When the Sea Isle City Polar Bear Plunge started a quarter of a century ago, no one expected it to become the city-sweeping, all-encompassing fun-filled weekend-long event that it is today.

“We wanted to attract locals to come out and socialize as well as attract tourists,” says Jimmy Bennett, originator and founder of Sea Isle’s Polar Bear Plunge. “I was part of the Tourism Commission and we did it as a way to combat cabin fever … the Plunge has exceeded all expectations.”

Wintertime plunges are hugely popular now, but when Bennett first proposed the idea, it was met with some skepticism.

“We only knew of one (plunge) in Delaware … we brought it up before the board, and they were kind of against it at first,” Bennett says.

The first year there were only 25 contestants — mostly retired state police officers and staffers from La Costa Lounge — and about 500 spectators on the beach.

On this, the 25th anniversary of the Sea Isle City Polar Bear Plunge, Bennett anticipates approximately 2,000 plungers to take to the water, and tens of thousands of people watching from the beach.

The event has evolved in other ways as well.

“Mike Monichetti really made it a family event,” Bennett says of the 25 year tradition.

Monichetti, owner of Mike’s Seafood in Sea Isle, began the Walk/Run for Autism 11 years ago. Held on the Sunday after the Plunge, the walk/run was pivotal in pushing the plunge from a Saturday event to more of a weekend experience.

“We worked for years (to add) Friday night,” says Bennett. “What’s really taken off are the King and Queen and Prince and Princess Contests, which are attached to the Run/Walk.”

According to Bennett, the event — and the weekend surrounding it — brings approximately 40,000 to 50,000 people to town. The result is a mid-February weekend that feels distinctly like summer in Sea Isle City, sans the warm weather.

So why is the Sea Isle City Polar Bear Plunge so successful — and so special?

“Sea Isle City is very community oriented,” Bennett says. “The mayor (Leonard Desiderio) has been behind the plunge from the beginning. Through the mayor’s guidance and the city’s organization, we’ve been able to flourish.”

Registering for the Plunge: Ready to take a dip? You can register for the plunge as late as Saturday, Feb. 16. Head to La Costa’s Deck Bar Tent on Friday, Feb. 15, for registration from 2 to 8 p.m.; and to La Costa’s Landis Avenue Front Tent on Saturday from 8 a.m. to 2 p.m. Online registration is available at LaCosta-SeaIsle.com.

Three days of celebrations

Friday, Feb 15: The main events on Friday night are the Polar Bear Prince and Princess and the King and Queen contests. The Prince and Princess Contest, open to contestants 12 to 16 years of age, is at 7:30 p.m. The winners are chosen based on a Q&A.

The Polar Bear King and Queen Contest starts at 9 p.m. It’s a fun event for a great cause. Each contestant commits to fundraising for Mike’s Run/Walk for Autism, and the winners are chosen based on two areas of competition: Money raised (which accounts for 50 percent) and personal interview/on-stage questions (the other 50 percent), which are asked in an open Q&A MC’d by Jimmy Bennett live on Friday night. Questions usually have to do with Sea Isle City history and lore.

Along with the contests, both held at La Costa, is live music from The Insiders at 8 p.m. and Split Decision at 10 p.m.

Registering for the Prince & Princess and King & Queen Contests: The applications for Prince & Princess and King & Queen are available online at LaCosta-SeaIsle.com.

Saturday, Feb 16: The centerpiece of the weekend — the actual Polar Bear Plunge — takes place on Saturday, in and around La Costa, which utilizes tents to accommodate the many facets of the day. The fun starts bright and early at La Costa with early morning plunge registration at 8 a.m. at the Landis Avenue Front Tent. While you’re there, take a peek at the vendor tables, such as service organizations like Beacon Animal Rescue along with food vendors. Entertainment takes place all day in and around La Costa:

• 10 a.m.-2 p.m.: Funzaluv in the Landis Avenue Front Tent

• 11:30 a.m.: the epic Polar Bear Costume Contest begins in the JFK Boulevard Main Tent at La Costa

• 2 p.m.: the Polar Bear Plunge

• 3-7 p.m.: Legacy Band in Landis Avenue Front Tent

• 4-8 p.m.: CJ & Shackleton at the Deck Bar

• 10 a.m.-11 p.m.: DJ entertainment on the Deck Bar

• 3-7 p.m.: The Insiders in the JFK Main Tent

• 2-6 p.m.: Split Decision in La Costa Lounge

• 7-10 p.m.: Matt MacPherson in Landis Avenue Front Tent

• 7-11 p.m.: The Rockets in La Costa Lounge

• 11 p.m.-2:30 a.m.: Fish Out of Water in La Costa Lounge.

