Spinning, roaring, stomach-churning rides. Fried, cheese-covered, frozen and sugar-coated treats. Sea air, sand and sunshine. Mix them all together, and you have the Jersey Shore boardwalk, a recipe for summer fun that’s hard to beat.
If you haven’t visited a boardwalk, picture a state fair. Now place it next to a beach and have it open every.single.day throughout the summer months. Yeah, it’s pretty awesome.
As a born-and-bred New Jersey resident, I grew up going “down the shore” (how any authentic Jerseyian refers to the beach), spending days jumping the waves and evenings heading to the boardwalk.
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As the years have rolled by, I’ve indulged in boardwalk fun all the way down the 130-mile New Jersey coast. From the MTV-famous Seaside Heights in the north to the doo-wop history of Wildwood in the south, I’ve spent hours both as a kid and then as a parent walking the boards.
At some point each summer, the same debate has popped up as my friends and family enjoy the waves, treats and rides: Which Jersey Shore boardwalk is the best?
This year, instead of just contemplating that eternal summer question, I decided to put the locations to the test.
Full disclosure: When I began the ultimate boardwalk quest, I was going to hit every boardwalk in the state. But then I realized that, with hundreds of miles of wooden boards running along sandy stretches of beach, testing every one would become a full-time job, so I rethought my approach.
After much consultation with my Jersey peers, I went with three big hitters:
- Ocean City: Considered the most family-friendly boardwalk.
- Wildwood: Known for having the most, and most thrilling, rides.
- Atlantic City: The oldest boardwalk in the state.
For these big three, I compared several categories: food, top rides, unique attractions and beach access. Then I ranked each on a scale of 1 to 5 star(fish).
Five family members came along for the ride — ranging in age from 2 to 72 including one 18-year-old we sent on the biggest rides and whom we had eat the greasiest food (he’s fine, I promise).
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In the name of research, most of our group walked nearly five miles on each boardwalk (the 2-year-old either ran full speed or rode in the stroller), enduring a record-setting heat wave and then epic rainstorms. Upset stomachs were a given, as well as a budget for Tums. There were also some tears — but mostly from the toddler in our group who didn’t want to be parted from his favorite rides, which is always the sign of a successful outing.
So which boardwalk reigned supreme? Here were my findings.
A lot of destinations call themselves “family-friendly,” but in Ocean City, the moniker is well-deserved. Ocean City is a dry town, a carryover from an age of “blue laws” that regulated alcohol sales and consumption. In OC, that means you won’t find a beachside bar, a boardwalk nightclub, or even restaurants serving alcohol. There’s also no gambling (that means even skeeball games don’t come with prizes). What it does have: 2.5 miles of great food, free entertainment and kid-friendly rides.
Ocean City excels at all-ages boardwalk eats. There’s everything here from a coffee roaster spinning beans with a view of the beach to artisanal gelato to fresh crab cakes, plus pizza and at least half a dozen excellent fried potato options. Not to mention frozen custard, water ices, boba tea and fudge and candy shops.
My group ate an ocean’s worth of fried and frozen treats here. Two really stood out, though.
Johnson’s Caramel Corn: This is the kind of sweet, salty crunchy delight I continued to think about well after our massive, family-sized bucket was gone. Johnson’s makes fresh batches of buttery, caramel-coated popcorn all day long (every seven minutes according to their signs) in copper pots large enough that you’d think you could swim in them, then serves it up in a warm haze of burnt sugar for $7.50 for a small bucket and $11 for a large.
Tip one: If you ask for it without the lid, they’ll pile it to overflowing. Tip two: Watch out for diving seagulls if you go this route. With a lid on, the sticky corn could last a week before losing its snap — although our bucket only lasted two days before it was completely devoured. Everybody loved this one.
Manco & Manco’s Pizza: Because I am from the New York City metropolitan area, I have a lot of thoughts on pizza. This, I can frankly say, is not a New York or New Jersey pie. It’s a Philly-style tomato pie, meaning the sauce is on top of the cheese. I still think it’s fantastic. The hand-tossed, slightly amorphous, hub cap-sized pizza landed out of the oven and on our table in the enormous dining room — in what was once a movie theater — while the mozzarella was still bubbling.
The pizza eaters in the group really liked the cracker-thin crust and tangy sauce, which is piped onto the pie from a hose to create the distinctive rings.
In OC, you’re not going to find giant roller coasters or other adrenaline-pumping rides. However, the 2-year-old in my group was in toddler nirvana. There were multiple rides he could spin around in on his own and one — a suspended train that rides a rail up and over the outdoor amusement area — that an adult could ride on with him (in this case, our always-game teen).
Anyone over the age of 10 will probably prefer bigger thrills. If you’re 2, though, the fire trucks warrant 5 stars — our toddler was still talking about it days later. Since that’s a limited audience, I’m going to give it a 4 for pleasing its core audience. (Ride tickets are $1 each, or 50 for $40; most little kids’ rides cost three tickets.)
