Wildwood Beaches, New Jersey: A Family Vacation

Pack your bobbie socks and poodle skirts and doo-wop your family right back into the fabulous fifties! The Wildwoods By-The-Sea, a five-mile stretch of family-oriented beaches and activities on the southern Jersey shore made up of Wildwood Crest, Wildwood and North Wildwood, considers itself the birthplace of “doo-wop”musical culture and architecture. In the 50’s, Bill Haley and the Comets, Chubby Checker, Fats Domino and Little Richard sang here, and Dick Clark hosted American Bandstand from Wildwood’s Starlight Ballroom.

Although the Wildwoods offers amenities geared for today’s family enjoyment, the doo-wop aesthetic colors this beachside resort in its signature colors of pink, aqua and lime green while lending a lighthearted, splashy, almost whimsical feel. It would not be out of place to see a pink Cadillac with fins parked outside of one of the motels alongside the official Wildwoods tree, the plastic palm.

Getting There: Ferry Fun

The Wildwoods are about 180 miles and ten “Are-we-there-yets?”from Washington, D.C. This makes the trip farther than the Washington beach destination of Ocean City, Maryland, but much more tolerable thanks to the Cape May-Lewes Ferry. Our team of reviewers looks forward to this part of the journey almost as much as the destination.

The Cape May-Lewes Ferry is located in Lewes Beach, Delaware, which is a destination in itself. It takes our team of reviewers about three hours to get to Lewes from Northern Virginia. The large, clean ferries leave every hour for the 80-minute trip across the Delaware Bay to Cape May.

Reservations can be made online on their website (www.capemaylewesferry.com) or by phone; if Chesapeake Bay Bridge traffic has you running behind schedule and you need to change your reservation, your tickets can be transferred if there is space on another ferry. For our team of four reviewers and our trusty minivan, the round trip cost in summer 2008 was $76.00. For 80 minutes of peace on the water instead of the highway, we say, “priceless”.

Travelers are recommended to arrive at the ferry 30 minutes to one hour before departure. Surprisingly light traffic has you there early? Take advantage of the extra time to stroll through the quaint, historic town of Lewes with its art and antique shops, or park at the public beach (about ¼ mile from the ferry with metered parking) to get a taste of vacation before you even arrive.

After you check in with the ferry and get your car in line, take a stroll through the sparkling terminal. Terminals at both ends of the ferry line offer snack bars, gift shops, arcades, and large, clean restrooms. Watch ferry preparations from the outside docks and play on the playgrounds and small mini-golf course.

The ferry experience is very child-friendly. While waiting in the ferry line on our return trip, Lighthouse Pete, the furry blue ferry mascot, tapped on our windshield. Coloring books and crayons were handed out to all children. As we walked on the upper deck, the captain waved to us from the control room and another member of the crew stopped by our table to talk with our young reviewers about their vacation.

On another trip, a naturalist from the Stone Harbor Wetlands Institute was on board with a tub full of sea creatures for children to touch and ask questions about as part of the ferry’s Marine Naturalist Program. While it is possible to get to the Wildwoods without taking the ferry, this part of the trip is an annual highlight for our team as we make our way to:

The Beach!

Our team of reviewers spends most of our vacation at the Wildwood Crest beach, the southernmost of the three Wildwood beaches, voted “Best Beach for Family Vacations”on the list of New Jersey’s Top 10. Unlike many beaches in New Jersey, the Wildwood beaches are free and do not require a beach tag.

This could make the beautiful, fine white sand beaches crowded, but these beaches are expansive and wide with plenty of space for sunbathers, surfers, ballplayers and sand castle artists. Which also means, besides giving each family more beach blanket real estate, that it is a very long walk from the boardwalk/street to get down to the water.

Tourists new to the Wildwoods are immediately evident by their lack of a wagon or beach cart to tote their umbrellas, chairs and sand toys. Beach chairs and umbrellas can be rented at various locations along the beaches, and there are also portable toilets located near the public access points.

Lifeguards are located at regular intervals. They operate with an abundance of caution and during a recent visit with threats of riptides, additional lifeguards were sent out to the wavebreak point in rowboats for extra monitoring of swimmers.

