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Top 10 Weirdest Attractions at Coney Island

by Nora McCaughey
fact checked by Darci Heikkinen

Coney Island, a man-made peninsula off the coast of Brooklyn, has been entertaining New Yorkers since the American Civil War. What started as just a beach getaway quickly grew into an amusement park region, with three parks (Steeplechase, Dreamland, and Luna Park) running within a mile of each other at the island’s heydays in the early 1900s.

Each park worked tirelessly to create new and innovative attractions to draw visitors away from the others, resulting in some truly bizarre rides, shows, and stories. Here are some of the weirdest things patrons could do on Coney Island throughout its history.

Related: Top 10 Dark Events At Amusement Parks

10 Hot Dog Eating Contest

Joey Chestnut downs 62 hot dogs at 2023 Nathan’s Famous Hot Dog Contest to win 16th title 🌭🤯

No visit to Coney Island is complete without having a Nathan’s Famous Hot Dog. The company was founded in 1916 by four European immigrants. Legend has it that on July 4th of that very year, the owners were arguing about who was the most American. They agreed that the person who could eat the most hot dogs would clearly be the winner—and the contest has been repeated every year since.

Awesome story, right? Sadly, it’s not true. Press agent Mortimer Matz told the New York Times in 2010 that “in Coney Island pitchman style, we made it up.” Regardless of how it started, the current hot dog eating contest has been held on Independence Day since 1972, always at Coney Island.

In case you can’t make it in person, the contest is broadcast all across America thanks to an agreement with Major League Eating.[1]

9 Igorrote Village

Racism Against Filipinos in American History • Human Zoos Documentary

Unfortunately, human zoos were not that uncommon throughout the world in the Victorian Era, and Coney Island was no exception. Luna Park, situated on Coney Island, opened a new exhibit in 1905 called the Igorrote Village—the “exhibit” had found great success during the St. Louis World’s Fair in 1904.

The “village” housed 50 indigenous people from the Philippines, specifically the Igorot tribe. These individuals were brought to Coney Island as part of a larger trend of ethnological exhibits prevalent in the United States and Europe during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. These exhibits aimed to showcase “exotic” cultures and peoples to curious audiences, often through a lens of racial and cultural superiority.

The Igorot were advertised as “head-hunting, dog-eating savages.” They were forced to perform fake dances, weddings, and fights, all for the entertainment of Coney Islanders. The worst part was the “dog feasts.” Actual dogs from the local pound were slaughtered, then cooked and fed to the Igorrote. These meals were so popular that the Filipinos were made to eat them every single day.

By the mid-20th century, such displays had largely fallen out of favor, seen as relics of a less enlightened era. The Igorrote Village, along with similar exhibits, eventually closed its doors, consigned to the annals of history as a troubling chapter in the entertainment industry’s past.[2]

8 Lilluputia

Coney Island’s Forgotten Village For Little People

Throughout the 1800s, freak shows and human oddities were common all across the world, showcasing famous figures such as Tom Thumb and the Elephant Man. Generally, these were just severely deformed or disabled people, as in both of the previous cases.

Dreamland Park’s Lilliputia—named after the fictional land of little people in Gulliver’s Travels, came to be better known as Midget City. The area featured a real community of 300 little people built on a proportional scale to their small statures. The centerpiece of Lilliputia was its meticulously crafted cityscape, complete with miniature buildings, streets, and landmarks. Visitors could wander through the tiny streets amid intricately detailed architecture and whimsical sights. From miniature houses and shops to tiny gardens and parks, every corner of Lilliputia was designed to evoke a sense of wonder.

Lilliputia had its own government, with a mayor, a police force, and even its own currency. Visitors could interact with the residents, watch performances, and immerse themselves in the daily life of this tiny kingdom. Occasionally, the park would have a “giant” or two walk through the area to accentuate the minuteness of the tiny version of medieval Nuremberg, Germany.[3]

7 Hell Gate

Defunctland: The History of Coney Island

Now you can say you’ve been to hell and back.

The most iconic ride from Coney Island’s Dreamland Park was hard to miss: A giant light-up sculpture of the devil hung from the entrance of “Hell Gate,” a boat ride that only charged a dime to take riders past Satan himself and through scenes of various sins. Aside from the fiery special effects, patrons loved the fact that the ride allowed men and women to indulge in some sin of their own. The Daily News reported that darkness and noises of the ride “will cause the female to precipitate herself into the male’s arms. Her fright is usually as phony as the hazards of the course, but it serves a useful purpose.”

Ironically, when Dreamland burned to the ground in 1911, it would be due to an exploded lightbulb on this ride.[4]

6 Boer War Spectacle

Boer War, South Africa 1899-1902: A Summary

The Boer War was fought between Great Britain and the Dutch Boers for control of the entire country of South Africa. Because the war only ended in 1902, when the St. Louis World’s Fair debuted just two years later, there were plenty of Boer and British veterans still alive. With apparently nothing better to do, they reenacted their war days for an audience.

