OCEAN CITY — Ocean City
Though the solstice is still weeks away, summer begins today in Ocean City, as the Memorial Day weekend triggers the annual migration of the beach-loving masses. Anne FauntLeRoy, executive director of the town's Chamber of Commerce, says as many as 300,000 people are expected this weekend.
Besides the traditional favorites of ocean, sun, sand and seafood, this year's visitors will find a new taxi service that bypasses the ever-congested Coastal Highway, a beefed-up bus system, a bigger boardwalk with its own environmentally friendly bench and the East Coast's largest wax museum.
"It's going to be a great season, provided we have the weather for it," says Ocean City Mayor Roland "Fish" Powell. "We've got some new hotels and motels, new charter boats that have been built, new golf courses. The beach is in great shape. We hope everybody comes down to visit us."
"I think this will be a banner year," agrees Ms. FauntLeRoy. She believes the resort's proximity to Baltimore, Washington and Philadelphia will lure folks who can't afford more exotic trips because of the economy but who refuse to skip vacationing altogether.
For many vacationers, getting around town by boat is nothing new, but traveling by water taxi will be. Veteran charter boat captain Terry O'Rourke is at the helm of the Irish Rover, a new 26-passenger water taxi that ferries riders between more than a dozen bayside bars and restaurants.
"It's a lot better than the bus," says Todd Rodano of Ocean City, who joined three friends to hop the water taxi from B. J.'s South to M. R. Ducks. "It's on the water, so it makes you feel more like you're down the ocean. It's pretty quick, too." The Irish Rover makes its 15-establishment circuit in less than an hour.
"It's great for people who want to go bar-hopping. They don't have to worry about taking their cars," said passenger Ed Hillebrand of Ocean City. Mr. Hillebrand and his wife, Carolyn, preferred the sight-seeing value of the water taxi ride, pointing out bayside landmarks as the Irish Rover motored through the Isle of Wight Bay.
On the oceanside, a 3-foot-high concrete sea wall stretches from Fourth Street to 27th Street along the beach side of the boardwalk, part of the Department of Natural Resources' attempt to keep the ocean and civilization a safe distance apart. Gates in the sea wall give bathers access to the sand, but the wall itself already has proved handy.
"It creates a place for people to sit," says Nancy Howard, DNR project administrator for Ocean City's beach replenishment program. "During the White Marlin Festival parade, people were sitting and standing all along the wall to see the parade. I think it's a definite plus."
Grassy dunes have risen from 27th Street north to 102nd Street as the latest tide of beach replenishment continues. Started in 1988, the project should be completed by mid-summer -- but not before beachgoers from 102nd Street north into Delaware put up with six to eight weeks of noisy sand pumping machines, dredging up the ocean floor and turning it into the final set of protective dunes.
From 10th Street north to its end at 27th Street, the boardwalk has been widened from 24 to 32 feet, so there's more strolling room -- and more room to scramble when the tram noses through. Riding the tram will cost you $1.25 this year, up from just a buck last summer.
One of the boardwalk train's stops is the new Ocean City Wax Museum, which this year is filling the Pier Building at Wicomico and the boardwalk with "Seven Wondrous Worlds in Wax." About 150 figures made of beeswax and fiberglass bring characters like Elton John, Louis Pasteur and the Phantom of the Opera up close and personal.
"We chose the seven worlds to appeal to a broad spectrum of people, from young kids to their grandparents," says museum co-owner George Drucker, who spent three years and about $600,000 to launch the new boardwalk attraction. He and his partners, who among them have created 28 museums, originally considered Baltimore's Inner Harbor for their newest gallery. Instead they selected Ocean City, where they expect to draw more than a million visitors this year.
Those who have spent what seemed like their entire vacations circling the inlet parking lot looking for a spot will enjoy Ocean City's new transportation policy. An all-day bus pass, good for unlimited rides from one end of the 10-mile island to the other, costs just $1.
Golfers who head to town with clubs and irons in tow will be pleasantly surprised. Four new golf courses within a half hour drive of the beach are opening this spring, including Ocean City's 7,002-yard municipal golf course, Eagle's Landing, which boasts an environmentally unmatched setting on the wetlands of Sinepuxent Bay.
"I think golf is going to be the No. 1 hit here this year and for a long time to come," says Tom Perlozzo, director of Ocean City's Parks and Recreation department.