Anticipation high for wave of tourists in Ocean City

OCEAN CITY — — Just arrived for a six-day vacation, Mark and Diana Moyer strolled down the boardwalk, frozen drinks in hand, pausing to watch a teenage boy do a back flip onto the beach.

The Moyers, from Northampton, Pa., are back in Ocean City for the first time in several years — both were laid off during the recession. But this year, with Mark back at work and their children grown, they have more money to spend and more freedom to spend it.

"It's a dependable place," Mark Moyer said Wednesday, recalling the family's vacations to Ocean City going back 15 years. This time, they are renting a smaller hotel room and not spending to entertain children, but they're back.

Town tourism officials and business owners are optimistic there are more people like the Moyers headed to Ocean City, coming in greater numbers and spending more than in recent years. Early indications are that local tourism revenue could jump in 2012, and many businesses are spending to spruce up their tourist offerings as they compete for customers.

Already this spring, buoyed by mild weather that brightened the offseason, tax revenue from restaurant meals and hotel room stays in February and March was as much as 22 percent above the previous year's levels. And a survey shows that business owners expect their best summer in years.

"I don't think it's false optimism; I think it's a realistic expectation," said Memo Diriker, founding director of Salisbury University's Business, Economic, and Community Outreach Network. The group conducts quarterly surveys of businesses across the Delmarva peninsula, and the most recent results predict larger crowds and more spending.

The high cost of flying relative to gas prices that have declined recently also could boost Delmarva tourism, as Ocean City is within driving distance for many Mid-Atlantic residents, Diriker said.

As the Memorial Day weekend neared, businesses across the town were preparing for the flood of tourists. The sounds of summer grew louder along the boardwalk, where modest crowds of early-season tourists gathered. The squeals of children mixed with the rumble of power tools, as shops and amusement parks made last-minute improvements in anticipation of the crowds.

Underfoot was fresh lumber and shiny nails from a multimillion-dollar boardwalk renovation. Two sections were replaced or repaired over the winter, including a complete replacement of the boardwalk and substructure from 15th to 27th streets. A second phase, from Somerset Street to 15th Street, will begin in October.

Given summerlike heat and humidity in the weekend forecast in the Baltimore area, Ocean City businesses are predicting a strong start to the season. While Memorial Day weekend marks the unofficial start to summer, beach tourism this early in the season depends on the weather, said Paul Kahn, general manager of the Tidelands Caribbean Hotel at Fourth Street and the boardwalk.

He said he expects to have some vacancies Friday but then sell out Saturday and Sunday nights, thanks to spur-of-the-moment tourists.

On Memorial Day weekend, the town's population could surpass 250,000. By comparison, Cruisin' Ocean City, an event that celebrates classic cars, helped raise Ocean City's weekend population earlier this month to nearly 200,000, said Donna Abbott, the town's tourism and marketing director. And hotels were booked months in advance of that event, Kahn said.

Businesses are looking for new ways to lure a share of the crowds.

At the Jolly Roger Amusement Park on Coastal Highway, young workers and handymen spread out over all 35 acres, cleaning out pools and setting up gift shop displays. The park's owners brought in a new attraction to help draw crowds, a water slide with a 360-degree loop, and marketing director Dean Langrall says it's the only one of its kind on the East Coast.

The Ocean City Life-Saving Station Museum, at the southern end of the boardwalk, has refreshed its exhibits to draw younger crowds. While the museum is dedicated to the crews who patrolled Ocean City's shoreline for shipwrecks as long ago as the 1800s, curator Sandy Hurley added a new exhibit this year exploring the town's surfing history.

Galaxy 66 Bar and Grille, at 66th Street and Coastal Highway, earlier this month completed a 5,000-square-foot expansion, owner Tammy Patrick-Cebula said. She and her husband, Roger, turned a 10-seat rooftop bar above the restaurant into the Skye Bar, with a wraparound bar serving raw seafood and futuristic cocktails with names such as the Time Capsule and Sparkling Quasar.

Tourism officials, meanwhile, want to give back to tourists who have been loyal throughout the recession, Abbott said. They have planned free events such as weekly fireworks shows on Tuesdays and a beach laser light show on many Sundays. For the Memorial Day weekend, there will be a ceremony in which a flag the size of a football field will be unfurled Monday.

But some tourists don't need any incentives for an Ocean City visit.

High school seniors will inundate the town within a matter of weeks. With their first year of college at Towson University complete, 18-year-olds Ally Dovidio and Kaitlyn Lindsey were ready for a week of rest and relaxation on the beach.

The pair tried to get some sun Wednesday afternoon, but overcast skies and 70-degree temperatures made it difficult. They weren't ready to give up.

"We're just waiting for it to be super nice so we can just be at the beach all day," Dovidio said.

Ocean City forecast

Saturday: High 75, partly cloudy skies

Sunday: High 78, partly cloudy skies

Monday: High 78, partly cloudy skies