Summer just isn't summer until I've played at least one game of miniature golf: There's something so carefree and old-fashioned about spending a leisurely hour or two knocking a ball through windmills, down slopes and alongside cooling fountains. Even on the hottest afternoons, miniature golf seems an ideal chill-out destination.

The game truly is old-fashioned: It originated in the early 1900s as a shorter version of regulation golf but soon evolved into a wildly popular pastime. Miniature golf's prevalence boomed during the Great Depression, when as many as 50,000 courses beckoned tourists throughout the country, says Paul Hemingway, one of six directors of the Professional Miniature Golf Association, a network of independently owned courses.

"Miniature golf served as an inexpensive escape: I can go out and show my family a good time without breaking the bank," he says. Over time, as more entertainment options arose, miniature golf courses became less profitable, and many closed.

Today, the association estimates that about 4,000 courses are operating throughout the United States, and Hemingway says trends point largely to "family entertainment centers," which feature not only miniature golf but also driving ranges, game arcades, laser tag, batting cages, bumper boats and other activities.

"The stand-alone miniature golf course is almost hard to find, with the exception of touristy areas," he says.

Another trend is toward landscaped courses, much like the garden-style settings popular during the 1920s: "natural, almost a parklike feeling with synthetic waterfalls, streams and rocks -- a nice aesthetic experience, if you will," he says. Newer courses, however, offer more vertical challenges and attention-attracting features such as huge waterfalls, he says.

The game for the most part attracts families and dating couples, but "the Tiger Woods effect" has drawn more single guys into playing miniature golf competitively, Hemingway says. Tournaments take place, primarily in areas with higher numbers of courses, such as the Carolinas.

In the Washington area, courses range from older styles adjacent to driving ranges to new, park-operated, naturally landscaped designs. Northern Virginia even boasts a course that's more elaborate than the themed variety usually found at beaches.

Although my family never manages to meet our goal of visiting a different course every week, we have visited a variety, including three with unique features.

HISTORIC MINI-GOLF IN THE NATION'S CAPITAL

It seems only natural that Washington, a city steeped in history, should be home to the country's oldest continuously operating miniature golf course.

"Rumor has it," acknowledges Michael Williams, director of marketing for Golf Course Specialists, the company that operates East Potomac Golf Course and its adjacent East Potomac Miniature Golf for the National Park Service. But, not uncommon in the nation's capital, controversy surrounds the notion. At least two other courses -- Geneva-on-the-Lake Mini Golf, dating to 1924, in Geneva on the Lake, Ohio, and Putts 'N Prizes, built in 1929, in Lake George, N.Y. -- also lay claim to the title.

"The history of it is kind of shadowy," Williams says of the East Potomac course. Records indicate that the miniature golf course opened in 1930, although the neighboring full-size golf course dates to 1921. Still referred to in some publications as Circus Mini Golf Putt-4-Fun, the course at some point may have been circus-themed. Both the miniature and full-size courses are part of East Potomac Park, which definitely is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

Regardless of its exact status, "this is certainly one that's been a landmark for years and years, and I think it's safe to say it's not going anywhere," Williams says of the city's sole miniature golf course, which maintains the "charming and antique" ambiance of its early days.

Set on about a third of an acre, East Potomac features a design typical of early garden-style miniature golf courses. Native stonework outlines the greens, and plants and ponds provide natural landscaping. The uncluttered holes give the course a deceptively simple appearance, and, during an early afternoon visit, I tell my almost 12-year-old daughter, Anna, that we should be able to play through pretty quickly. My mini-golfing companion's skepticism proves on the mark, as we quickly discover the difficulty of making par on just about every hole of the par-53 course.

"The course is challenging -- it's not real tricked up" but boasts some formidable layouts, Williams says. "A lot of the holes are long, and I think that's what people like about them."

"It has a lot of two-part holes, and it's trickier than it looks," Anna sums up, approaching the par-3 15th hole, at which she must putt the ball through a tunnel to easily reach the hole. Repeatedly, the ball just misses the tunnel opening, finally hitting its mark on the fifth stroke. My ball travels through the tunnel on the first attempt, but misses the hole for the first three strokes.

The biggest challenge, we find, is hitting the ball so that it rolls into the hole instead of backsliding down minuscule slopes.

Rather than obstacles, "this course more relies on links and speed," Williams says. "It's difficult to roll the ball and get it to stop where you want it to. It takes some skill to do that."

Skill is what Anna and I lack, not that we care. We're savoring the shade and breezy weather -- typical of the course's location on Hains Point between the Potomac River and Washington Channel -- as we have fun knocking around the balls, albeit without much success most of the time. We figure not even a pro could crack the double-decker, par-4 18th hole, which features an impossible combination of a tube, a steep ramp and a plateau. Anna gets it in five, and I require the maximum seven strokes.

