They are havens for cotton candy and sticky taffy, home to Skee-Ball and temporary tattoos. Here, one can buy a T-shirt that says, ''FBI, Female Body Inspector" and wear it in public, unashamed.
They are New England's honky-tonk beaches, and they are endangered.
''We're all getting pretty sophisticated," said Pierre Janelle, third-generation owner of the Edgewater, a hotel at Old Orchard Beach, Maine, referring to the more clean-cut and upscale folks enjoying his hometown.
Slowly, seaside amusement parks and boardwalk beaches that seemed forever preserved as downscale destinations are heading upscale instead. They're not quite there yet; fried dough is still plentiful.
Still, those running these waterside spots who have looked to shed the honky-tonk label say that within 10 years there will be less trash and more class. Salisbury Beach is on its way to having high-end condos and retail shops. Pirate's Fun Park, the longtime center for children's rides, closed for good last summer.
See more honky-tonk photos and hear an audio slide show, listen to a couple of beach bands, and try our interactive beach maps, all at www.boston.com/travel.
Old Orchard Beach now features trendy novelty shops with expensive trinkets, similar to those on Martha's Vineyard, and a posh art gallery is on the way.
In Westerly, R.I., high-end time-shares and condos now stand next to Atlantic Beach Park, the amusement park at Misquamicut Beach, once the epicenter of bikini contests and nightclubs.
For those who cherish B-list musicians, crowded arcades, and a complete absence of pretentiousness, now is the time to visit New England beaches in transition, the ones that for possibly a limited time only offer a season of guilty -- some might say tacky -- pleasures.
''A lot of tourists tell me they've been to the Hamptons and they'd rather be here," said Tony Lallis, who runs Bad Habits, a stand on the pier at Old Orchard Beach that sells hot sauce and hand-rolled cigars and doubles as a dart game, where you might win a plush toy. ''The old days are still here. It's not the glitz and glitter that it's turned into in a lot of areas."
Old Orchard Beach, known for its honky-tonk appeal, has already started its metamorphosis, according to locals. The beachfront arcade across the street from Palace Playland, the amusement park, is to be developed into a hotel and $300,000 condos.
Still, much is untouched here, at least for now. The boardwalk pier is still Old Orchard's center for action, with air-brushed shirts and toe rings for sale. Nearby on the strip, classic establishments include Pier Fries, a $1 delicacy best eaten with vinegar. Members of the ''Frequent Frier Program" get a free box of fries for every nine they buy.
Around the corner, Palace Playland is the only real seaside amusement park left in New England, with a roller coaster, swinging pirate ship, and multiple kiddie rides.
Farther along Interstate 95, Hampton Beach, N.H., is fighting its honky-tonk reputation with a series of municipal improvements, including repaved roads and a plan to improve sidewalks for businesses on the beachfront.
The strip still keeps its character, however, with shops offering henna tattoos and T-shirts. More important, even, is the eye candy.
''It's the kids that are here, the young people," said Dick Bergeron, who has lived by the beach for 19 years. ''Boy meets girl. That hasn't changed."
The Hampton Beach experience involves somewhat of a parade up and down the strip of bikini-clad teenagers taking breaks for ice cream and treats at Blinks Fry Doe, a hot spot with 20 flavors of the cake-like treat, from garlic to coconut, for under $4.
Melissa Hunt, 20, of Chelmsford, said that yes, classier beaches such as Rye, N.H., and York, Maine, are almost as close as Hampton. But Hampton is a scene, one with a different social code.
''If you go somewhere like the Cape, it's a higher-class thing," she said. ''This is like a hangout. On the strip here, they don't even require you to wear your clothes. You can just go places in a bathing suit."
Just south of the New Hampshire border is Salisbury Beach, where the downtown strip is slated to become high-end housing above shops and restaurants. With Pirate's Fun Park closed, Joe's Playland on Broadway has become the sole staple of honky-tonk amusement by the water, its owners promising to keep the cotton candy flowing and the arcade buzzing. The beachfront area still has a psychic and an ample number of pizza joints.
''We're definitely a honky-tonk beach right now," said Bob Fournier, owner of Chef Howie's Hobo Café and Lounge, the only sit-down restaurant by the water. ''I think the trend is to make the beach more upscale, but it's going to take years to do that."
In the meantime, the cafe sits across from batting cages, a variety store selling shot glasses that say ''three sheets to the wind," and a miniature golf course down the street.
In Rhode Island, Misquamicut Beach has mostly lost its honky-tonk appeal, a process that took about five years. Shops selling what some consider distasteful T-shirts have been replaced by family-oriented stores, and three nightclubs have closed. Still, locals say the good stuff isn't gone.
Caswell Cooke, who runs several beach businesses and serves on the Westerly Town Council, said the cotton candy and amusement rides will stay. Visitors still can catch a beach concert. Unlike the 1992 show, however, which featured the rap group 2 Live Crew, Misquamicut's 2005 show will feature Davy Jones, formerly of The Monkees.
''We're not Watch Hill," Cooke said, of the more exclusive beach nearby. ''We're not totally upscale. But we're not Coney Island anymore."
Contact Meredith Goldstein at firstname.lastname@example.org.