The
Wonder WheelKeeping the thrill alive

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Superstorm Sandy had stampeded through Coney Island the previous night, its surge drenching amusement rides and leaving behind mud and debris. The electricity was dead. Now it was the morning of Oct. 30, 2012, and a fearful Steve Vourderis was focused on the magnificent treasure that belonged to his family: The nearly century-old, 150-foot-high Wonder Wheel.

Would this beloved mechanical marvel ever turn again?

While the 200-ton Bethlehem steel structure had been tied down with dozens of ropes to keep it safe from the storm’s powerful winds, the Wheel’s 24 cars had been stowed away in the underground workshop that was now filled with gallons of corrosive salt water. And its computer-controlled system had been rendered lifeless by the surge.

Reviving the Wheel was more than a matter of fixing the signature ride at Deno’s Wonder Wheel Amusement Park. It was a matter of family pride and legacy — for three generations, the very lives of the Vourderis family have revolved around the Great Wheel. They are the caretakers of a city icon that has shaped the summertime thrills of millions of people.

During their stewardship of the Wheel, the family had restored it from a state of near ruin in the 1980s to make it one of Coney Island’s most famous rides and have continued a spotless safety record with no major accidents or injuries to passengers stretching back to 1920.

A BEACON AT CONEY ISLAND

This year, the Vourderis family kicked off a summerlong celebration of the anniversary of the Wonder Wheel, with a birthday celebration on Memorial Day marking the day when it opened 95 years ago. Two generations of the Vourderis family that has owned Deno’s Wonder Wheel Amusement Park gathered to sing “Happy Birthday” and handed out party hats and favors.

Besides the Cyclone, the Wheel is the only large thrill ride of its kind still operating from the heyday of the 1920s, and is among the oldest pleasure wheels in the United States. Its fame has spread globally, its image appearing in movies like the cult-classic “The Warriors” and on television shows like this summer’s cable hit “Mr. Robot” with Christian Slater. It has even inspired sibling rides in Japan and at Disney California Adventure. More than 30 million people have experienced it.

To this day, the ride largely remains the same as it did back when it first thrilled passengers with its unusual design.

Unlike a typical Ferris wheel, only eight of the Wonder Wheel’s cars remain stationary; 16 others swing on rails. Its inventor, a little-known Romanian-born engineer named Charles Hermann, had wanted to combine the excitement of the early rollercoasters with that of the Ferris wheel.

Because of the design, riders can choose from two very different experiences of the Wheel.

In the white, stationary cars, passengers experience an almost meditative journey as the car slowly rises to the topmost arch where they can get a view of the expanse of Coney Island, the beach and Atlantic Ocean on the left, while on the right the skyscrapers of the Manhattan skyline come into focus. It’s so pleasant a baby can ride it without alarm (there are no height restrictions).

Choose one of the red or blue swinging cars and the experience is more like a catch-your-breath thrill. As the car swings forward along the rails, it seems perilously fast, before dipping. “You feel like you are going to just fly off,” said first-time rider Tyler Richards, 25, of Harlem, who admitted to being terrified of such rides.

An estimated 200,000 people take the ride each year, when the it is open from Palm Sunday to late October. The record for the most people riding in one day was set July 5, 1947 when 14,506 passengers were recorded, going only one rotation at a time. Nowadays it costs $7 a ride (or less with package discounts) and goes for two rotations.

Steve Vourderis is often standing less than 25 feet away whenever the Wheel is in operation, keeping an eye on the wheels of the swinging cars, or listening for the telltale screech of metal-on-metal that could mean something needs to be adjusted or replaced. This is how Vourderis, 53, spends his summers: in a nearly all-day, all-night vigilance that sometimes keeps him at the park until the very early morning hours. On weekends, he sometimes stays the night in a full-size RV parked just steps from the Wheel.

Such intense focus has taken a toll, he said at one point, half-joking that he might only have a couple more years left in him. After all, he has been working on the Wheel since he was a teenager, when his father bought it in the 1980s. “It’s tough. It’s tough on family life,” he said. “I’m here all the time.”

Vourderis, who co-owns Deno’s Wonder Wheel Amusement Park with his brother Dennis, doesn’t think his business or Coney Island would be the same without it. “The Wheel attracts the people,” Vourderis said. “It’s a centerpiece, a diamond in the center.”

His brother, Dennis Vourderis, said people see a Ferris wheel moving and automatically are drawn to it. “It serves as a beacon for all the businesses in the area, not just ours. It signals that Coney Island is open.”

Today Deno’s Wonder Wheel Amusement Park stretches across two acres of prime Coney Island real estate, and is split between the kiddie park that Dennis Vourderis manages and the adult rides including the Wheel. In all, there are 21 rides, two arcades, two concession stands and two group games. It is the last family-owned amusement park in Coney Island. The only other amusement park, Luna Park, is owned and operated by Italian-based global ride manufacturer Zamperla. Other rides and concessions are independently owned.