The course draws lots of families and couples, Williams says, including tourists who appreciate the location's proximity to sites such as the monuments, as well as the park's abundant free parking. People also enjoy seeing helicopters fly overhead en route to the Pentagon and the White House.

Finishing our games embarrassingly over par, Anna and I celebrate her sole hole-in-one on the old-fashioned course with equally old-fashioned treats: Neapolitan ice-cream sandwiches.

EAST POTOMAC MINIATURE GOLF -- East Potomac Golf Course, East Potomac Park, 972 Ohio Dr. SW. 202-488-8087 or 202-554-7660. www.golfdc.com/gc/ep/mini.htm. Open March through October, Monday through Thursday 12:30 to 8, Friday through Sunday 9:30 to 8:30 through Labor Day; after Labor Day, Saturdays and Sundays only from 9:30 to 8:30 through Oct. 31. $4 weekdays, $4.50 weekends and holidays for adults; $3.75 ages 5 to 18. The course's starter shack sells snacks, and the snack bar next to the neighboring golf course serves meals. A playground and "The Awakening" giant sculpture are nearby.

A FAMILY TRADITION

"The concept of miniature golf is misunderstood a lot, even today," explains Gus Novotny, owner of Rocky Gorge Golf Fairway in Laurel. "It has nothing to do with golf: It's entertainment."

Forget about challenges such as impossible-to-navigate hills. Novotny, a golf pro, entrepreneur and former schoolteacher who started his business for supplementary income in 1965, believes the game should be fun, not frustrating.

"You never have the ball come back to you -- the ball, when you hit it, should roll toward the hole," he says, explaining that children in particular get fed up and tired of mini-golf if they can't succeed at getting the ball in the hole. "You always make a course look hard and play easy."

Novotny used to collect players' score cards and awarded a free game to the low scorer in each group. The real reason behind the promotion, however, was to study the cards and determine which holes proved most difficult.

"We've taken out holes and replaced them because they were too hard to play," he says.

The 19-hole, par-52 course, designed by Novotny and built by him and employees, features traditional and unique obstacles, including the course's original Washington Monument, lighthouse, paddlewheel and windmill. He refreshes the look every year: "You never paint it the same color, and everyone thinks you've remodeled!" Freshly painted a few weeks ago, the obstacles now don vibrant hues like purple, pink, green and blue; the lighthouse is painted in Baltimore Ravens colors.

Visiting the course on a sweltering August afternoon, Anna and I enjoy the combination of traditional decorations and clever new touches, such as the baseball-themed No. 1 hole, where we putt the ball from a pitcher's mound into a hole shaped like first base.

"Nobody said a miniature golf hole had to be round," Novotny says.

There's not a lot of shade, but water accents on the fourth and fifth holes add a cooling touch. On the obstacle-adorned holes, Anna opts for the most challenging option: trying to putt the ball up a ramp and into a tunnel that passes through the object, depositing the ball in or near the hole. Right away, she's successful, scoring a hole-in-one through the lighthouse. My ball repeatedly just misses the ramp and other paths to the other side of the green, but I manage to reach my destination in four strokes, 1 over par.

We're disappointed to find the normally swaying and crooning Needles the Singing Lonesome Pine silent on hole No. 8 -- a situation Novotny is remedying -- but quick to note the hole's other special feature: a putt-through mountain offering a break from the heat. It proves refreshing: I get a hole-in-one!

Novotny says players especially enjoy the singing tree, a train that whistles when the ball travels the right path and a clown whose nose spins if the ball goes into his mouth. But the hands-down favorite is Novotny's pride and joy, the 19th hole, billed as "the world's longest mini-golf hole."

"They walk up to it . . . and you hear the word, 'Awesome!' " he says of the 189-foot-long hole, a response to a challenge by a friendly competitor in Virginia. A sign instructs us to tap the ball gently, and Anna and I watch as each little orb gains momentum during its long journey down the sloping green. We can't do better than a hole in two, but Anna enjoys trying repeatedly, a benefit of the before-6 p.m. "play all day" special.

Novotny won't name a most challenging hole on the course.

"I think they're all easy -- that's the whole purpose of it," he says. "I'm out there looking at the smiles on their faces -- that's what I consider the challenge."

Players who visited Rocky Gorge as kids now return with their own families, Novotny says.

"She'll remember the course, and when she grows up, she'll be taking her children there," he says of Anna. He's probably right.

ROCKY GORGE GOLF FAIRWAY -- Route 29 and Old Columbia Road, Laurel, 21/2 miles north of Burtonsville. 301-725-0888. Open daily 9 to 11. $4 for unlimited play until 6 p.m. Monday through Saturday, $6 per game after 6 and on Sundays and weekday holidays. The site also features a driving range, golf lessons, batting cage, supply shop, arcade games, a picnic area and vending machines.

