Prior to yesterday, I hadn’t been to Seaside Heights since my sophomore year of high school. A friend invited me to stay with him and his extended family at some rented beach house. Never one to miss a chance at crane games and funnel cake, I jumped at the chance.
The night before we left, I dyed my hair green. I probably should’ve waited, given that I was about to spend three days with total strangers, but they were nice people. (And they remained nice people until they saw the house’s single shower, stained with still-fresh puke-green Manic Panic. Oops.)
Now roughly twenty years later, I’ve finally returned. With Jay from The Sexy Armpit and our better halves, we walked up and down the boardwalk looking for every stupid photo worth taking. We ate pizza, too!
Back in the day, I considered Seaside Heights a “poor man’s Wildwood” — way smaller, and with far fewer neon lights. These things are still true, but here’s the difference: Wildwood has changed a lot since the ‘90s, while the vibe at Seaside Heights has hardly changed at all. I may actually prefer Seaside, now. If you know what you’re looking for, it’s as much a joyous relic as a place to play Frog Bog.
Here are the highlights!
One of the boardwalk “booths” — which has doubtlessly spent former lives as everything from a souvenir shop to a tattoo parlor — now plays home to a small “retro arcade.” Pay a modest fee, and play away!
It’s nothing compared to a place like Yestercades, but as just one of a million stops on a New Jersey boardwalk, it’s so cool. With around 15 arcade cabinets and a couple of pinball games, I loved the aesthetic touches as much as the coin-ops. Those ‘80s posters in cheap frames, the liberal use of billiards-blue paint… they’re tacky attributes to be sure, but when you’re on a boardwalk, you WANT tacky.
(And don’t get me started on Street Fighter II. An identical cabinet used to live at the Trump Taj Mahal in Atlantic City. For a certain period of time, it was practically my altar at which to worship.)
WALKING DEAD PAINTBALL!
Oof, this was so cheesy and so cool. Shamelessly “borrowing” its title from the hit TV series, you pay $10 to fire 100 paintballs at zombie mannequins. I loved everything about this, but especially the clever repurposing of astroturf.
Incidentally, the last time I was at Seaside, you could shoot at live actors. They’d be wearing helmets and around fifty pounds’ worth of padding. Even then, those guys got absolutely brutalized. I’ll never forget watching some poor soul take off his helmet, and looking like he’d just gotten through a UFC match with Brock.
(One must assume that this practice has since been banned. Call me crazy, but hiring teenagers to take ten thousand paintballs at a six foot range sounds like a liability risk.)
GIANT BOARDWALK PIZZA!
Boardwalk pizza is tremendous — sometimes literally!
Even when it’s bad, it’s still great. I don’t know if it’s the sea air or what, but it’s pizza with a capital p, i, z, z and a.
We dined at a parlor at the furthest end of the boardwalk, and brother, I have never seen pizza slices this big anywhere else. They felt like movie props! Each slice was at least double the standard size, and like five times bigger than a slice from Pizza Hut. Just awesome. It’s the pizza for people who want to eat half a pizza without actually admitting that they want to eat half a pizza.
I have a special affinity for any hotel near a boardwalk, but it hits a fever pitch whenever the hotel is literally ON the boardwalk. Shades of Back to the Beach!
This oddly-shaped hotel is partially a restaurant, looking like a scratched prototype of Disney’s Contemporary Resort. The “neat” thing about hotels on the boardwalk is that they’re often… seedy. Maybe not dramatically so, but 10 to 1, you’ll be sandwiched between a room containing drunk seniors and a room containing a struggling couple looking to “mix things up.”
I know that doesn’t read like a testimonial, but it’s so up my alley. These are the “roller coasters” of hotels, offering a mostly-safe sense of danger. If nothing else, they’re always so alive. No matter the hour. (Also, when these hotels come with soda machines, they will almost always have three buttons for sodas that no longer exist. Another plus, if you’re a freak like me.)
