The redevelopment of New York City’s beachfront playground means modernised amusement park rides, but some fear it is at the cost of the boardwalk’s history.

Nathan’s annual Fourth of July hot dog eating contest is a tradition as old as the iconic hot dog stand itself. Contestants have been racing to inhale an absurd quantity of franks since the Coney Island landmark opened in New York in 1916.

With proven interest in the contest — a reported 40,000 spectators went to Brooklyn’s beachfront playground to witness the event in 2010 and 1.7 million tuned into ESPN’s live telecast — the hot dog contest and its legendary host will be around for years to come. Unfortunately, the same cannot be said for all of the boardwalk’s iconic institutions.

As New York City and private developers work to revitalise the area — including the addition of four new amusement park rides this year — eight long-standing mom-and-pop businesses (the self-proclaimed Coney Island 8) are being evicted  to pave the way for a reported mega sports bar and conventional shopping strip. This may be the last summer to cool down with a Mermaid Pilsner at Beer Island’s patch of sand, dance to live music with the old-timers at 1930s-era Ruby’s Bar and Grill or stroll down the boardwalk while slurping a two-foot piña colada from Cha Cha’s.

As the boardwalk’s transition approaches, critics of the modernised entertainment area argue that the redevelopment signifies the imminent Disney-fication of what was once the world’s greatest playground, and the destruction of time-honoured rides and businesses will replace a storied past with a generic future.

Supporters — especially those who consider Coney Island a seedy, inferior alternative to nearby theme parks like Six Flags Great Adventure — believe the modernisation will go a long way in cleaning up the neighbourhood and bringing a much-needed economic boost to an area that has seen its fair share of turmoil and neglect over the years.

In its early stages, the redevelopment has been beneficial. Luna Park, the boardwalk’s new three-acre amusement park, opened in May 2010, partially filling the void left after Astroland closed in 2008. The space-themed amusement park had been a boardwalk staple since 1962.

During Coney Island’s peak, several theme parks existed simultaneously, including a version of Luna Park that burnt down in the 1940s. Though the new Luna Park lacks the fanciful grandiosity of its namesake, the 19-ride kiddie park helped attract a reported 14 million people to the beach and boardwalk last year, which nearly quadrupled the amount of visitors in 2009.

This year, the Scream Zone brought four new amusement park rides to the boardwalk, including New York City’s first new major roller coasters in almost 85 years. Steeplechase and Soarin’ Eagle stand alongside the 1927-built Cyclone, a sharp reminder of how little progress Coney Island has enjoyed since its heyday in the first half of the 20th Century.

As you lay on your stomach, spiralling up the Soarin’ Eagle roller coaster, you get a brief view of the Cyclone, the Wonder Wheel and rest of Coney Island’s celebrated history before speeding upward, swooping onward and twisting upside down toward its sparkling future. Also stuck between past and present, Steeplechase pays tribute to one of Coney Island’s seminal theme parks and sends riders shooting around a track as they lean forward on a cavalry of horses.

Depending on the strength of your stomach, Zenobio — one of two new non-coasters — can leave you thrilled, nauseated or just plain confused. After being repeatedly whipped around, head over heels, from the ground to sky at 60 mph, you are inexplicably left suspended at 100ft in the air for seconds that seem to stretch toward eternity.

Despite having the shortest height requirement of any of the new rides, at 44 inches, the slingshot is undoubtedly Coney Island’s most exhilarating ride — and at $20 a head, it better be. Two people are strapped into a round metal cage attached to bungee cords and flung more than 150ft up at 90 mph before spinning into a freefall. Just watching from the ground is enough to send your stomach into your throat.

Of course New York City’s oldest remaining roller coaster, the Cyclone, might still be its most fear-inducing. While embarking on the brain-shaking, body-rocking ride in undersized cars, the coaster seems to scream decapitation.

But millions of people take the hour-plus subway ride to Brooklyn’s southern tip for more than just the thrills.

Every Monday night from 11 July to 29 August, a new film series will offer beachside movie screenings dating from the 1970s to 2011, and on Friday nights there will be free fireworks on the beach. One year after the Ringling Brothers folded up their tent and left town, Circus Vidbel is bringing trapeze artists and jugglers back to the boardwalk, complete with an archer who shoots apples off his wife’s head and impressive equestrian acrobats who do 360-degree turns and back-flip from one horse to another.

While the redevelopment is bringing waves of new visitors to south Brooklyn, the landmark’s most loyal visitors have always returned for the spirit of freedom, creativity and overindulgence that Coney Island embodies. They come to witness imperial moustachioed pirates and mostly-naked mermaids dance their way across Surf Avenue at the annual Mermaid Parade; to smell sugary elephant ears and fried clams along the boardwalk; to taste one of New York’s best pies at Totonno’s pizzeria; to witness sword-swallowers, fire-breathers and burlesque performers at Sideshows By The Seashore. They come for the feeling of nostalgia that might soon fade away.

Coney Island has emerged from the rubble several times before, but its fate remains uncertain. For now, the park offers both vestiges of the playground’s 19th-century past and signs of the amusement park’s millennial future.