OLD ORCHARD BEACH — At the center of it all is the beach, stretching for seven miles and dotted with people and striped umbrellas. The expanse is broken only by The Pier, jutting out into the ocean.
And around it lies everything else that turns this tiny seaside town into a bustling tourist destination every summer.
“We’ve got three things. I call is the three S’s: sand, surf and sun,” said Jimmy Kalperis, who runs George’s Parking lot downtown. “That’s what makes everything work well. We cannot exist without that ocean and that sand.”
It is most certainly the ocean and beach that have attracted generations of tourists to the southern coast of Maine. From its earliest days, Old Orchard Beach was a destination for people who wanted to dip their toes in the chilly Atlantic, sun themselves on the beach and soak in the carnival-like atmosphere of a town that comes fully to life for a few short months every summer.
Old Orchard Beach first became a tourist destination in 1842, when a rail line brought passengers to the town from Portland. Many of those visitors had traveled to Portland from Montreal aboard the Grand Trunk Railway – the start of Old Orchard Beach’s long connection to Quebec. In 1873, the Boston & Maine Railroad arrived in town, carrying passengers from Boston, New York and beyond.
For well over 100 years, The Pier has stood as the iconic image of Old Orchard Beach. Once the longest steel pier in the world, with a mini-steam locomotive shuttling visitors down its 1,770-foot span, it has housed casinos, restaurants and dance halls. Destroyed repeatedly by fires and storms, it has always been resurrected, a postcard-perfect image of itself.
But as central as the beach and The Pier are to the town’s identity, Old Orchard Beach would not exist without the other mainstays that make it what it is: the people, the food and the amusements.
Kalperis knows a thing or two about Old Orchard Beach. For 77 years, he has spent his summers here, first working in his family restaurant and now, at age 84, running George’s Parking lot with the energy of a man decades younger.
On a recent morning, the town is just starting to come to life while Kalperis stands in the middle of his parking lot, an apron tied around his waist and a baseball hat with “George’s Parking” written across the front. Around him, employees direct cars into spaces in the little lot, just two blocks from the beach and steps away from the main drag through town. It already smells like french fries and pizza.
This is a typical summer day for Kalperis.
During the past seven decades, Kalperis has watched Old Orchard Beach transform in a number of ways, but all for the better, he said.
During his earliest years, he and his family would move from Westbrook into an apartment above George’s Lunch, the restaurant his family owned on the land that is now his 80-spot parking lot.
“There were 64 restaurants in Old Orchard Beach in those years,” he said. “Pizza had not hit the area, but there were always french fries on The Pier.”
Sometime in the 1950s, the restaurant was torn down and, every summer since, Kalperis has manned George’s Parking. He sees the same faces day after day and year after year. He’s also seen the town weather decades where it gained a reputation for being less of a family-friendly place than it is today.
“The main change is it became a family beach,” he said. “This is a blue-collar beach, there’s no question about that.”
From his parking lot, Kalperis watches families flock to the beach, dragging carts loaded with chairs, coolers and toys. He understands the draw.
“That sand is second to none. That’s the key right there. In my prejudiced opinion, this is the best beach in Maine, no question,” he said. “It’s just great. It’s a great place to be in the summertime.”
Dave Martin of Silver Lake, New Hampshire, stands beside his motorcycle, a box of Pier Fries balanced on the bike and his heavy jacket standing in sharp contrast to the tourists in bathing suits streaming past him.
“We always stop here,” Martin said, as he finished the regular order he and his passenger, Jane Cresswell, share each week: a box of fries and four hot dogs.
It’s an attitude shared by locals and tourists alike.
“You can’t not go to Pier Fries when you’re in Old Orchard Beach,” Tony Mannarino, 20, said as he prepared to cut potatoes into the town’s iconic fries. He’s in the back room of the restaurant, surrounded by piles of bags of potatoes – all destined to be crinkle-cut, scooped into cardboard boxes and topped with vinegar, ketchup or gravy.
It’s a tradition that has held strong for 82 years.
Pier Fries originally opened on The Pier in 1932, but moved onto Old Orchard Street after The Pier was washed out by a winter storm in 1978.
Tiffany Buotte, who owns Pier Fries, says the fries have been the same from the beginning: fresh cut every day from premium potatoes and fried in soybean oil. The restaurant uses 300 to 400 50-pound bags of potatoes each week at the height of the summer season. Regular customers say the fries are best sprinkled with vinegar and dusted with salt.
Andrew Thayer, who manages the restaurant and grew up in Old Orchard Beach, has been getting Pier Fries since he was 5 years old. Now, he enjoys the constant stream of people past the window, including those who stop by weekly for a box of fries and a slice from Bill’s Pizza next door.
“People will come up and say they’ve been coming here since they were 6 and now they’re 65 and here with their grandchildren,” he said.
Fred Golder knows he has one of the best jobs on the beach.
In the summer, when the sun is shining and tourists flood the town, he spends his days at Palace Playland, the only beachfront amusement park in New England.
It’s a throwback to his own childhood working at an amusement park in Hull, Massachusetts. Now his brother Joel Golder owns the park and the Golder family works there together.
“It’s a very intoxicating atmosphere,” Fred Golder said, standing near the Ferris wheel, surrounded by the constant clicketyclack of the rides and the smell of sunscreen, fried food and the ocean.
There have been rides on this spot since 1892, when the first merry-go-round was built. It was followed by a Ferris wheel and concession stands, then later by large roller coasters. The popular Noah’s Ark Fun House, built in 1929, was destroyed 40 years later in a massive fire.
“It’s a place people have been coming for generations. They had fun here as kids, so they bring their own children, too,” Fred Golder said. “It’s a sense of nostalgia.”
It’s tradition that brings Michel Fecteau to Old Orchard Beach – and to Palace Playland – each summer from Coaticook, Quebec. He has been coming here with his family for 40 years.
“We follow what our parents did many years ago,” he said, watching his children spin around on a ride. “We enjoy the sun and the sea.”
Over the years, the rides have been updated and the concessions have changed a bit, but one constant is the “Chinese Food” stand that has operated at the amusement park since 1949. Michael Lee, 19, is the third generation to work there, and says nothing is better than spending the summer by the beach.
“It’s a home away from home. This is where we’ve been all our lives,” he said. “The people are what bring us back every year.”
Golder, whose enthusiasm for Palace Playland and Old Orchard Beach is contagious, said there is something special and unique about all of it – the people, the beach and the memories made there.
“It’s a place that’s stuck in time,” he said. “Some things change, but so many things stay the same.”