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America’s best beach boardwalks

About 60 U.S. towns have boardwalks, and 25 percent of those include amusement parks that come alive in summer. Visiting one is a quintessentially American summer experience.
Image: Coney Island boardwalk in Brooklyn, N.Y.
Coney Island boardwalk in Brooklyn, N.Y. is getting ready for a renaissance. Its  amusement park, Luna Park, closed some 60 years ago, but reopens this summer with nearly 20 state-of-the-art rides.Daniel Avila/NYC Parks and Recreation Dept.
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“All the couples take pictures on the Wonder Wheel. We push our heads together so the photo shows the New York City skyline behind us,” says Shani Coleman, a 20-year-old student who likes to snuggle with her boyfriend on the landmark 1920 Ferris wheel on Brooklyn’s Coney Island Boardwalk.

Growing up, she spent many summer hours here with her family and still orders marshmallows dipped in bright red candy-apple coating.

Everyone loves beach boardwalks, with their mix of sea air and easy strolling. Fortunately, you don’t have to travel too far to find one: about 60 U.S. towns have boardwalks, and 25 percent of those include amusement parks that come alive in summer. Visiting one is a quintessentially American summer experience.

These amusement parks are in a continual state of change. According to Jim Futrell, a historian at the National Amusement Park Historical Association, 16 seaside parks closed in the past decade, but they seem to be making a comeback. Four new boardwalks opened in 2009, and at least two more will open this year.

One of them is at iconic Coney Island, where the boardwalk amusement park Luna Park — which closed some 60 years ago — is poised for a renaissance. The elephant rides, three-legged men and Dragon’s Gorge roller coaster may be long gone, but the summer of 2010 will see a shiny new Luna Park, with nearly 20 state-of-the-art rides.

The rebirth comes courtesy of the Zamperla Group, a major Italian manufacturer of theme-park attractions, which spent $30 million re-creating this three-acre playland, including its grand 1903 entrance.

In a desire to appeal to families, New York City planners want to expand amusement parks here to 12 acres and return the boardwalk, which has slowly deteriorated over the decades, to its former carnival glory.

“It’s the beginning of a new Coney Island for the 21st century,” says Dick Zigun, a longtime resident who runs the nonprofit organization Coney Island USA.

But not all beachside promenades are neon-lit attractions.

It's a scream at Coney Island

Slideshow  10 photos

It's a scream at Coney Island

New rides and other attractions await theme-park lovers at Coney Island.

On the isolated Long Beach Boardwalk, built over cool, windswept dunes in southwestern Washington, bird-watchers flock to see adorable but endangered snowy plovers in one of the few places in the world where they still nest. Parents wander with their children on paths trod by Captain William Clark in 1805, when members of the Lewis and Clark Expedition explored here.

Oregon resident Bonnie Teschner Carey has been visiting Long Beach since she was a child 60 years ago: “It’s still a quiet place, not trendy, not known,” she says, “just like when I was a child.” Only now it has a boardwalk, so even with two knee-replacements she can still enjoy the beach.

Whether it’s an iconic summertime destination like Coney Island or a seaside oasis like Long Beach, such family retreats and playgrounds can inspire more than lifelong loyalty. Sacramento, Calif., resident and roller-coaster buff Gerry Watt says, “If there is a heaven, Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk is there.”