It's boardwalk season again in America. The sea breeze is scented with caramel corn and cotton candy, french fries and funnel cakes. Swirling colored lights and thumping music from dozens of thrill rides electrify the night. The best attraction of all, though, doesn't cost a dime -- it's the human spectacle, the ever-changing parade of people out for an evening of fun.
While the amusements industry has grown increasingly sophisticated and competitive in recent decades, boardwalks continue to offer a low-tech but beguiling alternative to today's superparks. Although sometimes associated with a bygone national innocence, these forerunners of theme parks and mega-malls are thriving, and not just in Atlantic City. Two of the nation's other best (and oldest) boardwalks -- Wildwood, N.J., and Ocean City, Md. -- have also adapted to changing times while keeping their allure refreshingly simple.
Wildwood, N.J. Located 45 miles south of Atlantic City, Wildwood lacks the illustrious history of its famous neighbor but is more family friendly -- and, frankly, more fun.
Bobby Rydell had a 1963 hit called "Wildwood Days," a love song to this Jersey Shore resort where "every day's a holiday and every night is Saturday night."
Forty years later, Wildwood still seems that way. On a summer evening, this is what a classic boardwalk is all about: rides, games, food, people, everywhere. There are supposedly more rides here than at any other boardwalk in the country, most of them on the three amusement piers operated by the Morey family. The rides range from familiar (Tilt-A-Whirl) to classic (Great White, a giant wooden roller coaster) to crazy (Sea Serpent, which begins 12 stories above the piers, plunges into a free fall at 45 miles per hour, then zooms into a loop).
I'm allergic to most thrill rides, but I enjoy watching, and Wildwood is great for that. There are 150 pier rides in all, which the Morey organization categorizes as Mild Thrill ("expected movements and anticipated thrills"), Moderate Thrill ("may contain unanticipated thrills"), and High Thrill ("high speeds with extremely unusual and stressful physical forces -- startling and unexpected thrills"). Two beachfront water parks and oodles of win-a-prize games round out the attractions.
Wildwood also has more food options than any boardwalk I have visited. On every block, it seems, there's another pizza stand, where cooks toss fresh dough high in the air, and every imaginable topping is available. I've always been partial to Mack's Pizza, and was glad to find it still in business and its products tasting the same. We also had the "world-famous Coney Island fresh-cut fries" at 3J's, custard cones from Kohr Brothers (made from Archie Kohr's "original 1919 recipe"), and a bag of fudge from the Original Fudge Kitchen.
Nothing much has changed on the Wildwood boardwalk over the past decade. If anything, it seemed more vibrant than I remembered. The Wildwood boards are a great place to go exploring, to discover the mish-mash of shops, arcades, eateries, and odd attractions, including the 59-year-old Boardwalk Chapel -- the only chapel on an American boardwalk.
But something else has happened to Wildwood since I last visited. The city itself has a new look, which nicely complements the boardwalk's retro appeal. They call it the doo-wop revival, a movement begun in the mid-1990s to preserve and restore the more than 200 motels that were built here in the 1950s and '60s, and which reflect the sleek space age and Hawaiian architectural themes of the era. The doo-wop revival, named for the popular 1950s group singing style, has been accompanied by new mock-1950s motels and signs, which give the city a funky themed look, much like the way Miami Beach has forged Art Deco redevelopment into its own style. Wildwood Mayor Duane Sloan calls the city's new look "Jetsonian."
Despite its stylized new look, Wildwood is still the sort of place you might tire of before your kids do. If so, visit the history museum on Pacific Avenue. Here you can learn about how, just after midnight on a Sunday morning in 1920, the boardwalk was torn to pieces in a raid led by City Commissioner Oliver Bright, who thought the walk should be closer to the ocean. And about the night in 1938 when one of the promenade's most popular attractions, Tuffy the Lion, broke loose from his cage and terrorized the boardwalk crowd, killing one person.
You might also get up early and go for a bike ride on the boards (it is allowed until 10:30 a.m. on weekends, 11 a.m. on weekdays). Wildwood is a different world in the morning, before the amusements and food stands open. The beach, too, is a big attraction -- free, unlike many beaches in Jersey, and probably wider than any beach you've seen.
Ocean City, Md. Ocean City was always my favorite boardwalk town, mostly because it was the one I frequented as a child. Going back, I wondered if I would be disappointed; I shouldn't have worried.
Every boardwalk town has a different flavor, and one of the charms of Ocean City is that it seems so remote -- to reach it from Washington or Baltimore, you must drive nearly three hours, most of it through corn and soybean fields -- and so unlike anyplace else on Maryland's Eastern Shore.
Ocean City's boardwalk also feels more old-fashioned, in the best sense of the term, than those on the Jersey coast. In part, this is because many of the resort's earliest families still run it and have not seen fit to change things.
Trimper's Rides, for instance, a sprawling indoor-outdoor amusement park, is operated by Granville Trimper, whose grandfather first opened the park in 1890. The kiddie rides here are the same ones I rode on as a youngster, most notably the fully restored 1902 Herschell-Spillman carousel, said to be the oldest continuously operating carousel in the country. It's a real beauty, with 45 hand-carved wooden animals, as well as three chariots and a rocking chair.
Next door is Marty's Playland, one of the best of all boardwalk arcades for sheer variety. Here children still collect coupons they can redeem at the end of summer for prizes, and cram into the old photo booths for a souvenir of their beach visits. The games I played then, Pokerino and Skee-Ball, are still here, along with the latest electronic video contraptions. Across the boardwalk, people line up for Thrasher's fries, the most famous of Ocean City's food traditions. Thrasher's has sold nothing else since 1929 but these thick, golden fries cooked in peanut oil, and people can't seem to get enough. In summer, the line often stretches for more than a block.
Because Ocean City is in Maryland, there are plenty of crab restaurants along the boards and throughout the town. Best known is Phillips, run by the Ocean City-based family seafood corporation, which opened its first crab stand here in 1956. The fanciest of their three Ocean City restaurants is on the boardwalk at 13th Street; the most popular is Phillips Crab House at 21st Street, which has 1,400 seats in 13 dining rooms. As we strolled north on the three-mile boardwalk, eating Thrasher's fries, we stopped to watch Randy Hofman starting work on a sand sculpture in front of the Plim Plaza Hotel at 2nd Street. For 20 years, Hofman has created remarkably elaborate biblical scenes out of sand here. We had a look, then, at Ocean Gallery, one of the boardwalk's most distinctive structures. It's owned by Joe Kroart, the self-proclaimed "P.T. Barnum of Fine Art." Ocean Gallery has a facade made up of antique parts from 68 buildings around the world, according to Kroart, who claims to put the fun back in fine art.
Ocean City's remoteness seems to attract more than a few individualistic types, which is part of what makes the town fun. And yet Ocean City still lives up to its slogan of being a family resort. There's plenty here for children to do, on the boards and off -- including a visit to nearby Assateague Island State Park and National Refuge, famous for its wild ponies.
It was gratifying to find that the best parts of Ocean City are intact and that the boardwalk still has a touch of magic. But having lived here, and edited the town's newspaper, I understand that the magic of Ocean City's boardwalk (as with all boardwalks) is somewhat illusory. In summer, Ocean City becomes Maryland's second largest city, with upward of 300,000 people crammed onto the 10-mile-long barrier island. The year-round population is less than 10,000, and in winter, the party shuts down. If what draws people to Ocean City is illusory, though, it's a dazzling illusion -- and one that you can count on, all summer long, every summer.
James Lilliefors is a freelance writer living in Naples, Fla.