By Donald Wittkowski
The twisting, serpentine-like mass of blue steel that soars 125 feet above the Boardwalk at 10th Street has almost a sinister look. Something as gnarly as this amusement ride should perhaps have a warning sign attached to it that says, “Hop aboard, if you dare.”
Featuring some heart-pounding turns and drops, the Gale Force roller-coaster will propel riders at a top speed of 64 mph when it opens in mid-May as the new centerpiece of Playland’s Castaway Cove, the historic Ocean City amusement park.
Brian Hartley, Playland’s vice president, said there has been a tremendous buildup of excitement ever since the ride was first announced in July 2015 and construction began in 2016. Thrill-seekers have been waiting.
“We constantly get phone calls, emails and Facebook messages asking us when the roller-coaster will open. The buzz has been going on for almost a year and a half now,” Hartley said.
Currently, the roller-coaster is in the testing and inspection phase. Hartley assures that riders will not be disappointed once it makes its debut for the 2017 summer tourism season.
“Obviously, I think they’ll be impressed with the speed. This is a very, very fast ride,” he said.
Gale Force is the latest example of how Playland’s Castaway Cove has introduced new rides over the years to ratchet up the excitement level and meet the changing demands of its customers.
Founded in 1959, it is Ocean City’s oldest amusement park. But Playland has not survived for nearly 60 years, in a highly competitive industry, on tradition alone. This is not quite your father’s or grandfather’s amusement park, although some quaint touches remain to blend its old-fashioned charms with modern technology.
“It’s fun. It’s something you can’t do anywhere else,” Hartley said of Playland’s staying power. “With us, it’s the allure. We have been seeing second, third and fourth generations coming to the amusement park.”
The Simpson family has owned Playland since its inception. The late David Simpson founded it. His wife, Madelyn, is retired from the business now. Their son, Scott, has stepped in to run the park along with his wife, Linda. Their children, Ali and David, also work at Playland.
Hartley said Scott Simpson has recognized the importance of reinvesting in the park to keep it fresh and relevant.
“He puts every penny back into developing the park to make it the best business he can,” Hartley said.
Hartley began working at Playland 25 years ago as a ride operator. He was only 14 years old then. After his graduation from Stockton University in 2001, he was asked by Simpson to join the park’s management. He oversees Playland’s day-to-day operations in his current position as vice president.
“Scott’s just very generous with all of the employees, whether it’s the full-time staff or the part-time kids,” Hartley said, explaining why he has stayed at Playland for all these years.
The amusement park becomes a city within a city during the peak summer months. Hartley said about 5,000 customers per day pass through the doors in July and August, but stressed that Playland handles the big crowds “pretty easily.”
“Everything is laid out so the traffic can keep circulating through the park pretty freely,” he said.
Overall, there are 30 rides. One of the most popular amusements is the Double Shot tower, which shoots riders 120 feet high using a burst of compressed air. The miniature kiddie trains also remain a big draw.
For those who like old-school attractions, familiar amusements such as the merry-go-round, Skee-Ball games and basketball shooting still have a presence at the park.
Playland’s Boardwalk entrance includes an array of arcade games. Hartley noted that more high-tech arcade amusements have been added in recent years to appeal to the video-game generation. However, Skee-Ball, basketball, air hockey and other games of skill remain popular among families because they allow parents to interact with their children, he said.
Visitors to Playland are greeted by the park’s iconic, giant pirate ship overlooking the Boardwalk. A swashbuckling pirate – complete with an eye patch, of course – and his green parrot form the ship’s whimsical crew.
“We have so many people who call us and say, ‘Are you the amusement park under the pirate ship?’” Hartley said, laughing.
Playland’s Castaway Cove takes up a big chunk of the Boardwalk between 10th and 11th streets. But the Playland empire also includes other Boardwalk amusements, including Golden Galleon Miniature Golf at 11th Street, Seaport Village Miniature Golf at Ninth Street and Seaside Speedway Go-Karts at Ninth Street. A Dairy Queen store and Prep’s Pizza are part of Playland’s retail operations on the Boardwalk, Hartley said.
At this time of year, the Castaway Cove amusement park is open only on Saturdays and Sundays through Memorial Day weekend. Starting in June, it will open every night and then will add afternoons once schools close for the summer. The park will continue operations through Columbus Day.