How to Plan The Perfect Wildwood Family Vacation

Here's a guide on things to do in Wildwood with kids.

by Brianne Miers
two young boys running down a wooden path between dunes

As a New Jersey native, some of my fondest childhood memories took place at the Jersey Shore – Wildwood, in particular. Now that I’ve been back twice as an adult, I decided to put together my recommendations on how to plan the perfect Wildwood family vacation for the summer.

Why a Wildwood Family Vacation?

Wildwood has always been a special place for me. It’s where my family and I spent nearly every summer vacation together, from when I was a toddler until I graduated from college, so it’s where I made many of my earliest memories. It’s become even more special since I’ve been able to experience its magic as an “auntie,” having spent a week there with my nephews, Henry (7) and Elijah (4), brother, sister-in-law and parents, the past two summers.

What’s been most surprising was how little it’s changed over the nearly 20 years between my last visit in college and my first visit back last summer. The things that my nephews enjoyed – flying kites, making sandcastles, riding bikes, going to the boardwalk – were the same things that my brother and I did with our parents and grandparents when we were their ages. Most of the restaurants and hotels are still there too!

large 50s-style sign saying Welcome to the Wildwoods in orange letters

About the Jersey Shore

The Jersey Shore stretches 141 miles along the Atlantic Ocean from Perth Amboy in the north to Cape May Point in the south, covering five counties. As a New Jersey native, I speak for all of us when I say we’re quite proud of the “Shore,” as we call it, and most of us share many fond memories of spending time there during our childhoods and teenage years. For the record, we’re also all equally embarrassed by the reality TV show, “Jersey Shore,” which was filmed in Seaside Heights and ran on MTV from December 2009 to September 2013.

About The Wildwoods a.k.a “Wildwood”

“The Wildwoods” is the catch-all name for the shore towns of North Wildwood, Wildwood and Wildwood Crest (although most Jersey natives just say “Wildwood” for all three). They sit in a row on a five-mile island at the southern end of New Jersey in Cape May County and together draw more than 9 million tourists each year. North Wildwood has more of a young, party vibe, whereas Wildwood Crest, where my family stays, is more residential and much quieter.

beach scene with three white lifeboats that say

How to Have The Perfect Wildwood Family Vacation

As a child-free, usually solo traveler, I typically don’t have much to say on the subject of family travel. However, now that I’ve taken two inter-generational trips to Wildwood, I’ve gained a little insight to pass on others looking to plan their own Wildwood family vacation.

Things to Do in Wildwood with Kids

Go to the Beach (What else?)

I’ve been to beaches all over the world, and really, southern New Jersey beaches are on the top of the list for beauty and cleanliness. I swear. The Wildwoods boast five miles of wide, white-sand beaches, and the best part is, they’re free for everyone. While they’re definitely busy, they never feel too crowded.

It’s always been my family’s routine to go early and stake out our spot. For families, the key to dragging everything to the beach is a beach wagon with sturdy wheels. Pop-up canopies and tents are also popular with families, but if you don’t have your own, you can rent an umbrella for $20 per day. Another Jersey Shore must-have seems to be a novelty flag, which alerts your family and friends to your spot among the crowds (college and professional football team flags are popular).

If you’re lucky enough to be staying within walking distance of the beach, it’s nice to head back to your hotel or apartment for lunch and get a break from the sun. There aren’t any food stands on the beach itself, so if you don’t want to leave for lunch, you should plan ahead and bring a cooler of food and drinks with you. You can, however, buy limited snacks and drinks (including ice cream) from vendors who circulate through the crowds. 

small boy with his back to the camera, standing on empty beach holding kite string

Fly a Kite

Thanks to the Wildwoods’ wide, flat beaches, kite flying is a great activity to do with kids of all ages. It’s best to bring your own kite with you, since they can be expensive at local stores. We like to go early in the morning, right after breakfast, before the heat and crowds arrive for the day. It entertains them for about an hour, until we’re ready to get changed for the beach.

