December 7, 2023 in New Jersey

The Wild Ride: How Wildwood, New Jersey Transformed From Forest to Family Vacation Hotspot

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Early History

The origins of Wildwood date back centuries before European settlers arrived. Archaeological evidence indicates Native American tribes, including the Lenni Lenape and Nanticoke peoples, inhabited the area for thousands of years. They were drawn to the natural abundance of fish, shellfish, and game along the coast.

In the 1600s, English and Dutch settlers began establishing homes and communities in the region. The first European land patent was granted in the 1620s. The modest fishing village was originally known as Holly Beach. Early industries included fishing, boat building, salt works, and shipping. The temperate climate and coastal location made it an attractive spot for development.

Wildwood remained a small, quiet community during the early Colonial era. But things began to change rapidly in the mid-1800s with the advent of Victorian tourism.

Victorian Era

The Victorian era was a period of major growth and development for Wildwood. As transportation links improved in the mid to late 1800s, Wildwood began to emerge as a popular seaside vacation destination.

Wealthy Philadelphians and New Yorkers would make the journey to enjoy Wildwood’s beautiful beaches and seaside landscape. Entrepreneurs took advantage of this new tourism industry by constructing grand hotels, restaurants, and amusements to entertain these visitors.

The first hotel in Wildwood opened in 1879 called the Ocean View Hotel. More hotels soon followed like the Monroe and the Brighton, which could accommodate over 1,000 guests. The wooden boardwalk was also constructed during this time span, allowing tourists to walk along the beachfront and access various attractions and businesses.

The Victorian era truly put Wildwood on the map as a premier Jersey Shore tourist destination. The construction of railroad lines for easy access and grand hotels for lodging allowed Wildwood to grow into a bustling seaside resort town. The beautiful Victorian architecture along the boardwalks and throughout the town remains as a legacy of this important time period.

20th Century

In the early 20th century, Wildwood began to grow as a vacation destination. The advent of railways and the automobile allowed tourists from Philadelphia and New York City to flock to the Jersey Shore in the summer months.

Wildwood saw a major building boom in the 1950s and 1960s, resulting in over 300 motels constructed in the Doo Wop architectural style featuring eye-catching neon signs, kitschy themes, and angular Aegean rooflines. Entrepreneurs built motels like the Caribbean, Singapore, Jolly Roger, and the famed Pink Motel to attract the influx of vacationers.

During this postwar heyday, Wildwood served as an affordable and fashionable vacation spot that offered entertainment for the whole family. The boardwalk bustled with shops, eateries, arcades, amusement piers and rides like the Giant Wheel and the Flying Carpet roller coaster. Famous musical acts graced the stage at the Hofstra Theatre. Wildwood became known as a quintessential Jersey Shore vacation destination in its mid-20th century prime.


Like many beach resort towns, Wildwood went into decline in the 1970s and 1980s due to damage from storms and economic downturn. Two strong nor’easters struck the town in 1962 and again in 1992, causing significant damage to the boardwalk and amusement piers. This made it difficult for the town to attract summer tourists.

The decline of the railroad system also impacted Wildwood’s tourism industry. With fewer vacationers able to reach Wildwood by train, hotel occupancy rates dropped. Regional economic decline as industries left the northeast U.S. further reduced vacation travel to the Jersey Shore. With less discretionary income, fewer families chose Wildwood as a summer destination.

Several factors combined to reduce tourism and development in Wildwood. The town’s hotels, restaurants, and attractions saw decreased business for over two decades. Storefronts sat empty as businesses closed down. With less revenue, the city struggled to maintain infrastructure and the beachfront. For a period in the 1970s through 1990s, Wildwood was a shell of its former vibrant self.

Recent Revitalization

Wildwood has seen a resurgence in recent years through redevelopment projects and preservation efforts aimed at restoring the city’s classic seaside charm. Several historic motels and hotels have been renovated, including the Caribbean Motel which was restored to its original 1957 appearance. The Doo Wop Preservation League was formed in 1997 to help protect, preserve, and document the unique architecture.

New developments are being designed with a retro 1950s aesthetic, like the Bungalow Pier created from old motels damaged during Hurricane Sandy. Wildwood was named to the National Register of Historic Places in 2004. Other projects include streetscaping enhancements, renovations to the boardwalk, and integrating green building design into new construction.

The goal is to retain the nostalgic ambiance that makes Wildwood a throwback to the golden era of family seaside vacations, while also revitalizing the town with updated amenities. By honoring its history and mid-century roots, Wildwood aims to recreate its former status as a top tourist destination on the Jersey Shore.


Wildwood has some of the best beaches in New Jersey, known for their wide expanses of sand and popular shore attractions. The beaches stretch for over 5 miles from North Wildwood to Wildwood Crest.

The most famous beach is Wildwood Beach, located along the 2-mile boardwalk. This beach is extra wide at low tide, providing ample space for beachgoers to spread out. Popular activities include sunbathing, swimming, sandcastle building, and beach volleyball. Wildwood Beach has numerous beach bars, restaurants, locker rentals, chair rentals, and restroom facilities.

Another prime beach is Diamond Beach at the southern tip of the island. Diamond Beach is a quieter option away from the boardwalk crowds. Families often choose this beach area. Diamond Beach has a lifeguard station, locker rentals, chair rentals, and restroom facilities.

