Wild About The Wildwoods

Historic preservation and family-friendly attractions have put the Wildwoods back on the vacation map.

Posing poolside at the highrise Pan American Hotel.
Photo by Frank Veronsky

Riding the 2½-mile Wildwood boardwalk inside John Gigliotti’s golf cart is like slipping into a Frank Capra film. At 83, Gigliotti (you can call him Gig or GiGi) is the supervisor of the strand’s ubiquitous Sightseer Tram Cars. One can’t travel with him for more than a minute or two before someone recognizes the beloved icon.

“Hey Gig! You watch your speed now,” calls a pedestrian on this flawless summer morning. Gigliotti waves in the man’s direction, lets out a hearty “Hey ah!” and smiles. Always smiling.

“Met that gentleman and his family this morning,” says Gigliotti, his raspy voice slicing through the salty breeze. “There’s always someone new to meet out here on the boards.”

During the summer, Gigliotti, a former railroad conductor, is safety director for the tram’s 42 seasonal employees. He arrives at the boardwalk around 10 am and doesn’t head home until after 1:30 the next morning. He does this seven days a week.

“And I’ll be doing it for as long as I can get up in the morning,” Gigliotti says. “Up and down the boardwalk! Fresh air! Meeting people! How can you beat it?”

It’s not just the job he loves. Like so many who call the Wildwoods home—for a season or a lifetime—Gigliotti, a Pennsylvania native, adores the place unconditionally. And while one might expect him to ruminate wistfully about “the old days,” Gigliotti lives firmly in the present.

“I’ve seen a lot of changes,” he says. “Old motels faded away. Knocked down. Rooming houses torn down. Condos all over the place now. It’s a different environment. But it’s all been for the better. We’re getting a better class of people here now. Families, understand?”

The road to revival was long and bumpy. Born of the post-World War II entrepreneurial spirit, the Wildwoods (comprising three municipalities on Five Mile Island) became a standout among East Coast resorts. The architecture was vibrant, the beaches enormous and the rock ‘n’ roll scene iconic. But changing tastes and several decades of hard times drove out many businesses, leaving economic exhaustion, crime and a tarnished reputation.

In recent years, a potent mix of enterprise and determination has brought about a new heyday. Remarkably, the area has shed the downside of its beleaguered past while keeping much of its original spirit intact.

Thanks to a stalwart preservation movement, the Wildwoods’ mid-century hotels—with their charmingly tacky aesthetic and bright neon signs—still flank large stretches of Atlantic Avenue, lending a retro feel to much of the island. The boardwalk, bolstered by three oceanfront amusement parks, still bustles with vacationing families. Concession barkers provide the soundtrack, while towering amusement rides soar against the same enticing backdrop of sea and sun that brought visitors here in the first place. And the entrepreneurial juices that once coursed through the island’s veins still pump in earnest through the hearts of those who love this garish seaside sanctuary and want to make sure that others know what makes it so special.

Browsing dozens of photos at the Wildwood Historical Society on Pacific Avenue, it’s easy to see why the area is called the Wildwoods. “It almost looks like a jungle,” says former Historical Society president and longtime island resident Anna Vinci as she thumbs through the grainy black-and-white snapshots. “Pretty hard to imagine what was to come.”

Centuries before it was considered the Vegas of the East, Five Mile Island was a wilderness of oak, cedar, pine and maple trees, navigable by just two primitive trails blazed by the Algonquin tribes who hunted and fished here in the 16th and 17th centuries.

This untamed landscape greeted the island’s earliest white settlers, fishermen and hunters who built shacks on the north end starting around 1870. They named the place Anglesea. By 1884, the West Jersey Railroad had run a line from Cape May Court House to Anglesea. A roadway bridge for automobiles followed in 1902.

As with most Jersey Shore towns, the completion of the Garden State Parkway in 1955 provided unprecedented access for tens of thousands of seasonal visitors. Quickly, the island went from humble hideaway to swinging hot spot where working-class vacationers—primarily from Philadelphia and South Jersey—could enjoy sand, surf and something other Shore towns lacked: the latest trends in entertainment.

Throughout the 1950s, the Riptide, the Rainbow Club and dozens of other venues presented some of the era’s most exciting performers. Visitors could catch Little Richard at the Mardi Gras, Jerry Lewis at the Manor Supper Club, Tony Bennett at the Bolero and Philly-based Dick Clark hosting rock ’n’ roll shows at the Starlight Ballroom. Chubby Checker—another Philadelphian—performed “The Twist” for the first time at the Rainbow Club, and Bill Haley & His Comets unveiled their landmark single, “Rock Around the Clock,” at the HofBrau Hotel on Memorial Day weekend, 1954.

