In The Wildwoods, discover the iconic attractions that spark its electric atmosphere
Even before the Baker Brothers began developing The Wildwoods in the 1890s, it was already a pretty wild place to be.
Instead of watching the tram car, though, the first visitors to Five Mile Island found themselves in a drastically different scene. Dense stretches of forests, meadows and marshes formed an untamed foundation few would bother to explore, except for the Lenni-Lenape Indian tribe, who best described the area as “five miles of health and happiness.” That’s because they knew the twisted landscape acted as a secret portal to a summer playground, with boundless opportunities for swimming, eating and relaxation waiting along its big, sweeping beaches. (Sound a little familiar?)
But, as we New Jerseyans know all too well, even the best-kept secrets eventually get revealed to the world, and The Wildwoods were no exception. Once those merchant brothers set their sights on the beautiful string of land, a spark of transformation turned this quiet oasis by the sea into an electric vacation destination, attracting the eyes of the world with an ever-growing abundance of famous delights.
You can’t walk through The Wildwoods without seeing the world’s largest collection of Doo Wop-style motels, which helped put the island on the map. Photo courtesy of NJ Advance Media
Now, all you have to do is travel down Rio Grande Avenue into the heart of town to see why this area lures over 9 million visitors a year. You won’t even make it to the beaches or the boardwalk before the signs surround you — literally — in the form of bright, neon letters that spell things like “Caribbean,” “Starlux” and “Lollipop.” The playful fixtures, adorned with space-age architecture and plastic palm trees, are portals to the 1950s and ’60s, when The Wildwoods were riding high on a tidal wave of musical prosperity. As Chubby Checker debuted “The Twist” and Bill Haley and His Comets rocked around the clock at various clubs downtown, these Doo Wop-style motels continued sprouting up left and right to dazzle the flocks of fans with the rock ‘n’ roll spirit of those days — something they still do today.
“Doo Wop is by far one of Wildwood’s biggest claims to fame, popularized by the Morey brothers in the 1950s and inspired by architecture they had seen on trips to Miami. That was a big thing they brought back to try to give Wildwood a specific identity because there hadn’t really been one prior to that,” said Chris Tirri, Master of Science candidate in the Urban and Regional Planning program at Rowan University and member of Preserving the Wildwoods. “In North Wildwood, Surf Avenue is a great place to see a lot of the older motels, many of which have been lovingly restored. If you’re in Wildwood Crest, Ocean and Atlantic avenues are a great place to get a taste for what these buildings look and felt like, especially if you go at night with all the neon lights. You’ll see there’s still a majesty to them.”
The Wildwood Boardwalk is known around the world for its electric atmosphere and endless array of food, shopping and entertainment. Photo courtesy of NJ Advance Media
While the land of Doo Wop preserves the groovy pulse of the past, the strongest beat is now found at the boardwalk, and you don’t need all 2.5 miles to feel it. A couple of steps is all it takes to get that jolt of carnivalesque energy, whether it be from the sight of the glitzy games and arcades, the smells and tastes of mouthwatering classics such as Kohr Bros. and Curley’s Fries, or the joyous screams from thrill seekers on any number of rides at Morey’s Piers.
Believe it or not, the supercharged sensorial display of this planky promenade started as a 150-yard stretch of boards before the turn of the 20th century. The street-like structure, where neighbors could casually walk and talk together, blossomed into an entertainment hub by the 1970s, due in large part to the Morey family. Over the next few decades, they created an unmissable mecca of splashy and dashy rides that now covers three sections, each with its own nationally known coaster: the Sea Serpent (Mariner’s Pier), the Great Nor’easter (Surfside Pier) and the Great White (Adventure Pier).
Wherever you go, just remember to watch the tram car, please. These bright yellow and blue cars have been impossible to miss for more than 70 years, but with all the bustling activity and delightful distractions of the boardwalk, it may just sneak up on you at its rip-roaring pace of 5 mph. If it does, don’t panic: You’ll hear the phrase heard round The Wildwoods well in advance: “Watch the tram car, please.”
If the boardwalk is the beating heart, the beaches are its soothing soul. The half-mile trek to the water’s edge offers views that will sweep you off your feet before you even get that first dose of vitamin sea. Options abound from this soft, white ground, including swimming, surfing and soaking in the rays — all of which are free, by the way — plus you can bring a four-legged family member to dig into an adventure at the dog park sandwiched between Glenwood and Maple avenues. Regardless of your pick, one thing’s for sure: You won’t find another paradise quite like The Wildwoods.
“The thing that makes The Wildwoods so special is that everything you could possibly want in a vacation is found right here on this five-mile island,” said Ben Rose, director of marketing and public relations for the Greater Wildwoods Tourism Authority. “If you want to chill and just relax, there are very quiet, upscale parts of the island (to the south). If you want fun and excitement, there’s the center of the island with three amusement piers, over 100 rides and attractions, three water parks, over 200 eateries and all the arcades and shops along the boardwalk. If you want a family friendly, bedroom community, there’s the northern section of the island. Finally, of course, there’s five beautiful miles of free, wide and spacious beaches all throughout.”
Fun fact: The area’s beaches grow in size every year thanks to the long jetties of Cape May Harbor, which trap sand on its north side in The Wildwoods. Photo courtesy of NJ Advance Media
For many of the millions who come here, The Wildwoods are part of a summer tradition at the Jersey Shore that stretches back several generations. Over the course of those cycles, some lament that its character has changed from the Golden Era when Bobby Rydell’s “Wildwood Days” wafted through the airwaves. While that may be true, there are whispers that a new heyday could be on the horizon.
“I grew up coming to Wildwood as a kid, and in the ’70s and ’80s, the downtown nightlife of Wildwood was second to none,” said Pete Byron, the town’s mayor. “You had a nice balance between the downtown and the boardwalk. Somewhere along the line, things have changed, and now it’s maybe 10% downtown and 90% the boardwalk. So, we’re doing everything we can through revitalization projects to bring back life to the downtown moving forward.”
As this seaside town continues to evolve with the turn of the tides, there always promises to be fun for generations to come. Whether it’s your first or your 500th visit, when you immerse yourself in the wild spirit of its electric attractions, don’t forget you can only find it … Just in Jersey.
Looking to linger a bit longer in The Wildwoods? Book your ticket to the Barefoot Country Music Fest Aug. 19-22, see vintage vehicles at the Classic Car Show Sept. 23-26 or watch the annual Race of Gentlemen Oct. 1-3. For the complete list of upcoming events, click here.
Hunter Hulbert is the Just in Jersey features writer for Jersey’s Best magazine. Have a suggestion for a story? Contact him at email@example.com. To read more stories like this, click here.
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