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.”