WILDWOOD — One style of rubber duck has the buoyant plastic waterfowl sporting an Elvis Presley haircut. Another has dumbbells tucked under each wing and a workout towel draped around its neck.

As bizarre as some of these characters are (why would a duck need scuba gear, or a kayak?) they represent big money in Cape May County, where the United Way’s popular fundraiser reached its 20th year Sunday night with the annual Rubber Ducky Regatta. Organizers said the regatta has raised $500,000 in those 20 years.

The three-month fundraiser brought in nearly $30,000 last year — about one-third of the total raised all year for the county, said John Emge, the United Way’s executive director for Atlantic and Cape May counties.

Emge expects more this year and has plans to expand it to bump up the fundraising potential, which had fallen off in the past few years, he said.

“Years ago, it was a lot more money that was raised, probably grossing close to $70,000, $80,000,” he said.

The Rubber Ducky Regatta is held by the United Way of Greater Philadelphia and Southern New Jersey, which represents United Way organizations in southern New Jersey and eastern Pennsylvania that merged last year.

In Cape May County, the ducks hold a special significance in what their sales are able to fund.

Starting in June, the ducks are sold for $5 apiece. Corporate sponsorships and underwriters donate money and prizes for the regatta, in which thousands of ducks are dumped into the Lazy River at Raging Waters at Morey’s Piers on Schellenger Avenue.

The biggest single prize this year was a $500 ShopRite gift certificate.

Local United Way officials said the money the event generates is critical to helping its mission to the area — bringing education, health, income and basic needs to those in the community.

This year, the organization is funding $60,000 for 15 programs in Cape May County, said Fran Wise, of Galloway Township, United Way director of community investments for Atlantic and Cape May counties.

She said these include the Literacy Volunteers Association Cape-Atlantic for adult literacy programs, Big Brothers Big Sisters of Atlantic and Cape May counties, and Volunteers in Medicine.

“Helping people increase their earning potential, helping people to live a healthier lifestyle, helping kids stay in school, graduate and have a successful career and life,” Wise said. “And basic needs, making sure people have food, that their utilities are on when life’s little hiccups happen.”

The need in Cape May County is particularly acute, officials said.

The tourist-reliant county’s unemployment rate swings heavily with the seasons. In June, the county’s unemployment was 10 percent, according to the latest figures available from the state Department of Labor & Workforce Development.

In January, it was 20 percent.

“Because Cape May County’s economy is so seasonal and so driven by tourism and there’s so much need here, the United Way in Cape May County is so important to address some of the needs that continue throughout the year,” said Mary Godleski, associate director of communications for the local United Way.

Contact Brian Ianieri:

609-272-7253

More than 30 years’ experience reporting and editing for newspapers and magazines in Illinois, Colorado, Texas and New Jersey and 1985 winner of the Texas Daily Newspaper Association’s John Murphy Award for copy editing.