Alberto Zamperla, Amusement Park Impresario, Is Dead at 71

Alberto Zamperla, a global amusement park impresario whose revival of Luna Park helped Coney Island recover from decades of decline, died on Nov. 17 near Vicenza, in northeast Italy. He was 71.

His death, in a hospital in Altaville Vicentina, was confirmed by his son Alessandro, who said the cause had not yet been determined.

The Zamperla Group was founded by Alberto’s father, Antonio, in 1966, but traces its origins to his great-great grandfather Angelo, who married a circus horsewoman in the mid-19th century and became an acrobat.

Until his death, Mr. Zamperla had been president of the conglomerate that designs and manufactures roller coasters and other rides and manages amusement parks all over the world.

He had already given up day-to-day control to his two sons. Antonio, the eldest, is in charge of manufacturing. Alessandro, the president of Central Amusement International, manages Luna Park and the other amusement parks.

In 2010, during the Michael R. Bloomberg administration, Central Amusement won a contract from New York City’s economic development agency to revive Luna Park in Brooklyn — the prototypical fairground site that opened in 1903 and amused millions until most of it was razed after a fire during World War II.

By the first decade of the 20th century, Ferris wheels, merry-go-rounds, roller coasters, water rides, circuses and animal attractions at Luna Park and its two major competitors, Dreamland and Steeplechase Park — all illuminated by millions of bare electric bulbs — had made Coney Island the largest amusement enclave in the United States.

Luna Park still features the original 1927 Cyclone, the clattering, scream-inducing wooden roller coaster that plunges 85 feet at 60 m.p.h., and a newly-installed steel Thunderbolt, which drops riders 90 degrees and turns them upside down four times.

Alessandro Zamperla said the company, which first spent about $15 million refurbishing Luna Park, had invested a total of some $100 million since 2010, its largest expenditure in any property.

“My father adored New York and Coney Island because it means so much to us as a family, and he lived and breathed amusement,” Alessandro said.

Alberto Zamperla himself said in an interview on We the Italians website in 2018, “Without taking anything away from anyone, I can still say that the feat of which I am most proud of is having been able to revive the Luna Park in Coney Island, N.Y., in 2010 and to continue to manage it with satisfaction and success.”

Luna Park’s Thunderbolt roller coaster was installed by the Zamperla company. It drops riders 90-degrees and turns them upside-down four times.Credit…Michael Kirby Smith for The New York Times

Mr. Zamperla was in his mid-20s in 1976 when his father sent him from Italy to North America, first to Montreal and then to New Jersey, to develop a market for the coin-operated devices and family-friendly rides and attractions that the company had designed and developed in Europe.

Strolling through the company’s headquarters at Altavilla Vicentina, Mr. Zamperla told The New York Times in 2010, “This is where ideas are born.”

He developed the Zamperla Bull, an arcade machine to test a player’s strength as he tries to press the animal’s horns together, and Punchball, another carnival game modeled on a punching bag that was featured in the film “Urban Cowboy” (1980) starring John Travolta and Debra Winger.

After retrofitting a new mechanical arm for the Dumbo ride at Disneyland in California, the company was invited to design seven of the original 12 rides for Disneyland Paris in 1988. That led to a bonanza of other Disney business and contracts with other theme parks, including Universal and Six Flags. Commissions for amusement attractions came in from all over the world, including Pyongyang, the capital of North Korea. The Trump Organization in New York hired the Zamperla’s to create Victorian Gardens, a summer replacement for its ice skating rink in Central Park.

In 2019, Mr. Zamperla was inducted into the International Association of Amusement Parks and Attractions Hall of Fame.

Alberto Zamperla was born on Feb. 3, 1951, in Pieve di Soligo, in the province of Treviso, north of Venice, to Antonio and Letizia Zamperla.

He attended a boarding school run by Salesian priests, graduated with a degree in metallurgy from the Industrial Technical Institute in Vicenza and served from 1975 to 1976 in the Italian army’s Alpine Cadore Brigade.

He took over the company from his father in 1994 and eventually divided his time between Vicenza and New York. In addition to his sons Antonio and Alessandro, he is survived by his wife, Paola; another son, Adriano; and three grandchildren.

He was known for making more of his company’s attractions accessible to children with disabilities and for contributing to nonprofits that benefited them. In 2015, he campaigned, exuberantly but unsuccessfully, for mayor of Venice with the slogan “No to boredom, yes to life.”

“I like to fly in the clouds around our beautiful planet, for at least one hundred days every year,” the company quoted Mr. Zamperla as saying. “I love living in New York City. I am proud to be an Italian Alpino. I am proud to be, above all, a citizen of the world. I enjoy knowing that my profession makes children of all ages happy across the globe.”

Mr. Zamperla counted himself among them. Indeed, he kept a robust collection of rubber ducks in his bathroom.

“I am a little boy,” he told The Financial Times in 2016, “and I will continue to be a little boy.”

Elisabetta Povoledo contributed reporting.

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