By BILL BARLOW, OCNJDaily
On a sunny spring weekday morning, strollers slowed to a stop in front of a stretch of plexiglass to watch crews working to restore the entrance to Playland’s Castaway Cove.
Fire destroyed the main entrance at 1020 Boardwalk in January in a Saturday morning blaze that drew national attention. Almost before the embers cooled, owner Scott Simpson vowed the amusement park would be open by summer.
The fire gutted the Boardwalk arcade and offices, as well as additional businesses, but spared most of the rides behind the shops.
The rides are already open for weekends, according to Brian Hartley, vice president of Playland. He said 25 of the 32 rides are ready to go already, and by Memorial Day weekend, operations should be close to 100 percent.
A portion of the balloon ride was in storage in the building when the fire struck and is awaiting replacement.
The demolition is complete. Now the crews are ready to begin reconstruction.
“We’re getting there. We’re waiting on city permits,” Hartley said.
The plan is not to try to rebuild the arcade for this summer. That construction would be far too disruptive in the busy season, Hartley said. Instead, crews will complete the concrete deck allowing access to the amusement park, and work on the arcade will begin in the fall.
“It should look the same when you come through,” Hartley said.
The former building was used as part of the New York World’s Fair in 1939, before it was disassembled and moved to the Boardwalk in 1959. Plans are for a new building along much the same lines, with an arcade, Dairy Queen and a leased food service section on the Boardwalk and offices upstairs.
In addition, there are plans for more upstairs storage space, which means the arcade will no longer have the vaulted ceiling. For those who have been worried, Playland plans to rebuild the iconic pirate ship, including the giant pirate and parrot overlooking the Boardwalk entrance.
“We have the original plans,” Hartley said.
The huge pirate ship was added in the 1990s. Longtime visitors and locals may remember that there was a walk-through haunted house in the 1970s, where costumed mummies would scare people walking on the Boardwalk below.
For now, there is a secondary entrance a little south of the arcade site. Hartley described it as “a little less flashy” but there is a plexiglass pirate at the entrance, ready to pose in photos, and a colorful sign set between the stores.
This spring, the progress of the work has drawn a lot of interest, which prompted the installation of the plexiglass in the protective plywood construction barrier.
“Since we put the wall up, there are constantly people watching,” Hartley said.
Hartley has worked for Playland for 30 years, starting at age 14, during a time when kids that age were able to run some non-mechanical attractions. With a well-reported shortage of workers at other businesses at the shore for the summer of 2021, Hartley said Playland hired enough people for the year already.
“We’re fully staffed. I know a lot of others aren’t. I know a lot of others are really struggling to find people,” he said.
The January fire was ruled accidental. No cause has yet been determined, Hartley said. It is possible it may never be. The investigation continues, he said.
Teams carefully removed and catalogued everything from the site and rebuilt the hard drives to allow recorded video to be recovered. While the arcade used a great deal of electricity in the summer, “It was dead winter and almost everything was turned off,” Hartley noted.
He could not give an estimate of the cost of the damage. He said the insurance company’s assessment remains ongoing.
“It’s a very extensive process,” he said.
There were no injuries reported during the fire, which took place on a sunny Saturday morning. Video of thick smoke pouring over the Boardwalk and across the beach quickly saturated news site and social media.
Fire crews and police from throughout the region responded to assist Ocean City in containing the blaze and protecting the crowds that gathered to watch. Before the day was out, the owners expressed their thanks on Playland’s Facebook page.
“To our family and loyal guests, we thank everyone for their thoughts and prayers during this difficult time. We would like to thank all of the first responders for their hard work and pray for their continued safety throughout today’s events,” read the Facebook statement.
“We struggle to comprehend this morning’s events and what will be of the next few months, but we can assure you this, WE WILL REBUILD!!” the post continued. “We have a secondary entrance that will now be our main entrance for the foreseeable future. We will be open sooner rather than later! For now, hug your loved ones, pray for the first responders and know that we will be back in the spring of 2021!”