OCEAN CITY, Md. (AP) — The bachelorette party made its way toward the entrance of Seacrets, the young women sporting tank tops with such mantras as: "I need a break from class, put some wine in my glass" and "I'm here to party, buy me Bacardi."
It was their first night in Ocean City, the first night of a girls' weekend to celebrate a friend's upcoming wedding. Most of them grew up near Olney, so this was the beach where they vacationed as kids. And this was the bar they frequented during college breaks.
Well, bars. Seacrets is an "entertainment complex" spanning six acres and featuring 18 drinking establishments, a radio station and a hotel — a good-times empire built by an Ocean City native who dropped out of high school at 16.
Each weekend between Memorial Day and Labor Day, more than 25,000 people wait in line to get inside. On holiday weekends, that number can surge to more than 50,000, making it one of the busiest, highest-grossing bars in the country.
Most customers have been to Seacrets before and will return, part of a beach economy built on ritual. In this town, the surf, sun and sand have to be accompanied by doughnuts at the Fractured Prune, french fries at Thrasher's, crab cakes at Phillips and, of course, a boozy night at Seacrets.
"Noooo!" one bachelorette whined when she saw the long, snaking line separating their party from partying just after 11 on a Friday night. Another wondered aloud: "Why is there a line? It's not that late."
The burst of unhappiness caught the attention of a bouncer, who led the women to another entrance. One by one, they presented their IDs, walked through a metal detector, opened their purses for guards to peek inside and paid a $10 cover.
Then they walked up a sandy incline as a cool August breeze blew their hair back from their faces. To their left was a nightclub with a cover band playing pop hits. To their right, a DJ blasting a song about booty calls. Before them was an old boat that has been converted into a bar and restaurant, sheltered under a grove of palm trees imported from Florida. Beyond that was Assawoman Bay, quietly reflecting the resort's brightly colored lights.
"I like the sand," declared Molly Lethbridge, the 25-year-old bride, prompting some mocking from her bridesmaids and friends. "I do! It's like you are on the beach all night long."
That's part of the secret to Seacrets' success and what has transformed it from a simple tiki bar to a sprawling resort that can hold 4,600 people at a time.
Staffers at Seacrets wouldn't divulge how much revenue the complex generates. But Technomic Inc., an industry research and consulting firm, estimates the megabar raked in between $15 million and $25 million in 2011. That put Seacrets at No. 15 on the Nightclub & Bar Top 100, a list of the highest-grossing venues in the nation. (The list is dominated by Las Vegas hot spots, but three D.C. clubs made the cut: the W Hotel's P.O.V. at No. 44, LOVE at No. 63, and the Park at 14th at No. 85.)
Nearly all of Seacrets' money is made during the summer. The busiest weekend of the year is also the first of the season: Memorial Day weekend, when 50,000 to 60,000 guests are served by more than 500 mostly new bartenders, waitresses, hostesses and other employees.
"Memorial Day is like trying to play the Super Bowl without practicing," said Rico Rossi, a Seacrets general manager who started as a bartender at the original tiki bar in 1988. Business will tail off dramatically after Labor Day weekend.
In between, Seacrets is open almost continuously, closing at 2 a.m. and sending mobs of 20-somethings swarming the Coastal Highway. The place reopens at 8 a.m. for breakfast, which is especially popular with gray-haired retirees who might otherwise never step foot inside.
During the day, the most coveted seats are in the bay — half-submerged stools and tables and floating rafts. People start lining up hours before the tables open at 11 a.m., and they stay until they are kicked out of the water at dusk. Music blares, cellphones are ruined and waitresses in bikinis collect hundreds in soggy tips.
"The sun is shining, you're having too much fun, you're drinking a Corona. ... It's almost like you're somewhere else," explained Brigitte Ferraz, 22, a babysitter from New Jersey who has been to Seacrets five times this summer, each time arriving around noon and leaving after midnight. "I am loving Seacrets."
The creator of this sprawling resort, Leighton Moore, grew up in Ocean City and learned about the hospitality business from his parents, who ran a hotel just a block from where Seacrets now rises from the sand.