How does a town that’s barely changed in 60 years become the #1 destination on the rise in the U.S.? I’ve been wondering this ever since the tiny beach town of Wildwood, New Jersey, topped TripAdvisor’s list of destinations on the rise for 2015. Wildwood had its heyday back in the 1950s and 60s, and its best hotels have no more than three stars, so how could it be the spot that’s seen the greatest increase in positive feedback and interest on TripAdvisor?
I wanted to find out. I live just 150 miles from Wildwood so, last weekend, I made a little trip there with the family. What I found is a slice of Americana that may be close to the population centers of the northeast but feels very far away. I also found a quintessential retro summer vacation spot. Here are six reasons for the buzz about Wildwood—just in case you’re interested in checking it out for yourself.
Wildwood is like a time capsule from the 1950s and ‘60s. It’s a return to the seaside resort of yesteryear, complete with two-mile Boardwalk, dozens of small motels with names like Sea Kist and Pink Champagne Motel, and seemingly a hundred places selling hot dogs, frozen custard, and salt water taffy. What with Mad Men, Universal’s new 50s-themed Cabana Bay Beach Resort in Orlando, and America’s current obsession with mid-century art and design, the 50s and 60s have been making a comeback, so that probably plays into the town’s popularity. Wildwood also has the largest seaside amusement park in the Western Hemisphere, so there are plenty of classic rides that Mom and Dad will remember from their childhood and can now enjoy with their kids.
Part of the reason Wildwood—or, more accurately, the Wildwoods, as the town blends together with its neighbors Wildwood Crest and North Wildwood—feels like a time capsule is that it’s undiluted by the chain stores and strip-mall fixtures that have invaded so many places in America. The Boardwalk is lined with local mom-and-pop shops and eateries—not a Starbucks or Pizza Hut in sight. “How many places have you been to in America where, if you didn’t know where you were, you could be anywhere?” points out Will Morey, CEO of the aforementioned amusement park, Morey’s Piers and Beachfront Waterparks, itself a local family-owned business. “Many places start to look and feel the same. But Wildwood is unique.” It’s not some Disneyfied version of an American beach town either: There’s plenty that’s edgy and tacky on the Boardwalk—from eyesore dollar stores to body piercing and tattoo parlors—and there’s a ton of kitsch (think motels with fake palm trees by the pool). But all that makes Wildwood the real thing.
The amusement “park” is actually three enormous piers packed with more than 100 rides and games, plus two of the “world’s largest oceanfront waterparks.” This makes Wildwood a bit like Orlando, only without the logistics or the waits for rides—and with real Americana, as opposed to fake Americana. Wildwood is easier to navigate than Orlando: Accommodations are small motels, not giant resort complexes, and you can get around by bike rather than car.
On the Boardwalk you’ll find endless supplies of carnival-style and soda-fountain food, from funnel cakes and corn dogs and Philly cheese steaks to fresh-squeezed lemonade and root beer floats to fried just-about-anything-you-can-think-of (fried Oreos, fried Snickers, fried Twinkies, fried Pop-Tarts, fried ice cream….) You could spend hours just sampling the different types of whipped cream fudge on offer. My kids did.
From its free beaches to its carousels, Wildwood is kid-friendly in the extreme. “Our target market is kids ages 3 to 17,” says Morey, whose family owns not only the amusement piers but also five of the area’s better retro-style hotels, including the StarLux and the Pan American. “Those kids tell their parents where they want to go for vacation.”
The Wildwoods are just quirky enough to be interesting. You’ll find surprises each time you walk up and down the waterfront. There’s a 25-foot-tall fire hydrant on Dog Beach, for instance, and there’s an artBOX on one of the amusement piers where you can drop in spontaneously and take an art class (jewelry making, painting, screen printing). Every summer weekend brings events galore. Last weekend we stumbled upon the Hawthorne Caballeros Drum & Bugle Corps having an informal jam session by the beach, a Veterans of Foreign Wars parade, the 2015 New Jersey Jeep Invasion (which brought to the beach about 500 jeeps of every size, color, and off-roading option), and a group of Life Rolls On volunteer surfers taking paraplegics out of their wheelchairs and putting them on surfboards so they could surf. You just never know what you’re going to find in the Wildwoods. That might be one reason people keep coming back.
