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First Person: One Family’s Unexpected Reason for Loving Ocean City

My kids would be happy going to the beach and never setting foot on the sand. For them, it’s all about the arcade.

Photograph by Ryan Donnell.

For the price of a stay at a Caribbean resort, I’ve booked a room in Ocean City for my summer vacation with the kids.

I first took them five years ago and they fell in love with the place. The Oreos are fried there. Each year we stay at a different hotel, always oceanfront and on the boardwalk—the beach, the waves, the fun in the sun stretched out before us. The thing is, my son and daughter aren’t even beach kids.

“How close is the hotel to the arcade?” This is the first question they’ll ask. We’ll of course spend time on the beach—dig for mole crabs, boogie-board for an hour or two, bury my son in the sand. But the activity of choice involves the arcade—specifically, accumulating prize tickets spit out by the myriad games of chance.

Insert quarter, pull lever, mash button, win tickets. Whether a ball drops into a hole or a wheel spins toward a jackpot, the games are all variations of a slot machine, and each play brings renewed anticipation of a big score. My son and daughter collect this kid currency and exchange it for disposable prizes in glass cases or hanging from the arcade’s walls and ceiling. Stuffed animals, switchblade combs, oversize Slinkys—trinkets with the entertainment shelf life of day-old bread. It’s not about the prizes, though. It’s about scoring the tickets.

“Why don’t we just stay here this summer and go to Chuck E. Cheese’s in our bathing suits?” I once asked them. Going to the beach to spend time indoors feels wrong—like going to a ski resort to shoot pool. But mention Ocean City and my kids won’t recount the thrill of the water park or the intoxicating nausea from the Jolly Roger rides. They’ll mention the arcade.

“Remember when that guy gave me all his tickets?” my son asks every year. He’s referring to our first trip, when a teenager in sports sandals and a Houston Rockets jersey gave him a fistful of prize tickets. The kid had approached me and asked if my son, then five, might want them. “I ain’t gonna use them,” he said, holding out a dozen green ribbons.

“Why don’t you ask him yourself?” I suggested. I wanted to see my son’s reaction, sensing they’d mean more coming from a stranger. They did.

“Dad, look at all these!” he said, jumping in place. Clearly these were more valuable than the wads he’d already accumulated. In total, the number of tickets he received could be exchanged for plastic handcuffs or a cap gun—a forgettable piece of crap destined to be lost in a pocket of his suitcase, if packed at all. Still, it was as though he’d won Powerball.

His sister didn’t share his joy. “That’s not fair,” she said, crossing her arms on her chest. “No one ever gave me any tickets.” I reminded them of the hundreds I’d given them earlier that day. They’d thanked me, but I began to feel cheated. My efforts to show them a good time were upstaged by some punk with shoulder acne and a kind heart. I wanted to be the one to make them squeal with excitement, the main character in their “remember when” moments. Dad, the all-powerful joy-bringer.

By the time we ordered pizza for dinner, my son had relived the event a half dozen times. Again and again I received his excitement—the emotion I’d hoped to see when I planned our vacation, regardless of what inspired it. He’d been given the tickets, but I, too, had scored. My daughter even surrendered her jealousy and joined in. “That was really nice of that guy,” she said. “We should come back every year.”

Jim Gray (jim@grayhousedesign.com) is a graphic designer in Kensington who has warmed to Skee-Ball. This article appears in the August 2014 issue of Washingtonian.

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