Big Fun for the Little Ones
Maryland ranks 42nd among the 50 United States in terms of size, but it’s a real chart-topper when it comes to family fun. Over the years, countless Maryland sites have made it onto lists of the top family vacation destinations in the country.
Each of Maryland’s 23 counties, Baltimore City and Ocean City offer adventure, excitement and educational opportunities for young visitors. Trying to select Maryland’s best family-oriented attraction is probably an impossible task, but it sure is fun to try them all.
Perhaps you’d like to conduct your own research. To help in that endeavor, here’s a sampler -- one stop in each county -- to help you plan your way. Because many of these sites and activities include an outdoor or seasonal element, it’s always a good idea to call ahead to be sure they’ll be available when you want to visit.
For more information about travel in Maryland, call 800-719-5900 or visit www.visitmaryland.org.
Baltimore, Annapolis and the Surrounding Countryside
Anne Arundel County
U.S. Naval Academy: Part of the fun of a visit to Maryland’s capital city of Annapolis is a stop at the academy. Here kids can visit the huge dormitory, Bancroft Hall, to see a sample room and marvel at how clean the midshipmen have to keep it. A museum stocked with swords and model ships might appeal to some youngsters, while the underground crypt that holds the remains of Naval hero John Paul Jones will intrigue others. A visitors center provides an introductory film and enough ram-related merchandise (“Bill” the Goat is the academy’s mascot) to keep even the most selective souvenir hunters happy. 52 King George Street, Annapolis, MD 21402, 410-263-6933, www.navyonline.com
Port Discovery: The Imagineers from Walt Disney helped design this “kid-powered” museum, which became an immediate hit when it opened in late 1998. In February 2002, in fact, it was named one of the top five children’s museums in the United States by Child magazine. Port Discovery offers ever-changing, interactive exhibits, but a real highlight of a visit here is a ride aboard the HiFlyer, a helium-filled balloon with an enclosed gondola that is tethered outside the museum and flies up to 450 feet above the city. 35 Market Place, Baltimore, MD 21202, 410-727-8120, www.portdiscovery.org
Fire Museum of Maryland: Fire vehicles dating from as far back as the 1800s – including hand-drawn, horse-drawn and self-propelled apparatus – are on display here, along with a fire alarm telegraph network and badge and uniform collections. A Discovery Room gives kids the opportunity to literally sit in the driver’s seat of a 1938 fire engine. There’s often a former or current firefighter around to answer questions.1301 York Road, Lutherville, MD 21093, 410-321-7500, www.firemuseummd.org
Carroll County Farm Museum: This working farm in Westminster, where artisans demonstrate such essential farm activities as blacksmithing and woodcarving, is the perfect stop for city slickers unfamiliar with rural life. The youngest visitors delight in hunting for “Gizmo,” a painted wooden farm cat found at various locations around the 140-acre farm. But perhaps even more popular are the real animals – horses, pigs, rabbits and such – that welcome human visitors to their barnyard. 500 S. Center Street, Westminster, MD 21157, 410-848-7775, www.ccgov.carr.org/farm-mus
Ripken Museum: Any little slugger who’s ever struggled with a bat and ball is sure to enjoy a visit to this museum, which pays homage to recently retired Baltimore Oriole Cal Ripken, Jr. and his family. Exhibits trace the Ripken family’s contributions to the sport through film clips, newspaper articles, baseballs, jerseys and more. A statue of Ripken stands in front of the museum. 3 W. Bel Air Avenue, Aberdeen, MD 21001, 410-273-2525, www.ripkenmuseum.com
Ellicott City B&O Railroad Station Museum: Kids who are fascinated by the workings of model trains are sure to get “sidetracked” on this stop. The old mill town of Ellicott City was the site of the first passenger terminus of the B&O Railroad. Now the station is home to working model train displays and restored railcars. 2711 Maryland Avenue, Ellicott City, MD 21043, 410-461-1944, www.ecbo.org
The Area Surrounding Washington, D.C.
