The fascination of the beach for small children may seem inexhaustible at the beginning, but it can quickly become exhausting, especially for parents. The bucket-and-shovel routine, the smearing on of sunscreen (and the squirming out of suits), the sticky-sandy food and the squealing that inevitably turns into screaming -- even if you avoid the real irritations of sunburn or insect bites, you're all going to need a tide-out. Here are some kid-centric attractions within quick reach.
Since small children can get as overwhelmed by bigger kids as by the surf, not to mention the constant temptations of food stands and toys, Delaware's Cape Henlopen State Park (302-645-8983) can seem a godsend. Five minutes from downtown Lewes, it offers four miles of lovely beach and lulling bayside swimming; the teenagers can go to the ocean side for livelier waves. It also has a small playground and nature center.
Cape Henlopen is also where Captain Kidd is said to have buried a chestful of gold in 1700, and the entire Atlantic coast is littered with shipwrecks and tales of pirate treasure, so the family-minded Quiet Resorts have appropriately salty kids' activities. The TreasureQuest Shoppe on Route 26 in Bethany, a couple of miles west of Route 1, offers classes in wreck-spotting and safe and eco-friendly archaeology (302-537-5334). Fenwick Island's DiscoverSea Shipwreck Museum (708 Ocean Hwy.; 302-539-9366) has a collection of mostly 18th-century sea- and warfaring artifacts, along with some Titanic relics. Pirate Adventures, a paint-your-face and swash-your-buckles fantasy cruise (Captain Cholly's favorite syllable: "Arrrrrr") in search of booty, will make the little hearties happy. The Sea Gypsy sails seven times a day from Harpoon Hanna's, off Route 54 (800-578-0825 or 302-539-5155).
Considering how Rehoboth feels about restaurants, it's probably no surprise that there is a cooking school for kids ages 6 to 16: The Wizard's Whisk offers daily, weekly or even fortnightly curricula (48 Wilmington Ave.; 302-227-0848).
When it comes to kids, Ocean City has all the trumps. Trimper's, actually -- Trimper's Rides and Amusements, an old-fashioned amusement park complete with one of the country's oldest continuously operating carousels, a fine Herschell-Spillman model (South First Street at the Boardwalk; 410-289-8617) -- and the Ocean City Pier Amusements, which offers the extra inducement of a Ferris wheel (Boardwalk Pier; 410-289-3031).
Just across the boards from Trimper's is the Life-Saving Station Museum, with its three elaborate dollhouse-cum-dioramas of early 20th-century Ocean City (Boardwalk at Inlet; 410-289-4991). From the replica shark outside the museum, it's scarcely a ball's throw to the animatronic shark crashing though the wall of Ripley's Believe It or Not! (Wicomico Street at the Boardwalk; 410-289-5600). Only two blocks away is the Ocean City Model Train Garden (109 Dorchester St.), which is not only an old-fashioned giggle -- nine trains run through a multilevel series of towns, roundhouses and even circus tents -- it's free. It's staffed by volunteers, so hours are limited, generally Thursday through Saturday from 6 to 9 and some Saturday afternoons.
For the most distracting rainy-day entertainment, head for the Planet Maze/Laser Storm indoor "funplex" (33rd Street and Coastal Highway; 410-524-4386), which offers miniature golf, extreme laser tag, a climbing maze and video arcade, plus a snack bar.
In Virginia Beach, Ocean Breeze Waterpark (849 General Booth Blvd.; 757-422-4444), which features 15 water slides, a million-gallon wave pool and the pirate-themed Buccaneer Bay, designed for the under-48-inch crowd, is open daily from Memorial Day through Labor Day. Mount Trashmore Park (310 Edwin Dr.; 757-473-5237) is a 165-acre, 60-foot-high recreational facility that sits on a former landfill. The Kids Cove playground, a skate park and fitness trails are located here.