The Coney Island Mermaid Parade

The phrase “no place like home” can take a new meaning over the summer. That’s because sticking around doesn’t mean there’s nowhere to go. After all, area residents have access to some of the most conventional seasonal attractions anywhere: beaches, mountains, forests, and nearby world class cities.

But there are also some less conventional summer offerings that just may be the ticket for anyone looking for destinations on that road less traveled — or less mentioned.

Here are several off-beat day trips for those who want a break or dare to go bare.

The Coney Island Mermaid Parade

Organizers call it “the largest art parade in the nation,” and who can argue? The annual event held on the Saturday closest to the summer solstice — this year on June 16 — attracts a reported 3,000 participants and a crowd rivaled only by the New Year’s Eve gathering at Times Square.

This self-described “major New York holiday invented by artists” mixes the gaudiest parts of Mardi Gras, Philadelphia Mummers, Burning Man Festival, and Brooklyn razzmatazz into a cocktail that just might blind you.

Inspired by the mermaid in the island’s Mermaid Avenue, the parade emphasizes sea and skin with women and men wearing costumes ranging from the elegant and imaginative to those leaving little to the imagination. And while it is bawdy, it is also oddly a family friendly affair (and I’ve attended with my wife and son).

This year marks the 36th consecutive event sponsored by the nonprofit Coney Island USA. And once again one can expect its founder — the multi-tattooed and Yale Drama School MFA holder performer Dick Zigun — to strike up the parade with a mallet slam on his base drum and the first step up Surf Avenue. Things get moving at 1 p.m.

If you get tired of the sea of sequin, skin, pasties, and thongs, there are other honky-tonk attractions just a few steps away. Check out the Coney Island Circus Sideshow at 1208 Surf Avenue where — in addition to one of the most exotic fire eaters I have ever seen — performers shove electric drill bits or pound nails up their nostrils, swing bowling balls on earlobes, juggle powered-up chainsaws, or dance with pythons, all for the admission of $10 ($5 for kids under 12). Then there’s the upstairs one-floor Coney Island Museum where the island’s less-than-refined history is always on display (at $5).

Down the block is the home of another American institution, Nathan’s Famous Hot Dogs, where you too can participate in a time-honored tradition of waiting in a long line to get a dog, cheese fries, and even a beer. But you may want to wait on filling up until after your visit to another major Coney Island attraction: the Cyclone roller coaster built in 1927. Don’t let its age or its wooden structure fool you, this ride still packs a wallop, and its initial 85-foot rise and 60-degree plunge is just the start of your 2,640 feet of fast moving thrills (all for $10).

Coordinators say the Mermaid Parade the island’s busiest day of the season and parking can be a challenge. And while I’ve driven in and parked several times, it takes planning and determination. So if you’re not up to the challenge, go to the organization’s website for travel tips.

Coney Island USA, 1208 Surf Avenue, Brooklyn, New York. Distance: Approximately 55 to 60 miles. Travel time: Approximately 1 hour and 30 minutes (depending on traffic).

The Blob Festival

Usually set for the second weekend of July — with this year’s dates July 13 through 16 — the Phoenixville, Pennsylvania, event celebrates the famous 1958 horror film “The Blob,” starring the young and soon-to-be superstar actor Steve McQueen.

So why did a small Pennsylvania town latch onto a sci-fi story about a blobby critter from space? Right place at the right time. The independent studio that produced the film was in nearby Valley Forge, and the company filmed the De Luxe colored antics of the ever-expanding hungry blob at regional locations. That included Phoenixville’s movie house, the now vintage Colonial Theater built first as a vaudeville house in 1903.

Check out “The Blob” on DVD or YouTube and you’ll get a gander of the monster silently squeezing through the theater’s vents and into a packed midnight horror film show. It then scares the hairspray and Brylcreem off the attending teenagers whose cinematic flight from the movie theater inspired real town boosters to invite the space critter back in 2000.

Now 18 years later the Blob figuratively gobbles up Phoenixville for three days of tongue-in-cheek goings on. The festivities start Friday night at the Colonial Theater, naturally. There the sold-out house is treated to presentations ranging from performances by the horror-themed bands, screaming contests, appearances by 1950s monster film actors, and other theme-appropriate attractions. But the big moment is the countdown to the annual run from the theater. And whether it’s a woman’s scream or handheld siren, it’s still the signal for the audience to lift off from their seats and fly into the streets where spectators cheer and Philadelphia television cameras scoop up the mayhem.

