By Donald Wittkowski
There were scooters, baby carriages, toy wagons and hundreds of bicycles rolling through the Gardens section of Ocean City in a red, white and blue procession that got the Fourth of July celebration off in grand style.
With the blast of the sirens from a fire engine, the bike parade started on Wesley Road at 10 a.m. accompanied by a police escort and then slowly made its way along the residential streets in the upscale north end of town.
Stretching for blocks, the parade is one of the traditions of Ocean City’s old-fashioned Independence Day festivities. Organizers estimated it has been held for at least 20 years and usually attracts around 1,000 bicyclists.
“I think it shows off our deep sense of patriotism that we share in the community,” said Pat Watts, president of the Ocean City Gardens Civic Association, the organizer of the bike parade.
At the opposite end of the island at the same time, a similarly patriotic bike parade unfolded at 40th Street and Asbury Avenue under the direction of the South Ocean City Improvement Association.
The bike parades were part of a day-long holiday celebration that brought huge crowds to the city. The beaches were packed, the Boardwalk bustled and virtually all of the parking spaces downtown were gobbled up by noontime.
Sun-drenched skies and temperatures in the 80s on Wednesday proved to be an irresistible draw for people wanting to celebrate the nation’s birthday at the Jersey Shore.
“It’s beach, bay and Boardwalk weather,” declared Michele Gillian, executive director of the Ocean City Regional Chamber of Commerce.
Gillian estimated that 120,000 visitors poured into town for the holiday, a figure representing more than 10 times the city’s year-round population of about 11,000.
“There’s not many parking spaces left,” Gillian said of the blockbuster crowds.
Heavy demand for hotels, motels and rental properties was another indicator of a robust holiday. Even some of the vendors at the city’s Farmers Market were sold out of their fruits and vegetables by 10 a.m., Gillian noted.
The calendar added to the city’s good fortunes. With the Fourth of July falling on a Wednesday, the holiday celebration got underway last weekend and a second wave of revelry was expected to continue into this weekend.
“I think with the Fourth of July coming on a Wednesday, we’re getting two very strong weekends,” Gillian said.
As usual, the popular tourist beaches in the center of town were prime real estate for the holiday throngs. A sea of colorful beach umbrellas covered the sand.
In the quieter residential neighborhoods in the Gardens section, beachgoers had a little more room to themselves.
Nick Lezzi, of Gwynedd, Pa., pulled a cart filled with chairs and other beach gear close to the water’s edge at Surf Road. He was joined by his wife, Barbara Nugent, his mother, Eleanor Lezzi, of Northfield, and his sister, Linda Cerber, of Ocean City.
“We’ve already done our bike ride. Then we do beach time. Next, we’ll have our cookout,” Nugent said, detailing the family’s busy holiday agenda that was expected to culminate Wednesday night with the city’s fireworks display.
With a laugh, Eleanor Lizzi added one more activity that was planned. “We’ll also have happy hour,” she said.
While many people chose to spend the day at the beach, the Boardwalk was another centerpiece of the holiday celebration. A steady stream of pedestrians and bikers kept the oceanfront promenade alive with activity.
Diane Cantwell, along with her fiance, Ivor Francis, and her mother, Janet Cantwell, stopped on the Boardwalk for some ice cream to help them cool off in the heat and humidity.
Now living in Albuquerque, New Mexico, Diane Cantwell explained that she was visiting Ocean City, her former home, for the first time in 50 years. She had been telling her fiance about the beach resort for years, so they decided to spend the holiday at the shore, along with her mother, who lives in Langhorne, Pa.
“This is really great,” Francis said of the shore. “I think it’s just like everything I thought it would be.”
Diane Cantwell, 63, said much of the Ocean City she remembers while growing up remains intact, although some of the older Victorian-style homes are now gone.
“It’s a beautiful town,” she said. “I have so many fond memories.”
Cantwell recalled the baby parades, the Easter Parade and the gymnastics tournaments she participated in as a child.
“We were in everything,” she said.
Building some of their own childhood memories of Ocean City were the hundreds of kids who were part of the Fourth of July bike parade in the Gardens. Many of the bikes were resplendent in red, white and blue flags, beads, bunting and balloons.
Lauren and Shaun Pall, of Langhorne, Pa., decorated a toy wagon with pinwheels and streamers for their 3-year-old son, Louis, and 10-month-old daughter, Emma. The children were dressed in patriotic-themed outfits for the parade.
Last year, the Palls used a pushcart to propel Louis in the parade. With the recent addition of Emma, they had to make a switch.
“We needed to upgrade to a two-seater,” Shaun Pall explained, smiling.