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.