kids playing on a bright blue splash pad at a playground with hotels in the background

the amazing splash pad at Sunrise Park at Rambler Road

Let the Kids Loose on the Playground

Unfortunately kids wake up early, even on vacation. So the playground is our early morning go to. Our favorite in Wildwood Crest is at Sunrise Park at Rambler Road it’s very spacious, clean and up to date, and there’s plenty of seating (although there’s no shade). There’s also a giant splash pad, which my nephews love, but for some reason, it doesn’t turn on until 10 a.m. We also had fun at the Scoop Taylor Park playground, which is a little smaller but has a more complex jungle gym, a giant disk swing and two basketball courts (there are also public bathrooms).

archway that says Morey's Piers in large orange letters

“Watch the Tramcar, Please!” at the Boardwalk

To me, the Wildwood Boardwalk is one of those things that you have to do once during your trip. Sure, it’s crowded. It’s expensive. It’s tacky. But there’s really nothing else like it.

The boardwalk has been entertaining locals and visitors since the early 1900. It’s made up of 38 blocks of rides, waterparks, arcades, games, food stands, and lots and lots of tacky souvenir shops shops – I remember when I was in high school, I found the t-shirts declaring “Drink Till He’s Cute” and “1 Tequila, 2 Tequila, 3 Tequila, Floor” particularly amusing.

My nephews love Morey’s Piers, a section packed with dozens of rides and games, and many are kid friendly. Their dad – my brother – has a particular talent for winning stuffed animals and always draws a crowd when he’s on a roll. If you’re traveling with younger kids, you should try and get there before the crowds by 4 or 5 p.m. – so the lines are shorter, and you can be home before the scene gets too rowdy.

And if your kids are a fan of trains, be sure to take a spin on one of the boardwalk’s famous yellow tram cars, which have been warning visitors to, “Watch the tramcar, please!” since 1949. A one-way ride takes about 30 minutes and costs $4.00 per person. You can get discount tickets at the Tram Office and other locations along the boardwalk. 

buckets of candy in a row, with salt water taffy on the bottom and signs that say the flavors tangerine, coconut and sour cherry

Indulge Your Sweet Tooth

No trip to the Jersey Shore is complete without tasting some salt water taffy, a classic sweet treat that’s been stretched, shaped and cut at various boardwalk spots for more than 100 years. Kids love the crazy colors and flavors. Probably the most popular place to get it is Douglass Candies, which has been in business since 1919, but last year we bought our souvenir sweets at The Original Fudge Kitchen, since it sits conveniently at the edge of the boardwalk. As for ice cream, there are many shops to choose from, but we prefer Duffer’s, which calls itself an “old-fashioned ice cream parlor.”

pink store that says fudge in large white letters above it with a man riding a bike past

Rent a Bike

After all the sweets, you might feel the need to move a little. If so, head to D R Bradley’s Bike Rentals, which is located at the southern end of the bike path. They have a large selection of rental bikes to choose from, including bikes for kids (along with helmets). Twice now, we’ve rented a “surrey,” a pedal cart that seats all 7 of us (Elijah gets a special seat up front). They’re impossible to steer, and we’ve had a few near-misses on the crowded path, but we laugh the whole time.

Play Mini Golf

One thing that hasn’t changed about Wildwood is the mini golf scene. I have very detailed memories of games I played there 30 years ago. There are many mini golf courses to choose from, and Jurassic Adventure Golf in North Wildwood is a favorite. My nephews love the dinosaur theme, and the course is good for all ages and abilities. Another family favorite is Duffer’s, which is a miniature golf course attached to a restaurant, ice cream and arcade.

