There’s no end to the entertainment options available in New York City. On any given day, we can go to a concert, see a play, attend a comedy show, or visit a museum. But no experience can compare to the wonder and amusement you’ll experience at the Coney Island Circus Sideshow.
With shows taking place daily during the summer season, visitors can go on a unique adventure that doesn’t involve the usual combination of the beach, hot dogs, and roller coasters when taking a trip to Coney Island.
To get a better understanding of this unique experience, we chatted with Adam Realman, the current Dean and “Professa” at Coney Island USA’s Sideshow School. In addition to teaching aspiring carnival acts the fundamental skills, the Coney Island native also performs his own stunning feats during a one-man show.
Because the shock-and-awe factor is what makes the sideshow a thrilling experience, we won’t be spoilers by sharing exactly what happens, but Realman helped us to gather the necessary information you need before going.
A rich history
Coney Island’s original sideshows date back to 1880 when the Brooklyn beach town first became a popular amusement area. Its current iteration, on Surf Avenue at Sideshows by the Seashore, was established in 1983 by Dick Zigun, the founder of the non-profit arts organization Coney Island USA and creator of the annual Mermaid Parade, which allows visitors to revel in all things seashore. The sideshow still honors the tradition of featuring “freaks, wonders, and human curiosities.”
Realman says that the Coney Island Circus Sideshow is keeping the American sideshow experience alive. “We’re the last remaining classic 10-in-1 sideshow that’s housed in a permanent location,” he explains.
Real and in the flesh
Realman says that while there are many misconceptions about the show, the most prevalent one is that you’re being fooled. “The biggest [misconception] is that the blades that sword swallowers swallow are fake. They are not! Or that the fire that the fire-eaters put in their mouths is cold. No such thing!” he says. “The performers risk their well-being every time they go up on that stage. The acts are dangerous and difficult, yet the skilled performers make them look easy.”
The sideshow includes two kinds of performers: the natural-born and the working acts, which include daredevils like sword swallowers and fire eaters. Each act is its own unique attraction, and over the course of the show, you will see things that will warrant laughing, crying, and covering your eyes completely.
Limited appearances only
If you want to see the sideshow, make plans to go in summer, when it runs every day from the second weekend of June through Labor Day. Beyond that, you can also see it most weekends in April, May, and September. Tickets can’t be purchased ahead of time and are only available at the door on the day of the show, with sales from 1pm to 7pm. Admission is $10 for an adult and $5 for children under age 12. There is no minimum age at this family-friendly show, but some kids might be freaked out by what they see!
Once you get your ticket, you can enter the show, but know that you may arrive mid-act. Guests are welcome to stay as long as they’d like, but it typically takes 45 minutes to an hour to see all of the acts on the day’s bill.
Each season has a new roster of acts, but this year’s talent includes sword swallower Wendy Blades, fire eater Sage Sovereign, and Sarah Birdgirl, who was born with the rare Hallermann-Streiff syndrome.
No photos, please
To encourage total attention and keep the contents of the show a surprise, guests are not permitted to take pictures during the show. “We will destroy your technology!” Realman warns, before admitting, “We actually won’t, but put the phone down for an hour and live in the moment! Plus, it’s disrespectful to the performers.”
Get ready to participate
For those looking to get involved, there may be opportunities to interact with the performers, depending on the day. The task could be as intense as helping a guy attach a clown nose to his nostril using a beer bottle, or as simple as participating in a Q&A session with an act. If there’s anything you ever wanted to know about what it’s like to be in a freak show, these performers are up for answering any and all questions.
Tip the performers
They may willingly embrace the term “carnie,” but each act at the sideshow requires talent, dedication, and hard work. Given that it costs only $10 a ticket, which is less than you’ll pay to see a movie, show a little extra love when the performers accept donations at the end. After all, the Coney Island Circus Sideshow is the last of its kind, so we should all do what we can to preserve its future and continue to entertain New Yorkers and tourists alike.
Come for the sideshow, stay for more Coney Island experiences
Realman encourages guests not only to see the sideshow, but also to have a fun time and experience all that Coney Island USA has to offer, with the Coney Island Museum, gift shop, and the dozens of other programs that operate out of the facility, like Burlesque at the Beach.
Plus there’s the Freak Bar located just outside of the sideshow’s entrance, where you can grab a beverage before, during, and after the show.
Inspired to go? We don’t blame you. Check out the Coney Island Circus Sideshow schedule.