It’s okay if you can’t head out this Spring Break to Colorado for some skiing or to Hilton Head for some beach time. We’ve got family fun you can enjoy in and around Charlotte:
Martha Rivers Park: The nearly 1-acre playground in this Gastonia park is a true magic kingdom. Pack a lunch and let your kids get lost amid the turrets. Free. From I-85 South or I-85 North, take exit 17 (Hwy. 321) and turn right, heading south on 321/N. Chester St. Turn left onto E. Hudson Blvd. Turn right at light onto Neal Hawkins Road. Martha Rivers Park will be on the right, 1515 Neal Hawkins Road. Total distance from the highway is about 5 miles.
Wing Haven Garden and Bird Sanctuary: This 3-acre sanctuary is a true find, with delightful gardens and fountains. Pick up the children’s activity book at the front desk, then stroll the shaded paths and help your kids look for birds, rabbits, turtles and chipmunks. Admission is free, but a $5 donation per adult is suggested. 248 Ridgewood Avenue. 704-331-0664.
The beach at Lake Norman State Park: You don't have to drive to the coast to enjoy the beach. With summer just around the corner, check out the 125-foot "beach" at Lake Norman State Park in Troutman, a little less than an hour north of Charlotte. They've trucked in sand, so bring the sand toys, and there's a roped off area for swimming or just fooling around. Amenities include a bathhouse with warm showers, a vender with snacks, changing stalls and lockers. Feeling adventurous? Take the kids on a nature hike first, then cool off at the beach. Open from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. daily. Free.
Daniel Stowe Botanical Gardens: Let your children frolic amid the sculptures, fountains (including one that will give them a refreshing cool down) and, of course, thousands of exotic plants. You'll be able to explore 110 acres and a natural woodland trail, and don’t miss the orchid conservatory. This place is truly a gem in the making. 6500 South New Hope Road, Belmont. 704-825-4490.
Riverbanks Zoo: If you're a fan of zoos, this is a great one to go with kids. Located off I-77 in Columbia (just 1 1/2 hours from south Charlotte), the zoo offers easy access to its animals, and it has all the biggies: lions, tigers, elephants, bears, sea lions, penguins. Be sure to check out the new giraffe! You and the kids can check out the entire zoo in under 3 hours, perfect for short attention spans.
Belmont Drive-In: Take the family to one of the few remaining drive-in theaters. For $4 a person (free for under 16), you can take in a double feature that typically starts around 7:30 p.m. It's a great place to take the kids to see a movie and not have to worry about trying to keep them quiet. Most families come early to get a good spot and spend the time talking, kicking around a soccer ball or throwing a Frisbee until showtime. The season typically runs from about March to the week before Thanksgiving, depending on the weather. Sometimes the theater is open seven nights a week, but it's always open on Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays. The food -- standard hamburgers and hotdogs -- is pretty good and reasonably priced, especially compared to regular movie theater fare. 314 McAdenville Road in Belmont. 704-825-6044
Go kayaking: Want to enjoy a peaceful trek down the Catawba River? Families with children ages 4 and up can rent a kayak or canoe at the U.S. Whitewater Center. Although the center is best known for its manmade whitewater rapids, it also offers what the staff calls flatwater paddling on the river. You can rent canoes, one-person kayaks or two-person kayaks where children can ride up front while an adult provides the arm power. You can rent the boats and go off on your own, or sign up for a guided two-hour tour. Either way, you'll see plenty of wildlife, including blue heron, turtles, maybe even a beaver. Afterward, you can hike around the center, try its rock-climbing wall and have a bite to eat. Call the center at 704-391-3900.
Camp Out: Want to try camping out with the kids without going far? You can rent a 9-by-12-foot tent at McDowell Nature Preserve in southwestern Mecklenburg County. The tent comes with two single-person cots and can fit up to six people (bring sleeping bags for the kids!). The site has a fire ring, a grill, an electrical hookup and a shared water hook-up. Bathrooms with hot showers are nearby. While you’re there, take the kids fishing, hiking, canoeing or to the nearby playground – or visit the snakes, frogs and other critters in the preserve’s nature center. Cost to rent the tent: $36 for Mecklenburg County residents; $46 for those who live outside the county. Sometimes there is additional programming. Call 704-588-5224
Dan Nicholas Park: At this amazing park in Rowan County, about 45 minutes from uptown, your kids can ride an old-fashioned carrousel and train, play mini-golf, pan for real gemstones, splash in the water play area, ride the paddleboats, pet farm animals and more. The best part? Most of the activities cost less than $1 per person. The one thing that costs more: panning for gemstones. That's $7 for a beginner's bucket, which two kids can share. But children as young as two will get a kick out of finding sparkly quartz and shiny amethyst stones in buckets of sand. For $20, the park will make the prettiest gemstone your child finds into a ring.
The school track: Before classes resume, don't miss a chance to take advantage of the paved track at your local middle or high school. It's the perfect place for your kids to ride scooters or bikes (especially those just starting to learn), and you can get some exercise while you walk the track with other moms.
Mice on Main: Head to charming Greenville, SC, and hunt for mice. Not real ones, though. A few years ago, a high school senior proposed the idea of placing mice sculptures throughout downtown to create a scavenger hunt. He drew inspiration from the children’s book favorite, “ Goodnight Moon.” A bronzed sculpture of the book and one mouse are mounted on the fountain in front of the Hyatt Regency hotel and the other eight mice are installed along a nine-block stretch of Main Street between the Hyatt & the Westin Poinsett hotels.
