By Donald Wittkowski
Tens of thousands of visitors, many of them clad in bathing suits, will descend on Sea Isle City for an insanely fun weekend at the beach.
What’s the big deal, you say? They do that every summer weekend, right?
Well, they’re not waiting for summer. It will be in February. In the dead of winter.
Known as Polar Bear Weekend, the annual spectacle will unfold Feb. 17-19 with a series of family-friendly events as well as nightlife for grown-ups. The centerpiece event, on Saturday, Feb. 18, will see thousands of diehards in bathing suits and wacky costumes plunge into the chilly ocean at 2 p.m. during one of the zaniest rituals at the Jersey Shore.
Normally ghostly quiet during the off-season, the beach town will emerge from its winter hibernation to welcome perhaps as many as 60,000 visitors for what is expected to be a blockbuster weekend.
“Think of it as a summer weekend in the middle of February,” said Christopher Glancey, president of the Sea Isle City Chamber of Commerce and Revitalization.
At its board meeting Tuesday, the Chamber of Commerce focused on the final preparations and promotional efforts leading up to the big weekend. The board heard that even the long-range weather forecast looks promising for the weekend – partly sunny with temperatures hovering at a relatively mild 45 to 46 degrees.
The Polar Bear celebration is in its 23rd year. It coincides with Presidents Day weekend, allowing Sea Isle to capitalize on an extended holiday weekend to draw visitors to its retail shops, restaurants, nightclubs, hotels and rental properties.
Mayor Leonard Desiderio estimates that 50,000 to 60,000 visitors will come to town for the festivities, a figure comparable to a busy summer weekend. Already, hotels and rental properties are booked solid, he noted.
“There’s not a room to be rented or a house to be rented in Sea Isle,” the mayor said.
Desiderio and Glancey said that most, if not all, of the businesses on the island will reopen for the weekend to take advantage of the surge in visitors. The Chamber of Commerce has been encouraging restaurants to open on Thursday to extend the holiday weekend an extra day.
“You can’t underestimate how important it is for a beach town,” Glancey said, referring to Sea Isle’s seasonal economy. “We’re trying to get people to stay all weekend.”
Jim Bennett, chairman of the Sea Isle City Tourism Commission, said Polar Bear Weekend is key to the survival of many local businesses, allowing them to generate enough cash to buy the inventory they will need for the spring and summer tourism season.
“We compare it to the Fourth of July weekend,” Bennett said.
Bennett’s LaCosta Lounge nightclub complex, at the corner of John F. Kennedy Boulevard and Landis Avenue, will serve as the epicenter for the Polar Bear-related entertainment events during the weekend.
To provide security over the weekend, Sea Isle’s police department will be supplemented by officers from neighboring towns, the State Police and the Cape May County Sheriff’s Office.
“With police, it’s basically all hands on deck,” City Business Administrator George Savastano said. “We believe the presence of so many law enforcement officers will provide a sense of peace and security in people’s minds.”