Hector Sebro is retired, and in the summer he makes the trip from his home in Flatbush to Coney Island often, settling in at the Stillwell Avenue entrance to the boardwalk with camping chairs and a friend.
Shaded from sun, under the awning of the bathroom pavilion, they face the boardwalk, not the water, watching the joggers go by until around 10 a.m. At Nathan’s, hot dogs cost nearly $5 now. Sebro, 74, says he brings his own lunch.
Around lunchtime, the costume characters appear.
They are Minnies, Ninja Turtles, Power Rangers, Elsas. They come on weekends throughout the summer for the crowds, but sometimes on weekdays too. Some change into their costumes in the bathrooms right next to where Sebro and his friend sit.
Vendors, business-owners, and regulars like Sebro say the characters have become a common presence in the last few years, along with the increased development and crowds in Coney Island. There has been a notable increase in the last year, as that other costume character mecca gets too hot — Times Square.
Bricks of shame
The desnudas and angry Elmos run amok became too much last summer for the business groups who have become guardians of Times Square.
The characters run a simple hustle: dress in some sort of fun or outrageous outfit and have passerby take a picture with you. Then, ask for a tip. To some, that’s just closing the deal. For others, it’s aggressive panhandling.
The city council voted this spring to allow the Department of Transportation to create “designated activity zones” in Times Square within which the performers would have to remain. The zones went into effect in June.
Many characters are disgruntled about the new rules and the recent competition and enforcement attention in Times Square. For some, Coney Island offers an escape.
On a recent cloudy Friday, a husband and wife team from Queens arrived on the boardwalk and got into costume — Woodie from “Toy Story” and a Minion.
Woodie, who gave his name only as Hector, said there were “too many problems,” in Times Square and that he didn’t like staying in the defined zones. Coney Island is a little freer, and when crowds are there, good business.
He said he’d been in the character business for six years, from when there were only a handful in rotation in Times Square to today, when there are dozens.
The newcomers, more pushy and aggressive, created problems, he said, so he and his wife had started adding Coney Island to their repertoire along with Atlantic City and summer fairs in New Jersey.
Hector and his wife had the boardwalk to themselves for much of the afternoon. Sometimes, that made for empty stretches of tipless time, rare on 42nd Street.
Hector tipped his mask back, sipped water. With his Woodie smile frozen maniacally in place, he checked his phone. Invariably a small child would run over, give Minion a high five.
Professionally, Hector would flash a laminated card reading “Tips for Photo,” getting consent for the transaction. The money came in ones and twos. One father asked if Elsa would be out soon. Not today.
A haven for mermaids and weirdoes
Perhaps as the rules get stricter in Times Square more characters will hop on the Q to America’s playland by the sea.
Coney Island was always a haven for mermaids and weirdoes, though as in most parts of NYC the fun is cleaner these days.
One business owner who refused to give her name said the characters “didn’t belong” because they had “nothing to do with Coney Island.” She said she’d rather see Sandy the Seagull, the mascot for the Brooklyn Cyclones, for example.
“We don’t know who they are,” she said. “They came out of nowhere.”
A representative from Luna Park wrote in an email that "we would want more enforcement of the characters."
Alex Valencia, 46, a vendor at a boardwalk bar, said they weren’t bothersome, but some could be pushy about tips. He said he took a picture of his daughter with an Elsa once and offered the character two dollars. Elsa said she wanted five. “Are you kidding me,” Valencia said.
Sebro, the boardwalk regular, was more understanding of the costumed newcomers.
“He probably burning up in that thing,” he said, watching Woodie standing momentarily alone in the middle of the boardwalk. Sebro, a Dodgers cap in his lap, was in the shade.
“They’re creating their own little job,” he said. He bemoaned the “politics” giving them a hard time in the faraway city, maybe someday here.
“Just trying to make a living,” Sebro said.
This is amExpress, the conversation starter for New Yorkers.