Ocean City, New Jersey, the Most Magical Shore Town on Earth

Why, at least for this Fox Chase native, it will always be the only perfect vacation.

Gilligan's Wonderland Pier Ferris Wheel | Edwin under a CC 2.0 license.

Gillian’s Wonderland Pier Ferris Wheel | Edwin under a CC 2.0 license.

My family has gone to Ocean City, New Jersey, every summer since I can remember.

When things were tight, we went for a long afternoon or a short weekend. Other times, we’d pack up that gigantic blue station wagon and put Fox Chase in the rearview for an entire week. Regardless, for a few hours or a few days, it was always and easily the best part of the year, the time when the Weymouths most felt like the families on TV.

It wasn’t until I was in college that we decided to take our first “real” vacation and booked a flight to Disney World.

I’m sure most people have a wonderful time at Disney. I’m sure we had our moments, too. But 10 years later, the only thing I remember from that trip is my sister taking a swing at me in front of the Sorcerer’s Hat. (For the record, I more than earned an ass-kicking that week, and if I could go back in time and do it myself, I would.)

I regret the choice words that fell upon some innocent little Mickey Mouse ears that evening. But the real problem with getting into a oh-hell-no Northeast girl fight at Disney World is that afterward, you’ll have to sit down to dinner together at a table shaped like a cartoon car. A roller-skating waitress will sing your order. If you want dessert, you’ll have to dance for it.

It might not have been the vacation we were expecting, but we did learn a valuable lesson that year. For us at least, the “most magical place on Earth” was and always will be in New Jersey, oddly enough.

As a child, magic comes cheap: All golf courses have windmills, bumper cars never result in lawsuits, French fries come with every meal. My 2-year-old niece finds Ocean City delightful for the same reason she finds everything delightful — she doesn’t know any better yet, and someone else is picking up the tab. But the older I get, the more special the island becomes and the brighter my heart lights up when the Atlantic City Expressway finally surrenders exit 7S. After spending a lot of time and money chasing far lesser highs, I have to admit that I want some answers.

For now, my working theory is that Ocean City is a perfectly realized antidote to Philadelphia, a meticulously crafted and precisely balanced alternate reality designed to sedate, sooth and smooth our rougher edges.

Once you emerge from the shore traffic, there’s almost nothing familiar about life as we know it in Ocean City. Bikes are left unlocked, piled on lawns until the next ride to the Seashell Museum or Wonderland Pier. Ice cream parlors are plentiful and non-ironic, while bars are nonexistent. Traffic yields to pedestrians at every corner, and once a year to hundreds of Basset Hounds on their way to the BoardWaddle. I don’t know much about the space-time continuum, but I do know that the stock at the Surf Mall hasn’t changed in at least 15 years, and that Incubus poster should be showing its age by now.

Sea Isle gives up on the charade after the kids go to bed and Wildwood, God bless it, is as weird and messy as any nook of Philadelphia. For as lovely as it is, Rehoboth has too many green juices and boutique grains on the menu to pretend there isn’t a larger world to answer to on Monday morning. But Ocean City never shows a crack in the façade unless you really, really need a check-in with reality. Then, it will swiftly dispatch a hungry seagull to remind you that it’s every woman for herself in this cold, lonely world, and your much stronger sister has had just about enough of your whining.

Good looking out, Ocean City.

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