Not just any beach tourist will do for Eric Ashley's shop on the boardwalk. His "Del Sol" store sells nail polish, jewelry and T-shirts that change color in the sun, a teen-fashion gimmick geared to customers who are usually back in math class by the end of August. Last year at this time, Ashley had already cut back on his hours and staff and begun the glide toward off-season hibernation.
But this is the year of surplus summer. On the final Wednesday of August, Ashley stood on the boardwalk with a basket of sample plastic rings and delighted in a crowd that felt more midsummer than last-gasp. Families strolled the sticky boards, school-age boys threaded the masses on rental bikes and — ka-ching — a steady stream of teenage girls who hadn't started school yet veered into his shop.
"We're on track to do double what we did this week last year," said Ashley, who is keeping the shop he owns with his wife open until 11 p.m. all week to keep up with demand. "This really feels like a regular summer day."
This is what Ocean City merchants had in mind as they and other tourist interests lobbied for more than a decade for a change in the Maryland school calendar. They got their wish when Gov. Larry Hogan (R) mandated that all 24 school districts in the state wait until after Labor Day to start classes, extending the summer by as much as two weeks for more than 880,000 students and their families. Ironically, Maryland's switch comes the same year Virginia's largest school system, Fairfax County, started its classes before Labor Day after obtaining a waiver from what's known in Virginia as the Kings Dominion law.
Hogan's move proved popular with Maryland residents, according to a Goucher College poll last year that showed more than two-thirds supported the post-Labor Day school start.
A significant number of the late-August idle spent those bonus days at the beach. Tourism officials say they won't have the hard numbers for another month or two, but Ocean City hotels, restaurants and color-changing nail-polish vendors say the shift in the calendar has been noticeable in the full parking lots and crowded mini-golf courses.
"Previously, by mid-August it was as if someone had flipped a switch, and it was because the Maryland kids went back to school," said Donna Abbott, Ocean City's director of tourism and marketing.
To fill in that late season falloff, five years ago her office launched a marketing campaign targeting families in New York and New Jersey, where many schools don't start until after Labor Day. This week, she was relieved to see so many Maryland plates amid traffic backups.
Other Maryland tourism hot spots reported similar extensions of the summer rush. Six Flags in Largo postponed its annual closing by two weeks to capture more weekday traffic and, although the park won't release specific attendance figures, spokeswoman Denise Stokes said it's been busy. In Western Maryland, Deep Creek Lake vendors said the schoolchildren are still around and spending freely.
"Our businesses in retail and lodging are all seeing a huge bump," said Nicole Christian of the Garrett County Chamber of Commerce. "It's still crazy busy when normally it would have slowed down by this time of year."
Michael James, the head of the Carousel Group of seven family-oriented hotels, said advance bookings for the final two weeks of August showed more families adding a beach trip to their lengthened summer or tacking a few days to their usual visit.
Gabriel Churn usually brings his boys to the beach for a late-summer break before classes begin in Baltimore. This year, he appreciated the extra week let him take advantage of the price drops that have become common after mid-August and the good rate he found at the Day's Inn through Groupon.
"I feel like this gave us some extra time to be together," said Churn, pastor of Baltimore's Union Temple Baptist Church, standing under a double-headed dragon at the third hole of the crowded Old Pro mini-golf course. "It's really more crowded than I thought it'd be."
Other parents said they were pushed shoreward only when they realized how much time was left before the school day would give their children something to do.
"We had no coverage," said Mandy Talan, a Rockville accountant who was brokering her two kids' dispute over stuffed-animal prizes at the Jolly Roger Amusement Park by the Ocean City pier. Her family added a week to its usual August beach stay. "It was either try to find another camp or go on vacation."
Last year at this time, Jacob Shaplin, 12, was already at his Howard County middle school desk. This year, he was riding a rented recumbent bike along the boardwalk. His dad had no choice but to bring Jacob along to an annual medical finance conference at the Clarion Resort. Jacob was splitting his time between helping at his dad's booth and hanging out at the pool, where the suggested age to swim without a parent is 15.
"We're pushing that a little bit," admitted Jay Shaplin, a health marketing consultant from Elkridge. "Nobody was set up to have camps this late in the summer."
It may take some time for holiday habits to adjust to this tourism time change. For decades, the fixed phases of the calendar have driven the rhythms of beach season. From the peaks of July and early August, the college-age visitors and workers fade first, then the families with school-age children. Weekends can still be busy into the fall, but the weekdays are increasingly given over to stroller pushers, empty-nesters and bargain hunters.
The tourism sector complained loudly as the school year started earlier and ended later to accommodate a growing list of holidays, snow days and professional development days. Teachers' unions and school administrators largely opposed the ongoing efforts of the vacation-industrial complex to reverse the squeeze on summer, citing the need to prepare students for standardized tests and close the achievement gap in many districts. After the move to stall the start of school languished in the legislature for several years, Hogan, who has made economic development a centerpiece of his first term, made the change by executive order last summer.
School systems were allowed to apply for an exception to the rule, and Garrett and Allegany counties in Western Maryland were allowed to start Aug. 29 because of the number of snow days they can expect to experience. Prince George's was denied a request to start before Labor Day.
Prince George's County schools chief executive Kevin Maxwell took note of the tourism motive: "Some families don't have a few extra hundred dollars to spend on an extended vacation."
In Ocean City, merchants hailed Hogan's move.
"We have a very short window to pay our bills for 12 months," said Marigot Miller, who along with her husband owns Abbey Burger Bistro . "Having one extra week makes a big difference."
So far, the families are doing just what they hoped, Miller said. Abbey Burger participated in a citywide "Maryland Week" promotion, targeting families with a kids-eat-free offer. Sales for the rainy final Tuesday of August were twice what they were a year ago, and Miller knows many of those customers wouldn't have even been at the beach under the former school schedule.
She wasn't here to see it though. She and her family were back home in Baltimore for a school orientation meeting.
Donna St. George contributed to this report.