Growing up at Ocean Beach Park in New London
Day at the Beach
Editor's Note: Welcome to our annual summer series. This year, we asked readers to tell us about their favorite beach destinations within driving distance, since summer in southeastern Connecticut wouldn't be complete without a day at the beach.
New London — Lounging on a bench on the boardwalk at Ocean Beach Park on a recent Wednesday afternoon, 80-year-old Bill Donovan gazed out over the white sand beach at a ferry passing Ledge Light and reminisced.
He’s been visiting the park regularly for the better part of 75 years and has fond memories dating back to his formative years in the 1950s that continue through high school and into adulthood.
“I actually grew up at Ocean Beach, me and my younger brother (Richard),” Donovan said.
Donovan’s family grew up on Richmond Street, off Willetts Avenue In New London.
“Every year on the last day out of school, I’d go get a buzz haircut, hitchhike from Willetts Avenue and spend the entire day, and ultimately the entire summer, there,” Donovan said.
“It’s where we learned our social skills, how to swim and where I played mini golf, dove off the high diving board … saw my first fireworks display and played in the arcade,” he remembers.
More recently, over the past two decades, he has been a regular visitor with his wife, Mari-Louise Donovan.
While it attracts visitors from far and wide, Ocean Beach Park holds a special place in the hearts for locals like Donovan who spent time at the beach in his youth. The park was the center of life, and where dances were held and youth sports leagues held basketball games in an indoor court at the Gam building, now called the Port N’ Starboard.
Friends would meet at the former clock tower, ride on the Ferris wheel and get a taste for driving on the dodgem bumper cars. Donovan, during a recent visit to the park, walked along a path at the perimeter of the park where there used to be a track for the small railroad.
“There wasn’t much to do in those days. It really was the hub of most social activities when I was growing up in the 50s. For us it was our social life and our summer. We just loved it and I still love it,” Donovan said. “We’re very fortunate.”
In addition to the rides and activities, there was also the food. Donovan said “anybody who grew up in New London remembers the clam fritters.”
Donovan would go on to become a teacher, coach and athletic director at Ella T. Grasso Technical High School in Groton. After his retirement from the school in 1997 he worked as the director of communications for the Connecticut Technical High School system. He’s still announcing high school sports games.
Not only is Donovan, who now lives in Waterford, back to Ocean Beach almost daily, he is still attending social events at the park. He attended his 62nd New London High School class reunion at the park in June. Fellow classmates lined up in a group to ride the Ferris wheel, a feat he jokes may have been park record for the oldest group to ride at one time.
Park Manager David Sugrue, 60, who has been visiting the park since he was an infant, started working there when he was 15, serving food in the park’s cafeteria. His mother, Jean Sugrue, is another one of those people who has never stopped visiting, he said. She only lives a block from the park and at the age of 87 still comes over every day.
“Like Bill, a lot of people just get the place,” he said.
Sugrue, who began as park manager in 1999, said the park has changed since his youth, but it has retained the things that made it popular from the start — soft sand, attractions and entertainment. Entrance fees are also reasonable, especially for residents.
“It’s busy here seven days a week. The crowds we get here, especially on Saturdays, are just as big as they were in the 70s,” Sugrue said.
There are the Monday car cruise nights, volleyball tournaments, salsa dancing. A big draw more recently has been the line up of tribute bands. An ABBA tribute band was slated to perform on Aug. 5.
One of the biggest crowds in recent memory came on July 30 with the Noche Latina, an event produced by Taino Productions.
Parking rates at Ocean Beach (charge includes admission for up to five guests.):
Weekdays $25.00; Weekends $30.00; Evening $15.00 after 6 p.m.; Season Pass non-resident $140.00; Season Pass New London Resident: $40.00.
For information visit www.ocean-beach-park.com or visit their Facebook page.