Fade in on: the Cape Fear River's cobble-stoned Riverfront Park. Even without a jangly Paula Cole soundtrack, the setting is eerily familiar. Then a herd of teenage tourists clues you in to its significance: Oh, yeah, Pacey and Andie kissed here. Welcome to Wilmington, N.C., a quiet, azalea-filled North Carolina burg that's turned into the East Coast's newest teen mecca.
The draw? This 18th-century port city, once known for its shipbuilding and which still holds cotillions on the docked WWII battleship North Carolina, also doubles as the fictional hamlet of Capeside for The WB's Dawson's Creek, and on many weekends the town teems with adolescents who don't wanna wait for the new season to get their Dawson's fix.
A stroll through Wilmington's historic district finds gaggles of girls staring at the signed cast portraits in the real Ice House, where Joey works on the show, or snapping photos of the real Screen Play Video (Dawson and Pacey's after-school workplace). Another must-see is nearby Screen Gems Studios, where for $10 you, too, can walk the halls of Capeside High. Across town, students often gather on the grass to watch filming at the University of North Carolina-Wilmington, which doubles as the high school grounds. Boasts Wilmington mayor Hamilton E. Hicks Jr.: ''It's like the kids that went after the Beatles.''
The Cape Fear Coast Convention & Visitor's Bureau says that its website hits jumped 70 percent in the first three months of 1999, thanks in part to spring break; this summer, it expects the town to exceed 1998's estimated 1.6 million visitors. Wes Moore, operator of the Wilmington Trolley Company, definitely sees his share: ''I've taken so many teenage girls around looking for Dawson's locations.... They'll look at anything.''
Before the hoopla, it was easy for fans to spot Katie Holmes, who lived upstairs from Screen Play, and James Van Der Beek and Joshua Jackson, who once bunked above the Deluxe restaurant on Market Street. The stars have since moved, but both spots still attract gawkers, as does the cozy coffeehouse Mollye's Market (a frequent filming spot) and the antebellum Thalian Hall (whose interior was Dawson's beloved, now lamented, Rialto theater). Walking along the river is a must, though fans are dissuaded from trekking to the real home used for Dawson's house, which is privately owned and located down a secluded road at the edge of town (a mock front porch sits on the Screen Gems lot).
The city of Wilmington, which reportedly resembles Dawson's Creek creator Kevin Williamson's hometown of Oriental, N.C., wasn't always ready for its close-up. ''During the first season, some of our regular customers would complain [about the inconvenience],'' says Liz Edwards, Screen Play's co-owner. ''Now people offer me money to tell them when they're filming. I get 10 people a day from out of state. They're here just for Dawson's Creek.''
No doubt the economic boost from Dawson's Creek and other productions including the Sandra Bullock drama 28 Days (now in production) has helped shift local opinion. In fact, the film industry (including its technicians, actors, and talent agencies) represents 11 percent of the Wilmington area's economic base. Screen Gems prides itself on being the busiest production facility outside L.A. or New York.