Sunday, Feb. 17: While Saturday was all about the party, Sunday is all about getting out there and making a difference with the Mike’s Seafood Autism Walk/Run. Onsite registration is available from 9 to 11:30 a.m. at La Costa. The Walk/Run itself starts at noon at Promenade at JFK Boulevard and the beach, and is followed by an awards ceremony and breakfast buffet at 2 p.m. at La Costa. At 3 p.m., the Third Annual Cornhole Tournament begins, with registration at La Costa at 2 p.m. The day is followed up with music from The Insiders from 2 to 6 p.m., and Matt Q from 7 to 11 p.m. at La Costa Lounge.

Entertainment aplenty

Just about every Sea Isle City bar that is usually closed for the winter, will open for business during Polar Bear Plunge weekend, with entertainment to boot. Here’s what’s going on here, there, and everywhere.

• The Ocean Drive: Garden State Radio gets the party started on Friday, and on Saturday, Secret Service takes the stage at 2 p.m. sharp followed by Lost in Paris. Located at 40th Street and Landis Avenue in Sea Isle City. Go to TheOD.com for more information.

• Shenanigan’s: While they’re not busting out one of their famous reggae nights, Shenanigan’s will rock with DJ Ernesto on Friday, and both DJ April and DJ Ernesto on Saturday. Located at 3815 Landis Ave. in Sea Isle City. Go to Shenanigans-SeaIsle.com for more information.

• Dead Dog Saloon: Start the weekend early with Joe O’Brien on Friday; Shaun Durnin and then Nicki Sbaffoni on Saturday, and Rich Baker on Sunday. Located at 3815 Landis Ave. Go to DeadDogSaloon-SeaIsle.com for more information.

• O’Donnell’s Pour House: If you want to start the celebrations as early as Thursday, head to O’Donnell’s Pour House for their weekly Pint Night. And on Saturday, live music with Kim & Tonic starts at 2 p.m. Located at 3907 Landis Ave.. Go to OdonnellsPourHouse.com for more.

• Oar House Pub: Formerly The Lobster Loft, there’s another Thursday night celebration with The Delaware Kid — Matty Q at 8 p.m. On Friday, catch The Philly Rock & Soul Band at 8 p.m. Post-plunge on Saturday, head to Oar House Pub for Funzaluv at 7 p.m. and come back on Sunday for Andrew Jude at 7 p.m. Located at 318 42nd Place. Go to OarHouseSeaIsle.com.

• The Springfield Inn: Want to be as close to the beach as possible to watch plungers? Head to The Springfield Inn on Friday for LeCompt and DJ Brother Mike. On plunge day, i.e., Saturday, The Carousel Bar opens early at 11 a.m., with food, T-shirts, and all the liquid courage you might need pre-plunge, followed by Juliano Brothers at DJ Brother Mike from 3 to 7 p.m. Located at 12 43rd St. Go to TheSpringfieldInn.com for more.

• Kix McNutley’s: The fun isn’t confined to downtown. Head to the legendary Kix McNutley’s for a full weekend of activities. If you’re just getting into to town, swing by for early bird specials until 8 p.m. on Friday and stay for the “world’s greatest Bruce Springsteen tribute,” the E Street Shuffle at 9:30 p.m. On Saturday, there’s a DJ all day before karaoke and then the Sensational Soul Cruisers at 10 p.m. And because there’s nothing like Sunday brunch, get to Kix from noon to 4 p.m. for Sunday Brunch and acoustic with Ethan Haffert. Located on 63rd Street between Landis and Central avenues. Go to KixMcNutleys.com.

What the Plunge Means to Sea Isle City

Come summertime, Sea Isle City is all fun, all the time, with shopping, bars, beach activities, tons of live entertainment, fine dining and a huge amount of recreational activities. In the winter, however, much of it closes up shop, just like the other island towns in Cape May County.

During Polar Bear Plunge Weekend, however, Sea Isle City wakes up from its winter hibernation and bursts to life, with all-things summer back for one magical weekend of party bliss.

Rachel Mammele, a realtor with Freda Real Estate in Sea Isle; Carmela Desiderio, manager of Kix McNutley’s; and Roe Altimari, second home-owner in Sea Isle, are three people who love everything there is about Sea Isle and have a special place in their hearts for Polar Bear Plunge Weekend.

“It means especially more in recent years,” says Mammele about Plunge weekend. “It means a bonus weekend of winter rentals … we’re getting a wonderful influx of people where the city offers so many wonderful things … this is a big one and many owners will come and use their own properties.”

One such owner is Altimari, who along with her husband, Joe, hasn’t missed a plunge since they purchased their second home in 2001.

