The Other Ocean City
Make plans to visit this family-friendly beach town in New Jersey.
There were no swimsuit or evening gown competitions at this beauty pageant, but the winner was quite a leggy individual. Ten legs, in fact. That’s because the pageant queen—who took a wobbly victory walk down a miniature runway—was a hermit crab, capturing the 2019 title of Miss Crustacean of Ocean City, New Jersey.
And if anyone in the audience misconstrued the event as a test of good looks, Michael Hartman, Ocean City’s then special events coordinator and lively master of ceremonies for the pageant, was quick to correct them. “This is a scholarship program,” he deadpanned at the outset of the competition, held at the city’s civic center.
It was just another fun and endearingly wacky happening in the beach town, where families and kids built themed dioramas to pose their decorated hermit crabs (think a Crab-Tain Hook pirate ship or a Crabby in Wonderland tea party). “Crabs Got Talent,” the winner of the combination crab-and-craft contest, was a cardboard stage lookalike of the popular show America’s Got Talent made by a family from Collegeville, Pennsylvania.
No wonder Ocean City, founded on a barrier island by four Methodist ministers in 1879, bills itself as “America’s Greatest Family Resort.” Aside from a bustling boardwalk and a host of unique kid-friendly activities, the seaside locale is dry, meaning that alcoholic beverages can’t be sold within the city limits. So unlike Ocean City, Maryland, there are no Dirty Banana cocktails like those served at Seacrets Jamaica USA; the raciest that things get in OCNJ is a Dirty Hippie (chai tea latte with espresso) at Jon & Patty’s Coffee Bar & Bistro.
In fact, a visit to the “other Ocean City” is like taking a trip to the past. There’s an old-fashioned sweetness to the place, with its quaint bakeries, broad streets lined with new or restored Victorians, numerous playgrounds and multipurpose community center. Taylor Pork Roll—a processed pork product invented by 19th-century New Jersey businessman and politician John Taylor—appears on seemingly every breakfast menu.
The boardwalk is chockablock with rides, arcades, surrey (four-wheeled carriage) rentals and a slew of bikini-busting eats. The wide beach is amply staffed with lifeguards. The ice cream vendors who set up carts at entryways to the beach ring bells to alert sun worshippers that it’s time for a Popsicle.
What makes the place even more distinctive as a beach resort is the vibrant downtown area a few blocks from the boardwalk, with 100 locally owned shops and restaurants, ranging from old school to trendy. There’s Wallace Hardware, founded in 1909, and Hoy’s 5&10, but there are also nail salons, tony home furnishing shops, and clothing boutiques with chic beach attire.
And besides the Miss Crustacean contest, people flock to the annual Doo Dah Parade, featuring marching bands, floats and hundreds of costumed basset hounds (89-year-old actress Barbara Eden, the star of yesteryear’s I Dream of Jeannie, was the 2019 grand marshal). In decorated strollers and wagons, babies and children compete in the 111-year-old Baby Parade; at the other end of the age spectrum, the Mr. Mature America Pageant (rescheduled for September this year) celebrates the accomplishments of men 55 years and older. Then there’s the Night in Venice, an elaborate boat parade and waterfront-home decorating contest capped off with fireworks.
Aside from all the people-made fun, respites in nature are close by. Directly west of Ocean City lies Great Egg Harbor Bay, home to boating, water sports, fishing and crabbing. On the south end of Ocean City, Corson’s Inlet offers a state park with hiking trails, interpretive tours, and habitats teeming with wildlife and birds…just the antidote to a night of belting out “Brown Eyed Girl” at a boardwalk sing-along and being coerced onto the roller coaster.
This story was originally researched and written pre-pandemic. While businesses and most activities should be open this summer, check online or call before visiting.