WILDWOOD — Alicia Van Eps was like thousands of fans who have been to plenty of Kenny Chesney’s shows before, but felt Wednesday night’s show on the beach was something special.
“I feel like this is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity,” said the Middle Township woman. “To have something like this, this close to home, is huge.”
By all indications — the cheers, the dancing, the delirious grins on people’s faces — the country superstar’s performance was a huge success.
At least 20,000 concertgoers attended, and estimates from promoter American Express and The Greater Wildwoods Tourism Improvement and Development Authority projected as many as 30,000 more visitors for the show.
Despite some initial fears that the crowds would be too much for the city to handle, everything appeared to work smoothly. People filled the Boardwalk and beach outside the gated areas, but they were controlled.
Despite a rush of people sprinting toward the stage when gates opened at 6 p.m., people seemed orderly getting in and out of the venue.
“With all this hype, it didn’t seem bad at all,” said Kathy Rickards, of North Cape May, who was able to get tickets for herself and her family through Chesney’s fan club.
Tonya Paroda, of Hopewell Township, also got tickets through the fan club, and she was one of the first people to the stage after the gates opened. She also brought her 10-year-old daughter, Heidi, to the show, which was her first concert.
When asked if she was excited, Heidi just nodded.
“No words can explain this,” said Tonya Paroda.
Indeed, many of the people in Wednesday’s crowd were big followers of Chesney’s and saw him only a few days earlier perform with Tim McGraw before 53,000 people at Lincoln Financial Field in Philadelphia.
“This is a completely different atmosphere,” said Rob Skiendzielewski, of Stafford Township, who went to both shows and was only 10 feet from the stage on Wednesday night.
“This is what Kenny Chesney’s about — relaxing on the beach,” said Skiendzielewski’s sister Kristin, of Philadelphia.
A transformation of the island began in the afternoon as an abundance of cowboy hats and boots were seen all along the Boardwalk and streets from North Wildwood down to Wildwood Crest.
Bars and restaurants were packed by people taking advantage of drink and food specials held to coincide with the show, and some of those establishments streamed the show live from YouTube.
Private lots and entrepreneurial land owners were charging $25 to $100 for parking. Traffic getting onto the island was not noticeably congested, possibly because many people came early and throughout the day to go to the beach beforehand.
The stage was set up between Schellenger and Spencer avenues, between Morey’s two piers there — the top of the imposing façade was taller than the nearby roller coasters and waterslides.
At night, the stage and its light show fit perfectly with the lit Ferris wheel and rides on each side. By that time, a slight breeze was blowing across the beach and made it much more comfortable than earlier in the day.
Powerful speakers carried the music far outside the gated area, too, all the way to people sitting on the beach, on the Boardwalk and under it, not to mention blocks away.
In fact, there was something to be said about sitting outside the gated area, since there were large screens set up that projected the performance.
“They can’t bring chairs in there, but I can out here,” said Nick Sabatino, of Philadelphia, who was there with about 10 family members.
Sabatino said he used to work in Wildwood for years, and called the concert the biggest event there that he was aware of for decades. Knowing that, he didn’t know what to expect as far as crowds, but he was pleasantly surprised.
“It could have been a mob scene,” he said.
Instead, it turned out to be an apparently well-organized spectacle — one Chesney commented on several times during his show.
“This is one of the most unique settings I’ve ever played music in,” he said during the concert, “and I’ve been playing music for a while.”
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