There are big dunes protecting the beach here, so you’ll have the best views from up high on the Ferris wheel. If you want to feel the sand between your toes, you’ll need to buy a beach badge for daylight hours access between Memorial Day and Labor Day ($5 per day; many beaches in New Jersey also require a fee to enter). The rest of the year it’s free to visit at any time. It’s a nice beach, but I’m docking one star due to the badge fees.
One of the things that sets Ocean City apart from other boardwalks is its free entertainment programming. In the past, I’ve seen everything from a Mummer’s Parade marching along the boards to an a cappella group performing in one of the covered pavilions. However, this isn’t something you can count on every night during a visit, so I’m docking a star for lack of predictability.
Whirling, twirling and thrilling, this was the most action-packed of the boardwalks I visited. Even on a rainy day (and it rained really, really hard while we were here), there were people eating, filling the arcades and waiting in line to try out the rides. The jam-packed boardwalk stretches for 2.5 miles, with shops, arcades and attractions on both sides of the walkway. Plus, there are two piers of rides and water park attractions that stretch across the beach toward the ocean.
Wildwood offers hundreds of outlets for buying and consuming copious amounts of candy, ice cream and fried food. We tried items from the rows on rows of fried food emporiums serving everything from twirled potatoes deep fried on sticks to batter-dipped Oreos, Twinkies and Snickers. (We also sampled frozen custard from Kohr’s, which is one of my favorite boardwalk treats, especially the chocolate and mint twist dipped in chocolate — but since it’s available on nearly every New Jersey boardwalk, I chose not to put it in competition.)
There were a few real standouts in the food category on this boardwalk — a fresh and tasty lobster roll and a fried flounder sandwich that got such high marks from my husband that he devoured it before I could either taste or photograph it (thus putting it out of the food prize running). However, one food stood out above all others.
Curley’s fries: Freshly sliced potatoes fried in peanut oil and served in containers so large you can’t possibly imagine anyone could eat them all … and then they’re gone. My whole group remarked “never” more than once, and then — poof! — they were eaten faster than you can say “addictive fried food.” It helped that everyone from the preschooler to the grandfather in our group loves fries. Wash it down with a perfectly balanced tart but sweet lemonade and it’s a combo made in boardwalk dining heaven.
The roller coasters here “feel like Six Flags,” and not beachside amusement offerings, according to my impressed teen. Luckily, it looked like it was going to be worth the effort to try out the rides here despite being in the middle of a heavy rain storm. There was one clear winner at Morey’s Pier in our soggy ride experience.
Sea Serpent: If you’re looking for the thrill factor at the Jersey Shore, this is it. There are two 120-foot climbs, three upside-down loops — and then you do the whole thing again, backward. My teen equated the experience to being in a pinball machine, if you can picture being pulled all the way back and then ricocheted through tight turns, curves, and spins.
“Better than Space Mountain!” he raved. (For non-Disney fans, that’s high praise indeed.) Ride tickets for Morey’s Piers cost $1.25 each (there are discounts for bulk purchases, starting with 80 tickets for $92.50), and it’s 10 tickets to ride the Sea Serpent.
Wildwood’s beaches are 500 yards wide, making them the largest in New Jersey. And they’re free; no badges are required. You can also walk right onto the sand without having to negotiate dunes (although it helps to have a beach cart to traverse the five-football-field long stretch of sand). As a bonus, there’s a dog beach right at the heart of the boardwalk where Fido can play on the sand, a rarity for New Jersey.
Wildwood’s Tram Car traverses the miles of wooden walkways, making it possible to save some shoe leather while taking in all the sights, rides and tastes of Wildwood for just $4. However, what you’ll remember long past your stay is the monotonous intonation that accompanies the mini train as it rolls along the boards “watch, wa wa wa watch, watch the tram car please.” It’s the Jersey Shore’s equivalent of “It’s a Small World After All.”
It’s hard to talk about Atlantic City without conjuring a vision of some version of its past. It is the oldest boardwalk in the country, opened in 1870, and it was once known across the U.S. for its diving horse attraction, the Miss America Pageant, casinos and big-name entertainment. Even the Monopoly board game is based on Atlantic City’s streets.
You also can’t talk about AC without discussing the disparity between casino hotels and areas off the boardwalk, which historically haven’t had the access to money or improvements given to the more tourism-based enterprises. A history of bankrupt casinos and job losses in the past have also made the boardwalk seem a little more depressing than entertaining.
However, in the last few years, progress has been made, and there’s more to do and see than in decades past. To be honest, the boardwalk isn’t where the real action is; that’s in the casinos. Like Las Vegas, the prime restaurants and entrainment all take place in the windowless confines of the towers where you can never really tell what time it is. However, for this showdown, I stuck to the outdoor boards and away from the slots.
Because of this, we mostly focused on historic Steel Pier, the 1,000-foot arm of the boardwalk filled with rides and food that shoots out over the beach and the Atlantic Ocean. The offerings were limited, though.
