Unseasonably warm ocean temperatures, mostly sunny weekends, and pent-up feelings that linger from the bitter winter have launched a successful start to the summer season at the Jersey Shore.
That's the sense many business owners, tourism officials, lifeguards, beach-tag sellers, and Realtors get after assessing the beach crowds that have materialized so far, two years after Sandy.
They also expect the July Fourth weekend to continue the good fortune and boost the outlook for the rest of the summer. Never mind that Tropical Storm (and potential Hurricane) Arthur could dampen Friday.
"There's likely to be some rain from Arthur that could give us rainfall through midday," said Kristin Kline, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Mount Holly. "But by Friday evening, it should be drying up. Basically, Saturday and Sunday should be pretty nice days." Highs at the Shore could be in the upper 70s or low 80s.
The only caveat to that good news is the "lingering threat of rip currents through the holiday weekend," Kline said. "People need to check with lifeguards, and if they say don't get in the water, don't get in the water."
Doreen Talley, marketing director of the Chamber of Commerce of Greater Cape May, is not rattled. "We're on track for a really good summer," she said. "A lot of accommodations are booked for the Fourth of July and into August."
If the Shore is not where you plan to kick off the holiday weekend, the Wawa Welcome America! Festival has an array of events in Philadelphia. Among them is a free concert starring the Roots, Ed Sheeran, Nicki Minaj, Jennifer Hudson, and others on the Benjamin Franklin Parkway Friday night.
Earlier that day, a freedom celebration will feature speeches by Vice President Biden and other dignitaries at 10 a.m., followed by a parade.
Fireworks will be displayed above the Philadelphia Museum of Art on the Fourth, and then above Penn's Landing and Camden's Adventure Aquarium on Saturday night. Various suburban communities across the region will also have parades, festivals and firework shows.
Back at the Shore, this week folks in Ocean City were already planting umbrellas and blankets on the beaches, and the boardwalk was coming alive.
At Shriver's Gelato shop on the boardwalk, Ryan Daly was waiting on Jennifer Medilus, who said she has been coming every summer for 40 years.
"It was pretty busy; the weather was really good," said Medilus, who was finishing up a long weekend and planning to return to her home in Virginia. Hooked on her arms while she ate her gelato were bags from Shriver's taffy shop, just down the boardwalk, and Johnson's caramel popcorn, which she bought for her coworkers.
Daly, a college student who grew up in Ocean City, said the crowd seemed thicker. "In terms of the weather, it's definitely better than last year. . . . I also think that last year, because it was so close to Sandy, people were hesitant" to come to the Shore, he said.
Michele Gillian, executive director of the Ocean City Chamber of Commerce, said business is initially on the upswing. "All the indicators are there, with beach tag sales, parking lots, and attendance at the attractions on the boardwalk," she said.
Another sign of a rosy summer at the Shore is a report that traffic is up on the Atlantic City Expressway. The South Jersey Transportation Authority says 4.7 million vehicles passed through tollbooths in May, about 393,000 more than last May - a 2 percent increase. E-Z Pass traffic rose 2.6 percent. June statistics are unavailable.
Beach-tag sales also indicate a jump in visitors.
On Long Beach Island, beach tag sales jumped 5 percent, from about 1.07 million to 1.14 million so far this year, and the summer has barely started. "We have had some stretches of warm water, which are not common in June, in the 70-degrees range," said Mike Fitzpatrick, a lifeguard coordinator.
The Avalon Beach Patrol sold nearly 59,000 more beach tags this year than the 674,000 it sold during the first six months of 2013.
Mary Ann Gardner, a Realtor with the Landis Co. in Sea Isle City, is encouraged by the flow of renters this year and said most properties are already booked through the peak summer season. "We do not have many vacancies," she said. "I think that after Hurricane Sandy, and the way the world is today, with everything going on, people want to go to the Shore, smell the salt air, and relax."
Rentals in Seaside Park and Lavalette have increased an estimated 25 percent, compared with last year, when Sandy was still affecting the resorts, said Tom Wissel of the Ocean County Board of Realtors. On Long Beach Island, rentals are "back to normal," he said, while Ormandy Beach, among the hardest hit areas, is seeing a recovery pegged at about 80 percent. The only down side at the Shore, Wissel said, is the noise and nuisance from the rebuilding efforts and road reconstruction.
On a Cape May beach, Bettina Steiger was relaxing with a cup of coffee after work while watching her 10-year-old son, Ben, splashing in the waves on his bright orange boogey board. She lives in the resort town, and was enjoying the sun and the calm waters during the early evening.
In her opinion, the beach hasn't been noticeably busier than other years, but she hopes that will change over the holiday weekend.
"I'm hoping it's going to be busy. Last year everybody thought that Sandy wiped us out," said Steiger, who owns a cleaning business and also holds a real estate license. "There's nothing more relaxing than seeing the waves, the wildlife. It's peace."
Bob Glover, marketing director of the South Jersey Marina in Cape May, said that the number of boats filling the slips and the amount of money coming in convinces him this summer is different.
"Our dollar figures are up and it's been a lot busier here than last year," he said. "We have a big book of boats coming in for the extra long weekend" ahead.
Others agreed with Steiger, saying they have not yet observed any signs that summer at the Shore is off to a rollicking start.
Will Longworth, a college student who has been renting out beach umbrellas and chairs in Wildwood for the last four summers, says the number of beachgoers so far seems normal. "It's not really prime time season yet. ... It's about the same every year in June here. It picks up after July," he said.
And Paul Thompson, captain of a daily fishing charter boat, the Porgy IV, in Cape May, said his business has actually dipped this year. "For me, personally, it's slower," he said.
"The weather hasn't been that great for fishing," he said of some of the cool and breezy days in June.
But, Thompson conceded, the summer is young. "Hopefully when the weather gets hot, we will have more business," he said.
The 10-day forecast at the Shore shows temperatures hovering in the low 80s, and mostly sunny days.
Of course, Arthur's stirrings could change the outlook. And, 20- to 30-m.p.h. wind gusts are predicted at the Shore this weekend, which could create high waves, Kline said. "Winds of that nature could impact small fishing vessels," she said. "People should pay attention to any advisories."
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