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Why you need to go to Coney Island on opening day

New York's seasonal seaside carnival has some seriously cool traditions to welcome in the warm weather season.
coney island denos wonder wheel jim mcdonnell
Coney Island from the air. Credit: Jim McDonnell, Deno's Wonder Wheel

It may still be a bit brisk out there, but the sounds of carnival rides and the whirring of cotton candy machines will once again fill the air in Coney Island this weekend.

The trip out to the southern end of Brooklyn is a summer rite of passage for any New Yorker. Nathan’s Famous is already making hot dogs on the Boardwalk, and the rest of Coney Island will emerge from hibernation on Saturday, April 8, when the rides at Luna Park and Deno’s Wonder Wheel Amusement Park open at noon.

But you don’t want to miss the official Opening Day, held on Palm Sunday every year, when the park celebrates a new season of fun with cool events, freebies and a special ceremony. We’ve got five reasons why you absolutely have to be there on April 9.

Blessing of the Rides

Contrary to its name, this blessing is actually about the people who would enjoy themselves at Coney Island in the season to come. The tradition dates back to 1985, started by Pastor Debbe Santiago of the Salt and Sea Mission. It’s because of her that opening weekend takes place on Palm Sunday, with a ceremony that includes speakers and performances starting at 11 a.m.

Meet the Coney Island community

Coney Island isn’t just a destination, it’s also home to some of the city’s most interesting characters, talented performers and delicious food. Experience them all when Luna Park opens at 10 a.m. on Sunday with free egg cream tastings by the Brooklyn Seltzer Boys, photo ops with Mr. and Mrs. Met (their minor league team, the Brooklyn Cyclones, play at Coney’s MCU Park beginning in June), and entertainment by local musicians and dance troupes.

Free rides

Those brave, bundled souls daring to start the season before the warm weather has settled are rewarded with free rides. Luna Park’s Cyclone, the iconic wooden rollercoaster celebrating 90 years on Coney Island this year, will offer free thrills to the first 100 people in line on opening day. Next door at Deno’s Wonder Wheel, rides are free for the 97 early birds in line (for its 97 years on the Boardwalk).

A Coney classic returns

Opening day will also bring see the resurrection of a Coney Island staple. Feltman’s is the original hot dog vendor on the Boardwalk that began as a cart in 1867 — they even claim to have invented the hot dog! It closed up shop in 1954, but Luna Park announced that Feltman’s will return to its original location at Surf Avenue and West 10th Street. (Fun fact: Nathan Handwerker of Nathan’s Famous got his start there before starting his own cart in 1916.) Opening day will be your first chance to taste it where it all began, so get there for some serious bragging rights.

Be the first to try the new eats

Besides all the hot dogs, funnel cakes and other classic Boardwalk fare you can eat, Luna Park is promising some new, healthier options at its vendors this year. A place known for all things fried, coated in sugar and served in portions big enough for two won't exactly be turning out kale salads — honestly, we're almost excited to see what they've got in store, and you can be the first to Intagram it. If anyone could engineer a heart-friendly deep-fried Oreo, it would be a carnival booth.