Weekend in Old Orchard Beach, Maine
The sounds of the seaside amusement park in Old Orchard Beach, Maine, call back the summer days of my childhood: the rattle of the cars being pulled toward the peak of the roller coaster before they plunge down the track, the blast of the buzzer as the power to the bumper cars cuts off, and the calliope music drifting from the carousel that spins small children perched atop carved horses around in lazy circles. The landscape of Palace Playland has shifted since I last lined up to brave the rides, but the thrill the old-time carnival-like atmosphere evokes remains the same.
Old Orchard Beach took its name from an apple orchard that sat on a stretch of land above the long expanse of beach. A recognizable landmark from sea, the grove of trees became known to sailors navigating the area as “the old orchard,” and the designation stuck. The first amusement park opened in 1902, and with the ease of travel afforded by train and trolley, the coastal town was destined to become a popular seaside resort whose appeal would span decades.
It was already dusk when my husband and I pulled into the town ranked # 17 on Yankee Magazine’s list of the Top 25 Beach Towns in New England. Having skipped dinner in our haste to get there, we immediately headed to the strip to grab a piece of pizza. The sheer volume of food options downtown can be overwhelming, but for the first meal of our weekend trip, only a slice from Rocco’s would do.
Despite the cooler breezes that were blowing in as the sun sank in the sky, the crowd milling around us showed no signs of thinning. We wound our way past concession stands, midway games and souvenir shops, dodging hordes of children as they herded their parents toward their rides of choice.
It was by chance that we wandered into the kiddie section of the park at just the right time to cross paths with my childhood friend and neighbor, Susan Regan (now Susan Orr), who was there enjoying the Old Orchard Beach/Palace Playland experience with her young family.
After catching up on twenty-plus years of news, we parted ways and Jim and I continued on to the arcade. While the pinball games of my youth had been relegated to a back corner of the structure, having been largely replaced by more interactive video games that entice players to stomp their feet to music or hunker down to speed across a simulated racetrack, the arcade is still home to many classic favorites. An old-fashioned photo studio, a saloon-style shooting gallery, and a bank of Skee ball machines that belch out rolls of tickets all pay tribute to the enduring nature of the arcade’s appeal.
Had we been paying closer attention to the lightning that was streaking across the sky, we might have reversed direction before the storm broke, but instead found ourselves crammed in the arcade with a crowd of tourists who also chose not to heed the weather warnings. With no sign of the rain letting up and our shelter starting to get a bit steamy from the congestion of bodies, we made a mad dash to the car, resolving to return the following afternoon.
The next day we were welcomed back to Old Orchard Beach by Elvis himself—just one of the characters you’re likely to meet on the strip! After a quick hello and photo op, we were off to the pier to grab some world-famous pier fries—generously slathered with vinegar and topped with salt. There’s no better place to take in the sights and sounds of the summer season than from this wooden walkway that extends over the ocean, offering a panoramic view of the beach.
The Old Orchard Beach Pier has been an entertainment destination since it opened to the public in 1898. Originally designed to accommodate concerts, dancing, lectures, and a casino, it evolved to host moving pictures and drew big acts like Frank Sinatra and Benny Goodman to the Casino Ballroom during the mid-century. Over the years, it sustained damage from myriad storms and a fire, until a blizzard completely destroyed what was left of the structure in 1978. The pier that dominates the center of Old Orchard Beach today was reopened in 1980 and houses a variety of eateries, novelty shops, and bars and is still the beach’s main attraction.
After a full examination of the wares being hawked on the pier—marshmallow guns, jewelry made of rice, brightly colored apparel, and airbrushed accessories—we kicked off our shoes to stroll along the seven mile length of beach. On either side of the pier, families clustered in the surf, digging in the sand, jumping the waves, and dragging body boards and inflatable rafts behind them as they waded toward deeper water.
Having no children in tow ourselves, we decided to head south to end our weekend in Old Orchard Beach enjoying the party-like atmosphere at the Brunswick, which boasts the largest patio on the beach. On a hot day, there’s no better place to brush the sand from your feet, grab a cold drink, and listen to some live music.
In the heat of summer, it’s hard to imagine that once the weather turns cool, the pier will close, food and game stands will be boarded up, and the rides at Palace Playland will be broken down, transitioning Old Orchard Beach back to a sleepy seaside town in the off-season. But come next spring, the streets will begin to fill again as the gates roll open, and vacationing at the beach becomes a rite of passage for a new generation.