By Maddy Vitale
Alayna and Nick Pagano, of Lafayette, Pa., walked with their children, Maci and Dominick, along Asbury Avenue in Ocean City on a brisk, but sunny Black Friday.
As they strolled down the avenue holding hands, the family stopped to look at merchandise outside of the downtown shops, as a horse and carriage rode by.
“We came last year and thought we had to do this again,” Alayna Pagano said. “We like the small-town feel. This has become our tradition.”
Nick Pagano noted that the family has had a second home in Ocean City for a decade.
Ocean City gives the family an alternative place to buy holiday gifts while enjoying the old-fashioned charm of the city on one of the busiest shopping days of the year, Nick Pagano noted.
“It is such a magical experience after Thanksgiving,” he said. “And the kids had a really good time last year.”
The Paganos’ 6-year-old daughter, Maci, enjoyed Santa Claus last year and hoped to get her photo taken with him again this year.
Dominick, 4, liked the carriage ride.
This year, the Paganos said they would stick to the same game plan as last year during the shopping event that goes from Sixth Street to 11th Street.
They planned to browse a couple of stores, pick up some gifts, take a horse and carriage ride and get their photos with Santa at Mark Soifer Park, across from City Hall.
“We will grab lunch in between,” Alayna Pagano said with a laugh.
The relaxed downtown shopping experience is in contrast to the hustle and bustle of the malls or big-box stores.
Fake snow filled the air, coming from a machine at City Hall. A stilt-walker entertained crowds waiting in line for carriage rides.
Carolers wearing Victorian-style clothing strolled down Asbury Avenue, stopping on corners to sing favorite holiday classics.
Wreaths with big red bows and garland wrapped around lampposts completed the festive atmosphere for the aptly named “Our Miracle on Asbury Avenue, an Old-Fashioned Family Christmas.”
Holiday tunes added to the festivities, just loud enough to be background music for shoppers who filled the streets and stores.
Ocean City Regional Chamber of Commerce Executive Director Michele Gillian said the event began in 2008.
“It went from a few hundred people to a few thousand,” Gillian said of the growth over the decade. “It is really a great economic energizer for the downtown. It is a community event.”
Gillian said many year-round residents enjoy the shopping extravaganza. She added that many of the customers, like the Paganos, are second homeowners in Ocean City.
“There are 14,000 second homeowners in Ocean City. That is the biggest number in New Jersey,” she pointed out.
Gillian said there are many reasons why people love coming to Ocean City to do their holiday shopping.
The old-fashioned feel and quaintness, to photos with Santa in a lifeboat, add to the city’s unique and special qualities.
As Gillian spoke, a little girl slipped a letter into a red mailbox with the words “Santa’s Mailbox” painted on it.
“We answer all of the letters,” Gillian said with a smile as she looked out along the avenue at Mark Soifer Park where shoppers lined the sidewalks.
“It is great to see this grow. It really is a magical holiday weekend,” she said. “Ocean City is all about tradition.”
And the festivities have just begun. Throughout the weeks leading up to Christmas and First Night, there are events, shopping specials, entertainment, photos and breakfast with Santa and a host of other activities to keep the shore town hopping when the temperatures drop.
Brian and Colleen Horcher, and their children Liam, 6, and Adalyn, 4, along with their grandmother, Beth Anne Hampson, all of Philadelphia, waited in line for a carriage ride.
The family already saw Santa Claus and had bags from a shopping spree. Now it was time to enjoy the ride.
“It will be exciting,” said Liam.
The Horchers said they enjoy the holidays in Ocean City.
“We vacation down here every summer,” Colleen Horcher said.
People whizzed in and out of shops. Mia’s Christmas Gallery manager Carol Phillips said business was exceptional.
“It is super busy. We have been busy since “Earlier Than the Bird” last week,” Phillips said of the city’s kick-off event to begin the holiday shopping season. “We try to carry things that you just can’t get at big-box stores.”
Later in the evening, beginning at 5 p.m., the crowds were wowed by Santa’s arrival on the roof of City Hall and special guest, singer Jackie Evancho. Mayor Jay Gillian, members of City Council and other dignitaries were also in attendance.
Ocean City’s Special Events Coordinator Michael Hartman, who emceed the night festivities, said, “Christmas in the downtown is an amazing way to kick off the holiday season. It is a full-on, grand scale, festive event, featuring talent from within and outside of the community.”
The sales and festivities continue through the holidays. On Saturday, the Chamber hosts “Small Business Saturday,” which will feature shopping specials all day in the downtown along Asbury Avenue from 6th Street to 14th Street.
For information about the Ocean City Regional Chamber of Commerce call (609) 399-1412, visit www.oceancityvacation.com or download the new Ocean City Vacation mobile app on your smart phone.