The Art of Attractions: Nostalgic Summer Memories of ‘Wonder Wheel’ Still Excite
The trip my family took to New York City is among my most treasured childhood memories. I was enamored by the bright lights and big-city bustle and loved discovering the automat, the NBC Studios tour, and other places we visited. But no place resonated more than Coney Island.
Slowly pulling into the cavernous Stillwell Avenue subway station, the amusement area’s storied landmarks, including the “Cyclone” and the “Parachute Jump” tower, revealed themselves. As a youngster, it was all so breathtaking and larger than life—especially the “Wonder Wheel.”
The peculiar, fascinating structure, with its swinging cars, was mesmerizing to behold. Since my folks were ride wimps and wouldn’t accompany me, I didn’t get to board it. To appease me, my dad bought me a postcard of the “Wonder Wheel.” When I returned home, I tacked the card to my bedroom door. It remained there for years, a daily reminder of the magical, wondrous amusement shrine.
According to family lore, Denos Vourderis promised his sweetheart, Lula, that he would one day buy the “Wonder Wheel” for her as a metaphoric wedding ring to demonstrate the magnitude of his love. That day came in 1983, when the Greek immigrant took ownership of the iconic attraction.
The Vourderis family continues to operate Deno’s Wonder Wheel Park. Like his grandfather for whom he is named, Deno “D.J.” Vourderis has a big heart. When the coronavirus pandemic prevented the park from opening (the only other event in the 100-year history of the wheel that took it offline was the 1977 New York City blackout), Vourderis got busy helping the community. Seeing the great need for personal protective equipment, his wheels started turning. Vourderis retooled the 3D printers and laser cutter he normally uses to custom-make parts for the park’s classic rides to instead manufacture face shields. Putting in 14-hour days, he has been cranking out and donating hundreds of them, each one emblazoned with “Deno’s Wonder Shield” on its band.
“The fact that the ‘Wonder Wheel,’ like the rest of the world, has stopped turning is difficult,” Vourderis says. “But this too shall pass.”
Until then, he’s found a new way to put smiles on people’s faces, even if they are hidden behind face masks and shields.
As park and attraction operators, you have a special connection with your guests. They come to celebrate good times and kindle treasured memories. Remember to be there during difficult times as well.
I’ll see you at the parks. Or maybe I’ll see you on the subway as it approaches Coney Island. I’ll be the one with the faraway look, daydreaming about the postcard that adorned my bedroom all those years ago.
A lifelong park fanatic, Arthur Levine has been writing newspaper and magazine travel features about the industry he loves since 1992. He’s been the Theme Parks Expert at TripSavvy.com (formerly About.com) since 2002, and is a regular contributor for USA Today.