Photo courtesy Busch Gardens in Williamsburg
Let's just get it out of the way: When you're talking about kid-and family-focused fun, nothing compares to the 800-pound gorillas of amusement — King's Dominion and Busch Gardens Williamsburg. The region's long-reigning theme parks offer slightly different experiences: Located in Hanover County's Doswell, King's Dominion ( kingsdominion.com ) is an amusement park on steroids, notable for its water park, Planet Snoopy area for preschoolers and thrilling roller coasters, such as the Dale Earnhardt-themed Intimidator 305.
Busch Gardens ( buschgardens.com ), located in Williamsburg about an hour south of Richmond off Interstate 64, offers similar adventures but in a laid-back, wooded, Europe-themed setting. Highlights include the Elmo-centric Sesame Street Forest of Fun and the towering Loch Ness Monster, Alpengeist and Apollo's Chariot roller coasters.
But amusement parks can be pricey destinations, even if you take advantage of the great deals offered by purchasing season passes. Besides, there is plenty of low-cost and free fun to be had in Richmond.
Maymont ( maymont.org ), Richmond's 100-acre park, is an urban oasis for families, complete with two resident black bears, a petting farm and a nature center featuring huge turtles, fish and a pair of playful river otters. Richmonders can picnic and frolic on Maymont's lawns below towering old-growth oaks or take in the beauty of its 100-year-old Japanese and Italian gardens.
Another outdoor treasure is Pocahontas State Park ( www.dcr.virginia.gov/state_parks/poc.shtml ) in Chesterfield County, which boasts miles of trails, camping and a water park with slides and an elaborate children's play area with a pirate ship and spraying jets of water.
No discussion of Richmond's outdoor wonders would be complete without mentioning Lewis Ginter Botanical Gardens ( lewis ginter.org ) on Richmond's North Side.
"The garden is a big place for all ages," says PR and marketing coordinator Jonah Holland. The 50-acre garden features beautiful exotica flora blooming year-round and boasts an impressive, ambitious schedule of exhibits and annual events. Children love Lewis Ginter's Children's Garden, which includes internationally-themed play houses, a giant "tree house," a water play area and a hidden "reading room," formed by a tree canopy. This May, Lewis Ginter will bring internationally renowned artist Patrick Dougherty to the park to create his monumental, site-specific sculptures built from sticks and twigs.
Of course, one of Richmond's greatest recreational resources for families is also its most distinctive feature — the James River. From April through August, Riverside Outfitters ( riversideoutfitters.net ) offers self-guided tubing and self-guided or guided canoeing and kayaking, with shuttles between the Willey and Huguenot bridges and Pony Pasture.
Riverside Outfitters offers summer day camps for kids ages 6 to 15, divided into three groups: Saplings (6 to 9); O.A.K., or Outdoor Adventure Kamp (9 to 12); and O.G., or Old Growth (12 to 15). The camp offers rope challenges, zip lines, whitewater rafting, nature education and good ol' fashioned playtime. "It sounds kind of silly, but one of the most attractive aspects of our camp is just free play," says Matt Perry, Riverside's president and co-owner. "It's a chance for the kids to be in these beautiful meadows along the river and just play and do creative activities."
Richmond also offers a plethora of annual events for families, ranging from Easter on Parade on Monument Avenue ( venturerichmond.com ) to the Dominion Christmas Parade ( richmondparade.com ) along Broad Street. The State Fair of Virginia (statefairva.org) will be held this year from Sept. 29 to Oct. 9 at Meadow Event Park in Caroline County.
One great (and free!) family-friendly annual event is the Richmond Folk Festival ( richmondfolkfestival.org ), scheduled for Oct. 14 to 16. It offers everything from arts and crafts and activities for little ones to stellar performances by musicians, dancers and singers from around the nation and world. "Every year we have about 20 different genres of music and dance we're presenting," says festival director Lisa Sims. "The goal is to plant the seed of appreciation and love for the traditional arts."
Along with camping facilities at Pocahontas State Park, there are private campgrounds throughout the region. Americamps 150 sites. Tents, campers and RVs welcome. Open year-round. 11322 Air Park Road, 798-5298 or americamps.com . Camptown Campground Tents, campers and RVs welcome. 22802 Camptown Drive, Petersburg, 469-4569. Cozy Acres Campground RVs and campers welcome. Cabins available. Open April 1 to Nov. 15. 2177 Ridge Road, Powhatan, 598-2470. Ed Allen's Chickahominy Recreational Park Tents, campers and RVs welcome; cottages available. April through October. 13501 Campground Road, Lanexa, 966-2582 or edallens.com . Kings Dominion Campground Cabins, pop-up and pull-through sites, and 243 tent sites. Playground, volleyball, mini golf and lodge with Wi-Fi and DirectTV. Open year-round. 10061 Kings Dominion Blvd., 876-5355 or kingsdominion.com . Picture Lake Campground 240 sites, plus cabins. Tents, campers and RVs welcome. Wi-Fi access. Open year-round. 7818 Boydton Plank Road, 861-0174 or picturelakecampgrounds.com . Woodbourne Kampground Tents, campers and RVs — about 35 sites. Open May through October. 6321 Hopewell Road, 932-3693.
The Richmond region has more than 100 parks. Most are open year-round from dawn until dusk. Ashland Parks The town of Ashland has six parks, including the 13.5-acre Carter Park, which has a swimming pool, a picnic shelter, a basketball court and a playground. 798-9219 or town.ashland.va.us . Chesterfield County Parks Chesterfield County has more than 40 parks and athletic facilities, including the 56-acre Huguenot Park, which has an azalea garden, a fitness trail and playgrounds. 748-1623 or chesterfield.gov . Hanover County Parks Among the 10 county parks in Hanover County is Poor Farm Park, west of Ashland. The 254-acre park includes mountain-biking trails and football and baseball fields. 365-4695 or co.hanover.va.us/parksrec . Henrico County Parks Henrico has more than 30 parks and recreation facilities. Major parks include Meadow Farm and Three Lakes Park. 501-7275 or co.henrico.va.us/rec . Pocahontas State Park This state park, located in Chesterfield County, spans more than 7,600 acres and includes hiking and biking trails and a pool. Swift Creek Lake is the 150-acre centerpiece of the park. Campgrounds accommodate tents and RVs; group cabins are available. 796-4255, (800) 933-PARK or dcr.virginia.gov/state_parks/poc.shtml . Richmond City Parks The James River Park System offers something for everyone, including biking trails, kayaking, fishing and swimming. 646-5733 or richmondgov.com/parks .
Cobblestones Park Splash Zone Water Park Slides of all sizes, five acres of sandy beach and the largest concrete swimming pool in Virginia. 13131 Overhill Lake Lane, 798-6819 or cobblestones park.com . Hadad's Lake Rope swings, a floating trampoline and a launch tower. May to September. 7900 Osborne Turnpike, 795-2659 or hadadslake.com .
Busch Gardens Williamsburg Exit 243-A off I-64 East, (800) 343-7946 or buschgardenswilliamsburg.com . Kings Dominion Exit 98 off I-95, 876-5000 or kingsdominion.com . Water Country USA Exit 242-B off I-64 East, (800) 343-7946 or watercountryusa.com .