Elsewhere in this book, you'll find plenty of fun things for adults to do, but what if you want to bring along the kids? You can only go to the movies or play Wii Sports together so many times, after all, so in order to determine the crème de la crème of fun gathering places for the half-pint set, we assembled a panel of pre-high-school kids from across the metro area, ages 6 to 13, to clue us in.
Our panelists are: sisters Parker Watts, 8, and Carter Watts, 6, who are in third grade and kindergarten, respectively, at Bon Air Elementary; Max Johnson, 13, a seventh-grader at Robious Middle School; Bailey Katsarelis, 12, a seventh-grader at Short Pump Middle; and her 8-year-old brother, Tanner, a third-grader at Colonial Trail Elementary.
And according to our panel, this year's ultimate, unanimous family-fun destination is Williamsburg's Great Wolf Lodge (800-551-9653, greatwolf.com). Featuring "comfy suites" that include bedrooms (fashioned to resemble tents, log cabins and wolf dens) for kids with TVs and video games, this is the kid equivalent of a weekend getaway to the Four Seasons. Great Wolf's major attraction is an indoor water park for guests. "We went for Tanner's birthday," Bailey says. "We liked the Howlin' Tornado," a six-story-tall funnel-shaped water slide. "That was very fun," Tanner agrees. Great Wolf also features an arcade and MagiQuest, an interactive wizards-and-dragons-themed live-action game that's perfect for young Harry Potter fans. Kids purchase a $15 wand that can be re-used for future adventures. But parents should be advised: Great Wolf doesn't come cheap (prices can vary from around $220 to $390 per night) and is better suited to special occasions.
Of course, those old standby amusement parks, Kings Dominion (kingsdominion.com) and Busch Gardens (buschgardens.com), still dazzle kids too. "We like to go on the Scooby Doo [roller coaster]" at Kings Dominion, Carter says. She and her sister like to get souvenir photos on the ride. They also enjoy meeting characters like Spongebob Squarepants. Over at Busch Gardens, Parker says, "I like Escape from Pompeii and the Big Bad Wolf," two popular thrill rides, while Bailey and Tanner enjoy the slapstick antics of Leslie Nielsen in the "4-D" Pirates movie at the Globe Theatre. (Parents of preschoolers, take note: Busch Gardens is adding a Sesame Street area this year. But let's call it what it probably will be: Elmo Land.)
In these tight times, family fun doesn't need to cost tons of bucks, though. There are lots of lower-cost options too. For instance, Parker and Carter enjoy seeing the bears at Maymont (358-7166, maymont.org), trying the paddleboats at Byrd Park or swimming, fishing and biking at Pocahontas State Park (796-4255, dcr.virginia.gov/state_parks/poc.shtml). The park has camping facilities and cabins and a pool and mini water park, available for additional fees (about $7).
Of course, older kids sometimes want a little independence from the 'rents. At age 13, Max Johnson's favorite hangout is Games Workshop (Stony Point Fashion Park, 560-8030, games-workshop.com), where he can unleash his inner homicidal dwarf against hordes of orcs and other gnarly monsters in fantasy role-playing board games like Lord of the Rings and Warhammer 40,000. Max and his friends meet to play games or paint fantasy figurines at the store, which sells rule books, figures, games and more. "The employees there are nice, and you can get to know them after a while and a lot of my friends go there," Max says. During the summers, Max indulges his artistic side at the Visual Arts Center of Richmond (1812 W. Main St., visarts.org, 353-0094), where he takes cartooning lessons from local comic-book artist Kirk O'Brien (inkyline.com).
And just like the teens they emulate, tweens like Bailey enjoy hanging out at the mall. At Short Pump Town Center (short
pumpmall.com), she likes to check out Abercrombie & Fitch with Mom, while Dad takes Tanner to buy clothes and accessories for his new stuffed Snow Wolf buddy at Build-A-Bear Workshop. Afterwards, they all drop by Bruster's (brustersicecream.com) for ice cream.
ALSO OF NOTE: Other fun spots our panelists ID'd include Chuck E. Cheese's restaurants (9030 W. Broad St., 762-4520; 10430 Midlothian Turnpike, 330-9865, chuckecheese.com); mini golf and batting- cage practice at Bogeys Sports Park (1675 Ashland Road, 784-1544, bogeyssportspark.com); ice skating and laser tag at SkateNation Plus (4350 Pouncey Tract Road, 364-1477, skatenationplus.com) in Short Pump; and bowling at Bowl America (4400 Pouncey Tract Road, 360-8222, bowl-america.com) in Short Pump or AMF's smoke-free Sunset Lanes (6540 W. Broad St., 282-0537, amf.com) or Shrader Lanes (8037 Shrader Road, 747-9620, amf.com) in the West End. (Wii-happy kids should be prepared to learn the real thing is a little more challenging than its Wii Sports counterpart, though. As Tanner says, "I only get one spare each time" when bowling in the real world.)