Children’s Museum of Rose Hill Manor Park: The 200-year-old home of Maryland’s first elected governor, Thomas Johnson, is now a museum geared especially toward children. Unlike the guides at many historic properties, who admonish children to “look, don’t touch,” the costumed interpreters here encourage hands-on learning during tours of the manor house, icehouse, blacksmith shop, carriage collection and log cabin. 1611 N. Market Street, Frederick, MD 21701, 301-694-1650, www.rosehillmuseum.com
Glen Echo Park: Formerly a premier amusement park for the Washington, D.C. area, today Glen Echo is a park for fine and participatory arts. A highlight for kids and adults alike is a ride on the antique wooden carousel. The park also sponsors children’s theater and classes in art and dance. 7300 MacArthur Boulevard, Glen Echo, MD 20812, 301-492-6282, www.nps.gov/glec
Prince George’s County
Six Flags America: What started out as a water park just a few miles outside of the nation’s capital has evolved into a full-fledged theme park featuring rides and shows geared to every age level. Though daring roller coaster rides like the Mind Eraser and Batwing appeal to older kids, there’s also a special, tamer area for pint-sized fun. And there’s always a strong chance that visitors will run into Bugs Bunny or one of his friends strolling through the park. 13710 Central Avenue, Largo, MD 20775, 301-249-1500, www.sixflags.com/america
Chesapeake Bay Country
Museum of Rural Life: This small museum depicts the agricultural lifestyle on the rural Eastern Shore. Guides often customize their stories for younger visitors, telling them what life was like for children in days gone by. A highlight here is a stuffed chicken that in its prime was a second-place, egg-laying champion of the region. 16 N. Second Street, Denton, MD 21629, 410-479-2055
Tailwinds Farm: This combination stable, horse farm, and bed and breakfast offers a first-hand look at life on a farm. Kids who attend day camp in the summer learn about riding and caring for horses. Throughout the year, the farm offers guided trail rides, hayrides and a variety of other programs. 41 Tailwinds Lane, North East, MD 21901, 410-658-8187, www.fairwindsstables.com
Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge: Visitors can drive or hike through this refuge, which is a resting and feeding area for migrating and wintering waterfowl. Flocks of ducks, geese and swans migrate through the park in the fall, but the site is home to a variety of birds, mammals and reptiles throughout the year. Bring the binoculars and try to spot a bald eagle; Blackwater boasts the East Coast’s largest nesting population of America’s symbol. 2145 Key Wallace Drive, Cambridge, MD 21613, 410-228-2677, www.friendsofblackwater.org
Durding’s Store: Kids don’t remember the days of old-fashioned soda shops (for that matter, many moms and dads don’t, either!), but this 1872 site has been preserved in the waterfront village of Rock Hall. It may not cause them to reflect on the “good old days,” but Durding’s will definitely hit a sweet spot with kids. They’ll be impressed by its authentic soda fountain, where friendly folks churn out frothy drinks that taste infinitely better than anything that comes out of a store freezer or a fast-food milkshake maker. 5742 Main Street, Rock Hall, MD 21661, 410-778-7957, www.sailingemporium.com
Queen Anne’s County
Cross Island Trail: A five-mile hiker/biker trail spans Kent Island east and west, extending from Terrapin Nature Park on the shore of the Chesapeake Bay all the way down to Kent Narrows. The trail provides terrific opportunities to view wildlife in an environmentally sensitive setting. Trail users explore canopied forests, cross streams and have access to public parks. The Queen Anne’s County visitors center in Kent Narrows is the perfect starting point for this tour. Queen Anne’s County Department of Business and Tourism, 425 Piney Narrows Road, Chester, MD 21619, 410-604-2100, www.historicqac.org
Learn-It Eco-Tours: Captain Larry Laird Jr. uses his Chesapeake Bay workboat to navigate the waters around Crisfield and Smith Island, all the while telling passengers about the ducks, geese, terrapins, eels, osprey and other bay creatures they’re encountering along the way. He also uses the traditional tools of a Chesapeake Bay waterman to give passengers the opportunity to see what lies beneath the water. Scheduled tours depart twice daily from a dock in Crisfield during the warm months. 1021 W. Main Street, Crisfield, MD 21817, 410-968-9870
Chesapeake Bay Maritime Museum: This very thorough and extremely interactive museum explains the history of the Chesapeake Bay region through exhibits of ships, decoys and an aquarium. Visitors can learn about the life cycle of Maryland’s famed blue crab, climb to the top of the Hooper Strait Lighthouse and admire the world’s largest collection of traditional bay boats. One of the exhibits focuses on oystering in the bay and is built around a full-size skipjack boat. Mill Street at Navy Point, St. Michaels, MD 21663, 410-745-2916, www.cbmm.org
