"Can you put 'Ocean City' underneath Tina's name?" said Teddy Klementovic, one of a dozen customers crowded into a T-shirt shop in the Gold Coast Mall one afternoon this week. "We've got to get her something that says where we've been."
It was the first time on the Eastern Shore for Klementovic and her husband, Joe, a retired couple from Lansford, Pa., andthey were busy scooping up souvenir shirts for the children and grandchildren back home.
"We'd normally go down to the North Carolina beaches for vacation," she said. "But my neighbor told us how nice it was here, and what with the gas being so high, we figured we'd better stick closer to home."
It's people like the Klementovics --tourists who are stretching their vacation budgets by staying close to home -- who have helped make this summer one of the best in this resort city's recent history. According to hotel keepers, restaurant owners and city officials, high prices this year are working in Ocean City's favor.
Last year that was not the case. The gas shortage kept sun-starved tourists away from Ocean City until August and on the best weekend of the summer there were 225,000 visitors. It was a time of discontent for the city's perennially upbeat boosters.
This summer there have already been three weekends of 250,000 visitors: the neon "No Vacancy" signs are lit up along Coastal Highway from First to 145th Street, and getting into some of the more popular restaurants often requires a two-hour wait.
"Adjectives have not been developed to describe" this year's season, says Mayor Harry Kelly, and this timeKelly -- Ocean City's human megaphone -- may be only half exaggerating.
"It's been a weekend every day here,"said Jay Maher, manager of the Sunshine House, a clothing store that sells what Maher thinks is "the thing every kid wants this year," a longsleeved T-shirt imprinted with the Sunshine House logo.
"Just look at all these cars," he said, as he careered down Coastal Highway in his van. "This is a beautiful, sunny day -- perfect beach weather -- and there are still all thesepeople in the city."
"We've sent people as far away as Salisbury," noted Steve Sayed, the front-office manager of the Carousel Hotel, " and they don't even have rooms." Salisbury is almost an hour's drive from Ocean City.
"We've had a lot more weekly stays this year, and we're drawing from Washington and Baltimore much more than we usually do," Sayed said."It seems that this year, if people can travel less and still go somewhere nice, they will. At any rate, they've got to have their vacation."
Mary Ann Furst, an administrative assistant at the 254-room Sheraton Hotel overlooking the Atlantic, said they've had to refer tourist to Dover, Del., 2 1/2 hours away, for rooms.
"People are definitely taking shortertrips," she said. "I'm surprised at the business we're picking up from Pennsylvania. I don't know where they usually vacation, but it seems likewe've got the whole state here this year."
"I've been coming here since I was akid," said Ken Smith, who lives outside Pittsburgh. "It's sort of habit, but between the hot weather and the high gas prices, I didn't think twice this year about coming here rather than going somewhere further away."
Smigt, his wife, and two young daughters who struggled to carry their stuffed animal winnings under their small arms, were spending their last day in Ocean City sauntering along the amusement area of the boardwalk.
"Whenever I think of summer I thinkof Ocean City," said Ada Ruark, a Severna Park resident who said she'sbeen coming to this shore since she was six. "They just go together, and nothing, not the gas, not the traffic, would keep me away."
It wasn't difficult for Ruark to persuade her daughter and son-in-law from Richmond to spend the week with her at Ocean City.
"We could go to Nags Head, N.C.," said Gail Boyles, "but we've got grandparents here. It's awfully hard to travel with young children."
Whatever the tourists' reasons for visiting Ocean City, the merchants couldn't be happier.
"They're spending, they're definitely spending," said Penny Lorber, manager of Souvenir City and Inlet Gifts on the boardwalk. "People are looking for better items, and they're much more picky about what they buy, but they still buy."
"We're spending," sighed Walter Rosenberg, who was listening to his car radio while his wife and 15-year-olddaughter shopped at the Sunshine House. "We're made our share of donations to the cause -- if it's not shopping, it's restaurants. If it's not food, it's always something else."