Senior Week in Wildwood: A money-making machine that residents love to hate

Recently graduated students from Kennett High School in Chester County wave to friends from the second-floor balcony of the house they rented in Wildwood last week.

WILDWOOD — For Jessica Dorazio, 18, the week began with getting an impromptu flower tattoo on the Wildwood boardwalk. A few days later, she fell asleep to the sound of drunken neighbors attempting to climb up a column to a second-story balcony at 2 a.m.

Dorazio and 11 of her friends — all recent high school graduates from Delaware County — have been staying at a four-bedroom condo on Wildwood Avenue for the last week in the name of a tradition that spans decades and generations: Senior Week.

“It was spur of the moment. … I was like, ‘It’s Senior Week, why not?'” Dorazio said of her back tattoo as her housemates cooked spaghetti. “MotorSport” by Migos, Cardi B, and Nicki Minaj blared in the background.

Camera icon TOM GRALISH / Staff Photographer
Recently graduated student Jessica Dorazio (right), 18, from SS. John Neumann and Maria Goretti Catholic High School in South Philadelphia, and her housemates and friends, mostly also graduated, from schools in Delaware County, have spaghetti dinner in the kitchen of the condo they rented in Wildwood for “Senior Week.”

Senior Week is a rite of passage that starts in early June in Wildwood (nicknamed “Childwood”) and lasts about three weeks. Thousands of teenagers descend upon the five-mile-long island for back-to-back days of partying after receiving their diplomas.

Student rentals dot every Shore town, but Wildwood is the epicenter.

Many year-round residents and town officials despise the spectacle, but businesses and homeowners scrambling to make money during the three-month summer season see it as a necessary evil that injects cash into Wildwood’s economy.

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Camera icon Tom Gralish / Staff Photographer
T-shirt designs available for sale on the boardwalk in Wildwood during Senior Week.

Dorazio and her friends paid $6,500 plus a $1,000 security deposit to stay less than a block from the boardwalk. Their surprisingly spotless kitchen and living room is decorated with homemade banners hung with putty, since the lease doesn’t allow holes in walls. It’s a post-graduation trip some of their parents made in the 1980s.

Dorazio’s housemate Sarah Diercksen, 18, who recently graduated from Springfield High School, has a family summer home in Wildwood and said her mother attended Senior Week after graduating in the 1980s.

“I knew coming down here what Senior Week is, so I knew what to expect. It’s good to know, so I can be cautious and careful. Knowing [Wildwood] like the back of my hand just makes me more comfortable here than anywhere else,” she said. “My parents are chill with everything. It’s just they want me to be safe and responsible.”

How Senior Week began remains a mystery — one that puzzles even members of the local historical society. The earliest accounts of it come from the early 1970s, when residents say Philadelphia Catholic high school students began coming to Wildwood after graduation.

Most probably stayed in the cramped rooming houses that once dominated the city, said Wildwood Historical Society president Al Brannen. Teens paid about $2 a night for a bunk bed and common bathroom.

Camera icon Tom Gralish / Staff Photographer
Dorazio with William Getti (center), 18, from Interboro High School in Prospect Park, and Brian Johnson, 18, from Academy Park High School in Sharon Hill, in the condo they rented in Wildwood for Senior Week. The homemade banners are hung with putty, since the lease doesn’t allow holes in walls.

With its two-mile-long boardwalk and free beach, the island was a getaway from strict parents and teachers, Brannen said.

Camera icon TOM GRALISH / Staff Photographer
T-shirts for sale on the boardwalk in Wildwood.

Fifty years later, businesses cautiously welcome teens in June, when the boardwalk would normally be deserted. Senior Week T-shirts are displayed in storefronts and lawn signs mark which houses will rent to students and which will not.

“I think a lot of business owners dread Senior Week because of the problems, but they don’t dread that they make good money off of it,” Mayor Ernie Troiano said. “That’s what fuels this engine.”

One boardwalk worker, henna artist Bobby Kole, 25, uses his sales skill to bring teens into Oxygen Tattoo. When a large group of students walks past the store, he pitches a special $20 offer: One volunteer can get a henna tattoo free, given each friend chips in a few dollars. The catch? Kole picks the tattoo (typically a phallic design).

Camera icon TOM GRALISH / Staff Photographer
Henna artist Bobby Kole, 25, applies the “temporary tattoos” on the boardwalk in Wildwood.

“I love” Senior Week,” Kole said. “This boardwalk would be empty right now if these kids weren’t here.”

