MAYBE THERE'S a reason the giant Ferris wheel is a symbol of summer at the Jersey Shore.
It's not just the hugeness. Not just the neon. Not just the colorful contrast against the night sky.
It's the wheel itself.
The way it turns, each summer, for riders, young and old, new and veteran, first-kiss and golden anniversary. With each revolution, creating memories for generations who come for summertime at the Shore.
No matter that the Ferris wheel hadn't even taken its first revolution when I visited Morey's Piers in the Wildwoods. Because this summer, the big news at Morey's is about coming full circle. Or, you could say, what goes around, comes around.
The big news is the return of Kong, one of the most-loved boardwalk landmarks from the early 1970s.
The newly minted version of the gorilla-themed amusement ride debuts this weekend as the centerpiece on Surfside Pier in North Wildwood. The 60-foot-high ride will be a centerpiece, literally as well as figuratively, thanks to its circular design.
Jack Morey, sporting sandals and a look of joy and anticipation on his intense face, stood amid the ruckus of construction one April morning, watching workers crawling and hammering around the wooden platform for the new Kong. Gazing at the 70-foot-diameter structure, he pointed out the obvious (yet rarely considered) fact that most rides have a front and a back. When the Moreys wanted a centerpiece for the pier, they wanted something you could walk around.
That's one reason they decided to revive Kong. That he was one of the most popular icons ever on the piers was, of course, a consideration, but it wasn't as if they had been eyeing the decommissioned primate with longing for years as it sat in some warehouse.
While the Moreys are known for recycling and repurposing old rides to stay in step with the times - not to mention hanging onto the stuff of history (including part of the waterslide that was their first ride) - this is a completely new Kong.
The original Kong ride was dismantled after the summer of 1975, although Kong stayed on as a very noticeable landmark atop the Bonanza Shooting Gallery. In 1980, he was scheduled to go back to the original New York City workshop that produced him, but as he was being moved from the boardwalk, he sort of disintegrated.
The new Kong was built in Idaho - a custom job for a customized version of a pretty basic amusement ride, the Flying Scooter. Despite the decades of advancements since the original Kong, the new ride's basic technology "is as dumb as it gets," Morey said. The ride revolves and the attached "airplanes" swing out. The customizing is what gives Kong its personality.
Kong snorts smoke from his nose, sports an "I (Heart) W" T-shirt, and clutches not Fay Wray, but a Wildwood tram car, in one fisted paw. He is climbing (what else?) a lighthouse. Around him and the lighthouse, eight planes - with sharklike grins - fly.
The airplanes are the actual ride; the cockpit holds two or three people depending on their size, and they can control the planes (to some extent) with a rudder from 26 feet above the boardwalk.
Although Morey did have a vision of what the ride would look like when he started, he's adapted it, based on input from a variety of sources. The original eyes were red, for instance; now they're blue, because his "wife likes blue."
Prompted by an online survey, Morey's also changed Kong's T-shirt from "I (heart) NJ" to the "W" for Wildwood, changed the number on the back of the shirt to 72 (the year the original Kong debuted), and ditched Kong's original footwear (flip-flops).
The owners, who seem to follow the "go big or go home" way of doing business, also added a whopping expensive LED package. So at night, Kong will light up the dark with a rotating beam from the lighthouse and strings of tiny lights outlining each plane.
And below the ride - below the 11-foot high platform - is a 3,000-square-foot retail/relaxation area, called Kong & Co. Along with all those T-shirts and other Kong-related souvenirs will be charging stations and comfortable chairs and snacks, including (thanks, Kong) chocolate-covered frozen bananas.
Morey acknowledged that he was a little nervous, as he is with "any new, custom project." Drawings, computers, even models of the ride allow it to be seen from many angles, but there's still the mystery of how it will all come together.
"You can't overlay the emotion," said Morey, who grew up on these piers. You can't add the atmosphere, the scene all around - the riders screaming, your dad doing something silly, your mom taking pictures . . .
While Kong will be the center of attention this summer, over on Morey's Mariner's Pier in Wildwood are two more rides in the round that have come full circle.
First, the Wave Swinger, which replaced the original in 2014, is not only taller so riders swing out 50 feet above the beach when in full centrifugal motion, but features 72 panels displaying images from Wildwood's history - courtesy of the Wildwood Historical Society. There are black-and-white photos of the Starlight Ballroom and Ocean Pier, color shots of The Flyer and Planet of the Apes attractions, images of old-time businesses and ageless fun.
And for this summer, the Kiddie Swing received a similar image update - images courtesy of pier visitors themselves. The Moreys held a photo contest in 2014 and from the 500 entries chose those you'll now see gracing the panels of the rides - images of toddlers with toothless smiles, smiling over the new year's crop of smiling children, whose photos will be snapped and stored.
Rites of passage at the Jersey Shore.
On the way out, as the sun turned the horizon pink and the boards a golden orange, one T-shirt - one among the thousands adorned with fish and gorillas and beer-related jokes - caught my eye.
A plain black shirt with white lettering that seemed to explain the force behind the wheel of life here quite well:
Hair gets lighter
Skin gets darker
Water gets warmer
Drinks get colder
Nights get longer
Music gets louder
Life gets better