WILDWOOD — Ted Scairato has been spending summers in Wildwood since the early 1970s, when he would arrive from his home in South Philly to spend his days going to the beach and his nights "just generally partying" in the clubs.
"I guess I was among 'those noisy kids' back then," said Scairato, 63, on a recent visit with his wife, Debbie, and their pooch, Cole, to the newly expanded Wildwood Dog Beach. "Now, I'm a responsible adult, and I bring my family here."
Despite Wildwood's long-held reputation as party town for graduating high school seniors and low-budget college spring breakers, the Scairatos say it is the more family-friendly amenities such as the dog beach, a long list of annual events, and the wide beachfront that have kept them coming back to Wildwood with their children and grandchildren instead of going to Ocean City or Brigantine — Jersey Shore towns with decidedly quieter reputations.
"I loved the place then … and we really love it here now," said Scairato, noting that after years of renting, they had made settlement just the day before on a new vacation home in neighboring North Wildwood.
"I guess you could say we really believe in the Wildwoods," said Debbie Scairato, 58, of the collective place that consists of Wildwood, North Wildwood, and Wildwood Crest. "Of course, we've seen it change here over the years … but ultimately for the better. We bought in North Wildwood because that's where we found a place. But we still come back here to Wildwood to go to the beach, because we like it here."
Longtime visitor Patricia Sanguiliano of Hillsborough agrees.
"It's grown up a bit, like the rest of us," said Sanguiliano, 57, who enjoyed a recent day at the beach with her niece and her niece's children.
That evolution hasn't been by accident, says Wildwood Mayor Ernie Troiano.
"This is still a town for young people. But we've worked hard to tone down that image of Wildwood as being just a party town," Troiano said.
Nonetheless, the neighboring beach towns — North Wildwood, Wildwood Crest, and West Wildwood — have off and on sought to distinguish themselves from the City of Wildwood via their own advertising campaigns and new slogans. Wildwood Crest launched a campaign calling itself "better" that the other towns, while North Wildwood officials even floated a referendum to remove it from the collective Wildwoods by asking voters whether it was OK to change the town's name to Anglesea.
It wasn't. Voters in North Wildwood decided to keep their moniker. And barring a geologic shift, the towns will remain linked not only by sharing the same five-mile-long barrier island, but also by staying economically connected by a 2 percent local tourism tax that helps fund marketing and tourism reinvestment through the Greater Wildwoods Tourism Improvement and Development Authority (GWTIDA).
The Wildwoods had a record-breaking year in 2016, attracting more than 2.5 million visitors, a 6.1 percent increase over the year before, which had also been a record, according to the authority.
And despite the City of Wildwood's desire to tone down the noise a bit, GWTIDA last spring introduced a new tourism campaign with the tag line, "As Wild as You Want to Be," to advertise the Wildwoods. How that wild vs. mild campaign has played out for summer 2017 remains to be seen.
"Wildwood is an urban place, no doubt about it," says Troiano. "We're not Ocean City or Cape May, and we never will be. But we don't hide from who we are as a community, and we are constantly and very consistently doing everything we can to improve Wildwood and its image."
Troiano said that beyond gimmicky slogans and slick ad campaigns, Wildwood has over the last decade been utilizing what is perhaps its largest asset — its unusually wide beachfront — to attract a variety of visitors from all over North America and beyond, for everything from soccer tournaments to monster-truck rallies.
Wildwood has tried, and then sometimes dismissed after varying degrees of success, a number of ideas to get more visitors on the beach, from horseback riding to RV camping. There have been huge concerts and big sports tournaments.
Consistent upgrades to the boardwalk — including the types of stores and amusements — also have always been important, tourism officials say.
Morey's Piers, founded in 1969, has grown to be among the largest amusement operators in the country and has been named as the "Best Seaside Amusement Park in the World" by the International Association of Amusement Parks and Attractions.
And among the tacky souvenir stores and shops that sell inappropriate T-shirts or offer body piercings in back rooms on the boardwalk are big-time draws such as Ripley's and It's Sugar. Across from a store that sells $5 flip-flops is a "lifestyle" surf shop called Sand Jamm that sells flip-flops for $95 a pop.
Diane Wieland of the Cape May County Department of Tourism sees greater investment in Wildwood "across the board," with rooming houses and cheap motels giving way to condos and other private homes.
And once they get visitors to town, Troiano said, officials have made a concerted effort to keep them safe.
Troiano said the police force has gone from about 600 routine traffic stops a year a decade ago to more than 6,000 in an average year these days. But that doesn't necessarily compute into more arrests, or even more traffic tickets.
"That number can looked skewed, and appear as if there's more problems than there are here," Troiano said. "What it really represents is a consistent effort to keep a handle on what is going on here. We're not a police state, but we are staying on top of problems, like violence and drugs, that may be coming into town."
Troiano admits that the crowds sometimes do get rowdy.