OCEAN CITY -- From the boardwalk to the beaches stretching north toward Delaware, throngs of people converged here yesterday, unfolding lawn chairs, popping umbrellas and devouring french fries to kick off the traditional summer season.
Some 300,000 people were expected to descend on the resort city this Memorial Day weekend, bringing smiles of relief to rain-weary hotel, restaurant and shop owners, who reported business has been slow during the past month.
"We've had a lot of rain, a lot of cold weather," said Bill Gibbs, owner of the Dough Roller restaurants. "But things are looking excellent today. You can already feel the vibrations."
The thermometer peaked at 80 degrees yesterday and the water temperature reached 57 degrees, according to a U.S. Coast Guard spokesman.
The sun was expected to continue to shine today and tomorrow, pushing temperatures into the 80s and 90s.
"The big thing is the weather," said Ocean City Mayor Roland E. "Fish" Powell. "You can have a great economy, but if the weather isn't good, we're not going to get the crowds here."
But the crowds were coming. State police at Easton and Salisbury reported evening traffic along eastbound U.S. 50 was heavy and steady. No major backups or accidents were reported.
No problems were reported in Ocean City either, where crowds were expected to continue to arrive well into the evening, said Jay Hancock, a city police spokesman.
"Traffic is getting heavier," he said. "We're going to have a good crowd this weekend."
More than 4,000 cars an hour were crossing the Bay Bridge around dinner time, said Debbie Simms, an operator at the bridge. A westbound lane was opened to accommodate eastbound traffic, she said.
David and Gail Butler of Forest Hill beat the crowds by arriving Thursday. While motorists fought heavy traffic on Route 50, the Butlers were sunbathing on the beach off 11th Street.
"It's like a ritual to us," said Mr. Butler, a plumber. "We have to get down here before the crowds."
Mary Lee Tawney of the Ocean City Hotel-Motel-Restaurant Association Inc. said more than 75 percent of the city's 10,000 motel and hotel rooms were booked for the three-day weekend.
"It looks good," she said. "We're keeping in line with last year, which wasn't a banner year. We're expecting a good summer."
About 400,000 fewer people visited the resort last year than did in 1990. City tourism and business officials blamed the decline on the Persian Gulf war and a sagging economy.
The outlook for the summer of 1992 is better. Partly because recession-strapped vacationers are taking shorter trips and a big advertising campaign, an estimated 4 million people are expected to visit the resort through Labor Day.
City officials also are counting on some top-name acts like Dolly Parton, a Beach Boys concert on the beach and an offshore power boat race in August to draw larger crowds this summer.
Tourism officials have spent about $1 million plugging the resort's amenities, including new golf courses, to beachcombers in Ohio, Pennsylvania, New York and New Jersey.
"We draw a lot of people from New Jersey and New England," said Martha O. Clements of the city's tourism department. "The New Jersey beaches cost money. Ours are free."
Taking advantage of the free beaches yesterday were Walt and Patricia Toney of Berlin, N.J.
The couple drove three hours from their home, just 45 minutes from the beach at Atlantic City, to sun in Ocean City.
"People in New Jersey think we're crazy," Mrs. Toney said. "But this is better than the beaches in New Jersey. People are so nice here."
Beach goers will find some spots along the shore closed to sunbathing and swimming this summer, as the city works toward restoring sand to dunes flattened by three storms last winter. The job is expected to be completed by mid-July, said Nancy Howard, of the state Department of Natural Resources.
But beach damage seemed the farthest thing from merchants' minds yesterday.
"We're expecting a very big summer," Mr. Gibbs said. "Ocean City is still very reasonable. The location is great and with people not traveling as far, this is an ideal place."
David Bryant, general manager of the Phillips Beach Plaza Hotel at 13th Street, also was optimistic about the summer's prospects.