BOARDWALK DIVE BAR!
Despite reputations, Jersey boardwalks have pretty strict rules about alcohol. You can’t just walk around holding bottles, nor can you buy alcohol from anything that isn’t a firm “establishment,” and not just a “booth” that for all intents may as well be a guy wandering around with six-packs for sale. When you stumble upon the inebriated — and you will — they’re largely people who got tanked in their hotel rooms before hitting the planks.
…which is why it was so interesting to see a pretty distinct dive bar, right on the boardwalk. The worn, dim bar had a couple of air hockey tables, because air hockey was made for drunks. It just seemed “divey,” and since the bar welcomes half-dressed, sopping wet swimmers, one may argue that that’s the point.
Had this been an overnight trip, I absolutely would’ve been in that bar until closing time. “Give me a Manhattan,” I’d say, prompting a beatdown from ten guys in Zack Morris tank tops. This was the Star Wars cantina, come to life.
I’ve played Frog Bog more times than I can remember. (Hell, it’s even appeared on Dino Drac before.) If you never heard of it, it’s the game that lets you catapult rubber frogs onto plastic lily pads for a shot at plush prizes.
As one of the few boardwalk games that’s not horribly gimmicked, Frog Bog is relatively easy to win at. That’s why they make you win 400 times before you can get anything good. (I made two of my ten shots, which netted me a small frog doll that I’m sure to see tomorrow at Dollar Tree.)
In truth, I’d much rather go home with one of the cool rubber frogs than even the biggest prizes. Most of them are missing limbs, and all of them bear numerous rot spots, but they’re still adorable.
One must assume that this life-sized R2-D2 statue was once a promotional tool, stationed wherever “Galaxy Games” were sold. Of course, there’s a chance that it was a one-off custom job, too. Even then, I sincerely doubt that it was ever meant to be a garbage pail.
You’ll find weird “decorations” like this up and down the boardwalk. Is that a person behind you, or a six foot hot dog creature pouring ceramic mustard over his own face?
MR. BUBBLE CRANE MACHINE!
By this point in the night, I already knew the truth: Seaside’s cranes were GARBAGE. It’s no secret that most of these machines are rigged to only work effectively at timed intervals, but Seaside’s cranes were even bad at creating a suspension of disbelief. Most of the time, the claws barely snapped shut.
Still, I couldn’t help myself. This was a whole machine full of Mr. Bubble dolls, after all. I glided to it as if by magnetic force. It bore no fruit, but I think the fact that I simply got to stand next to 200 Mr. Bubble dolls was worth a dollar.
THE SIMPSONS ARCADE GAME!
From the same retro arcade mentioned earlier, I was delighted to find the famous, awesome, four-player Simpsons arcade game — named by many as one of the best arcade games of all time.
I don’t know how accurate this is, but to me it always felt like the “Bart version” of the even older Ninja Turtles game. Its graphics hold up well, but in the early ‘90s, you really felt like you were playing the cartoon. Even the worst game rooms were salvaged by Marge and her vacuum cleaner, so it was fortuitous that these machines used to be freakin’ everywhere.
ET TU, BULBASAUR?
Just after we arrived — and before I knew the dark truth about Seaside’s cranes — I spotted a machine full of Pokemon dolls. In it were a few Bulbasaurs, including one that seemed ripe for the picking. On my first try, the claw actually grabbed it, and lifted it to the top. Unable to cope with Bulba’s bulk, it lost its grip before showtime. (What a shock!)
Twenty tries later, and I was still no closer to Bulbasaur. Dammit. If you’ve been reading me since the start, you know that catching Bulbasaurs in crane machines was the very foundation on which my entire web house was built. It would’ve been nice to go full circle, more than fifteen years later. For a moment, I tasted destiny. It wasn’t entirely dissimilar from suntan lotion mixed with groin sweat. Oh well.
Thank you for reading about pizza and zombie paintball!