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RISMEDIA, July 11, 2009-(MCT)-Atlantic City’s attractions are being rediscovered like delicate seashells emerging from the surf because tides are changing in the seaside resort. Thirty one years after Atlantic City was reborn as the East Coast’s answer to Las Vegas, visitors no longer have to head for the Jersey shore town to gamble. They can do it closer to home, now that Pennsylvania and other nearby states also have legalized casino gambling.

Operators of family-style attractions say they sense a growing spirit of cooperation from the big guys lining the Boardwalk’s Casino Row and at the Marina. The emphasis has shifted from keeping visitors “captive” at slot machines and gaming tables to touting all kinds of activities and attractions to help keep them streaming into the city.

Families can spend a few hours, a weekend or a week doing far more than the usual searching for shells and jumping the waves at the city’s free beaches.
Visit the Boardwalk for a quintessential part of the Atlantic City experience. It’s much more than a walkway between casinos. It has been traversed by millions of feet and multiple generations, particularly when Atlantic City was America’s premiere resort during the first half of the 19th century and the early decades of the 20th century.

Then venture beyond the Boardwalk to visit the city’s historic Absecon Lighthouse as well as scenic Gardner’s Basin, where you can take a dolphin-watching cruise, explore the aquarium, enjoy a picnic or dine at restaurants overlooking pleasure boats at anchor. Finally, wind up your time at the shore with a quick trip to Margate to visit Lucy, a wooden elephant that stands six stories tall.

Between beach time and sightseeing, the family even can work in a little gambling that won’t cost a cent. Just remember to pack a Monopoly game so that everyone can pick up a few chances and buy real estate while rounding the game board that has Atlantic City at its heart.

Here, then, are some of our choices for a memorable family trip to Atlantic City:

– Walk the Boardwalk. Hit the boards to breathe in the salt air and see and be seen. Rent bikes and take a spin between 6 and 10 a.m., when it’s legal and your efforts will endanger fewer pedestrians.
– Ride in a Boardwalk rolling chair: The tradition dates to 1880, when an enterprising hardware store owner began renting wheelchairs. Soon, he began renting chairs seating two or more people. Propelled by a single person’s push power at the rear, the chairs may not be as romantic as a carriage ride or as exotic as a rickshaw ride. But the kids will remember the experience that’s just $5 to ride five blocks.
– Shop for salt water taffy: It’s an Atlantic City tradition that began in the late 1880s with a tale about an enterprising young merchant who discovered his entire stock of taffy had been soaked by waves of ocean water during a bad storm and began calling it “salt water taffy.” But should you buy James’ 37 flavors that are “cut to fit the mouth” or Fralinger’s 16 flavors with “sea air and sunshine sealed in every box”? Taste both, unless you’re bound by family tradition to select one over the other. Then, let the kids create their own assortments of favorite flavors. Incidentally, descendents of the James family now own both brands but meticulously stick to the original recipes. So the two kinds of taffy still have different tastes and textures.
– Atlantic City Historical Museum: Located at Garden Pier, it’s free and contains an informative video telling the story of Atlantic City’s evolution. It includes colorful moments such as when a diving horse’s exploits amazed visitors, and how visitors themselves climbed into a diving bell for an experience of their own. Here, you’ll also find the stories of all that is Atlantic City, from Miss America and Monopoly to Mr. Peanut, who was the city’s unofficial ambassador for 70 years.
– White House Sub Shop sandwiches offer a special taste of Atlantic City. Call in a lunch-time takeout order no later than 10 a.m. and preferably closer to 7 a.m. if you want to have hope of getting them at noon. They’re the makings of a great picnic lunch on the beach or boardwalk. Want to eat inside? Be prepared to wait 30 minutes or more at peak times. But packing into a booth, watching the crew “build” their blockbuster sandwiches (as many as 1,000 per day) and ogling photos of celebrities who’ve downed White House subs is part of the fun, too. Penn & Teller and Earth, Wind & Fire have been recent stars to chow down. Best-sellers at the landmark eatery that opened in 1946 are the cheese steak subs and the White House Special cold subs. But they’re just a taste of the full sandwich line. And every sandwich gets packed into a fresh 17-inch-long Italian roll. How fresh? The rolls get delivered as many as 11 times a day.
– Absecon Lighthouse: Its 228 stairs will help everyone work off their sandwiches. The 152-year-old structure is the tallest lighthouse in New Jersey and third-tallest in the country. Although the lighthouse stands several blocks from today’s shoreline, its years at the beach avoided many tragedies in Absecon Inlet, which had earned the nickname “Graveyard Inlet.” At least 64 ocean-going vessels were lost in the decade before its guiding light went on.
– Go dolphin-watching: You might spot the fin of a dolphin or two from the beach. But taking a two-hour trip with Capt. Jeff George of Atlantic City Cruises dramatically increases your odds of seeing them and getting closer looks at these fascinating mammals. George sails out of Gardner’s Basin at 1 p.m. daily during the summer. He reports a 95 percent success rate this season for dolphin sightings. Dolphins swim around and under the boat, while he provides a running narrative about their habits and lifestyles. “We see mostly Atlantic Bottlenose Dolphins who winter off the coast near the Carolina-Georgia border and return here, where they were born, each summer. My crew and I can identify them by the shape, color, scars and markings on their fins. We even know which ones are cousins, brothers and sisters, and mother and child,” he notes. But what if you don’t see dolphins? “You’ll get a free ticket to ride with us again,” he says.
– The Atlantic City Aquarium: It’s the other must-see at Gardner’s Basin waterfront park, which also contains Crafters Village and restaurants, including the friendly and affordable Back Bay Alehouse. This compact, but exhibit-filled, aquarium offers interactive experiences such as questioning the diver who feeds cow nose rays, swims with nurse sharks and dives with dogfish in the tank that’s filled with fish of the mid-Atlantic region. Other high points are observing and touching the pre-historic-looking horseshoe crabs as well as helping to feed bits of fish to sharks and rays in another touch tank.
– The Marine Mammal Stranding Center: Directed by Robert Schoelkopf and Sheila Dean, the center in Brigantine rescues seals, whales, turtles and dolphins that become stranded along the Jersey coast. Since its founding in 1978, staff and volunteers have answered 3,450 stranding calls. Visitors can tour its small education center and museum, peer into a tank filled with fish found along the coast and watch a delayed-view television monitor showing the center’s patients while they recuperate. Finally, visitors can learn how they can help the center’s efforts by making donations and “adopting” seals who’ve been saved.
– Visit Lucy: The world’s largest elephant, and a national historic landmark, is in Margate two miles south of Atlantic City. Although the wooden elephant is getting a new paint job (not pink), she’ll be gussied up and ready to party for her 128th birthday celebration July 18 and 19. The huge elephant, billed as “the oldest roadside attraction in America,” was constructed by shipbuilders. To get the full experience of visiting Lucy (who is 65 feet tall), you’ll need to climb a spiral staircase inside Lucy’s leg to reach her stomach, then peer through her eyes and finally, climb up into the howda (the “riding carriage”) on her back. Imagine the kids’ bragging rights when they can say they passed through an elephant’s stomach and came out alive!

©2009, The Morning Call (Allentown, Pa.)
Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.