Say the words "Ocean City" and most people think of the 10 miles of pristine, sandy beaches that make this Maryland resort one of the most popular summer vacation spots on the East Coast.
But what about winter? Each year an increasing number of beach lovers are discovering Ocean City's off-season charms -- and that includes the holidays.
This winter, however, things are looking even brighter for folks in search of a yule sand-and-surf getaway: about a half-million bulbs brighter.
Welcome to Ocean City's first Winterfest of Lights, a dazzling array of holiday lighting displays that turn the resort town into a sparkling winter wonderland.
"As you drive up the Coastal Highway, you'll see lots of decorations -- and animated figures such as elves, a golfer, an octopus, King Neptune, and Santa on a surfboard," says Tom Perlozzo, Ocean City's director of recreation and parks.
Farther up the coast, there are more illuminated wonders awaiting holiday visitors to Maryland's only ocean resort.
"At Northside Park [125th Street and the bay], we have a unique boardwalk train ride that takes visitors past lighted Christmas trees, tunnels of lights, mountains with skiers, a jack-in-the-box, animated tennis players, a sea serpent and three whales," Mr. Perlozzo says. "It's a magical atmosphere."
The specially decorated train passes a milelong menagerie of more than 100 figurines (including 18-foot-tall animated toy soldiers) all covered with twinkling lights. The train runs from 5:30 p.m. to 9:30 p.m. daily through December, and Thursdays through Mondays in January; admission is free.
"It's not just for kids," Mr. Perlozzo adds. "As many adults ride it as children."
Additional illuminated displays are located at the Inlet Parking Lot at the beach in downtown Ocean City and at the Ocean City Convention Center, where holiday visitors will find a 50-foot Christmas tree and three displays based on the popular carol, "The 12 Days of Christmas." Each display glimmers with up to 6,000 lights.
While other resort towns such as Myrtle Beach, S.C., and Williamsburg, Va., promote their off-seasons with holiday light displays, Mr. Perlozzo says Ocean City's celebration is different.
"I think our show is extra special because it's themed with the beach and nautical displays," explains the town's parks director, whose crew worked two months to erect the lights and displays. "All of the town is lit up. It's well worth the trip to see the lights."
Yet there's more to an Ocean City holiday vacation than gazing )) at tens of thousands of lights and dozens of animated displays. Visitors can enjoy a wide range of activities throughout the yule season, including a concert byAmerica's top country and western stars, dancing to the sounds of big bands, and a children's Christmas party with Santa as host.
Headlining the season's concert lineup is country legend Johnny Cash, who brings his Christmas show to the Ocean City Convention Center on Dec. 11 at 8 p.m. The show features June Carter and the Carter Family with John Carter Cash. Tickets are available through TicketMaster by calling (410) 481-SEAT in the Baltimore area or the Ocean City Visitor Center at (800) %o 626-2326.
The city's annual Big Band Dance Series continues at the Convention Center. On Friday, Jan. 7, music lovers can swing to the sounds of the Len Gray Orchestra. The Latin beat of Tito Puente and His Orchestra will rock the hall on Jan. 8.
The Zim Zemarel Orchestra is in town on Jan. 28, followed by Tex Beneke and His Orchestra on Jan. 29. Dances are held from 9 p.m. to 1 a.m. For ticket information, visit the Convention Center Box Office or call TicketMaster at (410) 481-SEAT.
Kids can join in the holiday fun at "Santa's Funshop" on Sunday, Dec. 19, at Northside Park, Bayside at 125th Street. "It's for all ages, but most events are geared to 2- to 12-year-olds," says Jamie Rosenberg, a recreation specialist at the park.
"There's a puppet show at 4 p.m., an arts-and-crafts project from to 6 p.m., cookie decorating, a white elephant sale, gift wrapping, refreshments, amusements, hayrides around the Winterfest of Lights -- and Santa will there!"
tTC How much is admission?
"The party is free," Ms. Rosenberg says. "But we're asking people to bring an unwrapped new toy to be donated to Toys for Tots."
This year, Santa's Funshop will draw between 500 and 600 partygoers, Ms. Rosenberg says. "There's no registration required -- just drop in. We get people from as far away as Delaware and Salisbury." For more information, call (410) 250- 0125.
Local hotels, motels, restaurants and shops get in the holiday spirit with spectacular decorations -- and several oceanfront establishments are pulling out all the stops this yule season.
A Victorian Christmas comes to life at the Dunes Manor Hotel (28th Street), where the staff dresses in period costumes and visitors can enjoy a toy train garden, porcelain dolls, local crafts and on-going musical entertainment; high tea is served promptly at 3:30 every afternoon.
The Sheraton Fontainebleau (101st Street) is transformed into Santa's fairyland as Rudolph and his reindeer friends pull Santa's sleigh full of gifts for good boys and girls.
At the Carousel Hotel (118th Street) trees sparkle with lights, wreaths adorn the atrium and there's nonstop entertainment, including ice shows at the indoor ice rink, Christmas carolers, gingerbread villages and live theater.
A Dickens Christmas is the attraction at Phillips Beach Plaza Hotel (13th Street and the boardwalk), featuring costumed mechanical Victorian dolls, a sparkling array of old-fashioned lights and trees, a sing-along piano bar, eggnog and homemade cookies.
And what about New Year's Eve? Many of Ocean City's restaurants and hotels are offering special holiday parties and package plans to help visitors welcome 1994 in style.
At the Sheraton Fontainebleau Hotel, New Year's revelers will enjoy a gourmet buffet dinner, a choice of two bands, an open bar from 8 p.m. to 1 a.m., hats, horns and noisemakers, and a champagne toast at midnight. The cost per person is $105; call (800) 638-2100 for information on special packages that include lodging.
For information on weekend getaway packages to Ocean City during the holidays (including group tour packages), contact Shore Hospitality at (800) 654-5440. For more information on special holiday events, activities or accommodations, call the Ocean City Visitor Information Center at (800) 626-2326.