Staying There

Our team prefers staying in Wildwood Crest, the southernmost of the three beaches on “5-Mile Island”. This seems quieter and more family-oriented than Wildwood itself, with its boardwalk attractions and concurrent adult-oriented establishments on the streets adjacent to the boardwalk.

The blocks closest to the beach in Wildwood Crest are populated by family-friendly motels, many with the neon and cursive-script signs and architectural flourishes reminiscent of the “Jetsons”that mark the Doo-Wop architectural style. The blocks in between the beach and Sunset Lake on the west feature tidy, well-kept residences, many with beautiful landscaping. North Wildwood also seems quiet but with fewer motels; it may offer more residential rentals.

Our lodging of choice is the Caribbean Motel because of its ideal location (one block to the beach, one block to the boardwalk, two blocks to the local playground, neighborhood center and amphitheater). We are able to spend most of our vacation car-free. The motel is a tribute to Doo-Wop architecture and interior design.

It is a low-frills motel, but has a nice outside pool with fifties music playing in the background, owners who are very friendly and accommodating, weekly cook-outs for the guests, and is scrupulously clean. It was also rated Number 1 out of the 63 Wildwood Crest motels on www.tripadvisor.com.

Eating There

One cannot survive on Polish Water Ice and Fudge Kitchen samples alone! Fortunately, there are restaurants and on-the-go eating establishments everywhere in The Wildwoods that cater to everyone’s tastes. Our team of reviewers strongly recommends the Olympic Flame restaurant on the Boardwalk (close to the first pier) if you are looking for a sit-down restaurant for breakfast, lunch or dinner. This restaurant is family-run and has been open for years. It consistently receives a big thumbs-up from our team of reviewers for their beach pizza.

We let our noses play detective as we sniffed out the source of some wonderful grill aromas and we were delighted to discover Bandannas restaurant, at the corner of Buttercup and Atlantic Avenues in Wildwood Crest. The Tex-Mex restaurant focuses on fresh, local produce and ends every children’s meal with a beautiful sundae from their small ice cream shop co-located in the restaurant. Get there early as word is getting out about this small gem.

Playing There

BoardwalkThe three-mile wooden boardwalk is a central focus of the Wildwoods. With so many attractions and places to stop, our young reviewers didn’t realize the length of the walk and were able to walk the majority of it without complaint. There is a tram that runs the length of the boardwalk for $2 per person in case the walk becomes too long, or you wind up winning one of those huge stuffed animals from the amusement park. “Watch the tram car, please”(the automated request that serves as the tram’s horn to part the teeming masses) has become an unofficial motto of the Wildwoods boardwalk and has even shown up on t-shirts.

A walk down the boardwalk looks something like this: pizza, arcade, t-shirts; ice cream, arcade, souvenirs; more food, arcade, t-shirts:and it is all part of the charm that draws huge numbers of families, couples and teenagers out before curfew. There are plenty of benches along the side for people-watching; but those of us with young children will probably find ourselves spending the majority of our boardwalk time trying to win stuffed animals and other assorted made-in-China gadgets from “The Claw”and water-shooter games.

Bring many, many dollar bills (Wildwood game vendors have graduated from quarters) and a prepared speech to explain to your youngsters how the games are rigged (the Duck Pond game on the second pier of Morey’s is an expensive but guaranteed win).

Morey’s Piers Amusement ParkMorey’s Piers (www.moreyspiers.com) is located on the northern end of the boardwalk and features “more rides than Disneyland”(over 100 rides) on its three piers. It also features the largest Ferris Wheel on the East Coast, at over 150 feet tall. There are many children’s rides on each pier, but the majority are located on the middle pier (Mariner’s Landing).

We found that most children’s rides required the rider to be between 36″and 42″tall. Some heartbreak occurred when our 4 year old OK reviewer realized he did not meet the 48″height requirement for the smaller roller coaster.

Morey’s Piers also includes two large beachfront waterparks, located near the amusement parks. Ocean Oasis promises parents a bit of relaxation while the children play on the waterpark rides, if you rent a private cabana; massages, WiFi, wait service, and even a “dedicated family coordinator”to supervise the children’s activities are available.

We chose instead to try the Raging Waters waterpark and we enjoyed playing as much as our younger review team members in the huge Endless River, Camp KidTastrophe play area, and the Rocket Raft tube slides. This was a great way to spend part of the day when the ocean water was a bit too chilly for swimming.