“To me, it’s like the start of summer,” Altimari says. “Once the plunge comes, restaurants start opening and it starts to get more lively, and then spring’s right around the corner.”

It might seem like months away, but Altimari isn’t the only one thinking spring.

“It’s like Memorial Day Weekend in February,” Desiderio says. “Like summertime all over again.”

And like summertime, just about everything is open for business.

“People need to bring their appetites,” says Desiderio of all the fine-dining options Sea Isle has. “They’re all going to be open. The hair salons, the nail salons … go treat yourself to a wash and a blow out.”

While part of the fun is in trying new things, many people savor their summer traditions in the middle of winter.

“You’ll notice a lot of homeowners come down for the events,” says Desiderio. “We’ll see summer regulars this weekend.”

“Some people rent the same place every year, sometimes you get people who rent in the summer and they want the same place for Polar Bear Plunge Weekend,” Mammele says.

Mammele spends much of her career helping others keep to their Sea Isle traditions, but she also has her own.

“I get my Polar Bear Plunge T-shirt from Sands Department Store, then we go to Uncle Oogie’s for pizza, and maybe dinner at Mike’s,” Mammele says. “The things you miss from the summer are all there.”

For Altimari, the traditions are different but no less special.

“We always have dinner with friends on Friday night,” she says. “On Saturday we get up in the morning and go to La Costa … it’s mobbed. It’s just crazy fun. Then when the plunge starts, we’ll watch it all and sometimes go to the VFW for a drink.”

None of this would be possible, however, without the sense of community and cooperation within Sea Isle City, as evidenced by their willingness and ability to work together.

“All the businesses — and definitely all the bar businesses — we all get along. We have a very friendly business area … we’re all friends,” says Desiderio. “There’s no looking at what the other guy’s doing — we want everyone to do well and succeed.”

Heat up during Mike’s Seafood Polar Bear Run/Walk for Autism

Polar Bear Plunge weekend isn’t just for a party. In fact, this Sunday marks the 11th Annual Polar Bear Run/Walk for Autism, an event that sees 4,000 participants and raises money for various autism support groups.

“In the beginning we were hoping to get a couple hundred participants and maybe a few thousand dollars,” says Mike Monichetti, owner of Mike’s Seafood, who started the event with his friend Mike Givens.

The family-friendly event encourages runners and walkers of all ages with a 5K timed run and a one-mile walk. And though the walk and run are fun on their own, the after-party at La Costa can’t be missed.

“There are huge tents with food, fun and entertainment,” Monichetti says.

Look for magicians and face painters, an awards ceremony, a huge continental buffet, and chances to win door prizes like sporting event tickets, concert tickets and gift certificates to local restaurants.

Most important, however, is the cause.

All proceeds benefit Special Services Schools, Autism Support Groups and families of special-needs children in Cape May and Atlantic counties.

“Year after year, our event continues to grow, and we are so grateful to those who continue to support our event and our mission to raise funds and awareness for children with disabilities,” says Monichetti, who has two children with autism. “Bring your family out and support autism.”

Registering for the Walk. With all proceeds benefiting special services schools, autism support groups, and families of special needs children, this is exercise for a good cause. You can register on site at the La Costa Tent at the corner of Landis Avenue and JFK Boulevard from 9:30 to 11:30 a.m., on Sunday. Register online at PolarBearRunWalkforAutism.com.

Dress to impress for the Costume Contest

The costume contest has been a part of the Polar Bear Plunge since it began. Like all things Plunge related, however, it’s evolved.

Hosted by Cheryl Kehner and MC’d by Jimmy Bennett and Mike Conklin, the costume contest is reason enough to show up at La Costa at 11:30 a.m. on Saturday.

“Last year we had 131 contestants,” says Bennett, the Plunge founder. “It’s like Mardi Gras in Sea Isle City … it’s amazing.”

And like Mardi Gras, some serious planning goes into it.

“We start planning right after the last present is unwrapped at Christmas,” says Teri O’Connor, whose group won Best in Show at the 2018 Costume Contest. “That’s a lie … we start as soon as we leave the plunge.”

O’Connor, a yoga teacher with NJ Beach Yoga, is fairly new to the plunge.

“We started going when we moved to Sea Isle,” says O’Connor about her move from Upper Township three-and-a-half years ago. “When we became year-round residents here we decided we wanted to participate in everything the town has to offer.”

The first year O’Connor and her husband attended the plunge, he went in the water. O’Connor was just a spectator.

“It was absolutely freezing but the people in costume looked like they were having so much fun,” says O’Connor, who is also hosting a Pre-Plunge Yoga Class ($10) at the Sea Isle Community Lodge (300 JFK Blvd.) at 7:30 a.m. Friday complete with props and a “hot” playlist. “I started thinking about what I could create that would be fun for a large group.”

