Year-round residents of Wildwood joke that the island is in hibernation during the winter months.
“Did you ever watch a Western story when you see the tumbleweed rolling down the street?” said Jackie Mikulski, owner of Key West Café, one of the few restaurants that remain open all year. “That’s Wildwood in the dead of winter.”
But this week is shaping up to be an unusual one for January, thanks to a planned visit by President Donald Trump on Tuesday for a rally at Wildwoods Convention Center.
This would mark the first time a sitting president has visited Cape May County since the 1890s, according to the Courier Post.
“I don’t care what side of the fence you are on, this is huge for Wildwood,” said Mikulski. “This is something that even little kids are going to be excited to see a sitting president here in Wildwood.”
Trump’s visit is largely seen as a reward for New Jersey U.S. Rep. Jeff Van Drew, who voted against impeaching the president, and later left the Democratic Party to become a Republican at the end of last year.
Still, it was Trump who created most of the buzz.
Though much of the island’s businesses remain closed for the winter, there are some atypical signs of activity.
On Friday, residents got to see the United States Marine Corps practice landing and taking off on Air Force One, even though Trump wasn’t inside.
Red, white and blue banners hung from empty motels with Trump’s name on them and food trucks claimed their spots in front of the convention center Sunday, waiting for the crowds that will start pouring in Monday night.
Rally ticket-holders, like Roberta Bethencourt of nearby Monmouth County, were quick to take into account the fact that more than 100,000 tickets were given out for the event.
Bethencourt said she would have made the trip to see the president in her home state regardless, but she felt the desire to be there even more during the Senate’s ongoing impeachment trial.
“I think that it’s an important thing that people be here to support him and I think we need to hear from him too,” she said.
In an attempt to get a spot in the convention center, Bethencourt and her husband made the trip to Wildwood Crest over the weekend.
“We wanted to make sure that we were here and that we were going to get in, even if we had to walk two miles from our home all the way down in the Crest,” she said. “We brought food and concession stuff, we got chairs so that we could sit and, you know, wait for the excitement.”
Bethencourt was one of dozens of local residents who roamed the boardwalk next to the convention center Sunday, and took stock of a sea of white barricades that will guide the thousands trying to get into the venue, which holds 7,000 people.
“It’s like barriers, like if you were in Disney World waiting on line to get into a popular attraction and, you know, you go back and forth, back and forth,” said Paul Becker, who lives a mile from the center.
Becker said Cape May County may be “Trump Country” — 58% of the county voted for Trump in 2016 — but he is a registered Democrat and tends to be a “liberal Democrat” at that.
Becker said he doesn’t see eye-to-eye with President Trump and as someone who stays busy in his retirement years by substitute teaching, he does not approve of the president’s Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos.
That said, Becker doesn’t plan to join protestors with Cape May County’s Indivisible group, which will feature Martin Luther King III, the oldest son of the late civil rights leader, as keynote speaker.
“I respect the fact that he’s the president of the United States and he’s my president and, you know, we elected him by the rules of the country and so I accept that,” said Becker, who plans to check out the scene at the boardwalk. “If people like me don’t like that [he’s president], we should vote him out next time.”
While Becker planned to sit out protests Tuesday, Charles Murphy and his wife planned to join in.
Murphy called Trump a “draft dodger” for his multiple draft deferments, and is critical of the president’s approach to foreign policy.
“I don’t think it’s an appropriate thing to have a love affair with a dictator that likes to kill his own people,” he said, referring to North Korean leader Kim Jung-un.
Donovan Rankin II spent Sunday afternoon creating a Trump 2020 sign out of sand as passersby snapped photos of the giant red letters colored with biodegradable latex paint.
“I’m just amazed that he’s coming here to our little town,” said Rankin, who likes how well the economy is doing under Trump. “I thought it might be a nice way to welcome him and people to the town and put a smile on some people’s faces, that’s all.”
Not far from the convention center, a makeshift shop popped up on a busy intersection selling Trump-themed merchandise, including hats, sweaters and flags, attracting a steady flow of shoppers.
In a county that is 41% registered Republicans and 36% independents, smack in a blue state, Anthony Zappy said it’s no surprise so many people are going all out.
Zappy, a registered independent, made sure to get a shirt of his own for the occasion. And while he supports Trump, Zappy said he’d buy a shirt on the occasion of any presidential visit, regardless of party.
But don’t expect Zappy to camp out overnight to snag a seat to the rally.
“I wouldn’t wait 12 hours in line to see the pope,” he said, “so I’m not going to wait 12 hours in line for this.”