Carowinds: Our big amusement park opens for business March 28, and will be open weekends, Mondays and Fridays for the first two weeks in April.
Trader Joe’s Scavenger Hunt: While you shop, your kids can hunt for pirate's treasure and mark it down on the map you pick up in the front of the store. If they find all four items (warning: the spyglass is very difficult; we had to get some help from a clerk!), they get a prize out of the treasure chest. That’s on top of the free balloons, the free samples and the tiny mini-golf course that already make this grocery store ultra kid-friendly.
Fintastic: At this tropical fish store in Ayrsley shopping center in southwest Charlotte, kids will gaze in wonder at the clownfish, starfish and other sea creatures. Sometimes they even have small nurse sharks. 2135-C Ayrsley Town Blvd. 704-525-0049.
Ray’s Splash Planet: Kids of all ages can enjoy this splash fest. There’s shallow water and gentle slides for the youngest, and more adventurous stuff for the older kids. Plus, it has a great lazy river.
Feed the Fish: See the fish and watch them feed at Bass Pro Shops Outdoor World at Concord Mills. You can stop by anytime the store is open to watch them swim, but feedings are at noon on Thursdays, 2:30 p.m. on Saturdays and 6:30 p.m. on Tuesdays. Afterward, enjoy lunch at the food court, go bowling at Dave and Busters or spin around the track at Nascar Speedpark.
Monkey Joes: Burn off some energy at Monkey Joes, an indoor playground filled with inflatables. It can get wacky, so be prepared for a bit of chaos. Wednesdays are half-price admission all day and free for special needs children from 6:15-7:15 p.m.
Billy Graham Library: Located just off Billy Graham Parkway, this center is the place to learn about one of the great Carolinians: evangelist Billy Graham. While that may not sound too child-friendly on the surface, library staff promises its interactive exhibits will interest kids. Closed on Sundays.
Earth and sky: At the Schiele Museum in Gastonia your children will see live alligators, birds, possums, skunks, raccoons -- even a 120-pound Burmese albino python. Then, head to the planetarium for a tour of the night sky. Pack a lunch and make it a full day. Charlotte Nature Museum: It's not very big or fancy, but this sweet baby sister to Discovery Place is a perfect way to spend a few easy, stress-free hours with your kids. Located in Myers Park, right alongside the lovely Freedom Park, the Nature Museum has a collection of live animals sure to thrill little ones (a very cool owl, a fat and lazy groundhog and a hyper skunk, to name a few), a soothing butterfly garden and a great hiking trail that is just the perfect length for short legs. Pack a lunch and enjoy the park afterward. It's open 9-5 weekdays, 9-6 on Saturday and noon-6 on Sunday.
Firetruck Fun: Go by your nearest fire station and ask the crew inside if it would be okay for junior to take a look around the trucks. If they're not dealing with an emergency, they usually don't mind! If you want more formal fire fun, visit the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Fire Education Center and Museum, where kids can see old and new fire trucks. The museum, at 5th and Graham streets uptown, is open Wednesdays 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. and Fridays from 9 a.m. to noon, plus tours by appointment. 704-338-SAFE.
Charlotte’s Asian Corner: You could hop on a plane and 16 hours later land in China, or you could hop in a car and head ten minutes northeast of uptown to The Asian Corner Mall and New Century Grocery Store. Your kids will love the fish, frogs and shellfish in the aquarium, trying the koala bear and "intellect" cookies, and other new sights and tastes. 4520 N Tryon St.
Matthews Play Station: For just $2 per child (and $1 for each additional child), you can bring your kids to this indoor playroom for children ages 0-5 in the Matthews Community Center in downtown Matthews. You'll find Little People sets, musical instruments, dress-up costumes, dinosaurs and more. The playroom was started by local moms who thought the town needed an indoor space for young kids to play. Hours: Monday, Wednesday and Friday, 10 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. 704-321-7275. The play station closes for the summer on May 29. 100 East McDowell Street.
Strike!: You might remember bowling as just plain goofy, but it's actually a blast when you take kids. Most lanes these days have bumpers that prevent balls from going into the gutters -- which means every kid can knock down at least one pin! If you have the Citipass coupon book, check it out for great coupons—bowling these days can get pricey. Here's a listing of several popular alleys:
-- Carolina Lanes, Matthews, 704-841-7606 -- Centennial Lanes, South Charlotte, 704-527-0333 -- George Pappas’ Park Lanes, Myers Park; 704-523-7633 -- Northcross Lanes At The Lake, Huntersville; 704-892-7177 -- University Lanes, University, 704-596-4736
Choo-choo: Take a trip up Interstate 85 to Spencer for a train ride. The N.C. Transportation Museum offers several 25-minute rides on an antique diesel engine on weekends (switches to daily after Memorial Day). Afterwards, take a look at the authentic train depot, antique cars and a roundhouse with 25 locomotives and other exhibits.
ImaginOn: There’s something happening for every child at this children’s museum in uptown Charlotte. Look for storytimes for young kids to Wii tournaments for older kids. Take the light rail and then eat lunch at Reid’s for a full day.
Plaza Fiesta: The indoor playland here is Enormous. It’s four stories of twisting slides, ladders, obstacle courses and more. Cost is $2 per child on weekdays, $4 on weekends. Socks required.