Two fishing piers are located along the shoreline. The Great Wildwood Fishing Pier extends 300 feet into the ocean just north of the boardwalk. Anglers can fish for flounder, bluefish, croaker, spot, and more. The smaller Diamond Fishing Pier sits at the end of Diamond Beach. Both piers charge a daily fee.

With its wide beaches and lively piers, Wildwood provides the classic Jersey Shore experience. The beaches have something for everyone, from bustling boardwalk atmosphere to peaceful relaxation. The inviting shores continue to draw beachgoers year after year.


Wildwood’s Boardwalk is the centerpiece of the city, spanning over 2 miles along the beach and filled with amusement rides, games, eateries, and shops. Known for its neon lights and 1950s ambiance, the Boardwalk also holds iconic heritage, originally built in the late 1800s and officially opening in 1900.

Some of the most beloved rides include the Giant Wheel Ferris Wheel, Sea Serpent rollercoaster, and Airplane ride allowing riders to control the pitch and roll. Fascinating exhibits like Ripley’s Believe It or Not! and Guinness Book of World Records Museum can also be found along the Boardwalk. No visit is complete without trying favorites like fresh salt water taffy, pizza, and the Jersey Shore’s famous water ice.

With free beaches and vibrant entertainment into the night, the Boardwalk embodies the classic family-friendly Jersey Shore experience. From generation to generation, Wildwood’s Boardwalk stands strong as a place where memories are made. Its nostalgia and charm make it a must-see for anyone visiting the area.


Wildwood is known for its unique Doo Wop style motels and Victorian era hotels. The Doo Wop motels were built in the 1950s and 1960s and feature space age themes and neon signs designed to attract the attention of passing motorists. Many have geometric shapes, bright colors and plastic palm trees. Popular Doo Wop motels include the Caribbean Motel with its neon pink color and plastic palms and the Satellite Motel with its original 1957 Sputnik satellite sign. While the Doo Wop buildings are deliberately kitschy, the Victorian hotels display intricate woodwork and elegant Queen Anne style architecture. The historic Lafayette Hotel opened in 1884 and operated as a luxury resort, hosting presidents and celebrities over the years. The three-story Chalfonte Hotel opened in 1876 and still maintains its Victorian grandeur with gingerbread trim and a wraparound porch overlooking the ocean. Wildwood takes pride in preserving these architectural gems from the past. The Doo Wop Preservation League works to restore and protect the distinctive mid-century motels. The Victorian buildings connect the town to its origins as an upscale seaside resort. The unique architecture is part of what gives Wildwood its classic shore town character.


Wildwood has become known as the events capital of the Jersey Shore, hosting various popular festivals and celebrations throughout the year that attract thousands of visitors.

The Wildwoods International Kite Festival takes place each spring, usually in May. Kite enthusiasts from around the world fly amazing kites of all shapes and sizes along the boardwalk during this 4-day event. Mass ascensions of colorful kites fill the skies above the beach and boardwalk. At night, visitors are treated to illuminated stunt kite performances set to music.

For over 35 years, the Wildwoods National Marbles Tournament has brought marble players aged 7-14 from across the country together in June. They compete in the largest marbles tournament in the world, played on the beach in Wildwood.

Each Wednesday night in July and August, the beach hosts the popular Dig the Beach free concert series. Major acts perform free shows on a huge stage set up on the beach for large crowds. Fireworks follow each concert.

The Wildwoods AirShow takes place in mid-August featuring aerial acrobatics and military jet demonstrations over the oceanfront. Headline acts have included the US Navy Blue Angels. Prior to the AirShow is the Thunder Over the Boardwalk jet fighter plane flyovers along the boardwalk.

Wildwoods Seafood & Music Festival happens in September, with fresh seafood, arts & crafts, amusement rides, and live music. The 4-day event culminates with a large fireworks display over the ocean.

Many other popular events take place annually, like classic car shows, Irish and Italian American festivals, and holiday celebrations. The diverse event schedule provides entertainment options throughout the year for visitors and locals alike.

Future Outlook

The future of Wildwood looks bright as new investments pour in and the city embraces sustainable tourism practices.

The Wildwoods Convention Center is undergoing a $20 million expansion and renovation project set for completion in 2024. This will allow the center to host larger conventions and events, bringing more tourists to the city during the shoulder seasons.

There are also plans for new family-friendly attractions along the boardwalk, including ropes courses, zip lines, and adventure parks. These will complement existing kid-focused spots like the Morey’s Piers amusement parks.

On the preservation side, the Wildwoods National Historic Landmark District protects the unique Doo Wop architecture along the motels near the boardwalk. Efforts are underway to restore many of these mid-century modern buildings to their former glory.

The city has additionally prioritized eco-tourism initiatives, like expanding bike lanes to reduce traffic congestion, supporting green building projects, and protecting natural assets like beaches and wetlands.

As the most popular beach destination in New Jersey, Wildwood is poised for a new era of balanced tourism growth. The city recognizes the need to provide exciting attractions for visitors while retaining the distinctive charm that makes Wildwood an iconic seaside getaway. By investing in sustainable development and emphasizing historic preservation, Wildwood’s future is bright.

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