WILDWOOD — It was July 22, 1996, and Morey’s Piers had overextended itself.

The owners had spent years pouring money into buying the tallest, fastest coasters, but in the process strayed from what made the company great to begin with: its carefully crafted kitschiness.

So Jack Morey, who now oversees the second-generation business with his brother Will, sought guidance from Steven Izenour, a world-renowned designer behind the Philadelphia Zoo who was studying the Wildwoods and its disappearing doo-wop architecture.

His advice? Embrace the beauty in tackiness.

“What Wildwood really is is one of the last really down-and-dirty, TACKY with a capital T, beach resorts,” Izenour wrote to Morey in a 1996 letter. “What you need to do is take Tacky to new heights.”

This year marks the 50th anniversary of the opening of the Wildwood amusement park’s first pier, Surfside Pier. It’s a boardwalk staple that has continuously evolved and attracted millions of guests each year.

And it all started with the goal of creating a world away from reality.

“Home is about comfort. Going outside the home is supposed to be about something different and having an environment where you laugh can at yourself,” said Jack Morey as he flipped through old photos of giant gorillas, carousels and colorful coasters.

The pier opened in 1969 with a single, 40-foot-tall slide fittingly called The Giant Slide, which kids would ride for 25 cents using burlap sacks.

Jack Morey’s father and uncle had taken a trip the year prior to Florida and spotted a huge slide in a strip mall parking lot in Fort Lauderdale.

They brought the attraction to New Jersey and placed it on two plots of land they purchased in North Wildwood that would eventually become Surfside Pier.

The family had already developed dozens of doo-wop motels on the island, but their venture into the world of amusements was new territory.

Will Morey still remembers the frustration of trying to get the slide to operate smoothly prior to opening day (the exact date has been forgotten with time).

Eventually, his cousin successfully slid down on a big plate.

“You have this humid environment here, so people would get stuck going down,” Will Morey said with a laugh. “Almost anything you can imagine was tried.”

From there, the owners expanded the pier and introduced a slew of monster-themed rides inspired by hit movies of the era.

Creative artists were brought on to craft memorable rides with imaginative characters, like the old King Kong attraction unveiled in 1972 and designed by Freddy Mahana. He was also behind the popular Poseidon Adventure and Planet of the Apes attractions.

“Today, it would be completely illegal to do ... copyright regulations and all that,” Jack Morey said.

By 1978, the pier began to evolve.

During an autumn trip to Germany for Oktoberfest, the Moreys discovered “bigger, brighter and stronger” European rides that rivaled those from America.

In 1983, Jack Morey accompanied his father to Belgium, test riding the Sea Serpent roller coaster, an engineering feat.

“(Visitors) had never seen these before in their lives,” Jack Morey said. “They loved it and it propelled our growth.”

The 1990s was a tumultuous decade for the three Wildwood piers — Surfside, Mariner’s and Adventure.

For years, Jack Morey said, the company was overinvesting in roller coasters as the family sought to rival Six Flags Great Adventure. His parents died in 1998, and all of the family’s piers were consolidated under one company.

Now, they’re trying to go back to their roots, focusing on carefully considered designs and fresh ideas. Over the past four years, a reimagining of the original Kong attraction was brought back, along with a biergarten and dog beach bar.

“The way we place rides and use tackiness ... is important. You have to use all the senses. From hearing the birds chirp to smelling popcorn and fries to hearing the sea splash,” Jack Morey said. “It’s always been a place people feel giddy.”

For one longtime worker and fan, 68-year-old Lee Brasch, of Rio Grande, Morey’s Piers’ 50th birthday is personal.

She started at the company at 18 as a cash counter fresh out of school. Since then, she has seen countless kids upchuck in the piers’ trash cans after stepping off a ride.

Generations of her family have at one point held a job at the piers.

“It was mom-and-pop back then, and you were family,” she said with tears in her eyes. “It’s grown from a small company, but we still feel like family.”

Contact: 609-272-7258 azoppo@pressofac.com Twitter @AvalonZoppo

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