The first year the O’Connor family participated, they took second place in the group category dressed at “The Shamrock Shakes.”

Last year, however, they kicked things up a notch. Having just watched “Saturday Night Fever” for the first time in years, O’Connor had a flash on a play on words — and an award-winning costume was born.

“We did ‘Saturday Night Freezer,’” says O’Connor of their first place win, with inspiration from The BeeGees, John Travolta for their polar bear costumes. “One person was a rotating disco ball … we came out to ‘Staying Alive’ and threw mini disco balls to people.”

Delaware County residents Frank and Fran Urso have a second home in Sea Isle. For as long as they can remember, they have participated in the costume contest. In past years they have had a “Braveheart” theme and just last year, they were presented with second place overall trophies for their “Game of Thrones” costumes. For 2019, the Urso family has recreated Noah’s Ark, complete with a 14-foot ark built by local restaurateur Ron Leider.

Urso’s Sea Isle residence is located just behind Leider’s restaurant Mako’s, and the two ended up being good friends.

Leider is catering Urso’s Polar Bear after-party for 40 people. The ark he built, however, will only hold eight.

“He needed an ark and I told him I’ll make one for him,” says Leider of the most pivotal part of this costume. “I wouldn’t say I have a skill for it (woodwork) ... I just find doing that stuff peaceful.”

Urso’s brother Albert will portray Noah, while Urso and his wife dress as matching polar bears.

O’Connor has not revealed her group’s costume for 2019. Their “Best in Show” trophies from 2018 are proudly displayed at the O’Connor home, and they hope to bring home more this time around. More than that, however, it’s about making memories.

“We win this experience of this memory that makes us laugh every time we see the video,” O’Connor says. “And bragging rights.”

Register for the costume contest at LaCosta-SeaIsle.com.

Shop till you drop — or freeze

Missing your favorite summer boutique or epitome-of-Sea-Isle store? No need to fret. Most shops are open for business this weekend. Here, a few you can’t miss.

Groovy Girls: Usually, a must-stop for your latest fashion at affordable prices, right now it’s Plunge Merchandise galore, including the ever-coveted polar bear leggings — because who doesn’t need polar bear leggings? — along with plunge long sleeve tees and fleece headbands. Located at 3814 Landis Ave. Go to GroovyGirlz.com for more.

Sands Department Store: For an amazing selection of items including hardware, toys, T-shirts, gifts and more, Sands has something for everyone. And this weekend, be sure to stop in for one of their Polar Bear Plunge weekend T-shirts. Located at 6208 Landis Ave. Go to Sands Department Store on Facebook.

Heritage Surf and Sport: Open year round, this isn’t the time to skip heading to the legendary surf shop. Swing by, check out the boards and remind yourself of all the fun you’re going to have this summer. Located at 3700 Landis Ave. Go to HeritageSurf.com.

Sunsations: Located right near the beach, Sunsations is your go-to shopping destination when you’re looking for the perfect dress for that night out. It’s also the perfect place to get your Polar Bear hats with attached mittens and original Polar Bear Plunge T-shirts. Located at 28 JFK Blvd. Go to SunsationsSeaIsle.com for more.

Anchored: Sea Isle City’s headquarters for hostess, wedding and baby gifts as well as “beach prep” tees, shorts, art and décor, Anchored is opening up for the weekend. Get there on Saturday and Sunday and get your fix of summer shopping as well as polar bear hats, earmuffs and little stuffed polar bear animals. Located at 4000 Pleasure Ave. in Sea Isle City. Go to Anchored in Sea Isle City on Facebook for more information.

Kiwi Boutique: Open for Polar Bear Plunge Weekend, Kiwi Boutique has a unique collection of women’s fashion, accessories, art and home décor. Swing by to grab the perfect scarf to keep you warm during a chilly plunge weekend. Located at 4000 Pleasure Ave. Go to Kiwi Boutique on Facebook.

Sisters Sweet Shoppe: Satisfy your sweet tooth throughout Polar Bear Weekend with an adorable and delicious Polar Bear cookie found at Sisters Sweet Shoppe. 4109 Landis Ave., find on Facebook.com.

Editor Pamela Dollak contributed to this story.

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Contact pdollak@pressofac.com or follow on Twitter @acpresspamela

Editor, At The Shore/AC Weekly

Worked in public relations in Philadelphia and NYC on national pharmaceutical and consumer accounts. Owned an award-winning boutique in Philadelphia. Became a freelance writer for The Press, ultimately coming on board full time in May 2014.

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