that makes Coney Island so unique? There are many other amusement parks around the country, so what is the reason for Coney’s firm implantation in the collective psyche of America’s subculture? Diving into the history of Coney Island, it becomes more and more clear.

Coney Island hasn’t been weird for 10 years, 20 years, or even 30 years. Coney Island has been weird since it’s inception. From 1900 “disaster dramas” to sideshows of premature infants, keep reading to see how Coney Island has consistently earned its reign over all things strange.

25 1. Weird: Coney Island’s name comes from Dutch Settlers.

“Coney Island” may sound like a relatively new name. In fact, I thought the name was a clever reference to the carnival-like aspects of the place. “Coney” sounds like “cone,” which then alludes to ice cream cones and cotton candy cones. Well, I was wrong.

The name “Coney Island” dates back to the 1600s, when the Dutch were originally settling the New York area. According to, “Coney Island” is an English adaptation of the Dutch name “Konijn Eylandt,” which roughly translates to “rabbit island.” Apparently, Coney used to be covered in rabbits.

24 18. We’d rather not know: The Elephantine Colossus was a squeamish house of vice.

The Elephantine Colossus, otherwise known as the Colossal Elephant or Elephant Hotel, was a twelve-story tourist attraction designed by James V. Lafferty in 1885. It stood only 11 years before being burnt down in a fire. During its brief lifespan, the 31 room building acted as a hotel, concert hall, and amusement bazaar.

The gross part? Each of the 31 rooms was themed to fit the internal anatomy of an elephant: there were rooms representing the stomach, liver, intestines, cheeks, shoulders, and so on. If that isn’t enough to make one’s stomach turn, the Elephantine Colossus also became a taboo club during its final few years. Pretty disturbing, right?

23 2. Weird: The Beaches used to be private.

According to Thrillist, Coney Island was quite elite and exclusive between the late 1800s and early 1900s. Visitors had to either shell out 10 cents to a quarter at the private bathhouse for access to the beach, or find somewhere else to sunbathe. This may not seem like an elite price by today’s standards, but according to In2013Dollars, a quarter in 1900 is equal to about $29.00 today when multiplied according to inflation. That’s a lot of cash for a little sun and surf.

22 23. We’d rather not know: Lilliputia was a 1904 sideshow of little people.

Samuel W. Gumpertz created Lilliputia, or “The Midget City” in Dreamland in 1904. He invited three hundred, who had been scattered across the continent as attractions at various World's Fairs, to live in an experimental community constructed as a half-scale replica of 15th century Nuremberg, Germany. Everything was built in proportionate scale to the inhabitants, from the beds to the toilets. They had their own parliament, their own fire department, and their own beach complete with lifeguards.

There were windows into Lilliputia to accommodate the curious eyes of tourists, but during the park's off hours, they lead ordinary lives.

21 5. Weird: Dreamland is the creepiest theme park in history.

Dreamland was in many ways an antithesis to Luna Park and Steeplechase. While the previous two parks were coated in vivid colors and outlandish architecture, Dreamland was painted all white, with neo-classical architecture. However, its contents were anything but comservative. Dreamland contained scenic railways through artificial Swedish alps, as well as gondola rides through Venetian canals. Dreamland also housed a biblical Creation drama, inspired by the book of Genesis.

The above photo shows one of Dreamland’s attractions called “Fighting the Flames,” in which spectators would watch a building catch fire, then be extinguished by a team of nearly one thousand performers. Astoundingly, all of this occurred between the years of 1904 and 1911. Dreamland was way ahead of its time. Unfortunately, this dream was destroyed by a real, terminal fire in 1911.

20 6. Weird: Steeplechase is responsible for that ubiquitous, unnerving face.

If you’ve been to Coney Island, you’ve doubtless noticed the above motif. The eerie, smiling face looms over crowds, plastered on countless signs, fences, and flags.

According to the Brooklyn Paper, this sly grin made its first appearance with Steeplechase amusement park in 1897. It was conceived by Steeplechase founder George C. Tilyou. The park logo was supposed to reflect the era’s dominant aesthetics, while also alluding to the more mischievous, illicit activity that occurred in Coney Island. The face feels creepy and off-putting, simply because it was designed to.