At the Crescent Court hotel on 26th Avenue, a sign outside welcomes students coming to Wildwood for prom and Senior Week. Owner Kathy Distro, 75, has seen a lot in her nearly 50 years running the hotel, including parents supplying their children with alcohol.

She rents three-bedroom units to students for $1,200 a night. For families, she charges $315 a night. The price difference, Distro said, is because housing rowdy teens is risky. By the end of June, Distro said, she typically makes around $20,000 to $25,000 from student rentals.

“Senior Week is a necessary evil,” Distro said in the lounge area of her 10-unit complex. A couch cushion was torn open, with foam pouring out, because a student ripped it apart earlier in the month, thinking his car keys were lost inside.

The Senior Week rental market, she said, is broken into two groups: Newer condos and homes with owners not willing to rent to destructive kids, and older units with owners hoping to make extra money off-season.

“If you get a bad group, they can do a lot of damage,” Distro said. She goes the extra mile to ensure that students behave: They sign contracts and get wristbands, and a parent must sign them in. She’s in the hotel all day to shut down shenanigans, even if that means calling their guardians.

Camera icon Tom Gralish / Staff Photographer
A table painted by recently graduated high school students mostly from Delaware County in the kitchen of the house they rented in Wildwood during Senior Week.

One of the biggest problems during Senior Week is absentee landlords who rent to large groups of teens, hike up the price, and don’t monitor the property, said City Inspector John Davis. Some violate fire codes by using bunk beds to squeeze extra students into rooms. Homes packed with 20 people are common.

About eight years ago, Wildwood passed a “Rowdy House” ordinance to address the problem. If police are called to a property repeatedly for underage drinking, disorderly conduct, loud parties, or other violations, the city issues a warning to the homeowner, Davis said. Any subsequent calls lead to a summons issued by code enforcement for “maintaining a nuisance property.” Those found guilty are fined up to $1,000.

If calls continue, the landlord must appear before the commissioners, who decide whether the owner’s mercantile license should be revoked. Those operating without a license are subject to fines up to $1,000 per day. The goal: Make it too expensive for inattentive owners to stay in business.

>> READ MORE: Beyond ‘Club Wa:’ Shore towns grapple with teens gone wild

The city issued $6,000 in such fines last year. In the last five years, Davis said, the city has closed at least a dozen properties. Another law requires landlords who live far from Wildwood to hire an agent who lives in the area to check on the property.

Camera icon Tom Gralish / Staff Photographer
Young people gather on the boardwalk in Wildwood during Senior Week.

“This ‘Rowdy House’ ordinance was designed because property owners were renting to too many kids to make a quick buck,” he said. “If there’s 1,000 renters and you pick off 100 of the worst ones, now things start to change.”

Still, taking problem property owners to court is a lengthy process. Months can pass before results are seen.

Senior Week draws money to the city’s coffers in other ways. Those ticketed for underage drinking must show up in Municipal Court and pay a fine. On average, Wildwood takes in $100,000 each June from tickets written for underage drinking, excessive noise, breaking curfew, and any other local ordinance violations, according to business administrator Chris Fox.

Wildwood police issued about 194 citations to party houses in June last year, including underage drinking and noise violations, according to Municipal Court records. About 100 people were ticketed on the beach and boardwalk during that same period for drinking under the age of 21.

Camera icon Avalon Zoppo / Staff
A sign for Senior Week and Prom Week rentals outside Crescent Court hotel in Wildwood.

In the early 1990s, Fox said, police began almost solely writing local summonses for underage drinking, as opposed to more serious state statute violations that appear on criminal records.

“I often wonder how many people’s jobs and careers were ruined back then because they were charged [by Wildwood police] for underage drinking or fighting under the state statute,” Fox said.​

Ten extra officers are deployed on the boardwalk to keep the peace during Senior Week and the summer season, Troiano said, and the city aggressively enforces underage drinking laws during summer months.

>> READ MORE: Wildwood has fans, and they’re not all high school seniors

In the past, Wildwood officers and judges held assemblies at South Jersey and Philadelphia high schools urging students not to party on the island when they arrive after graduation. Lacking results, the city ended the program.

Many falsely perceive Wildwood as being a “lawless land,” Troiano said, pointing to the controversial arrest of 20-year-old Emily Weinman over Memorial Day weekend. Video showing a temporary Class II police officer punching Weinman went viral, putting Wildwood in the national spotlight.

“They drink, the beer muscles come out, and the brain shuts down,” Troiano said. “They’re urinating off balconies and throwing up in the streets… If Senior Week disappeared, I’d be a happy person.”

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