Fun runs in the family for the Moreys, who preside over and preserve an ever-growing realm of attractions, accommodations, and award-winning water parks along New Jersey’s most entertaining boardwalk
By Laura D.C. Kolnoski
In 1963, Bobby Rydell released his hit “Wildwood Days,” performing it in the city’s nightclubs where the likes of Dean Martin, Johnny Mathis, Count Basie, Little Richard, and the Supremes appeared regularly. Known then as “Little Las Vegas” and the “Playground of the Stars,” Wildwood became more popular than Atlantic City.
Today, on the two-mile boardwalk’s immense amusement piers, the song still wafts from a bright façade featuring a portrait of Rydell. It’s more than symbolic. After a period of decline, Wildwood has rebounded in new ways, thanks primarily to a family that has made the preservation, restoration, and elevation of the Wildwoods their family’s passionate mission.
The Wildwoods—North Wildwood, Wildwood, and Wildwood Crest, accessible from Exit 4A on the Garden State Parkway—draw and employ thousands. Fully restored retro mid-century hotels and motels augmented by year-round events and businesses dedicated to the “Doo Wop” era attract architecture buffs as well as tourists who soak up that vibe. Wildwood is increasingly viewed as a must-see seaside resort, garnering recognition and awards from the Travel Channel, Trip Advisor, and tourism publications. Even the famous boardwalk tramcar has rebounded with shiny new engines sporting corporate logos.
At the heart of it all is the Morey family, owners of boardwalk piers filled with rides, waterparks, dining, and entertainment, as well as more than ten hotels and the vast beachfront development Seapointe Village. Brothers Will Jr. and Jack Morey oversee the family business begun by their father and uncles in the 1950s and ’60s when they built over 50 motels, including the “ultramodern” Jolly Roger, Eden Roc, and Caribbean; all updated and still flourishing. In 1964, Will Morey, Sr. and his wife Jackye opened the Pan American, the “Motel of the Future,” which is still one of the city’s prime destinations. Extolled in history and architectural books, each evokes the stylized design frequently compared to The Jetsons.
As chronicled in the Moreys’ 40thanniversary book, A Wild Ride: The Story Of Morey’s Piers, Planet Earth’s Greatest Seaside Amusement Park (Exit Zero Publishing Inc., 2009), the couple’s success allowed them to winter in Florida and travel the world with their two sons searching for new ideas to “Wildwoodize.” They installed a giant fiberglass slide like the one they found in Fort Lauderdale on the North Wildwood boardwalk in 1969. Construction projects and acquisitions continue today under the second generation of Moreys now running the show, Will Jr. and his younger brother Jack.
Morey’s Piers encompasses over 100 rides and attractions, including three amusement piers and two gargantuan beachfront waterparks: Oasis and Raging Waters. The family’s businesses were combined under one company in 1997. The following year, Will Morey, Sr. and Jackye passed away within six months of each other. In 2002, the late Will Sr. was inducted into the International
Association of Amusement Parks and Attractions Hall of Fame, the industry’s highest honor.
Their sons picked up the torch and carried it into a new era. Inspired by theDisney and Six Flags parks they frequented as youngsters, they considered emulating those until they met Steve Isenour of the famed Philadelphia architecture firm Venturi, Scott Brown & Associates. Izenour, a professor of architecture at the University of Pennsylvania’s Graduate School of Fine Arts, counseled the Moreys to “turn up the volume” on what Wildwood already had.
“While we were inspired and influenced by the Disney emphasis on cleanliness and guest services, one of the things we recognized was the thrust for authenticity,” Will Morey, Jr. said. But as his brother Jack noted, in the 1990s, “Wildwood lacked the distinct identities of beach towns like Cape May, Ocean City, and Long Beach Island.”
Izenour and his students, collaborating with professors and students from the Yale University School of Architecture, undertook a study on promoting Wildwood by exploiting its architecture. They found it had the largest amusement boardwalk area in the world, some of the widest free beaches, and the largest selection of mid-century hotels in the United States.
“We saw that as a rebound strategy for the entire island, so we started with the Starlux Hotel to put our money where our mouths were,” Jack said. Around 2000, as prime examples of Doo Wop architecture were being torn down for condominiums and townhouses, the iconic Wildwood sign with its photogenic beach balls was installed on the southern end of the boardwalk. Jack said it was “a derivative of all these properties. The sign was a way to project Wildwood’s identity and I believe it changed the dynamic. What came out of it was a way for the city to embrace a different culture than all the other beach areas.”
The Society for Commercial Archeology, a national organization devoted to symbols of the 20th-century commercial landscape, took note, created a “Wildwood Workbook,” and in 2012, celebrated its 35th anniversary at a Wildwood Daze conference. In 2007, author Kirk Hastings released his book, Doo Wop Motels: Architectural Treasures of The Wildwoods (Stackpole Books, 2007), featuring the city’s finest. As The New York Times noted in 1998, “Architects and design students from all over marvel at them. Historians write about them. Photographers and artists study their smallest details.”
