By DONALD WITTKOWSKI
Looking like a would-be Picasso, Payton Riordan dabbed her brush in orange, green and brown paint and began creating her masterpiece with bold strokes on a palette.
Asked what she was painting, the 4-year-old Payton blurted out, “It’s a pumpkin!” as an orange orb began to take shape.
“It’s because it’s Halloween,” the blonde little girl explained of her choice of subject matter, drawing a smile from her mom, Amy Riordan.
Yes, of course, Halloween. That would mean that it’s fall, right?
Well, in Sea Isle City, it is the Fall Family Festival this weekend. The city’s largest fall event drew thousands of visitors to Excursion Park and the oceanfront Promenade on Saturday with an array of kid-friendly activities, shopping for the adults and a food court for everyone.
“There are nice activities to keep the kids occupied,” Amy Riordan, who lives in Strathmere, said while watching Payton display her creativity at a children’s art table. “There are lots of families here. We come every year.”
Payton also had her face painted like a unicorn. Besides Payton, Riordan also brought her 1-year-old daughter, Logan, who was asleep in a baby stroller, despite the crowds that surrounded her at Excursion Park.
For more than 30 years, Sea Isle has proved that it can draw big post-Labor Day crowds with its popular fall festival, an event that features vendors lining the Promenade, live music, free amusement rides, an outdoor food court and an antique car show.
The car show will be held on Sunday on the Promenade from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m., followed by a parade of vintage autos and trucks through town.
Also on Sunday, the city’s Environmental Commission will name the winners of its annual Beautification Awards contest. A ceremony will be held at noon on the Promenade at John F. Kennedy Boulevard.
The coronavirus pandemic dramatically changed the festival in 2020. The city had to scale back the event in favor of a more modest celebration that did not pack in big crowds in tight areas.
But this weekend promises to be a bounce-back event featuring most of the traditional attractions and a crowd that Sea Isle Tourism Representative Chris Oney estimated will approach 10,000 people.
“After the banner summer we had, we want to keep it going,” Oney said. “There’s still fun to be had in the off-season.”
Much like the height of the summer tourism season, a steady stream of traffic flowed into Sea Isle on Saturday. Parking spaces were filled throughout the downtown area. The Fall Family Festival, for a weekend at least, destroys the age-old stereotype of the “quiet” off-season at the shore.
Jeff and Shannon Yates drove down to Sea Isle on Saturday from their home in Mantua, Gloucester County, to bring their kids, Kennedy, 4, and Finley, 1, to the festival. They said they enjoyed the family atmosphere.
“I love it. They have free rides for the kids,” Jeff Yates said. “This is great. It’s awesome.”
Not to be overlooked is the festival’s food court in Excursion Park, where French fries, hamburgers, hotdogs, ice cream and other goodies tempted everyone.
Dennisville resident Tori Davis and her 4-year-old daughter, Hope, were waiting in line at one of the food vendors while dealing with some summer-like heat hovering in the 80s.
“She wants a hotdog,” Davis said of her daughter. “I’m really thinking of having some water ice. It’s so hot, so you need something to cool you down.”
In addition to the food court and amusement rides, the festival’s opening day also featured shopping on the Promenade. About 160 vendors pitched their tents along the Promenade to transform the oceanfront walkway into a giant outdoor pedestrian mall and craft market.
Sisters-in-law Nancy Toto, of Sea Isle, and Susan Toto, of Collegeville, Pa., peered into their shopping bags to see some of the things they had bought.
Nancy Toto said she had gotten an early jump on the holidays by buying some Christmas gifts. Nancy and Susan also bought some books for the grandkids, beach bags, sweatshirts and some house flags.
“I like the fact that there are a lot of vendors,” Nancy said.
Susan noted that the shore usually is tranquil after Labor Day, but said the festival transformed Sea Isle into a “lively family town.”
Nancy expressed her appreciation that the city has created an extra incentive for festival-goers and other tourists by ending the summer parking fees on Labor Day.
“I think it’s really good of the city government not to have parking fees after Labor Day,” she said. “I think it’s a nice perk.”
Besides extending the tourist season in Sea Isle beyond the traditional Labor Day cutoff, the festival helps to fill up the rental properties for another weekend and also gives local merchants a boost in business.
“We’re excited to bring people back and keep the excitement of summer going,” Oney said.