Salisbury Zoo and Park: Named one of the finest small zoos in the country, this one offers the added bonus of being free. It’s small enough that even the most tired young walkers can navigate its paths without the benefit of a stroller – or Mom or Dad’s arms. The collection includes a variety of waterfowl as well as mammals, birds and reptiles native to North, Central and South America. Among the crowd’s favorites are a buffalo that kicks balls and a pair of playful otters. 755 S. Park Drive, Salisbury, MD 21802, 410-548-3188, www.salisburyzoo.org
Assateague Island National Seashore: This 37-mile island is home to dozens of wild ponies that roam free. The horses were made famous by Marguerite Henry in her novel Misty of Chincoteague, and for years they’ve fascinated visitors who explore the island’s 19,000 acres of sand dunes and sea grass. The Barrier Island Visitor Center is a good place to get started on a tour, buy a copy of one of Henry’s books or apply to “adopt” one of the ponies. 7206 National Seashore Lane, Berlin, MD 21811, 410-641-1441, www.nps.gov/asis
The Beach: This is the most obvious attraction at Maryland’s seaside resort. Ten miles of white-sand beach are accessible to all. Highlights here include a stroll along the three-mile boardwalk (with a cup of Thrasher’s french fries in one hand and a Dumser’s ice cream cone in the other), a visit to the Ocean City Life-Saving Station Museum and a stop to admire the sand sculptures that a local artist carves each day. Ocean City Tourism, 4001 Coastal Highway, Ocean City, MD 21842, 800-OC-OCEAN, www.ococean.com
The Western Shore of Bay
Flag Ponds Nature Park: This 463-acre park offers forested uplands, wetlands and beach habitats. For added fun, head to the beach to look for fossils in the sand. It’s not uncommon to find a jagged tooth that once belonged to a prehistoric shark. To learn more about these fossils, stop by the visitors center here or take a quick drive to the Calvert Marine Museum in neighboring Solomons. N. Solomons Island Road, Lusby, MD 20657, 410-586-1477, www.calvertparks.org
Gilbert Run Park: Visitors can explore the park’s 60-acre freshwater lake via aqua bike, rowboat, paddleboat or canoe. For those who prefer land-based activities, a hike along the nature trails might reveal a nesting pair of bald eagles. Bring a picnic lunch, then just sit back to enjoy the view – or get out some of that pent-up energy with time on the playground. Charles County Parks, 301-932-3470, www.charlescountyparks.com
St. Mary’s County "
Historic St. Mary’s City: What makes this historic site fun for youngsters is that they get to step back in time: The entire city has been preserved as a living history museum that pays homage to Maryland’s settlers and their original capital city. Costumed characters talk about life in the 17th century -- not as historians, but as colonists welcoming visitors who somehow stumbled backwards in time. They know nothing of cellular phones and video games, but they’re well versed in farming and musketry. Route 5 and Rosecroft Road, St. Mary’s City, MD 20686, 800-762-1634, www.stmaryscity.org
Maryland’s Mountain Region
Western Maryland Scenic Railroad: Ride a 1916 Baldwin steam locomotive from downtown Cumberland to Frostburg and back. The entire trip takes just three hours, but it allows plenty of time for a stop in Frostburg so passengers can explore the nearby Thrasher Carriage Museum. That museum houses one of the top three collections of horse-drawn vehicles in the United States. 13 Canal Street, Cumberland, MD 21502, 800-TRAIN-50, www.wmsr.com
Deep Creek Lake: Maryland’s largest fresh-water lake is the site of much fun for visitors of all sizes. The Discovery Center here offers countless children’s programs and activities. At the lake itself, boating, swimming and fishing are but a few of the activities that keep families occupied. If they tire of the water and would rather hit the links, there are plenty of miniature golf courses nearby. And a stop at the award-winning Lakeside Creamery ice cream shop is the perfect ending to an active day. Garrett County Chamber of Commerce, 15 Visitors Center Drive, McHenry, MD 21541, 301-387-4386, www.garrettchamber.com
Fort Frederick State Park: This fort dates to 1756, when it was the cornerstone of Maryland’s frontier defense during the French and Indian War. The stone wall and two barracks have been restored to their original appearance, and visitors learn about their architecture from guides in period dress. Children can watch crafts being made inside and learn games that children played in the 18th century while Mom and Dad enjoy a picnic lunch and the beautiful views. 11100 Fort Frederick Road, Big Pool, MD 21711, 301-842-2155, www.dnr.state.md.us/publiclands/western/fortfrederick.html