19 19. We’d rather not know: Coney Island used to have premature infants on display

In addition to the various typical sideshows such as “Lion Man” and “Bearded Lady,” Coney Island contained an exhibit displaying premature infants in incubators. The inventor of this installation was Dr. Martin Couney, a mysterious figure in the history of medicine. Couney created and ran incubator-baby exhibits on the island from 1903 to the early 1940s.

Though this may seem exploitative by contemporary standards, but there was a benefit to this practice. In the early 1900s, incubators were rejected by general medical standards as a means of saving premature infants. By displaying the incubators in Coney Island, Couney received funding via the visitor admission prices, and he was able to publicize and standardize his practice of incubator usage.

Through unconventional means, Couney managed to save the lives of thousands of America’s premature babies.

18 7. Weird: Jumbo the Elephant used to be a major advertiser of Coney Island’s antics.

Jumbo was Barnum and Bailey’s Circus’s largest touring elephant from 1882 to his death in 1885. Jumbo was exhibited all throughout New York, from Madison Square Garden to the outskirts of Brooklyn in Coney Island. In the above postcard, Jumbo is advertising Victorian swimwear for frolicking in the beaches of Coney Island.

According to, the suit looks strange because Victorians believed that the ocean sucked essential nutrients from one’s body via osmosis. Jumbo’s suit covers most of his skin, which meant “safer beach fun” for Victorians.

17 8. Weird: Custard was invented here because people complained about fast-melting ice cream.

Custard was invented in Coney Island in 1919 by Elton and Archie Kohr, when they noticed the problem of too-fast melting ice cream in the New York summer sun.

According to the history page of the company’s website, “Archie and Elton discovered that by adding eggs to the mix, they got a much more stiff, velvety and creamy product which would melt more slowly.” After perfecting this formula, Elton and Archie opened a stand on Coney’s boardwalk and received incredible, immediate success. Kohr Brothers Frozen Custard exists to this day.

16 22. We’d rather not know: Coney Island was once a magnet for massive, malevolent fires.

In the early 1900s, most of Coney Island was a fire waiting to happen. Remember, electricity was a new concept, and so mistakes were bound to happen. The hype surrounding the capacity to build elaborate attractions surpassed humanity’s understanding of the backing technology. As a result, there were countless fires that swallowed and erased the majority of Coney’s early history.

According to the Coney Island Blog, there were 8 devastating fires between 1893 and 1911, each of which consumed 3 buildings or more.

15 9. Weird: The Parachute Jump was built for the 1939 World Fair.

The skeleton of the Parachute Jump still stands in Coney Island today, through it has not been in use since the closure of Steeplechase in 1964. This thrill ride was built for showcasing in the 1939 World's Fair. It emulated a structure built in 1935 by Amelia Earhart’s husband for training airmen in parachute jumping. The Parachute Jump ride had 11 parachutes with 11 ports of departure around the circumference of the top ring.

The descent to earth lasted only 10 to 20 seconds, but it absolutely dazzled the riders of the time.

14 10. Weird: Coney Island hosts an annual mermaid celebration.

The Mermaid Parade is an annual Coney Island festivity that has occurred since 1983. It is technically considered an art celebration, but is essentially an all-inclusive day of festivities where people create marine floats, dress in elaborate costumes, and crown a “King Neptune” and “Queen Mermaid.”

There are events geared towards families, but the overall vibe of the Mermaid Parade is meant to mimic Mardi Gras: a jamboree of excess, absurdity, and released inhibitions.

13 25. We’d rather not know: Coney Island created an attraction based on a flood.

The Coney Island of the 1900s was known for its “disaster dramas,” in which onlookers could pay to observe reenactments of tragedies. Most of these dramas alluded to either ancient or general occurrences, including the eruption of Vesuvius and a vague performance entitled “Fighting the Flames.” However, some of these disaster dramas cut a bit too close to the bone. The Jonestown Flood was a disaster that claimed over 2,000 lives in Pennsylvania in 1889. In 1903, not even twenty years later, a disaster drama was created in Coney Island to simulate the events of this genuinely tragic flood.

It was bluntly named, “The Johnstown Flood,” without any attempt to conceal its source inspiration. Can you imagine the insensitivity required to create such an attraction?

12 11. Weird: Grandma’s Predictions has resided in Coney Island since 1929.