Go to the Zoo

I’m always very cautious when it comes to recommending animal attractions. However, Cape May County Park & Zoo in Cape May Court House (about 20 minutes from Wildwood Crest) is really doing things the right way. More than 550 animals call the zoo home – many of which are rare and endangered species – and instead of being housed in cages, they seem to have plenty of outdoor space to roam. So if you need a break from the beach, or if the weather is a little cooler, you can let the animals entertain the kids. You can also take a train ride around the property, or ride the merry-go-round. The zoo is free to enter, but they encourage donations.

a large piece of eggplant parmesan with cheese and sauce on the top, sitting on spaghetti

the impressive eggplant parmesan at Sapore Italiano

Stroll Around Cape May

If you have an extra day or evening, it’s definitely worth making the drive to historic Cape May, which is at the southern tip of New Jersey, about 20 minutes south of Wildwood Crest. Cape May has the honor of being “America’s first seashore resort,” and has preserved much of its past, including dozens of Victorian homes dating back to the late 1800s, and the Cape May Lighthouse, which was finished in 1859. You can spend time wandering through its many shops or checking out its impressive dining scene. This past year, we celebrated my dad’s 70th birthday at Sapore Italiano, which was fantastic.

For more Cape May tips, here’s my friend Rachel’s take on the 7 Reasons to Do a Weekend in Cape May.

Where to Stay in Wildwood

You won’t find any high-rise buildings in The Wildwoods, which adds to its charm. Most accommodations are small apartment buildings, and hotels/motels – most are only two or three stories and date back to the 1950s or bed and breakfasts like Enchantras or Sea Gypsy. You also aren’t likely to find many deals during the summer – prices are easily $300 to $500 per night for a standard hotel room, and easily $3000 to 5000 for a week at an Airbnb.

Port Royal and Armada By-the-Sea are two of the higher-end hotels in Wildwood Crest, and growing up we always stayed at The Jolly Roger, a motel that looks exactly the same now as it did when I was a kid. Regardless of whether you’re staying in a hotel or renting a home or condo, the trick is to book as early as possible – we reserve our week nearly a year in advance.

4 1/2 pieces of avocado toast topped with sliced salmon, feta cheese, with a side of friend potatoes

breakfast at the Royal Grille

Where to Eat in Wildwood

Get up early with the kids and head over to Britton’s, a popular bakery which has been using the same recipes since 1965. You have to get in line by 6 a.m. for the 6:30 opening yes there will be a line! because when they sell out, that’s it. They’re known for their apple fritters but also sell doughnuts and other pastries. The business is cash only.

Royal Grille is where we eat breakfast together most mornings. Located on the ground floor of the Port Royal Hotel, it has a large patio with beach views, very friendly and accommodating servers, and an extensive menu that keeps everyone happy (the kids also get a special cup for their drinks, as well as crayons and placemats to draw on). 

Another favorite of ours is the Ravioli House, a Wildwood Crest institution that has been serving hearty, authentic Italian dishes since 1970. We’ve also enjoyed special birthday dinners at Boathouse Restaurant, which sits right on the intercoastal waterway and has a large deck overlooking the water, as well as a more casual outdoor bar area

Overall the main thing to know about restaurants in The Wildwoods is that they don’t take reservations – no exceptions. For dinner, the trick is to show up early and by early I mean 5 p.m. at the latest, or you’re looking at a two-hour wait, easily. So be prepared with snacks, drinks and entertainment for the kids just in case. 

dusk over water with a dock to the left with a flag pole and a bird flying in the middle

When to Go to Wildwood

Be sure to check the events calendar when planning your Wildwood family vacation. There are more 160 events and festivals that take place each year in the Wildwoods – most are free – so you’re likely to find something that interests you. Favorites include the Italian and Irish festivals, classic car shows, the International Kite Festival,  and the Wildwoods’ Baby Parade. Of course, the more popular the festival, the more difficult it will be to find accommodations during that time.

How to Get to Wildwood

By car: Take exit 4A off of the New Jersey Turnpike to 47 South. It’s about 2.5-3 hours from New York City, 1.5 hours from Philadelphia, 2 hours from Wilmington (Delaware) and 3 hours from Baltimore.

By bus: There’s a direct bus from Philadelphia that takes about 3 hours. The bus from New York City takes about 4 hours and requires a transfer in Atlantic City. Check the NJ Transit website for details.

Hope you’ve been inspired to plan the perfect Wildwood family vacation!

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Banner image: My nephews run toward the beach.

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