The choice, as always, was agonizing.

If I picked a horse in the middle row, I’d get a double ride – not just spinning around and around, but also bobbing up and down in more realistic horse ride – as realistic a simulation as you can get on an 83-year-old carousel you’ve ridden countless times, starting before when you could walk.

If I picked a horse on the outside row, though, I would lose that extra motion but could position myself to reach over the side of the ride and grab for the brass ring. 

The ride, of course, is the Carousel at Gillian’s Wonderland Pier.

My parents first put me on a “stander” – the official name of one of the stationary horses – when I was a year old. Twenty-seven years later, I was just as still fascinated by the ride with a long history and deep ties to the Jersey Shore, and still torn about which horse to choose.

The Carousel was built in 1926 by the Philadelphia Toboggan Company. Today, Philadelphia Toboggan Coasters makes death-defying thrill rides you’ll find around the country. But from 1904 to 1934, though, they made a 87 wooden carousels, 32 of which are still in operation.

Wonderland Pier has number 75. It’s one of the last carousels in the country that has a “ring arm,” the wooden slat swung out to the ride that feeds rings for riders to try and grab. Grab the brass one and you win free ride tickets.

The carousel first spun in Dallas, Pa., where it stayed until a move to Rolling Greek Park in Selling’s Grove, Pa in 1946. It came to Ocean City in 1972, and I first rode in 1981. I could barely walk, but my mom and dad could hold me up on a big, white horse. My family had been coming to the Jersey Shore since 1968 when my grandfather packed up his family of 10 and transplanted them in Avalon Campground in Clermont, N.J. for the summer. My mom and her siblings favored Wildwood – they had more state of the art rides, like the Golden Nugget, more boardwalk for walking and flirting, and more haunted houses.

But when my parents started taking me and my brother (then younger siblings as they came along) to the shore, they preferred Ocean City, which was already becoming known as the family friendly spot at the Jersey Shore. No t-shirt shops, no hawking vendors. It was perfect for a young family of four.

They started me and my brother Jim on standers, one parent holding up each child. Then we graduated to “jumpers,” those horses that move up and down while the ride turns. Only when I was old enough to ride without a parent (they were then helping my little brother and sister) did I move to the outside row, relying on a belt strap to hold me in while I reached for the rings.

The ride, then and now, is pure magic, a beauty of brass and gold under a canopy of soft white lights and calliope music. The 50 horses on the ride are all original (save one that was replaced by a fiberglass recreation when David Gillian donated a horse to the Ocean City Historical Museum), and beautifully appointed. My favorite was a fine filly draped in pink and gold dressings. My brother was partial to a braying gentleman wearing a headpiece suited for a knight. As children, we wore out two tapes of Mary Poppins, our favorite scene the “Jolly Holiday” sequence where the characters jump into a chalk drawing and ride through the English countryside on their carousel horses. Even though I knew my horse would never leap off the platform and take me on a trip down the beach, I had an overactive imagination, and through about what would happen if my horse broke free. I’d have a fun ride down to Cape May.

Even when I was a teenager and said that I was too “cool” to ride the, I still rode, to make my parents happy, I’d say. But of course I wanted to take a turn. Going on the carousel was one of those things you just do whenever you go to the Ocean City boardwalk, like have a slice of Mac & Mancos Pizza, watch taffy being made at Shriver’s, and ending your night with a cone from Kohrs. My parents didn’t need to help any of us by then, so they joined my grandparents and the throngs of other parents and grandparents who waited by the railing that sectioned off the ride from the rest of the park, my mom with her ancient Cannon camera and my dad with his big, bulky video camera. Every time I’d pass their spot, make a new face or strike a new pose so that every picture would be different.

While I researched and wrote The Jersey Shore: Atlantic City to Cape May in the summer of 2007, I never got on the ride. I watched, sure, and took pictures, but I had no time to enjoy…anything, really. So I marked it as a “must do,” put it in the book, and moved on. But last summer, with the book out in stores, I took time to savor what I told everyone about, and I found myself at Wonderland Pier on Memorial Day Weekend.

It was still a bit chilly, spring holding on even as I was mentally ready for summer and the onslaught of book signings and publicity it would bring. I didn’t go on the ride but instead stood on the boardwalk outside of the carousel and watched children as they chose their perfect horses, and spun around and around the same ride that meant so much to me. I watched the parents, too, those holding their children through the ride, and those on the sidelines taking pictures and waving back. I could feel memories being made. I could see the joy on the faces of the kids, the parents, and knew that this would be one to remember, just like it had been for me and hopefully will be for a family that I hope to have in the future.

I didn’t actually get into the ride and debate through two sessions which horse to choose  until the end of the season, right before Labor Day came and washed the summer away. Again, the night was colder, enough for a light jacket. My parents weren’t there to watch that time, but as I circled around and around, I almost expected them to be out there, my mom holding up her ancient Cannon camera, my grandparents by their sides. 

But it was just me. That time, I picked a stander on the outside row and reached for the rings. I didn’t get the brass one, not this time, but there’s always – always – next year.