Why Coney Island's Cyclone Is a Great Coaster

Classic, Beloved Ride Still Packs a Punch

© Arthur Levine.

A treasured piece of living history (a term that applies to much of Coney Island), the classic Cyclone evokes an earlier era, yet packs a surprisingly potent punch—even when compared to modern-day coaster behemoths. It is, perhaps, the archetypal roller coaster and probably the world's most famous thrill machine. While the Cyclone can get more than a bit rough, coaster freaks and casual fans alike nonetheless adore the sentimental favorite.

  • Thrill Scale (0=Wimpy!, 10=Yikes!): 6.5
    • Unusually steep first drop, traditional coaster car lacks seat dividers, plenty of airtime, can be excessively rough, traditional rickety wood coaster ride
  • Coaster type: Wood (although the structure is steel), prototypical "cyclone" twister layout
  • Top speed: 60 mph
  • Height of lift hill: 85 feet
  • Ride time: 1.5 minutes

Glorious Vintage Ride

Screeching into the Coney Island Sitwell Avenue station on the New York City subway, the landmark comes into view: the white lattice, the faded red railing, the "CYCLONE" block letters at the top of the lift hill. Generations of passengers have peered through the trains' windows and shared the giddy sensation of having arrived at Coney Island as well as the anticipation of joy and fear that the sight of the roller coaster elicits.

Riders line up along Surf Avenue under the Cyclone's glorious vintage neon sign. After paying the cashier in the old cage booth for a ticket, passengers snake under the track and through the structure up to the loading platform. The ride has never been updated with a computerized brake system, and the Cyclone is one of the few classic coasters that still uses manual brakes. It's a hoot to watch ride operators slow and stop the trains by pulling on the ride's tall brake handles.

Like nearly everything else about the Cyclone, the design of the traditional 24-passenger trains has essentially remained unchanged for decades. The low-slung seats do not have headrests, and the only safety restraint is a single-position bar. The two-person bench seats do not have dividers (which is a rarity these days), so seatmates need to really like each other as they will invariably slide and crash into one another during the ride. The seat bases, the chassis, and the sides of the cars are articulated so that they can move independently and accommodate the wild ride.

Once cleared for departure, the brakeman eases up on the handle, and the train rolls out of the station to engage the chain lift. Riding past the wonderful "Final warning: No standing!" sign and up the 85-foot hill to the stirring clackety-clack sound, passengers can feel the odd movements of the articulated car as it navigates the track. Facing the beach and the ocean beyond, the view from the top of the hill is spectacular.

The Cyclone Is a "Good" Aggressive Coaster

Then all hell breaks loose. At nearly 60 degrees, the first drop is quite steep. A friend has aptly described the drop as the equivalent of riding down an 85-foot ladder and hitting every rung along the way. A 180-degree turn at the bottom of the hill sends the train racing up the second hill and delivering the first of many bursts of airtime. The turn also sends passengers on one side of the train slamming—and I mean slamming—into their seatmates. There are six 180-degree turns in all, so there are plenty of lateral G-forces and opportunities for riders to crash into one another.

The Cyclone features 12 drops and loads of euphoric airtime. There are also 18 track crossovers. Unlike an out-and-back coaster which travels a single loop, the Cyclone is able to fit 2640 feet of track into its compact footprint by twisting in and out of itself. The thrill machine is so groundbreaking and legendary, all twister roller coasters are generically known as "cyclone" coasters in its honor.

The ride varies according to the seat position and other factors such as the time of day and the weather. The back seats, especially, can be insanely rough, although I once had a front-row ride that was not for the squeamish. The structure groans and shakes, riders get tossed to and fro with abandon, and the trains can suddenly lurch skyward only to whack into the upstop wheels tethering them to the track. For all of its punishment, however, the Cyclone is, at its core, an exciting and decidedly fun ride. It invariably elicits equal doses of laughter and screams.

There are "bad" aggressive coasters (such as the hideous Manhattan Express, or whatever Las Vegas' New York, New York Casino is calling its ride these days) and "good" aggressive coasters. The Cyclone falls squarely in the latter category.

Protected for Years to Come

The Cyclone has, ahem, had its ups and downs. It debuted in 1927 to great acclaim and quickly gained worldwide fame. Coney Island's popularity waned through the years, however, and the Cyclone's customers dwindled. Its fate appeared grim when the city condemned it in 1969.

Thankfully, its owners at the time lovingly restored the Cyclone and reopened it in 1975. New York listed it as an official city landmark in 1988. In 1991, the state of New York entered the Cyclone in its Register of Historic Places. That same year, the ride gained National Historic Landmark status, which protects it from the whims of developers. The protected Cyclone will remain intact and delight riders for years to come. The coaster is now run by Luna Park, the city-appointed operator that manages most of the rides at Coney Island.

As the Cyclone comes roaring back into the station at the end of the ride, crewmembers jump on the sides of the train and hawk re-rides at a reduced price. If you want to score a front-row seat (highly recommended), pay for a re-ride and try to quickly hightail it to the front car. Then, get ready for another sweet Cyclone slamfest.

Other Coney Island gems include the Wonder Wheel and the  Spook-A-Rama, both of which are located at Deno's Wonder Wheel Park.

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