I COVERED my eyes, squinting from the sunlight that struck me as I burrowed from the tunnel of the subway to the hot, still Coney Island air.Coney Island. To me it was a mystical world visited by everyone but me. It was the land of everyone's childhood fantasies, everyone's fondest memories. My mother rode her first roller coaster there; the New York Times columnists wrote about their childhood capers in this place. It was a place that didn't seem real to me, any more than Oz; a place where Tom Hanks became Big, where Neil Simon's characters vacationed. I hesitated when my friend asked me if I wanted to visit Coney Island for a day on our weekend in New York. Could it possibly live up to its reputation? The subway rattled on and stopped again and again. An hour passed in transit. And when my eyes did adjust to the light, what I saw was nothing like I had imagined. It was dirty. There were so many people: every size, every age, every color. It was loud and commercial and smelled of cheap, fried food. Barkers invited passersby into freak shows. The roller coasters were unimpressive, rickety, old. The ocean was brown, not a deep swirling blue. Waves didn't swell and break with a sonorous crash, the sky was gray, and the sun's light was dulled with haze. We stepped off the boardwalk to sift through the white sand, white sand hiding countless sparkles of ground glass. We climbed on a man-made arrangement of slippery rocks and sat perched above the murky ocean water, watching the waders below. They splashed and played in water that contained floating plastic bags and blanched Band-Aids. In disbelief that this could be anyone's idea of paradise or even fun, I raised my eyes from the litter in a crevice of the rock to daddies dipping their kids into the surf and building Park Avenue mansions out of sand. I opened my ears to hear squeals of delight from the toddlers fleeing lapping water in their tennis shoes. I felt the sun warm my skin. Feeling hungry, we walked toward the booths of hot dogs and pizza, pretzels and Italian sausage kebobs. We coursed with the throng down the boardwalk. Instead of concentrating on the sights that surrounded me, I looked only where I was going, at what was directly in front of me. All the rest was too much to take in. I felt that this whole place needed a good cleaning. As we hurried along, a heavy thump, screaming tones, a pumping rhythm stopped us in our tracks. In the middle of the boardwalk, a Latino band was setting up and had turned on their boom box as a warm-up. What came next melted away my harsh judgments and resented disillusionment. IN a semicircle around the band, various couples moved by the music began dancing, some with trained, choreographed steps, some just holding each other, some simply shaking and moving to the beat. Two old men laughed as they partnered one another. An old woman in a wrinkled bathing suit shimmied to La Bamba. Toddlers held their mother's hands tight as they strutted their stuff. A couple, arms locked, fingers intertwined, walked by the spectacle and smiled broadly, soaking up the charged atmosphere. And then, as though someone had just opened a window to let me see the world at its clearest, without any obstruction, I saw what everyone thought was so special about Coney Island. In an instant, the magic of the place affected me, turned the corners of my mouth upward. I saw happiness, not dirtiness; seeing their joy overcame any mere litter or outward unpleasantries. I stopped imposing my sense of happiness and value on everyone else. We meandered onto the dock. I saw face after face as we went, the upbeat Latino music still pulsing in my ears. There were old faces topped with thinning white hair next to sunburned young ones. There were Asian and black, Hispanic and white faces, fat and skinny ones, some finished with makeup, others sticky from cotton candy. But these faces all had something in common - they were smiling. On the dock, the older men chatted with each other in foreign languages, the younger ones - sometimes with their whole families - fished and crabbed. Parents toted grills and coolers to cook an entire meal on the dock for lunch, never abandoning their fishing poles lined up and waiting for the big catch. An older woman bicycled back and forth with her cart of fishing bait, shouting out a call familiar to fishermen in a tongue foreign to me, and bantering to those she sold to. In the park, teens lined up to buy tickets for decrepit water flumes and ferris wheels, the kind that would be dwarfed in modern-day theme parks. But to them they were wonderful. They splashed each other and rocked their flume cars. They screamed loudly with fake fear and huge grins on their faces. Even the men taking tickets swayed to the music that drifted through the park. They beamed toothless smiles and looked as if they'd rather be no place else. Coney Island is a world without pretension. A world where anything goes, and that means accepting everyone is the only rule. No one there feels too fat or too old to don a bikini, too unathletic to run on the sand, too untalented to start dancing to spontaneous tunes. From the closing of the subway doors you are asked to surrender your prejudice, your fear, your limits, your senseless societal rules. Unlike so many amusement parks, it is not what is on the outside that draws you in. In fact, it is quite the reverse. Visitors to Coney Island don't even see the outside, for the overriding sense of liberation is much more satisfying than well-packaged food or well-trimmed foliage. At Coney Island there is something deeper than monstrous, twisting roller coasters, box-office hit entertainment, and picture-perfect scenes to amuse you. Coney Island is an amusement park with a soul.