But wait. Stop. Before you book a trip to Wildwood, know that Cape May, its far more picturesque and charming neighbor on the Jersey shore, is—with its Victorian architecture, fine restaurants, and art scene—much better suited to sophisticates. The two towns are like yin and yang, and an optimal family trip would combine the two: a dose of Cape May for the grownups, a dose of Wildwood for the kids.
I first went to Wildwood in the 1970s with my girlfriends. Then I went every summer with my fiance, who finally became my husband in 1979 and we honeymooned in Wildwood. We took our two children there every year until they no longer wanted to go with mom and dad, We’ve been married 36 years and we’re still vacationing in Wildwood! Granted, we did try Ocean City MD one year recently but to us, it doesn’t compare to Wildwood. Call it nostalgia after this many years but I call it love of the beautiful beaches, a very comfortable stay in a lovely motel on the beach, great food of all kinds, a tram car to get our weary bodies up and down the boardwalk, and a boardwalk filled with sights of its own to see. We’ll be going in a few weeks – can”t wait!
You forgot to mention the wide, beautiful beaches which are all free! They are family friendly and most of my friends staying in Cape May come to Wildwood Crest to use the beach. Other towns have big drop offs and rip currents galore, not the case in the Wildwoods! And don’t forget the Fudgy Wudgy man who comes by every hour selling ice cream. Doesn’t get much better!
My grandfather started going to North Wildwood in 1926. He was friends with Lou Booth amongst others. I started in 1951 with my grandparents. Except for those oversized condo’s and the subsequent loss of the small bungalows, it is the same. However, when walking the boardwalk notice the sea wall to the shore side. Back in the 1950’s and 1960’s the sea came all the way up to the wall under the boardwalk. If you go there, make sure to get a sub from Russo’s and a breakfast from Samuels.
I’ve been coming to the Wildwoods for over 40 years as it’s been a wonderful family tradition. I’ve gotten over the where is the “5-star resort” and “this is not Disneyland/World” we’ve all grown to expect and learned to love Wildwood for what you described so well in your article. I grew up in Baltimore and we now travel from Arizona each year to reconnect with my sister and her family and slow down at a place that keeps my memories from 1970 alive and helps create new ones for our 7 year old. We take a date night shopping and dinner excursion to Cape May to round out a perfect week. Thanks for great article and we will be making our cross country pilgrimage in 2 weeks!
We have gone to Wildwood every summer….taking the boys when they were young. Hubby and I honeymooned there. Now we celebrate our Wedding Anniversary there , each year. There is no other place that we want to go for vacations! If we were rich…. We would buy a place and live there!!! Love, Love, Love the Wildwoods!! And, I think it is awesome that now, they have the”Life Rolls On program… giving everyone a chance to surf or get themselves wet in the ocean… One of GOD’s beautiful creations! :)
Although I have moved to Dunedin Florida, I still go back to the Wildwoods. It is magic that will never end.
Yes Wendy, everything you said and more is true about the Wildwoods but please stop.telling everybody about it. I want the Wildwoods to myself.
You have to i clude the wonderful year round small town community we have here as well. Mr. JOHN LYNCH of the http://www.lunchwithlynch.com/ heads our “power of community” attitude we have here. Stop in and visit him at the Wildwoods Beachfront Convention Center! I vacationed in the Wildwoods and Cape May as a kid and now i livd here full time! Life is better at the beach!!
As a life time visitor to the Wikdwoods I can assure you that boredom will never occur to you.And as the author stated beautiful Cape May is just to the south,but be aware Cape May traffic is tough to deal with.
You forgot to mention that Wildwood NJ is the birth place of Rock and Roll. If the music historians are correct and “Rock Around The Clock” is the first Rock and Roll song Wildwood is where it happened. Along with “The Twist” and Dick Clark’s Bandstand.
Grew up in the Wildwoods, had many vacations with my kids here, moved away for employment . Moved back as a retirement community and enjoy my family an.d friends viviting in the summer months/ A wonderful family place to enjoy so many venues
As a real estate agent living and working down the shore, I can tell you first hand what a great experience it is to work in this town. Anyone looking for more information on sales or rentals can visit my website at http://www.frank4shore.com
I finally visited the Jersey shore beach communities just before Hurricane Sandy hit a few years back. I was impressed by the natural beauty but did not “get” the fee to use the beaches. Cape May is fun, especially the ferry to Lewes, Delaware.