Oceans of Fun in Ocean City

In Ocean City, family friendliness (however corny) is a beloved summertime tradition.

An Ocean City lifeguard surfboat at sunset.
An Ocean City lifeguard surfboat at sunset.
Photo by Matthew Wright

Just after 11 am on the Saturday before Labor Day, dozens of families form a large semicircle on Ocean City’s Ninth Street beach. Some bask in the hot sun; others seek shade beneath the overhanging Music Pier. The end of summer 2015 is almost at hand, but the mood is jubilant as everyone prepares to watch one of the town’s cherished events: the annual King and Queen of Plop competition.

The concept is simple: Boys and girls of all ages take turns falling onto the sand in dramatic and choreographed slow-motion pantomimes. Sometimes it’s a solo, sometimes a duo. Each plop is greeted with laughter and applause. It’s how Ocean City acknowledges the impending fall season (get it?). The boy and girl with the best routine will be crowned Top of the Plop. It’s charming, cheesy—and 100 percent Ocean City.

“This is what Ocean City is all about,” says Hank Glaser, former owner of the iconic Shriver’s Salt Water Taffy and onetime president of the Ocean City Boardwalk Merchants Association and the Chamber of Commerce. “It’s good, wholesome fun. Family fun.”

This is the mantra commonly invoked by boosters of the 137-year-old Shore town. While other beach destinations have wrestled with their identities over the years, 10-square-mile Ocean City has never wavered in its devotion to  wholesome fun. The boardwalk remains relatively safe and sedate. The streets seem carefree and conspicuously devoid of obnoxious revellers. And the eateries, amusements and attractions evoke nostalgia even among the town’s youngest devotees. “Basically, you don’t have that party atmosphere down here,” says Matt Finlaw, a 20-year-old from Salem County whose family comes here every summer. “Ocean City is the fun of a beach and boardwalk without the trouble.”

Ocean City’s official logo reads, “America’s Greatest Family Resort”—but it might also claim to be the nation’s corniest. What else would you call the Mr. Mature America Pageant, or the late-summer paper-clip sculpting contest?

“We market ourselves as the number-one family resort because we are,” says Doug Jewell, a 35-year resident and owner of Air Circus, a boardwalk kite shop that’s been an Ocean City staple since 1977. “My safe’s unlocked. My backdoor’s unlocked. We let kids walk the boardwalk at night and they’re fine. You can’t say that about many other places on the Jersey coast. This is it.”

Ocean City’s dedication to clean living started with its founders. In 1879, Methodist ministers Ezra Lake, James Lake, S. Wesley Lake, William B. Wood and William Burrell, created the town not for summertime amusements but for quiet, secluded, religious fellowship.

“The founders wanted to establish a good, wholesome Christian resort camp and meeting place,” says Jeffrey McGranahan, executive director of the Ocean City Historical Museum. “People would gather here to listen to special speakers and fellowship for a few days before returning to normal life.”

The five founding ministers chose the name Ocean City, laid out its streets along the island known as Peck’s Beach, and set a tone of modesty and conservativism that has carried into the 21st century.

To underscore the town’s moral tenor, the founders established deed restrictions that prohibited certain activities on Sundays, including shopping, recreation, the sale of alcohol and even swimming. While these conservative edicts were eventually repealed (shockingly, some not until 1987), Ocean City still restricts the sale of alcohol.

“A striking peculiarity of this city by the sea is that there are no liquor saloons or places of questionable character within its bounds,” reads an 1891 promotional ad for the city. “The sale of liquor is forever prohibited, and as a result, the best classes of people are drawn here, and disorder and drunkenness are unknown.”

Not only is the sale of alcohol banned, but so is its consumption at any restaurant. It’s the only Jersey Shore town with such tight prohibitions, and it’s a primary reason some people shun it and others return generation after generation.

“We pray it won’t ever change,” says longtime resident and municipal volunteer Jane French. “Being a dry town is what makes us a family resort. It’s one of Ocean City’s unique selling points. There’s a market for a place that doesn’t have booze, and we draw on that market…. It sets a certain tone in town that people like.”

Ocean City’s booze ban is challenged every now and then. Most recently, the local restaurant association spearheaded a ballot initiative in 2012 that would have repealed the 1984 law prohibiting BYO dining. The measure was defeated by a margin of nearly 2 to 1.

“There’s an epidemic going on,” says French. “College kids [are] drinking like crazy. So I think it’s good for people to see a place where that kind of thing isn’t necessary.”

Which isn’t to say alcohol has no place at all in town. Alcohol is consumed at backyard barbecues (and occasionally by sneaky beachgoers). You might even spot some vacationers grabbing a cold one in plain sight on a porch or balcony.

What’s more, Ocean City is bookended by two of the largest liquor retailers in the state—Circle Liquor Store in Somers Point and Boulevard Super Liquors in Marmora—and an affordable Uber ride can take you to and from nearby Somers Point, Atlantic City or Sea Isle City for a night of libations.

“One of our volunteers likes to say that Ocean City is the wettest dry town in America,” says McGranahan. “People are consuming alcohol, they’re just not selling it, because people here want to hold onto the traditional touchstones of this town while also embracing the present. And it seems to be working.”