Who wouldn’t want a creepy, animatronic grandma to predict their future? Well, you can realize this desire in Coney Island. Grandma’s Predictions is an automated fortune telling booth, and for just a quarter ol’ grandma will dispense a card that hints at your future fate. Grandma’s own fate seemed uncertain after she suffered severe damage from Superstorm Sandy, but she was restored and returned to her Coney Island residence in 2013.

Grandma’s Predictions is now thriving more than ever; she even has her own Twitter account.

11 12. Weird: The Wonder Wheel was purchased as a grand, romantic gesture.

Denos Wonder Wheel is one of Coney Island’s oldest attractions. It also has one of the strangest backstories. According to Thrillist, Greek immigrant Denos Vourderis promised his future wife Lula that if she married him, he would buy her a massive ferris wheel in the heart of Coney Island. This was in 1948. Lula accepted Denos’ proposal, and so he worked his way up from a hot dog vendor to park owner. Vourderis kept his word to Lula, and finally purchased the Wonder Wheel in 1983. To this day, the Wonder Wheel is still a prime spot for marriage proposals.

10 20. We’d rather not know: Most of Coney Island’s peak visitors could not afford baths.

Remember earlier when I mentioned that Coney Island used to be private, requiring bath house fees for access to the shoreline? Well, when the public boardwalk opened in 1923, this also meant that visitors could bypass the step of paying 25 cents to bathe.

If lower-class visitors brought any money to Coney Island, they would purchase tickets for amusement rides, or hotdogs and custard. The result? Millions of people crowded together under the hot New York summer sun, without deodorant, soap, or contemporary hygiene habits. Coney Island must have smelled terrible.

Can you imagine being confined in a Ferris Wheel cart with someone who doesn’t own deodorant, who has spent several hours in a sweltering subway car, and who has spent additional hours on a boardwalk under the beating sun? No thank you.

9 13. Weird: LaMarcus Adna Thompson's Scenic Railways influenced so many of today’s theme park rides.

In the late 1800s, an inventor and businessman named LaMarcus Adna Thompson developed a gravity ride in which people could climb to experience a panoramic, elevated view of Coney Island. Then, he realized that rather than bringing riders to a vantage point of scenery, he could bring the scenery to the riders.

Thompson developed railway rides surrounded by sculpted, painted sceneries, the most elaborate of which was titled “The Dragon's Gorge.” This was a magnificent trip from the bottom of the sea, through a waterfall, to the North Pole, Africa, the Grand Canyon, and into Hades, over the river Styx.

Without Thompson’s imagination, we wouldn’t have any scenic theme rides today, from Splash Mountain in Disney World to Universal’s Wizarding World of Harry Potter.

8 14. Weird: “Electric Bathing” was once a major fad.

Thomas Edison created his patent for the electric lightbulb in 1879. Electricity was an amazing invention. Imagine, after living so long according to the rotation of the Earth around the sun, humans finally had control over the night! Nowhere was this perhaps more celebrated than in Coney Island, a hub for the inventiveness of modernity.

The above photo shows Luna Park in 1903, fully outfitted with as many light bulbs as possible. This transcendence of night expanded to beach activities. Visitors to Coney Island practiced “electric bathing,” which meant lounging under electric lamps, rather than sunlight, along the shoreline. This truly showed how enamored everyone was by electricity.

7 21. We’d rather not know: Nathan’s holds a grandiose annual hotdog eating contest.

Nathan’s of Coney Island is the world’s largest hotdog stand. Therefore, it hosts an accordingly acclaimed hotdog eating contest. The defending champion of this contest is Joey Chestnut, who ate 74 hot dogs in the 2018 contest. I don’t know about you, but I don’t need to watch anyone shovel 70+ hotdogs into their mouth. This is a disgusting contest for many reasons, but the most obvious is implicit in the concept.

Why would anyone want to be rewarded for a superior digestive capacity? And who are the people gawking, watching from the audience? All of it is rather unsophisticated, and I’d rather enjoy my Coney Island sans-hotdog gorging.

6 15. Weird: Spike Lee went to high school there.

Spike Lee, the critically acclaimed director, attended John Dewey High School. This is about 1 mile north of the present-day Luna Park. In fact, his 1998 film He Got Game presents Coney Island as a residential setting, rather than a tourist destination.

Though Lee generally approaches more serious subjects, one wonders whether the surrounding absurdity of Coney Island affected or influenced his artistic eye. Coney Island certainly would be a difficult surrounding to tune out.