Jim Gillian remembered

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Jim Gillian Jim Gillian OCEAN CITY — James “Jimmy” Gillian, the former owner of Gillian’s Island Water Park and Adventure Golf, died on Wednesday, April 16 after a long illness.

He was 57.

Gillian was the oldest son of former Ocean City Mayor and Cape May County Freeholder Roy Gillian and the brother of the current Ocean City mayor, Jay Gillian. 

Mourning the loss on Thursday, Jay Gillian said his brother enthusiastically led the third generation of the Gillian family into the boardwalk amusement business.

“I have a lot of great memories, something that I will have with me the rest of my life,” he said.

Gillian’s grandfather, the late David Gillian, opened Gillian’s Fun Deck on the Ocean City Boardwalk at Plymouth Place in 1929, featuring a Ferris Wheel and a merry-go-round. 

David Gillian guided the fledgling park through the Great Depression and World War II, eventually passing the Fun Deck on to his two sons, Roy and Robert Gillian.  While Robert ran the Fun Deck, Roy Gillian opened Gillian’s Wonderland Pier in 1965. In 1977, Roy Gillian purchased the Fun Deck from his brother.

“After Dad bought the Fun Deck, he put Jimmy in charge,” said Jay Gillian. “He loved the Fun Deck. He loved managing it, everything that was involved.”

It became, he said, a family affair for the growing brothers, with their father, uncle and “Poppop” guiding them. They learned the ropes, he said.

“Those were good times, putting the Ferris Wheel up at the beginning of the season and taking it down at the end, and doing the same thing with the carousel,” he said. “Jimmy ran an amusement park at a very young age. We were all involved.”

James Gillian graduated Ocean City High School in 1974. He was a member of the OCHS choir and the OCHS Red Raider track and field team, where he set a record in the pole vault event.

“The record held for a long time,” said Jay Gillian.

James Gillian headed for Monmouth University after graduation, but after a year returned to Ocean City for good.

“He wanted to work in the business,” said Jay Gillian. “He wanted to work with my dad.”

Jay Gillian said it was a pivotal time for the family. He joined brothers Steve and John, working at Wonderland and the Fun Deck.

“Being the youngest, I got to spend a lot of time with Jimmy,” he said. “I ran his concession stand when he was managing the Fun Deck.

“Those were some of the best times for my family,” he said. “It was always a good time, working at the Fun Deck.”

Life changed, he said, when John Gillian, then a sophomore at Temple University, was killed in an accident in Philadelphia.

“John’s death brought my brothers and I closer together,” he said.

Gillian’s Island Water Park was the culmination of James Gillian’s vision, he said.

“He loved the Fun Deck, but the water park was his dream,” he said.

At the end of the 1987 season, the brothers, James, Steve and Jay, purchased the Fun Deck from their father.

“In 1988, we opened the water park,” he said. “There were two things at play; with Wonderland we didn’t really need two amusement parks. Jimmy wanted to open a water park. He investigated, he did a lot of research and my Dad thought it was a great idea, for the third generation to take over.”

The park, featuring giant water slides and the Lazy River, was his brother’s pride and joy, Jay Gillian said. The brothers placed a bronze plaque in memory of John Gillian near the park’s entrance. Eventually, they added the Adventure Golf course to the property.  

“Jimmy loved it,” he said. In 2006, James Gillian bought the water park and golf course from his brothers, with Jay Gillian taking control of Wonderland.

“Jimmy was devoted to the water park, all those years,” said Jay Gillian.

In March of this year, James Gillian sold the water park and miniature golf course to Plymouth Holdings, an investment group.

Jay Gillian noted that his brother was most proud of a flag-raising ceremony at the water park. The patriotic ritual occurred at 9:30 a.m., every day in the summer.  Members of the water park’s staff would gather at the front of the park along the boardwalk and raise the flag while the national anthem was played over a loud speaker. Traffic would stop along the boardwalk as bicyclists and pedestrians put their hands on their hearts, saluted and stood at attention. It was, Jay Gillian said, a real crowd pleaser and very important to his brother.

“It meant the world to him to do that,” he said.

James Gillian, he said, was a friendly man and could have followed his father’s footsteps and enjoyed a career in politics but did not want the limelight.

“Jimmy loved life, he loved to have fun, he loved to travel,” he said, adding that his brother preferred working at the business and following his own pursuits to public policy.

“He worked very hard,” he said, adding that he enjoyed his downtime during the winter at his home in Florida.  

James Gillian, he said, also loved his two children, Ryan, 24 and Lauren, 22, who both worked at the waterpark and Wonderland.

“My brother worked very hard, he took a lot of pride in the business,” Jay Gillian said, adding that James Gillian and Roy Gillian were both very involved with the International Amusement Parks Association, IAPA.

“Nobody realized how long he had been sick,” he said, adding that his brother, who had Multiple System Atrophy, MSA, a progressive neurodegenerative disease fought a long, courageous battle.

“I’m very lucky,” said Jay Gillian. “I really looked up to Jimmy when I was growing up. I thought he was the coolest. No matter what, we were brothers and I have a lot of really good memories, a lot of happy memories.”

This story was updated on April 17 to inlcude quotes and information from the Gillian family. 

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