“I think Elvis and Frank were the only two who didn’t make it out here,” says Vinci. “If you played in Vegas, you played in Wildwood.” It was a haven for musicians and other performers, who made the after-hours rounds of the clubs, mingling and jamming until sunrise.

“At two, three, four in the morning there were so many people on the streets you wouldn’t believe it,” Vinci says.

To appreciate today’s Wildwood, one has to understand the dark times that followed the earlier boom. The island’s bust was swift and the reasons many.

“Wildwood just became a different kind of party town,” says Al Alven, a fifth-generation Wildwood vacationer and publisher of the Wildwood 365 blog. “It went from this classy nightclub scene to a place people started calling Childwood.”

By the late 1960s, the acts that had graced the island became too pricey for its club scene. At the same time, tastes were changing. Rather than swoon over the likes of Frankie Avalon, teens preferred to cram into the newly constructed Convention Hall on the boardwalk to see Black Sabbath, Alice Cooper, Kiss and the Ramones. The Wildwoods developed a reputation as a seamy party destination.

The 1973 recession hit hard. So did competition from neighboring towns like Atlantic City, where the first casino opened in 1978. Cape May, Ocean City and Avalon survived by attracting the family vacationers who now looked askance at the Wildwoods. Other families simply looked past the Shore for more distant destinations.

“When I was a kid, we spent two weeks every summer in Wildwood for our vacation,” says John Siciliano, executive director of the Greater Wildwoods Tourism Improvement and Development Authority. “But the world changed, and suddenly there was huge competition from Ocean City, Virginia Beach, Disney World, Cancun, the Caribbean. You name it. This place no longer cornered the market.”

As families stayed away, property owners began renting their rooms and houses to college-aged tenants who came to binge at the beach. Drug use and crime increased. According to a 1995 article in the Philadelphia Inquirer, violent crimes on the island went from 118 in 1984 to 217 in 1993, giving Wildwood “a higher per-person crime ratio than Camden.”

“In a lot of ways I think the older establishments were victims of their own success,” says North Wildwood Mayor Patrick Rosenello, another longtime island resident. “They had been so successful…that there was no pressure to reinvest and improve. I mean, during the early ’90s you had hotels right on the beach that were closed. That’s a bad sign. A really bad sign.”

Desperate to reinvent itself, Wildwood grasped at marketing strategies that were doomed to failure. The most visible flop was Holly Beach Station. In an effort to revitalize once-vibrant Pacific Avenue, city officials closed down the 26-block stretch to car traffic in 1987 and turned it into a pedestrian mall modeled after Cape May’s popular Washington Street Mall. But the venture backfired.

“The problem was you took a struggling, isolated area and made it even more isolated,” says Alven. “Washington Mall works in Cape May because Cape May’s character and layout lends itself to that. Here, they were trying to turn Wildwood into something it wasn’t, and would never be.”

Standing at the boardwalk entrance to Surfside Pier on a late-August morning, Jack Morey basks in the sun while recalling the Wildwoods’ darker days.

“For so long this island wanted to be like somebody else, because when you’re lost on the ocean, the closest piece of land looks pretty good to you,” says Morey, who, along with his brother Will, is a second-generation owner of Morey’s Piers, a local entertainment empire that includes three boardwalk amusement parks, two water parks and a beach club. The Moreys also have numerous real estate investments, including Morey’s Resorts, which comprises five hotels and the luxury condominium community Seapointe Village. “We’ve created a movement by taking a negative thing and making it a positive.”

The Morey family is one of the primary reasons the Wildwoods never fell completely off the map. As the rest of the island foundered, the Moreys steered into the skid, investing heavily in their boardwalk enterprises. Today, Morey’s Piers is the island’s keystone, a conglomeration of classic seaside amusement parks with more than 100 rides and attractions spanning six blocks of prime boardwalk property.

At 25th Avenue is Surfside Pier, which features carnival games and amusements, including the Great Nor’Easter (a steel inverted roller coaster), as well as the Ocean Oasis Waterpark and Beach Club. A few blocks south at Schellenger Avenue is Mariner’s Landing Pier, which includes Raging Waters Waterpark as well as a host of classic rides like the gentle Tea Cups and the 156-foot-tall Giant Wheel. Finally, there’s Adventure Pier at Spencer Avenue, home to the boardwalk’s most extreme amusements, including an awe-inspiring, 105-foot-tall wooden coaster, the Great White.

In addition to investing in rides and attractions, the Moreys over the past five years have planted more adult-friendly hot spots on the boardwalk landscape. Newer restaurants like Joe’s Fish Co. at Surfside Pier and Jumbo’s Boardwalk Grille at Mariner’s Landing offer full-service indoor-outdoor dining along with wine, craft beer and cocktails. Last year saw the opening of a laid-back beachside watering hole, the Soggy Dollar Beach Bar, at Surfside Pier; this summer the Moreys are unleashing their newest dining experience, a cantina-style Mexican restaurant called the Taco Joint.

