Back in the days before air-conditioning, New York families flocked to the beach at Coney Island to cool off in summer, and it was a rite of passage to grow tall enough (54 in.) to be allowed on New York's most famous roller coaster, the Cyclone. Thrill rides may have advanced technologically since then, but this classic coaster, built in 1927, is still one of the best, plunging a heart-stopping eight stories from its highest peak.
The charms of Coney Island go well beyond the Cyclone, of course; for one thing, there's that dynamite location, right on a wide white-sand beach where Atlantic waters crash. The New York Aquarium, Surf Avenue and West 8th Street (tel. 718/265-FISH ; www.nyaquarium.com), just a short stroll up the boardwalk, features dolphins, sea lions, seals, and walruses. At 12th Street, Deno's Wonder Wheel Amusement Park (www.wonderwheel.com) features the 1920 landmark Wonder Wheel, an ingenious double Ferris wheel of gargantuan proportions. For those who like to stay closer to earth, there are bumper cars, tilt-a-whirls, spinning teacups, carousels, and kiddie rides, as well as satisfyingly cheesy arcades; the area also has mini-golf and go-kart concessions. Compared to huge plasticized theme parks such as Disney, Six Flags, and Busch Gardens, the Coney Island amusements have a grungy midway glamour that older kids will appreciate -- it's the Real Thing. (With kids, it's best to visit by day -- and know where your wallet is at all times.)
The beach and boardwalk have been spruced up lately, though, and the beachfront souvenir shops and food stands have acquired a post-modern hipster gloss, with Brooklyn artists decorating their side walls with retro murals. Even the local freak show, tucked up a Surf Avenue side street near the parks, has the whiff of a performance art installation, and along the boardwalk to the east, there's a tidy baseball stadium for a popular Mets farm team, the Brooklyn Cyclones (tel. 718/449-8497; www.brooklyncyclones.com). But you can still get a reliable kosher frank at Nathan's famous open-air hot dog stand on Surf Avenue -- some things never change.
Nearest Airport: John F. Kennedy International, LaGuardia, Newark Liberty International.
Where to Stay: $$ Excelsior Hotel, 45 W. 81st St. (tel. 800/368-4575 or 212/362-9200; www.excelsiorhotelny.com). $$$ Le Parker Meridien, 119 W. 56th St. (pedestrian entrance: 118 W. 57th St.; tel. 800/543-4300 or 212/245-5000; www.parkermeridien.com).
Best Time: Amusement parks open daily June to Labor Day, Saturday and Sunday April to May and September to October.