THE WILDS OF FAIRFAX COUNTY

Driving west on Leesburg Pike after dark, we almost miss Woody's Driving Range. Only the simple, barely lighted "Miniature Golf Adventure" sign hints at what's waiting at the end of the long, gravelly driveway. We pick up audible clues as we exit the car and hear a cacophony of monkeys, exotic birds, lions, perhaps, and who knows what else, emanating from behind a tall bamboo fence. We hear people scream!

Rounding a corner, we quickly see the evening's first shock: a dapper fellow suited up for a safari, standing in the ticket booth and looking our way. He blinks and turns his head and . . . wait! He's not an actual person -- just an animatronic creation that looks startlingly alive! Anna is beginning to have some reservations about venturing into what now clearly resembles a jungle setting beyond Sir Nigel Bogey, the realistic chap who periodically cautions visitors "to turn back now before it's too late. . . . You're liable to witness some very strange behavior along the way, which is par for the course."

"Some of the kids get a little scared out there," especially at night, confirms general manager Darren Shaw. But nighttime clearly is the perfect time to take in the course's many special effects and surprises.

When owner Woody FitzHugh decided to remodel his aging miniature golf course two years ago, he and his staff chose to go all-out with a theme concept. They narrowed the choices to two, of which an "Indiana Jones"-inspired jungle theme won out over "Pirates of the Caribbean." FitzHugh and his staff began scoping out courses as far away as Ocean City and Atlantic City to make sure their idea -- "Perils of the Lost Jungle," an exotic forest into which explorers have ventured since the 1940s, never making it out alive -- proved unique. The elaborate, impeccably timed result is comparable to a Walt Disney World attraction. What sets the course apart from others, Shaw says, is "the amount of detail -- everywhere you look, there's something going on -- [and] the fact that it's interactive." FitzHugh and his staff designed the course themselves and continue to add features. Employees even put together the soundtrack, which changes throughout the course and includes a variety of jungle noises along with music from adventure movies.

"All the guys that work here come up with ideas," Shaw says. Most props are from Advanced Animations Inc., a company that created props for the Revenge of the Mummy ride at the Universal Studios theme parks. Chimps swinging over the fourth hole are like monkeys from "Planet of the Apes," a movie in which FitzHugh appeared as an extra. The 13th hole features a prop from the film "The Relic."

Anna and I soon learn that more often than not, we can't see a hole from where we putt. We also discover that in order to follow the ball, we have to walk past various unusual objects, some of which have a tendency to do things without warning. On the very first hole, Anna shrieks when a large crate suddenly starts to jump up and down as she passes. Just beyond it, a lifelike Komodo dragon looks ready to burst from his cage; Anna is happy to notice a hidden mechanical piece in the creature's mouth, confirming that it's only a model.

"Everything has a sensor on it, but we can also manually trigger things, so we can make everyone's adventure a little different," Shaw says with a hint of mischief. He and the other employees monitor the course using video screens in the office and can make something happen with the touch of a button.

"My favorite hole is the poison frogs, because I think they're cross-fired just perfectly," Shaw says of the eighth hole, where camouflaged amphibians squirt unsuspecting players with water as they bend over to retrieve their balls.

Half the fun is the element of surprise, with one startling activity closely following another. After narrowly escaping a treacherous incident, Anna reaches a hut and hollers as she happens to look above and spot a startling, freakishly real sight: an assortment of shrunken heads, each with its own look. Dry ice, bursts of air and a wobbly structure play into other unexpected occurrences. And let's just say that if you don't care for spiders, snakes and lizards, certain sights might not thrill you.

Happily, Anna and I survive our jungle adventure -- but we realize later in the evening that we haven't even bothered to add up our scores. Somehow, they just don't seem to matter.

PERILS OF THE LOST JUNGLE -- Woody's Driving Range, 11801 Leesburg Pike (Route 7), Herndon. 703-430-8337. Open all year, daily 8 to 10 through Sept. 1, daily 8 to 9:30 after Sept. 1; call to confirm hours, which are subject to change seasonally. $8 adults, $6.50 ages 12 and younger, free for ages 2 and younger. Woody's also offers a driving range, putting green, batting cages, ice cream and other snacks, and picnic areas.

Freelance writer Mary Jane Solomon especially enjoys courses with spraying water.

Tom and Julie Wilson of Leesburg play a round of miniature golf with children Ryan, 9, and Erica, 5, at Woody's Driving Range. The Perils of the Lost Jungle course includes special effects such as jungle natives, far left, spitting snakes and other wild props.Golfers face brightly colored obstacles at Rocky Gorge Golf Fairway in Laurel, but Gus Novotny, owner of the 19-hole course, says miniature golf is about entertainment, not the sport. "You always make a course look hard and play easy," he says.