“We’re trying to focus on adults here,” says Morey. “We need to be something more than a place you go because your kids are dragging you by the hand.”

Last summer the Moreys unveiled artBox, a 10,000-square-foot interactive artists’ colony on Adventure Pier comprising 11 brightly painted shipping containers transformed into artists’ studios showcasing surf art, glass blowing and nightly live music performed by students from the local School of Rock. The artists’ colony also features an alfresco sushi café and the Exit Zero Museum Shop, which vends amusement artifacts and nostalgic memorabilia.

The 38-block boardwalk is more than just the Moreys. On a typical summer afternoon, the boards are alive with vacationers, venturing into arcades, restaurants and dozens of retail shops selling everything from T-shirts to beachwear to henna tattoos. Cyclists and surrey riders pause for classic boardwalk fare like Johnson’s Popcorn, sausage sandwiches at the Hot Spot, or a slice at either Mack’s or Sam’s. And then there is the beach, a quarter of a mile wide and free of charge.

Now and then, seemingly spontaneous entertainment will cut its way through the boardwalk crowds. Every Wednesday night, the Philadelphia Mummers’ Duffy String Band marches the boardwalk’s 2½-miles. On Thursday nights, an eclectic parade of stilt walkers, musicians and giant puppets saunter down the boards.
All of it, from the Morey midways to the Remember When retro arcade on the bottom floor of the Boardwalk Mall, attests to what the Wildwoods have always done best—kitschy sensory overload.

“My word of the year is quirky,” says Morey. “Our job should not be to make the Wildwoods some pretentious place. We need safe, clean, wholesome fun, but other than that, let’s laugh at ourselves a little and let the quirkiness of Wildwood define us.”

The embrace of the Wildwoods’ quirky side goes back to 1997, when a group of local business owners and residents (including the Moreys) formed the Doo Wop Preservation League, a nonprofit dedicated to fostering “awareness and appreciation of the popular culture and imagery of the 1950s and 1960s.”

“It’s like looking after your family,” says preservation league president Dan MacElrevey as he guides a guest around Wildwood’s one-room Doo Wop Museum, a former diner on Ocean Avenue that houses a modest collection of all things kitschy and nostalgic.

In addition to reminding visitors of Wildwood’s “Rock Around the Clock” roots, the preservation league strives to protect the island’s signature mid-century (aka doo-wop) hotels and restaurants. Thanks to the league’s efforts, the island has a dedicated Wildwoods Shore Resort Historic District, a 2-mile stretch between Atlantic and Ocean avenues flush with flashy neon signs, artificial palm trees and buildings sporting boldly painted wings that reach for the sky like the fins of a 1957 Chevy. With more than 40 doo-wop motels, the historic district is the largest concentration of mid-century hostelries in the country.

“The look of Wildwood—these hotels, the neon, the bright colors—it’s all part of our history and what makes us special,” says MacElrevey. “No one wants to see that go.”

This was not always the case. During a construction spree in the early years of this century, some of Wildwood’s most beloved postwar hotels—along with rooming houses and other buildings—were razed and replaced by multistory condominiums that threatened the island’s charm.

Still, classic kitsch seems to be winning in the long run. Even newly constructed businesses—including TD Bank, Wawa and RiteAid—incorporate doo-wop themes in signage and architecture.

“Wildwood has always been a quirky working-class town, and it always will be,” says Mary Gillett. She and her husband, James diMartino, have owned and operated Antique Images inside the Boardwalk Mall for 38 years, making it the oldest old-timey photo experience on the island.

As Gillett ruminates on the island’s character, a young woman and man walk up to her storefront. The woman is pushing a stroller, and at first it appears she’s merely taking her infant for a tour of the mall. But on closer inspection, it becomes clear that the stroller’s occupant is a doll outfitted to look like a baby zombie. The young man carries a similar zombiefied infant in a makeshift Baby Björn slung around his neck.

“Oh that’s fabulous,” says Gillett as she takes a closer look at the zombie babies. “See, that’s what I mean. This place is a playground. People don’t come here to be polished. They come to have fun.”

Evidence of the Wildwoods’ resurgence can be seen throughout the island, which is mainly divided into three municipalities, each with its own distinct personality and aesthetic.

In the south, the Borough of Wildwood Crest is the sleepiest and most residential of the towns. It’s also dry, a point of pride for its residents. The range of overnight accommodations here runs from no-frills motel rooms with little more than a bed, bathroom and television, to some of the island’s premier hotels and condos, such as the Pan American and the newly renovated Hotel Icona Diamond Beach. There’s no boardwalk in Wildwood Crest, so properties here can sit right at the edge of the beach.

