Parents and grandparents may feel a wave of nostalgia as they walk down the main street toward the archway entrance to The Pier at Maine’s Old Orchard Beach. Maybe a few of the shops are a bit smarter now, and there are fewer gaudy T-shirts and googly-eyed lobster toys, but the atmosphere is still tinged with anticipation and scented by enticing aromas from Pier French Fries. It’s the classic beach town: an old-fashioned boardwalk, ice cream, saltwater taffy and a merry-go-round that wheezes out old familiar calliope tunes.
The latter is at Palace Playland, the only remaining beachside amusement park in New England. It’s a cheerful mix of old favorites — bumper cars, twirling teacups and bright pink dragons flying in circles filled with squealing tots — and the high-impact thrills of rides with names like Power Surge and Riptide. The fun house challenges reality and balance with its uneven floors and psychedelic lights. The Ferris wheel swings to breathtaking heights right at the water’s edge, and from the top (if you can open your eyes) you can see the entire seven-mile length of Maine’s longest beach.
As remarkable as the beach’s length is that every inch of it is free to the public and easily accessed. And it’s spotlessly clean, patrolled each night by local volunteers who gather up the day’s pitched cans and wrappers. The sloping beach has plenty of towel space even at high tide; waves are fun to play in and gentle enough for children.
A line of low dune grass separates the beach from the row of cottages and hotels that stretch between it and Grand Avenue, where family- and budget-friendly lodging is plentiful. The Edgewater is right on the beach, with porches and sundecks adjoining bright attractive rooms with wicker furniture. It’s a short walk to The Pier and Palace Playland, and Pirates Cove miniature golf is just up the street.
Another good family choice that’s right on the beach is Ocean Walk Hotel. If you prefer camping, Wild Acres is a lively full-service camping resort with tree-shaded sites and a shuttle to take your family to the beach. Close to Wild Acres is Funtown Splashdown USA, another amusement and water park, and Jumpin Jake’s is a casual seafood restaurant.
Dining at Old Orchard Beach is family friendly, too. The rule almost everywhere is come-as-you-are, and that means you can forget the designer après-beach clothes and go to dinner in shorts and a T-shirt if you feel like it. For good seafood without the frills, stop at The Clambake, where you order at the register and wait for it over drinks in one of the big dining rooms overlooking the salt marsh. Worried the kids will get antsy waiting after a long day on the beach? Order online and it will be ready when you arrive. None of the kids’ menu meals are more than $7.95.
Southern Maine’s beach season stretches through September, and Palace Playland is open weekends into early October. Amtrak Downeaster delivers passengers into the heart of Old Orchard Beach, at a station opposite The Pier.