WILDWOOD — Jodi Keenan’s children took turns Wednesday on the inflatable Hippo Slide on the Bennett Avenue beach. Abi Keenan, 12, bounced twice like a skier going over moguls.
“Mom, did you see that?” she asked.
The Keenans are staying at a hotel nearby, so close-by attractions and food options on the sand were a real plus, Jodi Keenan said.
“We’re not Boardwalk people. Having a food stand on the beach was a good idea. The kids really enjoyed it,” she said.
The slide is one of several attractions that have opened in recent years as the city tries to capitalize on its biggest natural asset — its beach. The city is offering more contracts to attract food vendors and attractions such as a Zorb Ball, zipline and the water slide.
It’s all designed to postpone what some city officials see as inevitable: beach tags in the Wildwoods. Wildwood’s beaches are big and, at least for now, free.
The norm in New Jersey is to charge for beach access. Free ocean beaches in South Jersey include Atlantic City, Wildwood, and Strathmere in Upper Township; other municipalities charge varying fees.
Beach concessions raised about $225,000 for Wildwood in 2014, and should reach the city’s $300,000 goal this year, Commissioner Pete Byron said.
“We’re still trying to attract more entertainment, more concerts,” he said. “We’re really pleased with the way the beach-taxi turned out.”
The Beach Patrol has a popular shuttle service that takes visitors a quarter-mile or more from the Boardwalk to their chosen beach-blanket spot anywhere on the 1.3-mile-long beach.
“We take more people back to the Boardwalk after a long day in the sun,” Beach Patrol member Michael McManus said. He picks up fares in his gas-powered all-terrain vehicle through a dispatcher: $3 for adults and $1 for children.
“It started as a handicapped service, but a lot more people were willing to use it,” he said.
Wildwood plans to add more attractions next year, including passes to operate four-wheel-drive vehicles on the beach, something most beach towns allow for surf-fishing during the off-season.
Byron noted that Brigantine raises more money from off-road vehicle permits than it does from beach tags. From January to May 2015, that city received $400,125 in revenue from the permits, with 2,881 permits sold. Brigantine also charges for beach tags.
Barry McGrorty, owner of McGrorty Slides, set up his inflatable slide three years ago to take advantage of Wildwood’s enormous beach. Since then, several other vendors have joined him, including a beach hamburger stand called Pop Pop’s.
“You need a lot of space for something like this,” he said. “There aren’t that many beaches in New Jersey with room for it.”
And while he is fighting with the city for a busier location, he said he’s had a good summer a couple blocks south of the Wildwoods Convention Center.
Brian Martin, owner of M-Squared Productions, opened Zorb Wildwood on the Spencer Avenue beach. Tourists are strapped inside a big plastic ball that gets rolled around on the beach like an enormous cat toy.
“It was a good first year for us. We’re planning to be back in 2016,” he said.
The city hosts free weekly movies on the beach. It also rents beach lockers to families who want to stow their chairs, blankets and umbrellas overnight.
Still, Wildwood expects to revisit the topic of beach tags. Byron said Wildwood, Wildwood Crest and North Wildwood will talk during the off-season.
“Gradually you’ll see at some point that beach fees will be a reality. But all three beach towns have to be on board,” he said.
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