Tickets can be purchased on any of the piers at several locations. Each ride is assessed on a per-ticket basis from 3 to 5 tickets a ride. We loved that we could buy individual tickets if we only planned to go on a few rides, but could also upgrade to a variety of admissions packages (multi-day, one-day, rides + waterpark) if we wanted to spend more time there. The packages work out to be cheaper than individual tickets and range from $25 on an EZ-pass ride card to $198 for a family of 4, which includes admission to the amusement park rides and the waterpark.

Bike and Surrey RentalsA scenic, designated one-mile bike path winds its way south parallel to the Wildwood Crest beach, encouraging many families to rent bikes or surreys from one of several locations. Bike riding is also allowed on the wooden boardwalk in the morning. Surf Bike Rental is located behind the boardwalk and rents from 6am – 1pm; another rental shop is located right off the bike path and is just next to…

Scoop Taylor Neighborhood Park:which is where we spent most of our early mornings, to save our motel neighbors the painful noise of our early-rising reviewers. Located in Wildwood Crest just behind the bike path and with a beautiful view of the beach, this features a large updated playground, swings, benches, tables, a gazebo, and basketball courts. It also has public bathrooms and water fountains. The Wildwood Crest Recreation Center is just across the street and offers some activities that are open to the public.

Family Concerts

  • Sunset Lake Sundown Celebrations, Wildwood Crest, every Friday from late July through Labor Day, every Friday at 7 pm; free, includes live music, children’s activities.
  • Summer Concert Series, Gazebo-by-the-Sea, Wildwood Crest, every Wednesday in summer from 7-9 p.m; free.
  • Summer Concert Series, Crest Pier Recreation Center, Wildwood Crest, every Monday in summer from 7:30-9:30; free.

Movies-By-The-SeaEven better than a drive-in movie is a movie watched under the stars, on the sand! Every night during the summer, a current movie is shown on the beach just behind the Wildwood Convention Center (some movies may not be suitable for young children). Tickets are available at the front of the Convention Center.

Day TrippingJust a short trip north through the Wildwoods takes you across the Hereford Inlet (check out the lighthouse) to Stone Harbor and Avalon beaches (“7-Mile Island”). These areas are more residential with many families who stay the summer in their second vacation home. Both areas offer quaint shopping/dining villages with beautiful, unique boutiques and restaurants.

Stone Harbor’s 96th Street is the centerpiece of the shopping area; most shops and restaurants in Avalon are located along Dune Drive between 21st and 30th streets. Some unique toy and variety stores (and great ice cream shops too) are in the mix in both towns to please the kids, but this is mostly a trip for mom and dad to enjoy.

Cape May is a short drive south, about 15 minutes from Wildwood Crest. We structure our ferry trips so that we can spend the morning in Cape May’s historic center before heading over to the ferry for our trip home. Many of the lodging establishments there prefer not to have kids under the age of 8, so we have not stayed overnight; nevertheless, this town with a huge collection of brightly painted Victorian structures is not to be missed. Stroll down the Washington Street Mall, a pedestrian walkway lined with eclectic shops and eateries. Visit the antique fire truck museum, just a few blocks away; play mini-golf at the small corner lot right across from the beach.

Cape May County Zoo is a 30 minute ride from Wildwood in Cape May Courthouse and features a two-hour guided tour of the zoo’s 500 animals. Kids can ride on the Hummingbird Express Zoo Train. The zoo is part of Cape May County Park, so visitors can also enjoy the nature paths, ponds and gardens. Free admission, donations accepted.

Upcoming/Annual Events

The Wildwoods hosts many family-oriented events each year, many centered around the Wildwoods Convention Center, in the middle of the boardwalk. A sampling of these events includes:

  • Wheelin’ the Wildwoods Father’s Day Family Bike Ride;
  • North Wildwood Original Italian-American Festival;
  • Radio Disney Summer Concert Series;
  • Co-ed Beach Ultimate Frisbee Tournament;
  • Christmas in July Boat Parade and Fireworks Show;
  • Wildwoods Baby Parade;
  • Boardwalk Arts & Crafts Shows;
  • Monster Truck Expo and Race

Resources

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OK Editorial Team

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