In the casinos, you can find restaurants ranging from Nobu to several outposts by Gordon Ramsay. Out on Steel Pier, you’re limited to state fair-style funnel cakes, sausage and peppers, and some vaguely Mexican options. It’s fine, but not worth a special trip. There were some mediocre fries (“limp, pasty and cold,” said the disgruntled teen) and really bad lemonade (“basically just sugar,” said the vegan). I could not convince even the toddler to try the “walking nachos” (a kind of Fritos pie made with Doritos and served in a metallic convenience store bag).
Nothing looked great, to be honest, and we had trouble committing to eating any of it. I was encouraged to go into the hotels more than once by my family members, but that’s not what most people who stroll the boardwalk or have kids with them do, so we made do with what was available outdoors.
(And before you ask, famed White House subs is also off the boardwalk, although it has an outlet in the Hard Rock Casino and Hotel.)
That left two items we ate and somewhat enjoyed: Salt water taffy and funnel cake. Neither of them will be winning any awards, but if you find yourself in Atlantic City taking in the salt air, they’ll do the trick. As long as you can get a funnel cake hot from the fryer, covered with powdered sugar and eaten out in the sunshine, it’s hard to complain.
Saltwater taffy: This chewy confection was actually first sold, at least according to legend, in Atlantic City. We tried two different brands, both of which used to be independently operated but now are owned by the same company and sold in the same stores: Fralinger’s and James (the former is long and traditionally tube-shaped, the latter is square, “cut to fit the mouth”). This is a cheap thrill: You can sample a few pieces, sold by the pound, for around $1.
The two taffy fans in the group proclaimed the molasses and sour cherry flavors the best of the bunch, but not every piece tasted fresh.
There’s a hodgepodge of rides on offer on Steel Pier, with a few big spinning options such as the mixer, which loops over and over, and another that flings you like a human slingshot. Neither looked appealing enough to risk losing lunch or limb. I couldn’t get anyone to try them out. On the other hand, we did have one group favorite.
Carousel: We loved the vintage feeling horses and hurdy-gurdy soundtrack that immediately conjured a feeling of the historic amusements that once filled this stretch of the wooden thoroughfare. It’s hard to argue with this kind of nostalgia. Tickets for basic rides (excluding the Slingshot) are $1.75 apiece, with deals such as 50 tickets for $60. The carousel costs four tickets.
The sand here is wide and welcoming, and it’s free to head to the beach. It’s one of the reasons people have come to AC for more than a century and a half. However, while there are lifeguards, there are very few easy-to-reach snacks or services, so bring your own necessities.
Helicopter rides: At the end of Steel Pier, there is a truly unique offering for the usually low-key Jersey Shore: a helicopter launch pad. Although it’s now part of the amusements at Steel Pier, it was originally built for one of the now-demolished Trump casinos that went bankrupt in the early aughts. Today it offers sightseeing trips down the coastline and around Atlantic City (prices from $75 per person), giving visitors a one-of-a-kind glimpse of New Jersey’s golden shores. This is a fun option, but not appealing to my group of six people since it would have cost me several hundred dollars beyond my boardwalk budget. However, if I ever hit it big at the slots, I’m going helicopter all the way.
The three beaches we visited were pretty similar, since they’re all in the southern half of the New Jersey Shore. However, Ocean City is the only one requiring a pay-to-play beach tag, and Atlantic City lacks easy-to-reach amenities, so Wildwood took the lead there with its huge, free, sandy shore.
To be honest, Ocean City is where my heart is when it comes to this contest. I loved all the food options, and it did win in that category with two 5-star options for pizza and caramel corn. I also enjoy the mellow vibes and the family-friendly atmosphere. However, there are no great rides here. For that, Wildwood takes the prize, even on a rainy day.
Add in the only-there tram car, and it became clear what was going to be named our winner. Here’s the breakdown.
Wildwood had Curley’s Fries, but Ocean City had two 5-star winners — Manco & Mancos for pizza and Johnson’s Caramel Corn — so I’m calling the “best food” category for the OC.
It revs up a 120-foot slope, it reels over three separate 360-degree turns and then it goes backwards and does it all again. With its theme park-worthy thrills, the Sea Serpent coaster gives Wildwood the win for “best ride” — no competition here.
Wildwood’s free, wide and dog-friendly shore and surf gives it another win for “best beach.”
Only here experiences
You might not love the ubiquitous Wildwood tram car’s ear worm jingle, but it’s an unmissable (and convenient) part of a visit to the boardwalk, and the winner for the “only here experience.”
Wildwood, with its mix of pulse-pounding rides, free beach and iconic tram car, gave it a trifecta of wins.
That said, there were food, fun and thrills large and small to be had at all three of our stops.
Honestly, my whole group was the winner of the boardwalk showdown since we got to eat and play to our heart’s content while doing the important “work” required to dig deep into the Jersey Shore’s famous boards.
Planning on a visit to the New Jersey area? Don’t miss this unique slice of iconic coastline.
Oh, and one more piece of advice: Consider going on the rides before you start sampling all of the tasty boardwalk treats (you’ll thank me later).