Deno’s has also become something of a living museum to Coney Island.

It is home to the oldest arcade machine, Grandma’s Predictions, which has been telling fortunes since the 1920s; some of the earliest children’s rides ever built by the canny inventor William F. Mangels, all of which continue to attract hordes of kids each summer; and remnants of the famed Astroland Amusement Park that once neighbored Deno’s, such as the Scrambler ride. It also houses the Coney Island History Project.

It employs 100 people, 75 percent of whom are from the neighborhood.

Two generations of the Vourderis family continue to work there. Denos Vourderis, the patriarch, died in 1994. His wife, Lula, is living out her retirement.

Beside two of Steve’s sons, his wife, Stacey, is often working on site as a “cleaning lady,” as she puts it, but she also assists Steve whenever he needs help. The couple has been married 34 years, but she said she considers it a privilege to work there. Dennis Vourderis’ son Denos, 29, works at the concession stand, helps hire staff and does maintenance. His brother, Timothy, 20, also helps out at the concession stand. He has two other sons, ages 24 and 27, who come on busy days to help out along with his wife.

Dennis Vourderis said the amusement park has allowed them to have a comfortable life and to be able to put their children through school. But it’s also a commitment of 12 to 16 hours a day, six days a week. He even pitches in when needed to run rides or work in the sweet shop, the original concession stand his parents owned. They sell funnel cakes, churros, cotton candy, pretzels and other sweets.

“I just love to watch people dig into this stuff,” he said one day this summer as the park hosted a group of hundreds of summer camp children. Wearing a white polo shirt, red apron, baseball cap and aviator glasses, he took special pride in handing out sweets to the children, and whipping up pillows of cotton candy.

BETTER THAN A DIAMOND RING

The construction of the Wonder Wheel helped usher in an era of optimism that Coney Island could be restored to former glory after the traumatic destruction of the iconic Dreamland amusement park in a fire in 1911.

The wheel was built over two years by concessionaire Herman Garms, who built a forge on site. It was complete over two years, from 1918 to 1920. When he died in 1935, his son, Fred, took over. But by the 1980s, Freddy Garms was ready to part ways with it. He didn’t have to go far to find a buyer: Denos D. Vourderis, the operator of a kiddie park sandwiched between the Wheel and the boardwalk. The match seemed meant to be.

Vourderis, a Greek-born mechanical whiz, had proposed to his wife Lula in front of the Wonder Wheel in 1948. “I told her you marry me I buy you the Wonder Wheel,” he recalled for the Daily News in 1987. “I couldn’t buy it because I had no money.”

Vourderis worked as a hot dog vendor throughout the city before ultimately landing at Coney Island, where he was offered free space for a concession stand at what was then Ward’s Kiddie Park in exchange for fixing up the antiquated rides. By 1976, Vourderis was helping to manage the kiddie park, and by 1981 the owner had sold it to him.

Garms had been impressed with Vourderis’ work ethic at the kiddie park and his commitment to it at a time when the rest of Coney Island’s amusement attractions were sinking into disrepair. By the early 1980s, like the rest of the city, the fortunes of the area had reached a low point, and revenues were so scarce that rides like the Wheel were no longer regularly maintained.

But throughout this period, Vourderis had invested in the upkeep of the kiddie park, making it one of the few successes of the time. Garms sold the Wheel to Vourderis, for $250,000. The Wheel’s only operating instructions were on a hand-scrawled note on the back of a carton of cigarettes from Garms that included the helpful message, “Good Luck.”

A SHOT OF SCOTCH BEFORE A FIRST CLIMB

Anyone who is responsible for taking care of the Wheel has to climb to the axis at the heart of the machine to learn how it works.

The first time that Steve Vourderis went up, he recalled how Freddy Garms prepped him for the ascent with a shot of Chivas Regal. This was in 1983, and Vourderis was 19 years old. In a photo from that era taken of him standing astride the wheel, he is a lanky young man with tousled, dark brown hair and a trim mustache.

“I was nervous,” Vourderis said. “I saw it as a challenge. Not one I wanted to back down from — but it was a challenge.” He knew he was being groomed by his father Denos to take over the Wheel; he had spent his childhood growing up at the kiddie park, watching and helping his dad take care of the rides.

By the time Vourderis was standing at the axis halfway up the Wheel behind its neon sign that can be seen from miles away, he might have been shaking “a lot more” if it hadn’t been for the Scotch. “I didn’t understand it at all when I got up there. It was too windy. I was holding on for dear life,” he said. If you looked up just a second and saw the Wheel rotating, you’d get dizzy. He recalled Garms asking him, “Junior, how are you doing up here?” By the time he got down, his legs were wobbly.

