I didn't grow up in Old Orchard Beach, but the first french fries I can actually remember eating were Pier fries seasoned with salt and vinegar and served in a greasy paper cone. It took only fifteen minutes to drive to Palace Playland from my family's home in Scarborough, so trips to the amusement park were pretty frequent occurrences when I was a kid. Later in life, I did a certain amount of barhopping in OOB. And well into my twenties I had hipster friends who wintered in Old Orchard because the rent for a (chilly) beach house was half that of a Portland apartment.
Perhaps it was Old Orchard's nearness to my hometown, or the fact that all my aunts and uncles spoke French, but it never dawned on me that this seaside resort, so popular among the Quebecois, was an anomaly, not just in Maine, but in the United States. A beach town that sleeps through the winter and then jolts to life each summer when a huge wave of foreign-speaking tourists crashes over it — well, it seemed perfectly normal to me.
I have since learned that Old Orchard occupies a unique place in Maine's collective imagination. To some, its carnival atmosphere and same-time-next-year reputation makes it seem offbeat and welcoming. To others, it represents the epitome of tackiness, a tourist trap to be avoided in all seasons. More recently, the town has acquired a third identity: burgeoning Portland suburb.
In this summer-planning issue we take two looks at Old Orchard Beach at a watershed moment in its history. First, Colin Woodard examines the controversy a new upscale condominium hotel, adjacent to the Pier, has sparked downtown. Then Down East contributing editor Elizabeth Peavey reports on the weekend she spent last August playing tourist in OOB. If you want to get a bead on something, it always helps to triangulate.
According to Old Orchard's municipal planner, Sandra J. Mowery, there are weekends in July when the town's population tops out at more than a hundred thousand. If this is indeed true, it means that for a few days each year this funky beach community is Maine's largest municipality — bigger than Portland, Lewiston, or Bangor. I can think of some Mainers who would find that idea appalling, but to me it sums up how central tourism is to our state's economy. If a flood of French-Canadian vacationers can turn a strip of sand into our biggest city, then it behooves us all to say, "Bienvenue." Or at the very least, "Vive la difference!"