And that’s just the start. Weekend events include several showings of “The Blob” as well as an exhibition of tinfoil hats and a Fire Extinguisher Parade. For those who don’t know, that’s the weapon the teenagers use to stop the blob cold, literally. And look for the Blob itself. That includes the actual goo used for the movie monster — proudly displayed in the bucket where it lives on and on — and the day-glow bright soft-sculpture displayed over the theater marquee.

Past Blob Fests were generally informal, but now they’ve gone formal and tickets for the run are required ($18). Although film screenings range from $10 to $12, other events are generally free. All the information can be found on the Colonial Theater website at Overall, it’s a carefree and family friendly trip into 1950s nostalgia.

Besides, there’s a deeper bond. The U.S. 1 area was also artfully savaged by an attack from space during Orson Welles’ famed “War of the Worlds” radio broadcast. So it’s a great opportunity to join fellow veterans against space monsters.

Colonial Theater, 227 Bridge Street, Phoenixville, Pennsylvania. Distance: Approximately 60 miles. Travel time: 1 hour and 15 minutes.

The Stoogeum

The only museum in the universe dedicated to the Three Stooges is in Ambler, Pennsylvania.

The Three Stooges was one of the most successful and enduring comedy teams in entertainment. They started in vaudeville, made 200 short films (shown before feature films) between the 1930s and 1950s, found a new audience on afternoon TV shows, and then made several popular feature-length films.

They originally took their “stooge” name as the silly sidekicks to comedy star Ted Healy, but kept it when they ventured out on their own. The three main stooges were bowl-cut haired Moe (Moses) Howard, frizzy haired Larry Fine, and bald Curley (Jerome) Howard. With his childlike simplicity and acrobatic ability, Curley was the best-loved stooge, and the team may have folded when he had a stroke. But he was successfully replaced by bang-haired brother Shemp (Samuel pronounced by his Yiddish speaking mother) and with the back-to-bald pairings with first Joe Besser and then and finally Curley-Joe DeRita, both vaudeville and stage comedians.

Created in 2004 with a mission to “collect, preserve and interpret historically or culturally significant pieces of Stoogeabilia . . . and to maintain the legacy of their comedy for future generations,” the Stoogeum boasts nearly 100,000 objects including from photos, letters, costumes, and documents. It also offers a research center.

And despite the low-brow subject, this privately funded and operated 10,000-square-foot museum in a suburban office park gets high marks for presentation, thanks to Philadelphia-based UJMN Architects.

The museum’s driving force is Gary Lassin, whose wife was related to Philadelphia-born stooge Larry Fine and had access to what became the early stage of the collection. Lassin is also the vice president of finance and chief financial officer for Harriet Carter Gifts Inc., a family business.

One of the main features of the museum is an 85-seat theater presenting a continuous showing of the team’s films, delighting the audience mainly of men and boys with the stooges’ trademark eye-poking and face-slapping silliness — with many written by one of the most recognized comedy and gag writers of the era, Clyde Bruckman.

Another unusual aspect of this unusual museum is the hours of operation. It is only open on Thursdays (except holidays), 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. Appointments for groups are available on weekdays. But forget about visiting on the weekend. Tickets range from $8 to $10 (kids under 12 admitted free). Overall, it’s serious fun.

Stoogeum, 904 Sheble Lane, Ambler, Pennsylvania. Distance: approximately 40 miles. Travel time: approximately 50 minutes.

Cowtown Rodeo

Who would have thought that the oldest weekly rodeo in the United States was in New Jersey? But that’s the fact of life every Saturday night through September 29 at 780 Harding Highway (Route 40) in Pilesgrove, southern New Jersey.

Cowtown’s roots go back to 1929 when the Howard Harrises — senior and junior — put together a rodeo at for the Salem County Fair. With just a brief hiatus during World War II, the Harris family has been continuing the operations that were once televised and broadcast nationally during the 1950s and ‘60s.

And with its ties to the Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association (which among other requirement dictates animal treatment) and Women’s Professional Rodeo Association, it has the credentials that make it more than just a lot of bull.

And the real proof can be tested in the 4,000-seat arena as audiences get treated to viewing bull riding, steer wrestling, saddle bronco riding, bareback riding, tie-down roping, and barrel racing.

The giant cowboy statue on the highway tells you you’ve arrived. So park the car on the open green and get ready for a western experience without leaving the Garden State.

