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Coney Island hosts 125th birthday party

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June 16, 2011

It began as an apple orchard, grew into a picnic grove, blossomed into a riverside resort and then became a full-scale amusement park.

Along the way, it survived devastating floods, the Great Depression, polio scares, a long desegregation battle and competition from bigger theme parks to become a summertime tradition for generations of Greater Cincinnatians.

Coney Island, the 75-acre amusement park on the banks of the Ohio River, is marking its 125th anniversary this year - and its status as the sixth-oldest amusement park in the country.

The biggest celebration of the season is happening all day Saturday, with discounted admission after 4 p.m., $1.25 concession specials, free birthday cake, live music, a memorabilia display and fireworks over Lake Como at 10 p.m.

"There's a long-term love affair with Cincinnati and Coney Island," said Tom Rhein, the park's vice president of food operations and its resident historian. "People really want it to be successful. That's kind of a neat feeling."

Originally called "Ohio Grove, Coney Island of the West" - a nod to the Coney Island of the East, in New York - the park was founded on June 21, 1886, by a steamboat captain named William F. McIntyre and his partners. They paid $17,500 for what was then a picnic grove and riverside resort with a dance hall and a few rides and games, to which visitors arrived by steamboat.

The pivotal year for the park was 1925, Rhein said. George F. Schott and Rudolph Hynicka, who had purchased the park the year before, built a new Island Queen steamboat to bring visitors to the park after the original was destroyed by fire; Moonlite Gardens, where some of the biggest names in big band music and early rock 'n' roll performed; a midway; and the enormous Sunlite Pool. Containing 3 million gallons of water, it remains the world's largest recirculating swimming pool.

Coney became regarded as one of the best-run amusement parks in the country. Walt Disney himself visited the park in 1953 when he was planning Disneyland.

"It was a microcosm of the way we all played and relaxed," said Gary Wachs, the grandson of George Schott and the assistant park manager and vice president from 1961 to 1970. "The old advertising slogan was 'Ride, swim, dine and dance at Coney Island.' Some people would literally go through the whole routine."

Sunlite Pool was the only part of the park that remained open in 1972, a year after park owners Taft Broadcasting shut it down to open Kings Island in Kings Mills, which many believed meant the end of Coney Island.

But even after families began flocking to Kings Island, Coney made a comeback. Owners gradually reopened the picnic groves and the miniature golf course, built a dance hall and added rides. The newest is the child's swing ride called the Swing-A-Round that opened this year.

"In essence, it's kind of the park that refused to die," said Jim Futrell, the historian for the National Amusement Park Historical Association. "It's unprecedented. It really speaks to the love that Cincinnati has for that place."

Although Coney does not release attendance numbers, 2010 was the park's best attendance year, and it's on track to match or exceed that this year, said Mary Schumacher, senior vice president for sales and marketing.

Attendance normally approaches 1 million, she said.

On any given day, you can find visitors and employees whose families have been coming to the park for decades.

Lifeguard supervisor Krista Howard, 41, has worked at Coney since she was 16 and met her husband, Mike Howard - now the park's vice president of operations - there. She now oversees more than 100 lifeguards, 54 of whom are working on any given day.

One of those regulars is Dick Devine, 72, of Anderson Township, who has been a regular since he was about 10 years old. Three of his four children swam on Coney's team and went on to become lifeguards, and he also officiated swim meets. Today, he brings his grandchildren to the pool weekly.

"Over all these years, most of the people down here I know, at least by sight," he said on a recent Friday at the pool. "I've enjoyed being involved down here and watching kids grow up, become adults and raise their own kids. This is really a generational pool."

Kathleen Weichman of Forest Park also grew up going to Coney Island with her family, always on Price Hill Day. (On Price Hill Day in 1948, when she was 6, her family won free admission to the park and got their picture in the Cincinnati Post because they were the 500th family to enter.)

Weichman went to Moonlite Gardens on dates as a teenager and brought her own children and grandchildren there. She said its size and crowds are smaller compared with bigger theme parks, so she never worries about her grandchildren's safety.

"At the time when I was a kid, it was exciting because it was the biggest park around," she said. "Now, I like it because it's not the biggest park around."

But there are still those who remember a time when Coney Island wasn't open to every family. This year also marks the 50th anniversary of the integration of Sunlite Pool on May 29, 1961, six years after the park opened its doors to black visitors. Civil rights groups had been pressuring Coney to admit African-Americans since 1952.

Former Cincinnati City Councilwoman Marian Spencer of Avondale, now 90, was a key part of that effort. But even after the battle was won, she had little interest in going to the park, and she thinks many other African-American families felt the same way.

"I think there's a residue that occurs from history," she said. "It took a long time and a big fight with the NAACP to make those changes...and even though the change had occurred, that kind of thing was passed down."

Coney's gradual integration, Rhein said, was "a work in progress reflective of the times and the individuals involved."

"We certainly are a richer, more diverse park today," he said, "because the people of that time found a way to make it so."


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