Saltwater taffy, carnival rides, and old-school fun are back on the upswing in classic beach towns whose boardwalks can make you feel like you've stepped into a time machine.
These days, an increasing number of boardwalk towns are emerging from makeovers as fresher and more family-friendly. On the southern end of the Jersey Shore—a good 90 miles from where Snooki and JWoww hang out—the boardwalk town of Wildwood recently prohibited anyone from going shirtless, or wearing pants so baggy that they fall three underwear-exposing inches below the hips. In Brooklyn, amusement Luna Park—featuring creative new rides, such as one based on flying machines imagined by Leonardo da Vinci—has helped reinvigorate Coney Island.
These destinations are great reminders of why a beach-boardwalk vacation is still an evergreen summer getaway for families. Here are seven more classic boardwalk towns that go out of their way to entice families:
1. Santa Cruz, California
Hugging the coastline about an hour south of San Francisco, the Santa Cruz boardwalk first opened as an attraction in 1907 and is one of the few seaside parks on the west coast. You’ll find nostalgic rides such as the Looff Carousel, a National Historic Landmark, and the Giant Dipper roller coaster (circa 1924). You’ll also find laser tag, bowling, fresh saltwater taffy and, as a nod to the Cali agriculture, the ever-popular, lightly fried artichokes. An all-day ride pass starts at $32.
2. Ocean City, Maryland
The three-mile oceanfront promenade is the heart of this sprawling Maryland beach city. Besides the pier’s Jolly Roger amusement park and the more old-school Trimper’s (home to the 1902 Herschel-Spellman carousel), the Ocean City boardwalk boasts an arcade, a kite shop, and The Life Saving Museum, where you can explore exhibits about old shipwrecks, mermaids, and vintage bathing suits. On select Tuesday nights during the summer, you can participate in the Family Beach Olympics, with relays, tug-of-war and sand-castle-building contests. Treat the kids to another taste of history at the beloved Thrasher French Fries, which has been a staple here since 1929. Jolly Roger day passes cost $20. Trimper’s entry wrist bands cost $23.
3. Myrtle Beach, South Carolina
Offering plenty of root beer floats and strolling Dixieland jazz bands, this 1.2-mile coastal stretch may feel vintage, but it was only built in 2010. Throughout the summer, fireworks go off on Wednesday nights and every Monday evening brings a Kids Carnival with bounce houses, face painting and stilt walkers. The boardwalk borders Family Kingdom, an amusement park that boasts 35 rides and claims the tallest Ferris wheel on the East Coast; there’s also a water park with kiddie pools, a lazy river, and multiple speed slides. All-day amusement-plus-water-park passes start at $36 per person.
4. Kemah, Texas
A summer fair atmosphere pervades the old-time boardwalk in this Gulf Coast town near Galveston, Texas, where families will find an array of restaurants and gift shops as well as Stingray Reef, a permanent exhibit where you can pet and feed stingrays ($6 per person, including food). There is a small amusement park with rides that include a double-decker carousel, Boardwalk Bullet wooden roller coaster, 65-foot Ferris wheel, and a replica Civil War-era train. All-day, all-rides amusement park passes start at just under $18 for kids under 48 inches tall, and $22 for big kids and adults.
5. Old Orchard Beach, Maine
This seven-mile stretch of sand offers a 36-hole mini golf course, beach cruiser bikes, and the four-acre Palace Playland amusement park, which has 13 kiddie rides alongside classics such as a family log ride and the centrifugal-force Riptide. Don’t leave the boardwalk without introducing the kids to the joys of lobster rolls and be sure to stop at Dickinson’s Candy Factory, which offers 26 flavors of taffy. All-day amusement-park passes cost $31.50 for big kids and adults, and $23.50 for kids under 42 inches.
6. Carolina Beach, North Carolina
Set on the northern end of Pleasure Island, just south of Wilmington, this boardwalk has a summer-only amusement park with such 25 classic rides as a tilt-a-whirl and Ferris wheel. Every Tuesday is family night, with bounce houses and live entertainment. As a diversion from rides, kids can explore the North Carolina Aquarium, or take the carnivorous Venus Flytrap hike at Carolina Beach State Park. The boardwalk’s top treat, meanwhile, is a glazed donut from Britt’s. Amusement park armbands cost $25 each.
7. Rehoboth Beach, Delaware
This Delaware beach town’s famous mile-long boardwalk of games, food, and shops got a facelift a few years ago and stays mellow by banning most bikes, skateboards, and skates. Besides the on-site amusement park, Funland, and its 19 rides, a big crowd-pleaser is the Ice Cream Store, on Rehoboth Avenue, which features an award-winning bacon ice cream, as well as flavors such as Serious Chocolate Addiction and Scorpion Sting (with cayenne). Funland charges between 35 cents and $1.75 per ride.
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