Published July 13. 2013 4:00AM Updated July 13. 2013 5:54PM
The four-day stretch that began a week ago Thursday, the Fourth of July, and ended last Sunday set a standard for Connecticut beach attendance that might not be equaled for some time.
July Fourth itself occasioned the healthiest single-day attendance "in anybody's memory" at the state's four coastal beaches and 19 parks at inland lakes and ponds, Dennis Schain, a spokesman for the Department of Energy and Environmental Protection, said this week.
Though the department had yet to compile hard data, total attendance over the four days also was believed to be unprecedented.
"We view it as a record-setter," Schain said of July 4-7.
Parking lots at Rocky Neck State Park in East Lyme and Hammonasset Beach State Park in Madison were filled to capacity, with attendants waiting for people to leave before welcoming new arrivals. At Hammonasset, which can handle more than 8,000 vehicles, no one could remember that happening before.
The story was much the same at the state's two other coastal beaches, Silver Sands State Park in Milford and Sherwood Island State Park in Westport.
New London's Ocean Beach Park also experienced huge crowds, drawing more than 40,000 people over the four days, according to Dave Sugrue, the park's general manager. On Thursday, the Fourth, attendance was between 11,000 and 12,000.
"It was unlike anything I've ever seen," Sugrue said. "Literally a sea of people taking up the sand space all the way back to the boardwalk."
Misquamicut State Beach in Westerly averaged nearly 6,700 visitors a day over the four-day period.
So where'd everybody come from?
Many believe Connecticut and other Northeast locations may have benefited from Superstorm Sandy's impact on New Jersey beaches, some of which are still recovering.
Sugrue said the unusually high number of New York license plates he saw in the Ocean Beach lot last weekend supports the theory.
"It was such a lousy June, cold and rainy," he said. "People really wanting to get out, and Connecticut beaches are in good shape compared to some other places."
Ed Dombroskas, executive director of the Eastern Regional Tourism District, said the district's analysis of its website traffic showed an increase in interest among travelers from New York and New Jersey.
"We're seeing a lot of inquiries from first-time visitors who haven't come to the area before," Dombroskas said. "They're asking about the (Mystic) Seaport and the Aquarium, but a lot are asking about beaches - more so than in the past."
If beachgoers are passing up the New Jersey shore for Connecticut's, it may be based more on the popular perception of what Sandy left behind than on reality.
Storm damage along the Garden State's coastline was confined to Ocean and Monmouth counties in the central part of the state, while the more southern Atlantic and Cape May counties were virtually unscathed, according to Israel Posner, executive director of the Lloyd D. Levenson Institute of Gaming, Hospitality & Tourism at The Richard Stockton College of New Jersey.
"In Atlantic City's major tourist areas, there was no damage," Posner said. "Atlantic City's casinos were completely undamaged."
But perceptions are another matter.
"Images are more powerful than reality," Posner said. "An example is the roller coaster in Seaside Heights (Ocean County) that got knocked into the ocean. There is no roller coaster in Atlantic City but people come here asking, 'Where's the roller coaster?'"
Posner said the rebuilding in some central New Jersey locations could continue for years.
"It's very clear that seaside resorts up and down the Atlantic coast are going to take advantage of Sandy's perceived effect," he said. "In Williamsburg (Va.), Ocean City, Maryland, along the coastline of Connecticut, Cape Cod and even Maine they're trying to attract people who would otherwise go to New Jersey beaches."
Nevertheless, beaches in Atlantic City and Cape May counties enjoyed record-setting crowds over the Fourth of July. "My suspicion is that the locals know there was little or no damage," Posner said. "People up north in the New York metropolitan area and Connecticut may not ..."