WILDWOOD, N.J. - Seven months ago, Gov. Christie, clad in the navy blue fleece that would soon become a wardrobe staple, told a group of residents at a firehouse in North Wildwood to get out of town - fast.

Hurricane Sandy was bearing down on the Jersey Shore, and, in typical blunt fashion, Christie told the small crowd gathered at the firehouse to, essentially, prepare for the worst.

Two days later, Sandy slammed into the coast, making landfall near Brigantine and leaving destruction up and down the barrier islands. Images of destroyed houses and flooded streets inundated newscasts and front pages. In a poll shortly after the storm, a New Jersey-based research group found that 41 percent of the country believed the Atlantic City boardwalk had been demolished in the storm. (It wasn't.) For months afterward, even as crews cleared debris and swept sand from the streets, locals said, business was dismal.

"It's been one hell of a bad winter," said Joe Montello, who owns Wildwood's La Piazza Cucina. "People were in a panic."

So there's no question that a lot of hopes and dreams are riding on the Jersey Shore this season, and on Saturday, Christie was in Wildwood on a decidedly lighter mission: welcoming visitors back for the unofficial start of the summer.

The fleece was gone this time, but the cheering crowds were there, and with presidential aspirations in mind. "Our next president!" a man shouted as Christie got out of his car. "Please, please run for president," another said. The governor shook hand after hand, posed for photo after photo, balanced two babies in his arms, and flashed a smile for a cellphone camera. It took him nearly half an hour to walk half a block.

"See all these people out here?" Christie said, as his security detail cleared a path. "This is great for the Shore. It's wonderful."

Saturday opened windy and cold, but vacationers were undeterred, bundling up to stroll down the boardwalk or, for a few brave souls, struggle across Wildwood's wide beaches.

With his 6-year-old daughter, Genevieve, on his shoulders, Denny Madden, of Elysburg, Pa., belted out a few lines of Bobby Rydell's "Wildwood Days" as he strolled down the boardwalk. He has owned a house here since last year and said he planned to visit a few old haunts this weekend.

"Duffer's Ice Cream - that's our place," Madden said.

Sitting on a bench on the boardwalk, Rindi Khanuja and his wife, Judy, of Roxborough, said they had been coming to Wildwood for 14 years. After the lashing from Hurricane Sandy in October, they said they were relieved to find Wildwood mostly unchanged.

"It looks the same to me," Khanuja said, smiling.

It was not quite warm enough to swim, but some tried anyway. Ornela Sierra, 20, of Union City, N.J., sat shivering on a bench with her friend Miguel Velasquez, both wrapped in the same towel.

"We went down to the beach, but it was just too windy," she said. She said she planned to snap a photo in front of the large Wildwoods sign outside the convention center to commemorate her second visit to the island.

Up and down the boardwalk, visitors shared funnel cakes, browsed neon T-shirts emblazoned with "Senior Week 2013" slogans, and tried carnival games. Flanked by enormous stuffed animals, Jonny McIlroi tried to entice tourists to take a seat at his water-gun booth in a lightning-fast Northern Irish brogue.

"It's brilliant here - as good as I remember," he said. McIlroi, who comes from Ballycastle, Northern Ireland, last spent a season here in 2008. With wind whipping down the boardwalk and the sun not quite out, business was not exactly booming - "but it'll get better," he said with a grin.

By the time Christie arrived on the boardwalk, the sun was out and the coats off, as locals and tourists lined up to receive the governor.

Emotions ran high.

"Dude, I just talked to Christie," said a teenager in a tank top, turning in wonderment toward his friends. "I love your fleece jacket!" yelled a middle-aged woman. Christie dutifully posed for a picture, amid shrieks from the woman and her friends. He had received a similar reception at an event earlier in the day in Ocean City, his staff said.

He started his Jersey-is-open-for-business weekend tour Friday with an appearance on the Today show followed by stops to storm-damaged Shore towns. On Saturday, he started in Surf City before making his way south to Ocean City and Wildwood. On Sunday, Christie plans to make a morning appearance on the Asbury Park boardwalk and in Keansburg.

Wildwood locals said they were heartened by Christie's visit - and looking forward to the season ahead. At Gateway 26 Casino, a boardwalk arcade that opened in the 1980s, owner Marty Shapiro said Wildwood's spirits had been dampened but not destroyed by the storm.

"I've been in Wildwood for 40-plus years," he said. "I've seen families for so many years now that their children have children. And there's always a transformation on the boardwalk."

Contact Aubrey Whelan
at 610-313-8112 or awhelan@philly.com or on Twitter @aubreyjwhelan.