Atlantic City grapples with how family-friendly it should be

ATLANTIC CITY, N.J. — On a sunny Sunday in spring, three generations and three branches of Pam Moody’s family went to have fun at Gillian’s Wonderland Pier on the Ocean City Boardwalk.

“We’re actually hard-core Sea Isle people,” said Carrie Siewic, of Burlington County, one of Moody’s daughters. “But we drive here for the Boardwalk.”

With warm weather, the local shoreline fills up with people looking for family fun. And businesses have looked to feed that need with everything from roller coasters and Ferris wheels to pinball parlors and video arcades.

But family-friendly attractions can be difficult to attract, and maintain.

When Gillian’s Funland was in Sea Isle City for five summers, the extended Moody family went there. But Funland closed in 2013, and “we miss that thing,” Siewic said, after her mom, sister, daughter and nephew got off the merry-go-round in Ocean City. “We went all the time until it left. Then we came here.”

New Jersey tourism was a $43.4 billion industry last year, including more than $10 billion spent on recreation, according to a state report released earlier this year. Visitor spending was $6.7 billion in Atlantic County and about $6 billion in Cape May County last year, according to the report.

And coastal towns and businesses have tried to boost spending by families, something easier said than done.

For decades, at least since the first casino opened in Atlantic City in 1978, critics have said the city doesn’t have enough family draws.

“They have one pier. One place for kids on this whole Boardwalk,” said Scott Gardini, of South River, Middlesex County, after a Steel Pier visit with his son, Vincent, 4.

As a kid, he went to the Seaside Heights boards in Ocean County. Now, if he wants to treat his kids to a boardwalk, sometimes he drives right by Atlantic City to Wildwood. He was in Atlantic City with his in-laws last week but said the city should broaden its market with “the casinos… dropping like flies.”

And Atlantic City has tried, desperately at times, to answer those critics.

Steel Pier, which drew families for years with a mix of shticks that ran from rising stars to diving horses, closed after Resorts Casino Hotel opened in 1978. But it was reborn in the 1990s as an amusement pier full of rides and games.

Investors have proposed three water parks in recent years, including two in closed casinos, the Atlantic Club and Revel. So far, not one has shown any progress. And last week, City Council approved tax incentives for a planned “Polercoaster,” a vertical roller coaster at the long-vacant home of yet another former casino, the Sands.

Plus Tropicana Atlantic City, which once had and closed an indoor amusement park, Tivoli Pier, opened a new “Family Fun Station” a few summers ago with 50-plus games.

Back at Wonderland Pier, Brett and Shannon Balsley, of Linwood, watched their daughter, Olivia, 3, spin around happily on a kiddie ride.

The parents go to Atlantic City restaurants, concerts and shows “all the time,” Brett told The Press of Atlantic City ( ). But if they want kicks for the kids, they head the other direction.

“Personally, I think Atlantic City should stay an adult town. … I don’t think you should try to compete with Ocean City and Wildwood. They’ve got the market cornered” on family fun, he said.

That take echoes something Steve Wynn, the casino magnate, told Time magazine in 2001 about family-friendly attractions for his latest Las Vegas resort.

“Not interested. I’m after Mom and Dad,” Wynn said.

“Destinations have to look at their strengths,” said Brian Tyrrell, a hospitality and tourism-management professor at Stockton University. “Look at the strength of Wildwood; it’s family-friendly. Ocean City, the same thing; there’s plenty for (families) to do.

“Certainly there are going to be families with young children who come to Atlantic City occasionally, and there are some things for them,” Tyrrell added. “But in general, that’s not a strength of Atlantic City. I would add, though, that you can still be family-friendly and just not look for families with young children.”

Take his parents. They’re big fans of Atlantic City shows and restaurants— and visiting them with their son.

And because there are different towns with different personalities all along the local coast, he supports marketing that cooperates instead of competing from town to town.

“There certainly is plenty to do in the region,” he said. “That’s one avenue you could take.”

Gillian’s Funland opened in Sea Isle in 2009, after local leaders worked for years to find an amusement park to replace Fun City. That small park ended a 30-year run right off the city’s beach in 2000; the owners sold the land to luxury-home developers.

Mayor Len Desiderio said he wanted a family-friendly draw because after Fun City closed, he got “literally thousands” of requests for something like it. The town finally found a taker when Jay Gillian, the third-generation owner of Ocean City’s main amusement park, agreed to build one on city-owned land just off the bay.

Gillian sunk an estimated $2.5 million into Funland to open it. But it closed for good less than five years later, in 2013, a summer when some rides never ran due to damage from Hurricane Sandy.

And while both city and operator blame Sandy for Funland’s demise, Gillian also said later that the place never took off the way he expected it to. Gillian told The Press in 2014 that “I probably should have left earlier. If it had been about the bottom line, I would have left after the first or second year, the third year at the latest.”

By phone this week, Gillian said the departed park keeps haunting his numbers. He’s paying off close to $1.5 million in debt— and expects to keep paying for another 10 years.

Desiderio praises the efforts in his town of Gillian, who is also Ocean City’s mayor.

“They’re very successful in Ocean City, and we were expecting something similar,” Desiderio said. “My thing was, they couldn’t bounce back” from the hurricane.

“It was the only amusement park being opened in the country (in 2009), and it just didn’t happen. It just didn’t work,” Desiderio added. “Amusements are … a tough, tough business.”

After 87 years of family experience, Gillian can’t disagree.

“Regulations are just unbelievable. Borrowing money is unbelievable. Mom-and-pop amusement parks like us … have so much going against us,” he said. “It’s a short season. We’re competing against schools and camps (for kids). We’re competing against Great Adventure, Disney … the superparks.” And his list goes on.

Still, family-friendly can be money-making, for all concerned.

Kathy Kaufman, of Washington Township, had two of her five grandchildren out last Sunday for a stroll on the Ocean City boards by Wonderland.

She said the town is perfect for families. When her two kids were young, she brought them here. Today, her kids bring their kids. To encourage that, she bought a home in Ocean City— because it’s her favorite family-friendly town.

And around the time she settled on the house, she made another major purchase.

“We just spent $1,400,” she said, “for (ride) tickets for all my grandchildren.”

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