It may also be why Ocean City has far less crime than some other popular Shore destinations. According to state police data, there were 12 violent crimes in Ocean City in 2013; the overall crime rate was 39.6 per 1,000 residents. That’s at least half the rate of five neighboring resort communities.

Strolling Ocean City’s 2-1/2-mile boardwalk, one might notice another vestige of its Methodist roots—the absence of games of chance.

“To be honest, it would probably be a gold mine,” says Jay Gillian, Ocean City’s mayor since 2010 and third-generation owner of the landmark Gillian’s Wonderland Pier, a boardwalk staple with dozens of amusement rides and miniature golf. “But that’s all part of the town’s heritage and character. If people wanted to change it, they could, but they don’t seem to want to. It’s another thing that makes us different. When you’re on the boardwalk, you don’t have carnival barkers urging you to knock down pins or throw darts at balloons.”

Gillian is a fitting representative of the town he governs. Effusive, affable and quick with a smile, Gillian’s outlook is as sunny and winsome as the place he calls home.

“This is New Jersey’s Disney World,” he says. “That’s the way I look at it. Drinking is pretty much the only thing you can’t do here, and the family reputation we’ve had for so long just feels really good.”

The Disney atmosphere owes as much to Gillian’s Wonderland Pier as it does to some of the boardwalk’s other icons, like the Surf Mall, Jilly’s Arcade, the Strand Movie Theatre—newly converted to a children’s amusement center—and the enormous pink-and-white Music Pier, which hosts the Ocean City Pops orchestra as well as regular summer concerts, musicals, craft markets and community events.

The palate is wooed as well. The boardwalk boasts storied stands like Johnson’s Popcorn, Kohr Bros. Frozen Custard, the 118-year-old Shriver’s—which sells fudge and saltwater taffy and has the distinction of being the oldest business on the boards—and Manco & Manco Pizza, which celebrates its 60th anniversary this summer as Ocean City’s most famous pizza joint.

“This boardwalk really has something for everybody,” says Manco & Manco co-owner Chuck Bangle. “It’s generational. Every summer I talk to parents and kids with families going back to their grandparents or even great-grandparents.”

Indeed, generational ties are critical to the town’s ongoing success. According to Gillian, about 75 percent of the homes in Ocean City are owned by a family’s second generation. No wonder it’s so easy to find regulars who wax nostalgic about the Shore town’s past.

“I still get the same tingle when I see the ocean as I did when I was a kid,” says 38-year-old Holly Kisby, general manager of Shriver’s and a full-time resident since she was 18. “It’s old-fashioned, traditional Jersey Shore here.”

The boardwalk and its adjacent beach are also home to some of the town’s silliest and most highly anticipated summer events, each very much integral to the fabric of Ocean City.

Consider the annual freckle contest; the Miss Crustacean Beauty Pageant & Hermit Crab Race; the Pamper Scamper; the french fry sculpting contest; and, of course, the annual Doo Dah Parade, a pre-summer event which finds more than 500 basset hounds marching down Asbury Avenue to the boardwalk.

“There are lots of boardwalks in New Jersey,” says Gillian. “But none quite like ours.”

On an early Saturday afternoon in August, Bob Boyer stands at the cash register of the Chatterbox Restaurant and attends to a short line of customers. It’s his second year as the owner of Ocean City’s largest and best-known restaurant. The Chatterbox is a local institution, with its bright pink, Mediterranean Revival-style exterior enticing hungry passersby from its prominent perch at the corner of 9th Street and Central Avenue. Dating to 1937, it’s also one of the town’s oldest attractions.

“For so many people this is the first place they stop to eat when checking in on a Saturday and the last place they eat before going home,” says Boyer, who has lived on the island with his wife, Maria, since 1997. They are the third family to own the Chatterbox. “I meet people who tell me they’ve been coming here with their families for 50 or 60 years.”

The Chatterbox is one of many commercial establishments in the bustling northern end of Ocean City. Since alcohol isn’t a feature here, most dining spots focus on casual meals. One block from the Chatterbox is the Varsity Inn, a popular breakfast and lunch spot. Other favorites include the Sindia Restaurant, Jay’s Crab Shack and Wards Pastry.

Asbury Avenue, between 6th and 14th streets, is the heart of the downtown shopping district. The more than 100 gift shops, galleries and eateries include Spadafora’s Seafood Market, Heritage Surf Shop, Yoasis frozen yogurt and Vittorio’s Italian Restaurant.

Heading south, the town reveals its municipal underpinnings, including an impressive community center on Simpson Avenue. Further on, between 23rd and 29th streets, there’s a four-block wildlife refuge, an airport and a 12-hole golf course. The southernmost part of the island—known as the Gold Coast—is an enclave of upscale beach homes.

“The north end is where you find most of your renters. The Gold Coast is for people who can afford to live here all summer long,” says Boyer. “It all works together.”

As the last of his afternoon customers exits, Boyer takes a seat under a large mural in the back of the restaurant. Painted in 1940, it depicts the Chatterbox in its early years. Behind the counter, a soda jerk fixes an ice cream float. It’s a fitting visual for a town that cherishes its past.

“Ocean City hasn’t really changed at all,” says Boyer. “It’s a little more crowded and some of the houses are bigger, but it’s really the same place it’s always been.”

Nick DiUlio is South Jersey bureau chief for New Jersey Monthly.

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