Yup, the “Boer War Spectacle” consisted of hundreds of veterans and even some native South Africans engaging in a fake battle over 14 acres of arena and a mile of scenery. It proved a huge hit at the World’s Fair, so the otherwise unemployed veterans moved the show over to Coney Island, where soldiers engaged in 2-3 hour battles twice a day.[5]

5 The Elephant Hotel

Was there Ever a Tin Hotel for Prostitutes, Shaped Like a Giant Elephant?

If you know anything about the history of Coney Island, you’ve probably heard of the Elephantine Colossus. This 122-foot (37.2-meter) tall building in the shape of an elephant was commissioned to attract tourists from the city, and it sure delivered.

Functioning as a hotel, museum, restaurant, and amusement hall, the so-called Elephant Hotel was a huge success. As Coney Island began to flourish throughout the late 19th century and became the top amusement area in America, the Elephant Hotel became the icon of the peninsula. For two years before the Statue of Liberty was built, the hotel was the first sight visible to immigrants arriving from all over the world.

Unfortunately, as Coney Island became known as a place for fun of a different kind, the Elephant’s rooms got taken over by local prostitutes. Eventually, it became a full-blown brothel, to the point where “seeing the elephant” became slang for picking up local escorts.

Even though the island cleaned itself up a few years later, becoming known for family-friendly attractions, the Elephant never got the chance to redeem itself, as the building burned to the ground in 1896 and was never rebuilt.[6]

4 Burning Remains

Coney Island: New York’s Playground, Steeplechase Park & Luna Park

Speaking of burning, Coney Island has quite a fiery history. The Elephant was the first, but certainly not the last. The years 1907, 1911, 1932, 1944, 1963, and 2010 would plague Coney Island parks, apartments and businesses.

The 1907 fire started in Steeplechase Park, the first of the three main amusement parks to open on Coney Island. No one knows how the fire started, but it spread wildly and took most of the wooden boardwalk and shops along with it.

Unfortunately, none of the park itself was spared, and the smoldering ruins were all that was left of the historic area. Attempting to make the best out of a bad situation, park owner George Tilyou erected a sign on the site the morning after the fire, which read: “On this site will be built a bigger, better Steeplechase Park. Admission to the burning ruins—Ten cents.”[7]

3 The Steeplechase Ride and Blow Hole Theater

Steeplechase’s Blowhole Theater

Steeplechase Park was famous for its namesake ride, which took amusement seekers on a gravity roller coaster, one of the first of its kind. Steeplechase, as the name suggests, was horse-themed, so every rider rode individually and was given a chance to have their horse “win” the race (because the ride was a downhill slope, the heaviest rider always won).

After the ride, patrons were guided through the Blow Hole Theater. This was the only way to exit the ride, and it featured a cruel trick. Jets of air would pump up from the ground, forcing women’s dresses and skirts to shoot up and reveal their bloomers or underwear (remember, this was Victorian times when even seeing a woman’s ankle was considered promiscuous!).

The men didn’t get off scot-free either: A clown with an electric prod was waiting to poke them as they laughed at their lady friends.

As if this wasn’t bad enough, after being put through these trials and tribulations, riders were ushered into a large auditorium area to watch other patrons be harassed by the same “pranks” that they’d just gone through.[8]

2 Baby Incubators

The Forgotten Carnival Sideshow That Saved Countless Babies’ Lives

It’s a beautiful summer day at the turn of the century, and families are flocking to the multiple amusement parks situated on Coney Island. They have three options: Steeplechase Park, with its namesake horse-themed ride; Luna Park, known as the “heart of Coney Island”; or Dreamland, with its… premature babies.

That’s right, one of the most popular attractions at the park was the tiny babies who had been born too early. In the 1880s, incubator devices were introduced, which helped keep these fragile infants alive, and the public’s interest was piqued.

Unlike many other sideshow attractions at the time, these babies were actually treated pretty well. People paid simply to watch nurses care for the infants, and all proceeds went to help the babies and future premature birth research.[9]

1 Topsy the Elephant

4th January 1903: Topsy the elephant electrocuted at Luna Park in Coney Island, New York

Ah, the good old days, back when you could pay twenty-five cents to watch an animal be brutally killed.

Made famous—again—by the recent Bob’s Burger episode “Topsy,” Topsy the Elephant’s story is a sad one. Born in 1875, the Asian elephant performed in American circuses for years, being lauded as the first elephant born on American soil (which wasn’t true). Eventually, she was sold to Luna Park, the main amusement park on Coney Island.

Her rowdy behavior led to her being labeled a “bad elephant,” and the park decided they could no longer handle her. Luna Park’s press agent announced in 1902 that Topsy would be put to death via a public hanging, which spectators could pay 25 cents to see. Luckily, someone around there had some sense, and the president of the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals stepped in, claiming that hanging Topsy was needlessly cruel.

Luna Park switched the death to an electrocution, which ASPCA had no problem with. Topsy was killed with much fanfare. It was even recorded and turned into a short film titled Electrocuting an Elephant, which can still be viewed online today.[10]

fact checked by Darci Heikkinen