When you think of the New Jersey Shore, a few images come to mind. Asbury Park, a gritty boardwalk town made famous by Bruce Springsteen. The oceanfront gambling town of Atlantic City. Cape May, a charming Victorian-filled village. And who can forget Snooki and Jwoww from the cult reality TV show, Jersey Shore?
But have you heard of Wildwood, New Jersey? Probably not. And yet, this charming little beach community on the southern Jersey Coast is a well-kept secret that might just be the best family vacation spot you’ve never heard of.
The main town is Wildwood, but the whole area is also referred to as the Wildwoods, since it’s actually made up of a cluster of beach towns with the word “Wildwood” in the name (Wildwood Crest, North Wildwood and so on).
I recently went with my husband and 5-year-old daughter, Lucy, for a long-weekend getaway, and we honestly didn’t want to leave. Here are the nine things we loved most about this wonderful beachfront discovery.
1. It’s Convenient — and Affordable
On the southern end of the Cape May Peninsula, Wildwood is an easy trip from some of the biggest East Coast cities. On a good traffic day, it’s a two-and-a-half-hour drive from New York City. Philadelphia is an hour and a half away. Washington D.C. is three and half hours. As you drive over the bridges that lead to Wildwood, the landscape changes. Take a whiff of the ocean air and gaze over the endless expanse of marshes and wetlands. Now you’re really on vacation.
One of the best parts of Wildwood is its affordability. You can easily find a hotel for under $150 a night, food is inexpensive and you can purchase a moderately priced wristband that gives access to most of the rides and the water parks (the Xtreme thrill rides are a little extra).
2. The Boardwalk
The heart of Wildwood is Morey’s Piers, a squeaky clean family-owned boardwalk development that started off in 1969 with a water slide called the Wipe Out. The Wipe Out is still there — plus so much more. The Morey family keeps adding spills and thrills. Now, there are more than 100 rides and attractions that span 18 acres, where you’ll find three piers lined with rides, water parks, arcades, surf shops, snack shacks — you name it. A charming bright yellow Tram Car runs continuous loops between all the action.
The appeal of Morey’s Piers is that, unlike so many amusement parks today that require miles of walking or buses to get you to your destination, you can park your car at an adjacent lot and be on a rollercoaster within minutes.
And while some other New Jersey Shore boardwalks attract a seedy element, that’s not the case here. Wildwood feels like a scene out of Leave it to Beaver, a classic slice of Americana frequented by families and some well-behaved teenagers.
3. The Rides
What gets your blood racing? You’ll find it at Morey’s Piers. For older kids and grown-ups, there are high-octane rides like the SlingShot, a massive sling shot that shoots passengers practically into outer space. There are also classic rides for little kids, like an old-school carousel, tea cups and bumper cars.
Any roller coaster fan will love it here: Morey’s Piers is home to six world-class coasters, plus mini ones for kids. The Great White is a vintage wooden coaster that plummets 150 feet and reaches speeds up to 50 mph. Lucy loved the Wild Whizzer, a pint-sized coaster with spinning cars. My favorite was the SkyCoaster, which flies out over the beach and gives you the feel of G-forces. It was terrifying — and amazing.
4. The Water Parks
Morey’s Piers is the perfect amusement park for a hot day, since the water parks are set right next to the thrill rides at the end of the Surfside and Mariner’s piers. We spent one afternoon at Raging Waters, where you can rent private cabanas, float around on the Adventure River and take the plunge on Shotgun Falls. Then there’s Ocean Oasis, which is home to the original WipeOut that got this whole thing started. Don’t miss the Cliff Dive, which drops five stories in a mere three seconds. And if you feel like cooling off in the ocean, the beach is right in front of you.
5. The Beach
One of the most dazzling things about Wildwood is its beach, the largest expanse of sand in New Jersey. It stretches half a mile wide at some points. You can swim and sun here – and do so much more. The beach plays host to the world’s largest kite festival, the world’s largest Frisbee beach competition and concerts by acts like Tim McGraw and Kenny Chesney. There’s even an annual classic car race on the beach called the Race of the Gentlemen.
There are also miles of bike paths that snake along the beach and are not to be missed. You can rent all kinds of bikes — bikes for mom and dad, bikes with training wheels, tandem bikes — and explore the area.
And good news: The fun here happens year-round. Fall is one of the best times to come to Wildwood. When the crowds clear out, prices drop even more and you can check out events like car shows, treasure hunts, concerts and pumpkin festivals.
6. Retro Architecture
Wildwood’s perfectly preserved Doo-Wop architecture is a big part of what gives the area its character. As you drive along, you’ll spot more than 200 mid-century Modern motels that look like something out of 1950’s Miami Beach. Many of them are decorated with plastic palm trees and neon lights. It’s a photographer’s dream.
7. The Best Breakfast Ever
My family and I will definitely be returning to Wildwood and next time, we’re going to plan well in advance so that we can try out Breakfast in the Sky. On Saturday, Sunday and Monday mornings during July and August, the 150-foot-tall Giant Ferris Wheel is transformed into a rotating restaurant.
This is sure to be one of the most memorable meals you’ve ever had. Each of the cars is transformed into a personal dining room with a linen-topped table and china, and during the breathtaking 45-minute experience you’ll dine on delicious dishes — shrimp or lobster omelets, shrimp-and-crab crepes, Belgian waffles — as you gaze out over the ocean and boardwalk.
It’s no wonder that tickets for this once-in-a-lifetime breakfast sell out fast. I was hoping for a last-minute cancellation, but no luck. Nobody cancels an experience like this.
8. The Hotels
Hotels line the streets in Wildwood, offering all kinds of accommodations, from mom-and-pop motels to sophisticated resorts with pools and restaurants.
Morey Resorts offers five different hotels, all within easy reach of that beautiful beach. We stayed at the nautical-chic Port Royal, set right across from the beach in Wildwood Crest. It was recently renovated and had a game room for kids, multiple pools and a restaurant with outdoor dining. Our suite was perfect for a family with its bunk-bed nook for kids, a bedroom with a king-sized bed for mom and dad and a separate living area with a full kitchen and a pull-out couch, a dining area and a terrace that looks right onto the ocean.
Another great pick is the retro Starlux Boutique Hotel, which has its own mini golf course with 27 holes, two levels and plenty of kitschy elements: giant sea creatures, swaying plastic palm trees and a faux sand dune.
9. The Food
If you like seafood, Wildwood is your spot. We loved Joe’s Fish Co., an open-air spot on the boardwalk where we grabbed tables on the second floor and enjoyed all kinds of treats — crab cakes, fish and chips, a lobster bake, shucked oysters — while we gazed at the flashing lights of the rides below. The Taco Joint on Morey’s Mariner Pier serves killer fish tacos and – get this — a decadent fried cheesecake.
And that’s just the start. Morey’s Piers recently opened the PigDog Beach Bar, a casual spot right on the beach with killer barbecue. The legendary Curley’s Fries has been serving its addictive fries since 1974 — order a bucket. You can get them topped with Old Bay Seasoning, Cuban spice or simple sea salt. For dessert, there’s nothing like Kohr Brothers, which serves frozen custard from a 1919 recipe.
Before you head home, check out Hooked Up Seafood, an open-air crab shack on the outskirts of town that serves fresh steamed garlic crabs that you can crack right by the water. It’s the perfect way to end a Wildwood vacation.
By Laura Begley Bloom