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The American Experience
Suggestions for the Classroom

Coney Island is the story of a tiny spit of land at the foot of Brooklyn that at the turn of the century became the most extravagant playground in the country. In scale, in variety, in sheer inventiveness, Coney Island was unlike anything anyone had ever seen, and sooner or later everyone came to see it. "Coney," one man said in 1904, "is the most bewilderingly up-to-date place of amusement in the world." Coney Island is a lively and absorbing portrait of the extraordinary amusement empire that astonished, delighted and shocked the nation -- and took Americans from the Victorian age into the modern world.


  • examine Coney Island's history from development to decline.

  • compare and contrast historic photographs.

  • evaluate the use of archival film and photographs in documentaries.

  • analyze and interpret social changes in cultural history.

Before Viewing

    Introducing the Program
    Conduct an informal poll of your students to find out their favorite amusement park attractions. Then have students work together to describe their ideal amusement park, including rides, games, and other attractions. Next have students consider which of these features would have been possible in an amusement park 100 years ago. Discuss the types of entertainment available at that time. Then tell students that Coney Island will introduce them to the history of a world-famous amusement park from its earliest origins, through a tumultuous prime at the turn of the century, to its modern incarnation.

Critical Viewing

    Ask students to imagine that they are going to make a documentary about their areas 100 years ago. Discuss how they will show what their town or neighborhood looked like. Remind students that any historic photographs or films used in a documentary are called archival materials. Point out that such material is a vital and important source of information. Encourage students to pay attention to the information they gain from historical visuals as they view Coney Island.

After Viewing

    Discussion encourage students to discuss the program and share their observations. The following questions may be used to stimulate discussion.
    1. Why was Coney Island built?

    2. Coney Island began as a rural retreat for wealthy city-dwellers. How did Coney Island expand to meet the needs of more visitors from diverse economic levels?

    3. How did Coney Island change the entertainment industry in the United States? Explain.

    4. What can historians learn by studying how people enjoyed themselves in the past? How do you think studying the daily life of a culture leads to greater insights about history?

Follow-up Activities

  1. Compare and contrast Coney Island at its peak in 1911 with a modern amusement park. What are the main differences and similarities between the two?

  2. Work with a group of students to create a brochure that will attract visitors to Coney Island today. You might include descriptions of the area, points of historical interest, as well as current attractions

  3. Lindsay Denison wrote that the most popular ride at Coney Island would be the one that "laughs loudest at the laws of gravity." Research and report on the laws of physics involved in a roller coaster ride such as the first Loop the Loop. Create a diagram showing how gravity, friction, acceleration, centrifugal force and other factors affect the ride.

Suggested Readings

For students who want to find out more about this subject you may suggest the following
  • "Amusing the Million: Coney Island at the Turn of the Century," by John Kasson, Hill & Wang, New York, 1978.

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