The City of Wildwood—at the center of the island—is the largest and busiest of the towns. The boardwalk occupies all the beachfront real estate, so hotels and rental houses are pushed several blocks inland and tend to be a little less expensive than in the other two municipalities. Nonetheless, there are a handful of upscale offerings, including the historic (and newly renovated) Bolero, which features a rooftop spa, fitness center and restaurant with live music throughout the summer.

“If you want to be in the middle of the action, this is the place,” says Alven. No wonder: Wildwood City has 44 liquor licenses. Beyond the boardwalk, much of the action takes place on Pacific Avenue, where restaurants like Goodnight Irene’s, Cattle ’n Clover Irish Steakhouse and Pacific Grill are igniting a slow but steady resurgence.

Finally, North Wildwood—formerly Anglesea—represents a mix of its neighbors to the south. Starting at 26th Street, North Wildwood consists of mostly upscale condos and rental properties similar to those found in the Crest, but it also has a quaint, historic feel, thanks to its remaining Victorian-era homes and the beautifully preserved Hereford Inlet Lighthouse, a popular tourist attraction.

North Wildwood is also home to the island’s most vibrant and concentrated nightlife scene, an unofficial entertainment district centered around Olde New Jersey Avenue, with busy restaurants and bars like Anglesea Pub, Keenan’s Irish Pub and the more upscale North End American Grill, which begins its fourth summer this year. One North Wildwood hotel, the Montego Bay Resort, even doubles as a year-round indoor water park.

“I would say 95 percent of this island has totally cleaned up from its rough years,” says Jeff Barnabei, 34-year-old manager of the North End and son of owner Jim Barnabei. “You’ve got a classier scene these days, and not just up here in North Wildwood. You’re seeing it everywhere.”

Throughout the past decade, the Wildwoods have invested a great deal of time, energy and money in promoting a complete vacation experience. In 2002, the area unveiled a new 260,000-square-foot Convention Center that hosts more than 150 special events each year, from roller-derby expos to big-name wrestling matches to the annual Baby Parade, an endearing tradition that dates to 1909.

“What draws people to Wildwood is its authenticity,” says Rosenello. “People have become so used to places that have tried to reconstruct someone else’s idea of authenticity, but it’s real here. In our blood. And the events you see around here are a reflection of that. I mean, where else are you going to find a Baby Parade more than a century old?”

Many of the special events bolster the island’s reputation for the unusual. Every year since 1960, Wildwood has hosted the National Marbles Tournament, a four-day competition that attracts children from across the country. The players—called mibsters—come to compete on a series of 12-foot-square platforms permanently installed on a section of beach known as Ringer Stadium.

What’s more, the Wildwoods’ unusually wide beach has allowed the area to host oceanside gatherings that would be impossible anywhere else in the state. Every fall, a stretch of the strand from Lincoln to Spencer avenues is home to the Monster Truck Beach Nationals. And two years ago, Wildwood welcomed country star Kenny Chesney—along with more than 20,000 fans—to a free summer night concert on the beach between Adventure Pier and Mariner’s Landing.

“That concert was a massive success,” says Siciliano. “I think we’re only beginning to tap into what this beach is capable of in terms of hosting events like that.”

The island is also the locale for some of the Shore’s most popular festivals, including the Wildwood Crest Sand Sculpting Festival, the New Jersey State Barbeque Championship & Anglesea Blues Festival, and the four-day Irish Fall Festival in North Wildwood.

“The Wildwoods need to be more than just the boardwalk,” says Jodie DiEduardo, senior vice president of Crest Savings Bank on Pacific Avenue and a Downtown Business Improvement District board member. She’s been a full-time island resident for almost 30 years, and her desire to see a revitalized downtown is unabashed. “People are finally starting to embrace the fact that we’ve got so much more to offer.”

The strategy seems to be paying off. Since 1994, the island’s municipalities have levied a 2 percent tourism tax on hotel room stays and food and beverage sales. In 2012, it brought in just over $4 million—the most annual revenue since its inception.

It’s 11 am, and John Gigliotti stops his golf cart to gaze at the calm ocean. As he does, a recorded female voice blares over the boardwalk’s loudspeakers: “Please pause and stand at attention for our national anthem.”

What follows is a full-throated rendition of “The Star Spangled Banner.” When the anthem is finished, everyone continues about their business, but the recorded announcements aren’t over yet. There’s the familiar warning, “Watch the tram car, please”; the same recording (by local legend Floss Stingel) has been used since 1949. The proceedings continue with a slightly tinny recording of Kate Smith belting out “God Bless America.” The program closes with—what else—all 2½ minutes of Bobby Rydell’s 1963 hit, “Wildwood Days,” the island’s official theme song.

It’s a quintessential Wildwood moment, a daily ritual steeped in sentimentality and quirkiness that would seem absurd in any other Jersey Shore town. But here, it works.

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

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