Cowtown Rodeo, 780 Harding Highway (Route 40), Pilesgrove, Saturdays, 7:30 p.m. Ticket prices range from $20 for adults (age 13 & over), $10 (ages 3 to 12), and free for infants. Distance: approximately 60 miles. Travel time: 1 hour and 15 minutes (via NJ Turnpike). 856-769-3200 or

Gunnison Beach

For those looking to pack light, look no further than the clothing-optional beach on Sandy Hook, the six-mile New Jersey peninsula that juts out into New York Harbor. The beach takes its name from Battery Gunnison, once part of U.S. Army base Fort Hancock.

U.S. 1 has reported on this in the past, but it’s worth retelling how the practice of nude bathing at Gunnison is actually a military tradition: soldiers would strip down and skinny dip at the beach. When the base was decommissioned in 1972 the practice continued.

While the State of New Jersey has laws against nudity on state and municipal beaches, Gunnison is part of the Gateway National Recreation Area and under the jurisdiction of the United States Federal Government through the National Park Service.

Since the U.S. government is not in the business of organizing nude swimming, community volunteers create social events, a newsletter, and, according to a Friends of Gunnison Beach website, “maintains an ongoing dialogue with the National Park Service and other members of the Sandy Hook community in order to protect and improve naturist recreation.”

Sandy Hook is in the Highland area of Monmouth County, north of Sea Bright. Once you pass the fee plaza, follow Hartshorne Drive — bound on the left by Hudson Bay and on the right by the ocean — straight path into the park. A few miles later signs appear for Gunnison and a parking area. Although it seems larger than most supermarket lots, it reaches capacity levels on weekends, so get there early.

The entry to the beach is about a half mile from the parking lot and marked by formal structures that include a refreshment stand, a bathhouse, and a shower fountain for cleaning sand off the feet. The beach area is divided into two sections: clothed and unclothed — both maintained by clothed lifeguards hired by the National Park Service.

Leave inhibitions and the cameras at home — but bring plenty of sunscreen. And, yes, that is New York City in plain view across the bay.

Gunnison Beach at Sandy Hook, Monmouth County, and part of the National Park Services, open 5 a.m. to 10 p.m. daily, April 1 through October 31 (5 a.m. to 8 p.m. November 1 through March 31), lifeguards seasonal and during business hours, $15 parking fee between Memorial and Labor days. Distance: Approximately 70 miles. Time: 1 hour and 30 minutes.­yourvisit/sandy-hook-hours.htm or

Delsea Drive-In Theater

The only operating drive-in theater in the state where drive-ins were born, the Delsea is a “living” monument to entertainment history. It also provides the opportunity for families, friends, or dates to have an authentic old-style New Jersey experience.

With fewer than 400 outdoor screens scattered across the nation — down from more than 5,000 during the 1950s and ’60s — the Delsea Drive-In is a testament to history.

When air-conditioned comfort and home studios made drive-in theaters less attractive, they languished. That’s what happened to the Delsea in 1987. But in 2003 Dr. John DeLeonardis, a pediatrician, purchased the site with the intent of turning it into a skate park and place for kids to get out and exercise. But when he noticed the 1970s-vintage screens still had some life to them, he decided to revive the theater. Since then he has maintained a New Jersey tradition and provided area audiences with the opportunity to do something different.

Just like days of yore, entering cars are greeted by an attendant who inspects the trunks for would be hidden passengers, pets, alcoholic beverages, and outside food — after all, as the theater website tells you, “the enterprise depends on the restaurant concession sales to keep its workers employed.”

After clearing the checkpoint, the car is moved ahead to the ticket gate. The cost for two adults is $22. Exact change is requested, but credit cards are accepted.

The Delsea is a two-screener (two screens in two different areas showing two different films). And radio technology long ago replaced the drive-in speakers that used to be available on a post that stood between two parking areas and placed on the driver’s side windows (and thanks to a forgetful driver would often end up being driven away). Signage appears on the screen that tells us that 88.1 FM is the magic number and once dialed a voice soon announces that one is listening to Delsea Drive-In Radio.

When the speaker’s voice says, “Welcome to New Jersey’s only drive-in,” just sit back and take a ride into the past.

Delsea Drive-In Theater, 2203 Delsea Drive, Vineland. Distance: Approximately 78 miles. Time: 1 hour, 30 minutes.

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