On which weekend do you celebrate a midweek holiday?

Shore in quandary.

Surely there'll be a Fourth of July weekend at the Jersey Shore. But when?

Because the Fourth falls on Wednesday this year, schedule shilly-shallying has driven the Shore into a near panic.

Will bars and restaurants need those extra ice cubes this week or next week? What about more linens for the tables? More food for the hungry?

Do police, firefighters, lifeguards and others who ensure the public's safety prepare now or later for populations that will swell tenfold in beach towns like Loveladies, Ocean City and Cape May?

When will the hotels and motels pick as the time to impose famous three-night-minimum holiday stay rules? This weekend, midweek, next weekend? All of the above?

With so much uncertainty about when exactly the celebrating should begin for that out-and-out, no-doubt-about-it, in-your-face signal that summer's finally here, the great Fourth of July Weekend debate has become the season's great question.

"I think it's human nature to want to begin the celebration as soon as possible, so I say it's this weekend," said Mark Soifer, 75, who has seen his share of summers come and go as Ocean City's director of public relations for the last 35 years.

Soifer gets a jump-start on the festivities every year by beginning the town July Jubilee celebration while the calendar still says June.

"Some people question how we can begin July Jubilee in June, but other people who are here for their vacation they've planned around the Fourth of July are happy that we do," Soifer said.

Laurie Brewer, spokeswoman for the South Jersey Transportation Authority, whose agency provides an excellent barometer of Shore crowds by monitoring the Atlantic City Expressway, contends that next weekend is the big weekend.

"It's just my personal opinion, but technically this weekend is still part of June, the traditional time for graduations, weddings, family reunions, and things like that, so many people, at least people that I know, are still thinking in those terms," said Brewer.

"The Fourth and after is when the holiday begins."

Many towns have scheduled fireworks displays on the Fourth, taking the diplomatic middle road rather than shooting for the bigger attendance numbers of a weekend crowd.

Nonetheless, Shore town officials, business owners and others who have a stake in the Shore say they are preparing for the onslaught this weekend.

Brewer said the transportation authority projects a slight increase in the number of motorists using the 44-mile roadway that links the Philadelphia region with Atlantic City and the rest of the Shore.

The latest AAA survey indicates that a record 41.1 million Americans will leave home for a trip this holiday week - from June 29 to July 8 - and travel more than 50 miles.

That's up slightly less than 1 percent from the same time last year, AAA said, and defies the midweek holiday and high gas prices.

The number of holiday travelers surged last year because the Fourth in 2006 fell on Tuesday, which made the holiday weekend obviously the one that came before the Fourth.

"This Fourth of July holiday is somewhat unique in that it falls in the middle of the workweek," said David Weinstein, spokesman for AAA Mid-Atlantic in New Jersey.

"But we're finding that Americans aren't willing to give up what is historically a holiday spent with friends and family, and many are choosing to take a few more days off of work to be able to do so."

In New Jersey, about 1.15 million people will vacation during the week that begins on Friday, an increase of slightly more than 1 percent over last year, AAA estimates.

Weinstein said the majority of Jersey travelers, about 322,000, would begin vacations on Friday. Another 368,000 will hit the road on Saturday, he said. About 459,000 Jersey vacationers will likely travel between July 1 and 4, AAA says.

The average length of Fourth of July vacations this year is about six days, instead of the usual three or four days, Weinstein said.

And most of those travelers will be headed to the Shore, he said.

"We're playing it safe and treating both weekends like they are the big Fourth of July weekend," said Marc McKinney, general manager Steamers Seafood Bar & Grill, a new restaurant opening in Margate this weekend.

"We have big orders for supplies coming in this week and big orders for next week," McKinney said. "We're projecting that a lot of people are going to be here throughout the entire time."

Doug McMain, who operates the Queen Victoria Inn in Cape May, said what might appear to be an awkward midweek holiday has proved to be a boon for his business.

"We are completely booked all the way through until next weekend, which is a very good sign," McMain said.

McMain said many guests arrive this weekend and stay through the Fourth. Others come in on the Fourth and stay through next weekend.

One couple who make an annual trip to Cape May from Florida have booked a 12-night stay that includes both weekends.

Contact staff writer Jacqueline L. Urgo at 609-823-9629 or jurgo@phillynews.com.