By DONALD WITTKOWSKI
Mary Ann Goodman didn’t have to buy a $5 beach tag Wednesday, so she was able to spend her money on something else far more appealing during her vacation in Sea Isle City.
Goodman and other members of her family marched over to Mick Pristas’ Fudgy Wudgy beach cart and treated themselves to some ice cream on a sultry day when temperatures flirted with the 90s.
“This sounds good. I got a Chipwich with it,” Goodman, a visitor from Philadelphia, said with a laugh.
Wednesdays are the one day of the week when Sea Isle’s beaches are free. The normally ubiquitous beach tag inspectors are nowhere to be found. In Goodman’s case, for instance, she didn’t have to spend $5 for a daily beach tag, so the money came in handy for an ice cream.
For more than 25 years, Sea Isle has had free beach days on Wednesdays as a way to attract visitors. Some beachgoers are aware of it, but to others it is a pleasant surprise.
“We were wondering why we didn’t see any of the beach tag inspectors at the entrance to the beach,” said Ryann Hendrickson, of Phoenixville, Pa.
Ryann Hendrickson is enjoying a weeklong vacation in Sea Isle with her husband, Rich, their 5-year-old daughter, Grace, and other family members.
Rich Hendrickson noted that his family already bought their beach tags. But the idea of one day a week when the beaches are free sounded inviting to him.
“It’s definitely a plus not having to search for your beach tag,” he said.
He was referring to the ritual of beachgoers having to rummage through their clothes or bags when the beach tag inspectors ask them if they have their tags.
The free beach days were the idea of the late Irene Jameson, Sea Isle’s legendary former public relations director. Jameson also conceived of Sea Isle’s annual Polar Bear Plunge, a wildly popular event that draws tens of thousands of visitors to town in February for a weekend of partying, dining and shopping, culminating with a chilly dip in the ocean.
Katherine Custer, Sea Isle’s public information officer, said the free beach days are particularly popular with school groups, summer camps and day-trippers who are looking to save some money.
There is one exception to Wednesdays for free beach days. If the Fourth of July falls on a Wednesday, beachgoers still have to pay for a tag.
Mick Pristas, the Fudgy Wudgy vendor selling ice cream from his cart, said he has noticed that the beaches generally seem to be more crowded on Wednesdays. He suspects that it’s because of the free beach days.
“On Wednesdays, it’s usually a little busier. I think it’s because of that,” Pristas said. “But I don’t think a lot of people know about it.”
Beach tag sales generate about $1.4 million in annual revenue for Sea Isle. The revenue covers the cost of keeping the beaches clean, collecting the trash, employing lifeguards and hiring summer police officers.
Sea Isle officials estimate the city loses out on a couple thousand dollars of beach tag revenue during the free beach days over the entire summer. But for the amount of goodwill it does, it is certainly worth it, they say.
John and Jennifer Henry, Sea Isle vacationers from Old Bridge, N.J., said they had never heard of the free beach days. They were happy they were able to save some money Wednesday during their beach outing.
“I think it’s awesome,” John Henry said. “We hit on the right day.”
The Henrys have four children, 10-year-old twin daughters Kylie and Brianna, their son, Rowan, 7, and 6-year-old daughter, McKayla.
Jennifer Henry did some quick math and figured out that she would spend $25 if she had to buy a $5 daily beach tag for her and her four children. That made the free beach day even more appealing to her.
“Now, we have more money to spend on snacks,” she said, laughing.