Lazy days filled with sun, surf and sandcastles. Evenings spent thrilling on spinning, stomach-dropping carnival rides and indulging in cotton candy and funnel cakes. These are the things memories are made of, and for many families, both local and out-of-state, those memories are made at Carolina Beach.
Last year, due to COVID, Carolina Beach visitors had to do without one of those elements – the carnival rides – but they, along with other family activities, are back. With their return, the lifting of COVID restrictions, and the lure of the Carolina Beach shore and boardwalk, the city’s businesses are hoping for a booming tourist season.
“People are ready to travel,” said Duke Hagestrom, one of the owners of The Fudgeboat and Krazy Kones. “We’ve had a lot of families early in the season we would not have seen under traditional circumstances. We’re ready and open for tourists and local Wilmington residents to come and take advantage of the fun things we have to offer.”
Carolina Beach is known as a great place for family vacations, but that wasn’t always the case. In the mid-1990s, town officials and residents embarked on a campaign to clean up the area, and in 2013 the boardwalk underwent extensive renovation with a $1.5 million makeover.
While retaining the boardwalk’s old-world charm, the addition of showers, swings and other amenities made the boardwalk more appealing to families.
The carnival rides, which disappeared in 1978, returned in 2009. Until last year, when they were part of the fallout from the pandemic, they’ve been an integral part of the boardwalk’s family-friendly atmosphere. With COVID loosening its grip, the rides are again gracing the boardwalk, and many Carolina Beach merchants welcome their return.
“People enjoy the rides,” said Bobby Nivens, owner of longtime boardwalk feature Britts Donuts. “They give people something else to do when they come to the beach. A lot of teens as well as kids love riding the rides. I’m glad to see them come back, and most people feel the same way. They will benefit everyone and are a good thing for Carolina Beach.”
While the rides are an attraction unto themselves, they also support the boardwalk and central business district, said Kim Hufham, president of the Wilmington and Beaches Convention & Visitors Bureau.
“People are drawn to the rides, then they find there are some great businesses at Carolina Beach like some eclectic beachwear stores and gems like a doughnut shop that’s been here [for decades] and a store that serves hand-dipped ice cream made from milk from a local dairy farmer,” Hagestrom said. “They discover great restaurants they wouldn’t have been introduced to and realize Carolina Beach is a great place to bring family or visitors.”
In fact, Carolina Beach’s shore and its hidden gems bring visitors back year after year. A recent survey by the Wilmington and Beaches Convention & Visitors Bureau shows that more than 90% of visitors to the area have taken 14 trips to Wilmington and its beaches, 62% of visitors went to Carolina Beach as part of their trip and more than 50% of visitors to New Hanover County visited the Carolina Beach Boardwalk.
This year, tourism at Carolina Beach is already up, which Hufham said would likely have happened with or without the rides. As COVID restrictions have been lifted, people are giving in to a pent-up desire for travel.
So far, indications are that tourism at Carolina Beach this year will meet, or exceed, expectations. Tourists began flocking to Carolina Beach in April, and bookings for hotel rooms and rental properties for the summer are filling up, said Tom Ullring, general manager of the Courtyard by Marriott Carolina Beach Oceanfront hotel. Fall reservations, which are returning to pre-COVID levels, are strong, too, he added.
Those vacationing at Carolina Beach this year will find plenty to do. In addition to the rides, Carolina Beach’s fireworks displays, free concerts and movies in the park are also returning. Plus, visitors can enjoy five new murals created by local artists as part of the Carolina Beach Art for All project; and the Joseph Ryder Lewis Park recently opened with 10 acres of wetlands, a boardwalk and a hiking trail around the earthen fort at Sugar Loaf.
While some attractions at Carolina Beach don’t change, history shows that the boardwalk, and its attractions, do. The amusement rides may soon be a casualty of that change as development in the area shrinks the land the carnival uses.
“Eventually, they [carnival owners] won’t have enough space to make their return profitable,” said Hagestrom. “We can enjoy the seasons they have left.”
Hagestrom, however, predicts that even without the rides, Carolina Beach will continue to be a popular destination that will provide both entertainment and beach time for tourists.
He said, “Carolina Beach has proven that, amusements or not, it has developed a formula that balances our natural beauty with the right mix of family activities to maximize the guest experience, and that promises a bright future for the island.”