Growing up at Ocean Beach Park in New London

Beachgoers head to the sand at Ocean Beach Park in New London on Wednesday, August 3, 2022. (Sean D. Elliot/The Day)

Longtime Ocean Beach Park fan Bill Donovan on the boardwalk on Wednesday, Aug. 3, 2022. (Sean D. Elliot/The Day)

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, because summer in Southeast Connecticut wouldn’t be complete without a day at the beach.

New London – Lounging on a bench on the promenade at Ocean Beach Park on a recent Wednesday afternoon, 80-year-old Bill Donovan gazed down the white-sand beach from a ferry passing Ledge Light and reminisced.

Visitors, left to right, Connor McAtee, 17, of Harwinton, Abby Jankoski, 16, of Burlington, John Hall, 17, of Harwinton and Olivia Lapierre, 16, of Burlington play spikeball on the sand at Ocean Beach Park in New London Wednesday August 3, 2022. (Sean D. Elliot/The Day)

A lifeguard watches swimmers at Ocean Beach Park in New London on Wednesday, August 3, 2022. (Sean D. Elliot/The Day)

Beachgoers walk through the car park at Ocean Beach Park in New London on Wednesday, August 3, 2022. (Sean D. Elliot/The Day)

He has been a regular visitor to the park for nearly 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 in Ocean Beach, me and my younger brother (Richard),” Donovan said.

Donovan’s family grew up on Richmond Street near Willetts Avenue in New London.

“Every year on the last day out of school, I would go get my hair cut, hitchhike from Willetts Avenue and spend all day, and eventually all summer, there,” Donovan said.

“That’s where we learned our social skills, how to swim and where I played mini golf, dived from the high diving board…saw my first fireworks and played in the arcade,” recalls -he.

More recently, over the past two decades, he has been a regular visitor with his wife, Mari-Louise Donovan.

Although it attracts visitors from all over, Ocean Beach Park holds a special place in the hearts of 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 in the Gam Building, now called Port N’ Starboard.

The friends met at the old clock tower, rode the Ferris wheel and got a taste of driving the bumper cars. Donovan, on a recent visit to the park, walked along a path at the perimeter of the park where there once was a track for the little railroad.

“There was not much to do at that time. It really was the center of most social activities when I was growing up in the 50s. For us, it was our social life and our summer. We loved it and I still love it,” Donovan said. “We are very lucky.”

In addition to the rides and activities, there was also the food. Donovan said “everyone who grew up in New London remembers clam fritters”.

Donovan became a teacher, coach and athletic director at Ella T. Grasso Technical High School in Groton. After retiring from school in 1997, he worked as director of communications for the Connecticut Technical High School system. He always announces high school sports games.

Not only does Donovan, who now lives in Waterford, return to Ocean Beach almost daily, he still attends social events at the park. He attended his 62nd New London High School class reunion at the park in June. His classmates lined up as a group to ride the Ferris wheel, a feat he may be kidding the park record for oldest group to ride at once.

Park superintendent David Sugrue, 60, who has visited the park since childhood, started working there when he was 15, serving food in the park’s cafeteria. His mother, Jean Sugrue, is another such person who has never stopped visiting him, he says. She lives only a block from the park and, at 87, still comes every day.

“Like Bill, many people obtain the place,” he said.

Sugrue, who started as the park’s manager in 1999, said the park had changed since its youth, but retained the elements that made it popular from the start: soft sand, rides 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 Monday car cruise nights, volleyball tournaments, salsa dancing. A big draw more recently has been the formation of tribute bands. An ABBA tribute band was scheduled to perform on August 5.

One of the biggest crowds in recent memory came on July 30 with the Noche Latina, an event produced by Taino Productions.

Ocean Beach Parking Rates (Fee includes admission for up to five people.):

Weekdays $25.00; Weekend $30.00; Evening $15.00 after 6 p.m.; Non-resident season pass $140.00; New London Resident Season Pass: $40.00.

For information visit www.ocean-beach-park.com or visit their Facebook page.