When it's this nice outside at the Jersey Shore, they call it "chamber of commerce weather."

And so it was yesterday, and the day before. And - if the forecast holds out - as it will be today. Up and down the coastline, towns packed with tourists, vacation homeowners, day-trippers and locals enjoyed the flawless weather of the unofficial start of the summer season.

"Everything we do here at the Shore is weather-driven. And the weather has certainly been working in our favor this weekend," said Diane F. Wieland, director of the Cape May County Department of Tourism.

Wieland said that although record gas prices may have kept some people off the roads - a gas station attendant in Cape May Court House said numbers seem to be down slightly over last year - the good weather apparently prompted throngs of others to make the trek to the Shore.

At famous first - and last - stops like Mack & Manco Pizza on the Ocean City Boardwalk, Smith's Clam Bar in Somers Point, or Mallon's Homemade Sticky Buns in Avalon, Ocean City and Sea Isle City - there were lines out the door all weekend.

"We come here first, then we go to the beach, then summer officially begins for us," said Tammy Ellis, 42, of Cherry Hill, waiting on line at Mack & Manco. "We know there will be a line and we'll have to wait. But rain or shine, it's our Memorial Day tradition."

Ferris wheels, roller coasters, and merry-go-rounds on boardwalks in Ocean City and Wildwood seemed to be going around the clock. And the lines to get on the rides got longer and longer as the sun moved from east to west.

"Ocean City is so crowded right now, because the weather is so beautiful. It's like you turned on a spigot and the people just started pouring in," said Jody Mallon, who owns Mallon's Homemade Sticky Buns. "I don't think gas prices are keeping anyone away because gas is cheaper here than in Philadelphia."

The South Jersey Transportation Authority, which operates the Atlantic City Expressway, anticipated that Jersey drivers would buck the Automobile Association of America's prediction that fewer people than last year would take to the nation's highways.

Last year, 692,876 used the Atlantic City Expressway on Memorial Day weekend to get to and from the Shore, and officials said this year the number could be higher.

"The parking lots are full, beaches and boardwalks are crowded, and there are lines at the grocery stores, so things are looking good," Wieland said.

That was welcome news to motel and hotel owners, restaurateurs, amusement operators, merchants and others trying to jump-start their sagging bottom lines after a soggy spring.

Wieland said Cape May County businesses had reported to her office that sales during the spring shoulder season - usually a profitable run-up to summer - were down by as much as 30 percent because seven of the nine weekends between Easter and Memorial Day were rainy.

"It was a long haul between Easter and now for the merchants," Wieland said. "They count on the spring and after such a long dry spell in terms of profit, they are all looking forward to a good summer and this has been a good kick-off."

One of those merchants is Barry Rasmussen, owner of Silen's Shoes & Resort Wear in Wildwood.

"Spring wasn't good," Rasmussen said. "We only sell summer clothing and bathing suits and things like that, so people aren't buying those items when it's rainy and cold outside."

But Rasmussen noted that - as though on cue - summer arrived with this weekend's visitors.

"We've had a really good weekend," Rasmussen said. "A really strong weekend. I don't think the gas prices are keeping people away and stopping them from buying anything."

To see a holiday video from Ocean City, N.J., go to http://go.philly.com/oceancity.

EndText

Contact staff writer Jacqueline L. Urgo at 609-823-9629 or jurgo@phillynews.com.