Adding to the island’s rebirth, the beachfront Wildwood Convention Center, a state-of-the-art, 260,000-square-foot multipurpose facility accommodating up to 10,000, opened in 2002. The Moreys kept pace by adding helicopter tours and a one-of-a-kind shore dining experience —“Breakfast in the Sky” aboard a giant Ferris wheel serving white-linen gourmet breakfasts with a side of spectacular views from a 156-foot apex. Featured on the Travel Channel’s Epic Attractions, it offers culinary delights by Moreys’ Executive Chef Walter Jurusz. Throughout Morey properties, food has been elevated beyond pizza and hotdogs to locally-sourced fresh offerings in imaginative restaurants, some serving alcohol.
“The boardwalk has always been a place kids dragged their parents to for the rides,” Jack said. “We can reverse that so parents want to be there as much as the kids by offering good food and drinks.” From fresh local seafood with a view served at Joe’s Fish Company to vegetarian, Mexican, and sushi, “Chef Wally” oversees it all.
On the Waterfront
Oasis Water Park & Beach Club and Raging Waters received 2014 Traveler’s Choice Awards from Trip Advisor. While Raging Waters appeals more to the younger set, Ocean Oasis brings the upscale tropical tiki vibe with firepits, cabanas, a swim-up cocktail bar, hammocks, and live entertainment on two levels. The upper level features a large deck with lounge chairs, table seating, and the Stubborn Brothers Beach Bar & Grille (so named for the tug-of-war Will Jr. and Jack had selecting its name).
About 30 percent of the 1,700 seasonal employees come from some 25 countries around the world. For over 20 years, Morey’s has taken part in the U.S. State Department’s Visa Exchange Visitor Program that brings international students to work at shore attractions in season. Participants partake in American cultural events, including “Thanksgiving in July,”and visiting New York and Philadelphia.
A couple from Singapore who met at Morey’s Piers in 2008 recently traveled over 9,000 miles to shoot their engagement photos there and celebrate with the Morey family. The brothers pointed out that their team members are actively involved in the same international amusement business associations as the more famous theme parks.
“The foreign exchange program started out as a way to supplement the workforce, but now we understand its importance,” Will Jr. said. “It makes a more interesting place for the workers as well as the visitors.” Morey’s family members and staff spend about 100 days annually traveling the world on recruiting trips. About ten members of the Morey family work in the business, including wives, children, and cousins. The company airplane, a Beechcraft Baron flown by Will Jr., a pilot since he was 18, is used to visit other parks, for business meetings, and for Angel Flights, transporting those in need to medical treatment and trials.
Will Jr. is currently in his second term as a Cape May County Freeholder, which limits his flight time but maximizes his experience and quest to improve economic development and quality of life for the region.
“Tourism, business development, and regional planning line up well with county programs for open space, farmland, historic preservation, and recreation,” he said. “I became a freeholder to have a positive impact and further enhance the area with things like parks and bicycle paths. Wildwood is now looking to turn a downtown site into a farmers’ market and festival space.”
Livin’ the Life
Morey’s venues are popular choices for seaside weddings and a variety of other celebrations, as well as vacation stays. The jet-setter themed Pan-American is focused on Golden Age of Travel, while the nautically-themed Port Royal features a maritime library. On the boardwalk, the family purchased and upgraded the former White Star into the Blue Palms Resort and Boardwalk Bungalows in 2012; its amenities now include designer-appointed renovations, a firepit, and sundecks.
But it’s the brothers’ original retro Starlux Boutique Hotel that gets the most attention, with its Astro Lounge, all-glass lobby, mid-century modern décor, and two vintage Airstream trailers providing an immersive guest experience. This summer, an all-new multi-level 27-hole adjacent Starlux mini-golf, featuring “stunning views” from the top nine, will open for business. The brothers are planning to increase rooms at the Starlux from the current 40 to 100.
Further down the coast, at the prime location between Wildwood Crest and Cape May known as Diamond Beach, the brothers built an oceanfront community for homeowners and vacationers over the past 30 years, Seapointe Village. The amenity-rich enclave of homes, townhouses, and condominiums for purchase and rental feature private balconies, penthouse suites, exercise and game rooms, steam baths, saunas, and meandering pools with ocean and bay views. Cousin James “Jim” Morey is the development’s licensed real estate broker.
“The piers for me are one big art project,” Jack said. “It’s the best job in the world because it will never be done. There is something very special about Wildwood.”
“People’s memories are what it’s all about,” Will Jr. said. “It’s very rewarding. We really want to make the boardwalk a place for everyone to go for an entire experience.”
3501 Boardwalk, Wildwood
609.729.3700 / moreyspiers.com