Resort's winning formula

Success: While ideas for reinventing Ocean City's image have been tossed about for years, Maryland's seaside resort attracts vacationers year after year with its simple focus on family entertainment.

May 09, 1999|By June Arney | June Arney,SUN STAFF

For the past several years, Ocean City has suffered from an identity problem, as tourism officials questioned the future, switched slogans with the breeze and imagined ways the seaside playground might reinvent itself.

There was a sense of unrest as new ideas bubbled up and multiple visions for revitalization collided -- in an industry where image is everything. But these days, the community that plays host to 8 million visitors a year seems content being exactly what it is: a family destination.

So, with Maryland's cherished ocean resort three weekends away from the start of what is expected to be a record-breaking season, officials no longer talk of reinvention -- but rather of building on what has brought success to the 10-mile-long barrier island for generations.

There is far less conversation about those past ideas, which ranged from IMAX theater to aquarium, from science museum to downtown demolition.

What hasn't evaporated is the passion to remain competitive, to keep the faithful coming back and to lure first-time visitors with a safe, clean, family atmosphere.

That family message is evident everywhere in Ocean City -- from the new 265-seat rustic music theater that will open this month just outside town to the $3.5 million face lift of the boardwalk to the signs that Mayor Jim Mathias had installed at the gateway to the island: "Welcome to Ocean City Maryland, America's finest family resort."

"That's a credo we live every day," Mathias said. "That's what our future is all about."

As recently as five years ago, crowds had slowed in making their way to the shore, tourists didn't spend as freely and competition from places like Virginia Beach, Va., Myrtle Beach, S.C., and other attractions threatened to erode the resort's traditional base.

And so the ideas for change tumbled freely.

This season, the music of OC Jamboree will answer the recurring cry of tourist destinations for another alternative, another diversion for bored kids and weary parents.

Located in West Ocean City, a half-mile west of the U.S. 50 bridge, the attraction will offer live, musical variety seven days a week during the summer, similarly to theaters that have become popular near Myrtle Beach and Branson, Mo.

"We did the demographics, and Ocean City needs entertainment," said Dave Weatherholtz, the 39-year-old president of OC Jamboree who will emcee the shows. "Once you've done the boardwalk and the beach during the day, there's nothing to do at night but the go-carts or mini golf or outlet shopping. If you come with a family and try to spend four or five days, that gets a little old."

Weatherholtz expects nightly attendance to average 80 percent of the theater's capacity in the first year, drawing a total 25,000 to 30,000 guests by summer's end. Ticket prices will average $17. By next summer, Weatherholtz thinks he'll turn a profit.

"We're geared toward families," he said. "We're going to give them something besides a movie theater or an arcade or a mall."

Such attractions are welcome news to people like Joyce Hatlee, manager of the 69-room Oceanic Motel, at the south end of the beach, where the ocean meets the bay.

"We get a lot of people who come in here tired of the boardwalk, and they want to know what else there is to do," she said. "If it's raining, we tell them about the outlets. We need something that's not going to be too costly for the family to do."

The arrival of Jamboree is also exciting for the Hotel-Motel-Restaurant Association, which several years ago lobbied for more attractions in a town that swells from a population of 7,500 year round to about 350,000 in the summer.

"We would certainly love to see an IMAX or an aquarium," said Susan Lynch Jones, executive director of the association. "We need more things that would attract families. But I haven't heard it talked about recently."

Not everyone who visits the resort wants to see such attractions added to the mix.

"That would destroy the local color," said Ed Newell, from Conowingo, who has vacationed at the resort with his wife and five children many times over the past 40 years. "You're always fighting those who want to expand. You bring the IMAX in and other things and the next thing you'll see is gambling."

It isn't more glitz that's needed in Ocean City, Newell said. It's human interaction, perhaps sports championships and contests on the beach for the young people.

On the day Mathias took office two terms ago, he remembers then-Gov. William Donald Schaefer saying to him: "Jim, make sure you take care of what makes you special."

Boardwalk is key

In Mathias' mind, a key part of the Ocean City magic is its 3-mile-long boardwalk.

"This is a popcorn, crab cake, cotton candy kind of town," Mathias said. "I don't want to lose our tradition. It's very important for that wholesome atmosphere to be preserved."

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