By Donald Wittkowski
Facing fierce competition from hundreds of other young egg hunters, Jake Martino gave himself an edge by simply wading through the mass of people lining the beach and finding an ideal spot in the front of the crowd.
When the children were given the signal to “go,” the 7-year-old Jake jumped out to a great start and began scooping up as many of the colorful plastic Easter eggs that he could find on the Ocean City beach at 13th Street.
“Look how many eggs I’ve got,” he exclaimed, holding up his basket.
With thousands and thousands of eggs scattered along the beaches between 11th and 14th streets, none of the children went home empty-handed.
An estimated 4,000 children participated Saturday afternoon in the city’s annual Great Egg Hunt, one of the centerpieces of an Easter weekend of free, family-friendly events on the beaches and Boardwalk.
The Easter celebration will continue Sunday with nondenominational sunrise services beginning at 6:30 a.m. at the Music Pier at Moorlyn Terrace and the Boardwalk. Later, a fashion promenade on the Boardwalk in front of the Music Pier will allow people to dress up in their Easter finery and compete for prizes. Judging begins at 1 p.m.
But on Saturday, it was all about the eggs. Fifty businesses between Asbury Avenue and the Boardwalk donated coupon prizes that were placed inside the eggs.
Minutes before the mad scramble began, Jake Martino said he hoped to collect about 20 to 25 of the coveted eggs. Afterward, it appeared the first-grader from Hammonton easily met his goal. His parents, Michelle and Joe Martino, and his 11-year-old brother, Matthew, looked on approvingly.
Children were divided into different age groups along the stretches of beach where the egg hunts were held. At 13th Street, the crowds were about 10-deep in some spots.
Michelle Martino smiled when Jake began to make his way through the sea of egg hunters to get in front.
“I want to find as many eggs as I can,” Jake said.
Other egg hunters were just as eager. They came to the beach carrying baskets, buckets and even trash bags to hold their goodies.
Asked what prize she wanted to find inside her eggs, 4-year-old Alaina Baily blurted out “candy.” Alaina, who was joined by her 6-year-old brother, Liam, guessed that she grabbed between 10 and 12 eggs.
Liam said he had a strategy for the egg hunt: “Go to the middle.” It must have worked. His basket was filled with eggs.
Actually, Liam’s 7-year-old cousin, Ryan Chiesa, of Marlton, Burlington County, claimed credit for the go-to-the-middle strategy. He said he told Liam to do it. Ryan also did well, estimating his haul at about 25 eggs.
Marieka Baily, Liam and Alaina’s mother, said her family participates in the egg hunt every year as part of a getaway Easter weekend in Ocean City.
“It’s just a family tradition,” said Baily, who lives in Columbus, Burlington County. “We come down to buy all of our tickets for the rides, get some pizza at Manco and Manco and eat some Johnson’s popcorn.”
Brian Hartley, vice president of the Boardwalk amusement park Playland’s Castaway Cove, one of the sponsors of the Easter egg hunt, said the event typically draws thousands of visitors to Ocean City.
He said about 4,000 children participated in the egg hunt Saturday, but estimated that the total crowd on the beach was between 8,000 and 10,000 people.
Despite the chilly, overcast weather, parts of the Boardwalk on Saturday afternoon were as crowded as a typical day during the peak summer tourism season.
“It brings a lot of people to town,” Hartley said. “Any time you can reach out and attract that many people, it’s going to give a boost to business. As long as they’re here, we hope that they shop and spend some money.”
Hartley noted that the egg hunt also helps to reinforce Ocean City’s reputation as a family-friendly vacation destination.
“We’re always looking to do whatever we can to give families something to do,” he said.