WILDWOOD - Joelle Ellis had never been so happy to see a tram car in her life.
Two years ago the State College, Pa. native, her husband and their young son, Jonah, were spending a family night out on the Boardwalk here when a spontaneous summer storm unloaded on the shore town.
Cold and drenched, the Ellises grimly entertained the prospect of lugging a sopping toddler several blocks down the Boardwalk to their lodgings. Then they spotted salvation in the form of a bright yellow tram car.
"It was packed. There were about six people crammed on each bench," Ellis said, recalling the event. "But it was worth it. We were very grateful for the tram that night."
Now a tram ride is a must for the Ellises, just as it is for all visitors who trek down to Wildwood for a few days of sun and sand each summer. For riders the tram cars are a respite for weary legs. For walkers, the tram can be summed up in just four words:
"Watch the tram car, please!"
"I think we said that about 100 times in the truck on the way down here." said Nick Picarello, 33, of Butler, Morris County, as he and girlfriend, Jessica Bateson, 24, hopped a ride on the tram. "And her father busted our chops about it before we left."
Walking two miles of boardwalk seemed a good idea that morning, when the couple finished breakfast and needed some exercise to walk off the calories. But with the sun overhead and sweat pouring down their faces as they reached the north end of the Boardwalk, Picarello and Bateson voted to take the tram car back.
The tram sailed along at a slow pace past the amusement piers, carnival- game hawkers and French fry vendors in a blur of intoxicating sights, smells and sounds.
Picarello and Bateson were just looking for a ride, but they got more than that when tram-car supervisor John "Gig" Gigliotti hopped on board. He offered the couple suggestions for dinner reservations (Groff's Restaurant or the Boat House) and a good place to get fudge (Laura's Fudge on Wildwood Avenue).
If you've ridden a tram car in the past 16 years, you've probably met "Gig." He spent 40 years working as a conductor on the Reading, Amtrak and Conrail railroad lines. Running the tram car service seemed a seamless transition for retirement ... almost.
"On the train I could drive 100 mph," Gigliotti said. "Now on the tram car I can only go 5 mph."
Gigliotti works with maintenance supervisor Rick Devanti to make sure the tram cars and their operators are in top working order. But chatting with the riders is Gigliotti's favorite part of the job.
"I'm like an ambassador to the people. I answer all their questions," Gigliotti said. "I tell them where the bathrooms are, where they can take a shower, when the trams arrive."
The trams, operated by the Boardwalk Special Improvement District, run north and south on the Boardwalk from 11 a.m. to the time the amusement piers close - sometimes well after midnight.
The operators work in pairs, with a driver in the front and a conductor riding on the back collecting fares and signaling to the driver when passengers need to be let on and off. During the day they might have 45 or 50 passengers at a time. At night 100 to 150 Boardwalk strollers might jump on for a ride.
"I always put the younger guys on at night," Gigliotti says. "You need quick reflexes to avoid people."
You can see a lot from the tram. Like the teenage boys hoping to impress their girlfriends by standing on the tracks and playing chicken with the tram. Or skateboarders trying to hang onto the sides for a quick lift home.
When the trams first began running in the 1930s, they were all operated by women. Riding with the ladies was part of the attraction. Now Chelsea Sullivan and Denise Rahn are the only two female drivers working on the tram cars.
"I didn't have time to find a summer job so my mom knew someone down here and called them," said Sullivan, 18, of North Wildwood. "It's fun. I enjoy the scenery, and it's kind of relaxing too."
Sullivan enjoys watching the younger riders, who all insist on calling the tram cars "trains."
In J.J. Bakeoven's mind, the tram is a train. the 3-year-old is a devotee of "Thomas the Tank Engine and Friends," and his one request was to "ride the train" on the Boardwalk during his Wildwood vacation.
"He saw it when we first got here and has been wanting to get on it ever since," said Bakeoven's grandmother, Sue Pierson, of Philadelphia. "At night it gets too crowded so we got a day pass and we'll ride on it all day."
In another car, Octavius Johnson sat alone, purse in hand and a neon-green day pass strapped around her wrist.
Johnson's day job as a radiation therapist in Newark keeps her on her feet for hours at a time every day. Now that she was finally on vacation, it was time to take a seat.
Johnson spent $5 on a day pass, picked a good seat and settled back to enjoy the ride. While her fellow passengers hopped on and off the tram, heading to ride the roller coasters at Morey's Piers or get pizza at Mack's, Johnson stayed put.
"I might get off at the end, or I might take this same car back the other way," Johnson said. "I'm just resting and enjoying not being on my feet."
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Each tram car runs on a 36 DC-volt battery that weighs more than 2,000 pounds. The batteries are charged each night and can run for about seven or eight hours at a time.
Several of the tram cars running on the Boardwalk are the same ones that were built for the 1939 World's Fair in New York City.
The famous "Watch the tram car, please" voice is that of Wildwood resident Floss Stingel. She recorded the alert back in the early 1970s.
A round-trip tram-car ride takes approximately one hour.
The tram cars carry about half a million people up and down the Boardwalk each year.
From 1998 to 2000, Wildwood hosted the annual Great Tram Car Race between entertainers Al Alberts and Cozy Morley, who would race the trams down a section of the Boardwalk with passengers aboard.