NEW YORK -- At the beginning of each tourist season, the entrepreneurs who pitch the thrill rides, hot dogs, sideshows and souvenirs at gritty Coney Island gather along its famous boardwalk to pray for two things: good weather and large crowds.
Never have they prayed harder than now.
Five months after Superstorm Sandy's surge swamped New York City's most storied beach destination, many businesses are pinning their hopes on a strong season to help them make up for the hundreds of thousands of dollars they have spent to get back up and running.
"We're almost dead, but we're open," said D.J. Vourderis, whose family owns and operates Deno's Famous Wonder Wheel Amusement Park. "We've built it; now we're just waiting for them to come."
Vourderis logged 92 hours the week leading up to Palm Sunday, when Brooklyn Borough President Marty Markowitz smashed a bottle of egg cream on the famous Cyclone roller coaster to officially christen the new season at Coney Island -- not really an island, but an American institution on a peninsula where, at the turn of the 20th century, it became one of the country's largest and most popular amusement areas.
The late October storm ravaged Vourderis' business, and he was forced to replace all the corroded relays, circuits, breakers and wiring on the Ferris wheel. The family has borrowed to stay afloat and is about $500,000 in the red after paying for the repairs to the iconic 1920 Wonder Wheel, replacing 24 new bumper cars and redesigning the entire inside of the Spook-A-Rama ride, which was waterlogged.
The boardwalk itself was left largely unscathed -- but storm surge below the wooden planks flooded storage areas used by the Wonder Wheel park, with water reaching as high as 5 feet in some places, submerging equipment stowed away during the off season. The Wonder Wheel, like other seasonal businesses, was already due to close around the time of the Oct. 29 storm, so the time off was spent making repairs.
"It's going to take years to get us back to where we were," said Vourderis, standing over hundreds of mint-green quarters that were oxidized so severely that banks won't accept them without first having them cleaned in bleach. "I'm trying to look at the glass half full."
Some Coney Island staples that have been shut since the hurricane have no choice. The flagship Nathan's Famous hot dog stand won't reopen until Memorial Day. The New York Aquarium will reopen, only partially, in late spring. And the Brooklyn Cyclones baseball team is set for its June 18 home opener, though it's unclear whether its damaged field will be replaced with sod or artificial turf.