SEASIDE HEIGHTS, NJ -- A down economy would seem to be good news for coin-op games and attractions along the fabled New Jersey shore. When the summer arcade season kicked off a month ago, operators were predicting big crowds as budget-conscious consumers seek out bargain getaways.
"Memorial Day was a strong weekend, and if the weather holds up, we'll be in good shape," said Kimberle Samarelli, executive director of the New Jersey Amusement Association, which recently celebrated its 50th anniversary. "When the sun shines, the people come. And this year, I believe they are staying closer to home and enjoying the benefits of what New Jersey has to offer."
Jersey resort towns, which have long battled such travel destinations as Disney World, Six Flags amusement parks and attractions in Williamsburg, VA, for the family vacation dollars, are anticipating a marked increase from both extended stay vacationers who fill rental houses and motels and daytrippers.
"We've just had one of the busiest, nicest and most controlled Memorial Day weekends we've ever had," said Peter Smith, program coordinator of special events for the town of Seaside Heights. "We sold a lot of beach badges, so we're expecting a busy summer."
With just a tank full of gas, Smith pointed out, many Jersey shore destinations are within reach from major population hubs in New York, Connecticut and Pennsylvania. "You can bring the whole family down for 30 bucks versus buying airplane tickets and standing in line," he said.
The air of optimism surrounding the Jersey shore has prompted the opening of a new amusement park on Sea Isle City. The first new park in the area in nearly a decade, Gillian's Funland of Sea Isle City is set to open on the site of the closed Fun City amusement park, marking the expansion of Gillian's Wonderland Pier of Ocean City into the new location.
Despite the optimistic outlook, the summer arcade season on the East Coast has gotten off to an inauspicious start with several weekends of rain. "The weather has been awful," reported Marilou Halvorsen, director of marketing for Jenkinson's Boardwalk, a sprawling entertainment complex in Point Pleasant. "We've had three weeks of rain and it looks like more is in store for us. We thought it would be good because people are staying close to home, but now the rain has been an added concern. The weather, you know, is 90% of the equation."
Indoors, in movie theaters, box office sales, led by a pack of hit movies, across the nation are up more than 10% compared with a year ago. But as credit-crunched consumers have looked to leave their troubles behind and escape at the movies, they're yet not spending as much on the anchored amusement games, according Steve Paris, chief operating officer of Tricorp Amusements. Tricorp provides amusement services to more than 400 movie theaters from Maine to Florida, throughout New York and points west of the East Coast states (see VT, May).
Movie attendance and ticket sales have grown in five of the past seven recessions, according to the National Association of Theatre Owners, a Washington, DC-based group of 600 members representing 30,000 screens in the U.S. and Canada. Still, Paris and other industry experts caution that while attendance is up, moviegoers are spending little beyond the cost of a ticket. NATO reported that attendance at matinees, usually a cheaper ticket, has skyrocketed as people look for ways to save.