Riding the Carousel at Maine’s Old Orchard Beach

Old Orchard Beach Pier (Photo copyright Stillman Rogers)

Old Orchard Beach Pier (Photo copyright Stillman Rogers)

Has the merry-go-round at Old Orchard Beach shrunk? I’m sure the horses used to be bigger, so tall that my father had to boost me up to mount them. Apart from the size of the carousel, it’s just like I remember, though – maybe cleaner and not quite so tacky, but when you’re six and it’s a hot summer day at an amusement park those are hardly concerns.

 In Your Bucket Because…

  • Old Orchard has New England’s only full-scale amusement park on a beach.
  • It’s like stepping back half a century into an idyllic summer day in a seaside town.
  • Good for families with kids of all ages, and adults who like remembering.

Maine’s Old Orchard Beach still has the charm – not to mention nostalgia for people like me who came here as a kid — of an old-fashioned beach resort, complete with a pier, fried dough, a roller coaster overlooking the sea (if you dare to look) and a carousel that wheezes out “Keep Your Eye on that Grand Old Flag” as a new generation of kids gallop round and round on colorful steeds. A pink pig and purple dragon were added to the stable a few years ago, for non-traditionalist kids. The baskets on the Ferris wheel look dizzyingly straight down into the surf.

A Ferris Wheel on the Beach

Ferris Wheel at Old Orchard Beach Maine (photo credit Stillman Rogers)

Ferris Wheel at Old Orchard Beach Maine (photo credit Stillman Rogers)

Palace Playland is the only remaining full-scale beachside amusement park in New England. A couple of others have a few rides and maybe a game arcade, but this is the real thing, and the preferred goal of my childhood when a heat wave drove my family, lemming-like, to the sea. And since she’s been old enough for her first rides in Palace Playland’s Kiddieland, it’s been the summer dream of Mary, now 12.

In a coast increasingly characterized by condos, art galleries and designer clothing boutiques, Old Orchard’s budget-friendly, if somewhat old-fashioned arcades, bumper cars, racks of red plush lobsters and shrieks from a giant pirate ship that swings high above the main street are a breath of fresh sea air. We found spotless beach-side lodgings for close to $100 a night and heaping plates of seafood for under $20.

Seven Miles of Perfect Sand

Over the Ocean on the Ferris Wheel, Orchard Beach Maine (photo credit Stillman Rogers)

Over the Ocean on the Ferris Wheel, Orchard Beach Maine (photo credit Stillman Rogers)

Best of all, we found seven miles of golden sand beach, every inch of it with free public access. The beach is one of the cleanest on the Atlantic coast, refreshingly free of cans, bottles, wrappers and cigarette butts and backed for almost its entire length by a band of dune grass. The beach slopes gently into the surf and even at high tide it’s wide enough for everyone to find a patch of sand and castle-building space.

How do they keep it so clean? We answered that question during an evening stroll along the tide line, where we met a band of local volunteers who clean the beach at the end of each day.

Although the sand may be swept clean daily by the tide and locals, this isn’t a spit-and-polish resort beach. No one cares if your swimsuit has a designer label or none at all, or if your kid’s (or your) T-shirt has drips of chocolate ice cream on it. Old Orchard is a come-as-you-are beach.

Family-Friendly Maine

But there’s a new edge to Old Orchard, too, which is good news to families. The emphasis is on family activities, not bars and all-night beach parties. Some stylish new shops cater to families on Old Orchard Street, where Dickinson’s Candy offers enough sweets for a week-long sugar-high. But near the ocean end, it’s easy to spot Pier French Fries for the line that’s always crowding the street in front – and has been since they opened in 1932. Strictly for take-out, these are the real McCoy, the closest to French pommes frites we’ve tasted east of Brittany.

A block up the hill we reminisced about the beach of our childhood, as we looked at photos and artifacts from the even earlier grand hotel era at the Harmon Museum, operated by the Old Orchard Beach Historical Society.

On a rainy afternoon we took refuge in Board Silly, dedicated to non-electronic puzzles and games that encourage family play, and where we found a beautiful wooden jigsaw puzzle that occupied us back in our old-fashioned white-wicker-furnished room until the sun came out.

Take Amtrak Right to the Beach

Carousel at Old Orchard Beach Maine (photo credit Stillman Rogers)

Carousel at Old Orchard Beach Maine (photo credit Stillman Rogers)

Old Orchard Street, where Amtrak trains deposit beachgoers from Boston at the station only short block from the wave-swept sands, ends in a broad pier that extends nearly 500 feet out into the Atlantic. There’s nothing like a summer day at an old-fashioned boardwalk: soft ice cream, silly souvenirs, saltwater taffy and calliope tunes from the merry-go-round just below it.

I still love the carousel best, and never pass up the chance to ride with Mary, unlike my dad who was happy to sit patiently inside the pavilion and watch me go round and round. It was many years until he admitted to me that he liked it there on a hot afternoon for the breeze the carousel stirred up as it spun.

Practicalities

  • The Edgewater, on West Grand Avenue, an easy walk from the pier and Palace Playland, has bright rooms with blue-and-white beach cottage décor, sundecks and porches, right on the beach.
  • At the pier and only a few steps from the Amtrak station, the Grand Victorian has spacious beachfront suites in a club-like setting. Full kitchens are handy for week-long stays, and insulated air-lock doors and windows keep out the noise from the amusement park directly below. At pier level are new shops that reflect a mix between the town’s old and new faces.
  • Grand Beach Café (207-934-8344) serves creative breakfasts and lunches in a cheery tearoom atmosphere at budget prices.
  • On Thursday evenings at 9:30 a free fireworks display lights up the pier.
Average rating for this trip

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