The Garms family stayed for about a month in the 1983 season, he said, teaching them how to run the wheel and how to maintain it.

By the next summer, Vourderis was overseeing maintenance of the Wheel with his father.

But it wasn’t just a matter of fixing minor problems. Years of neglect had taken their toll, and the Wheel needed a complete overhaul. The family invested tens of thousands of dollars into repairing and refurbishing the Wheel over several years. Old photos of the Wheel’s cars showed that they were rusting and weathered. They had to be rebuilt with new parts and refinished. The Wheel had to be refinished and repainted. After years spent maintaining the Wheel, Steve Vourderis wrote a proper manual for it and had it certified by a civil engineer.

Jim Futrell, the author of “Amusement Parks of New York,” credits the family’s restoration of the Wheel for the city designating it an official landmark in 1989.

But even today it requires year-round maintenance: There is no off-season for Vourderis and his crew, which includes his sons Denos (who goes by the initials “D.J.”) and Teddy, as well as longtime workers who have also become lifelong friends.

“Now it’s preventive,” Steve Vourderis said. “We’re fighting the elements. You’re dealing with the salt water.”

EMERGING FROM A STORM OF RUIN

Salt water was among the biggest threats after Sandy.

According to D.J. Vourderis, Steve’s son, the first thing they did after pumping the water from their drowned workshop was to pull the Wheel’s cars out of the inundated storage area. The cars were cleaned, their bearings changed, he said. But anything electronic that had been submerged was destroyed.

Dozens of dumpsters would ultimately be filled with parts and electronics that were rendered useless by the storm. Dennis Vourderis, who at 56 manages operations for the entire park, said he lost track of the cost to the family when it got past half a million dollars.

“We had borrowed money to stay afloat,” he said. They received financial assistance from National Grid and from the city’s Small Business Services. But, ultimately, the family had to put up their own money. “We had no choice.”

D.J. Vourderis said when it came to the Wheel, there was nothing to do but rely on the 1918 control system that had been replaced by the now-dead computer-controlled system in the 1990s.

“We hosed off that 1918 controller and got the salt out of that because it’s a big block of copper,” he said. “We wire brushed it, we scraped it. It was a lot of work.”

Finally, they got the Wheel running again, relying on a hand crank from the original 1918 design; when power had been restored to the park, they found the antiquated control system also still worked.

KEEPING THE THRILL ALIVE

At 34, D.J. Vourderis is the heir to the mechanical wizardry that his grandfather passed down to his father. He is lanky and tall with tousled brown hair. He sometimes rides his Harley-Davidson to work; he first climbed the Wheel without his father’s permission at around 14 years of age. His wife is expecting their first child.

And after Sandy, D.J., who tinkers and repairs most of the electronics, stepped up.

Not only did he repair the 1990s controller that the floodwater had destroyed, he decided to go a step further and build a new one that would give them a lot more control over the Wheel. He built a new computer server and raised it two feet above the flood line from Sandy. A longtime “Star Trek” fan, he added speed control buttons on the new control panel that go from Warp 1 to Warp 9. Though having finer speed control doesn’t affect the experience of the ride, it provides a way to get people down faster in an emergency.

On most summer days, D.J. Vourderis is at the controls of the Wonder Wheel. He spends hours on his feet. As passengers queue up in the two lines – one for swinging cars and the other for stationary cars – he steps forward and opens the door to let passengers on to the swinging cars. Another worker helps the passengers into the stationary cars. The doors are locked shut and then they are off on their ride. Coming down for the second rotation, Vourderis is listening to the Wheel.

“You have to listen to the motor to feel where the weight is,” he said. “Everything tells you a little bit about the story.”

As one of the swinging cars hits its last curb in its rotation, he leans backward with one arm and pulls on a lever — from the 1918 design –- to apply the brakes. It’s the end of the ride for the passengers.

Vourderis, who went to drama school and even appeared in an Off-Broadway show, is courteous with the riders. “Here you go, guys,” he says, letting in people who are queued up.

He also jokes with the customers. One passenger is a bit nervous after one rotation, and as her car passes by him, she yells out, “It’s twice?” He responds, joking, “The button is stuck!” pointing at his control panel.

Later, when asked about how he sees the future and the potential that he may become the caretaker of the Wheel when his father retires, he isn’t sure. But he wouldn’t mind having normal hours. Now that he is going to be a father himself, he also thinks about missing time with his daughter.

What Vourderis knows for sure is that the Wheel is like a member of his own family. And for now it is up to them to keep the Wheel turning, so that it can keep thrilling the masses. “One time maybe it will be our time to go. Until then, we’re there.”