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Grounds for Play

By John Kelly and Craig Stoltz
From the book "Kid-O-Rama"
Copyright 1998


Outdoors: Mega-Playgrounds | Go-Kart Tracks | Local Waterparks | Disc Golf | Bankshot Basketball | Horseback Riding | Miniature Golf | Carousels | Batting Cages | Kid-Friendly Bike Trails | Pedal Boats | Amusement Parks

Indoors: Indoor Playgrounds | Indoor Rock Climbing | Ice Skating | Roller Skating | Laser Tag | Bowling

Play — that's all kids want to do. Is it so much to ask? Many activities in this guide have playful elements. This chapter, however, focuses on those that are pretty much solely grounds for play — climbing kid structures, splashing in water parks, engaging in disc golf or bankshot basketball, pedaling boats, romping through amusement parks and more. We've divided them into attractions that are mostly outside (mega-playgrounds, go-kart tracks, miniature golf courses, batting cages and the like) and mostly inside (pay-as-you-play entertainment centers, or inside "playgrounds," rock-climbing walls, skating rinks, laser-tag emporiums). While there are other benefits for kids here, particularly the development of assorted skills, there's really one overriding aim — to have fun.

Outdoors: Mega-Playgrounds | Go-Kart Tracks | Local Waterparks | Disc Golf | Bankshot Basketball | Horseback Riding | Miniature Golf | Carousels | Batting Cages | Kid-Friendly Bike Trails | Pedal Boats | Amusement Parks

Indoors: Indoor Playgrounds | Indoor Rock Climbing | Ice Skating | Roller Skating | Laser Tag | Bowling


In the 1980s, a new type of playground started sprouting. Gone were rusty swings, splinter-causing seesaws and metal slides that you could fry an egg on in summer. In their place came extensive wooden jungle gyms strung with heavy nets, towering and twisting tubular plastic slides in a rainbow of colors, and tot lots with soft surfaces underfoot. The reaction of parents upon seeing these mega-playgrounds: "Why didn't they have these when I was a kid?"

You hardly need help finding the smaller neighborhood playgrounds that have a few of these attractions, or even the most facility-rich regional ballfield/picnic pavilion/hiking trail zone. But the Washington area has a handful of outdoor play facilities that are so ambitious and kid-friendly that they are destination-quality — places worth a ride around the Beltway to visit. Unless otherwise noted, all are free and open from dawn to dusk.

The District Maryland Virginia
Montrose Park Cabin John Regional Park Tuckahoe Park and Playfield
  Lake Waterford South Run Rec Center
  Opportunity Park  
  Wheaton Regional Park  

Go-Kart Tracks

Every parent dreads the day children get drivers' licenses. You can start that worrying now — at a go-kart track. Low-horsepower gasoline engines power tiny karts around the track. There's a steering wheel, a gas pedal and a brake. Age, and sometimes height, restrictions apply. Typically, children must be at least 8 years old (or 54 inches high) to drive solo. Some tracks have wider, double go-karts, which an adult can drive with a passenger as young as 2 or 3. More challenging slick tracks or grand prix-style tracks may require that drivers be 12. Prices are about $2 to $4 for a ride that usually lasts three to five minutes (more for slick tracks). Discount ticket books are available.

Maryland Virginia
Fast Track Raceways Alexandria Go-Kart Raceway
Go-Kart Raceway Champions
Skelterama Go-Kart Track  
Waldorf 500  

Local Waterparks

While creative water-play areas once were the province of the big amusement parks, local recreation departments have seen the wisdom of providing them for area citizens. The industry calls them "leisure pools" (as opposed to lap pools), and Northern Virginia is especially blessed with splash parks that even the smallest or most water-averse children are likely to enjoy. Hours can vary almost daily, so call ahead for details.

Maryland Virginia
Montgomery County Aquatic Center Bull Run Regional Park
Rollingcrest-Chillum Splash Pool Cameron Run Regional Park
Summit Hall Farm Park Lake Fairfax
  Splash Down
  Water Works

Disc Golf

It may never make it as an Olympic sport, but disc golf — in which players fling Frisbees (or other brands of flying discs) into chain-link baskets representing "holes" of a 9- or 18-hole course — is a great family diversion. The game's easy to learn, fun to play and a pleasant way to spend an afternoon at the park. As our observations of bandana-sporting teens during our outings suggest, it's possible to get quite serious about disc golf; players feeling the tug might want to check out for information on rules, clubs, courses and other details.

More likely, though, disc golf will be something you and the kids will do when you visit one of the parks noted here, each of which features an open-to-the-public disc golf course. The game's slightly more demanding of skill and attention than miniature golf. Five-year-olds can play, but the challenge really kicks in at around 7 and up. Smaller kids can have a blast simply following the throws of the older kids around the course. Bring a small pad and pencil for keeping score, if you're so inclined, plus a water bottle.

Maryland Virginia
Calvert Road Park Bluemont Park
Seneca Creek State Park Bull Run Regional Park
  Burke Lake Park
  McLean Central Park
  Pohick Bay Regional Park

Bankshot Basketball

Invented at a rehabilitation center in Israel as a way for patients to exercise, bankshot basketball is like regular basketball combined with miniature golf. There's no running. Instead, players take their shots from 12 fixed points, aiming the ball at crazily angled backboards. Physical ability isn't a guarantee of success, since there's as much geometry as muscle involved in scoring. It's a fun way for the disabled to compete on a relatively level playing field and for kids who are basketball crazy to stretch their skills.

Rockville Municipal Swim Center

Horseback Riding

Owning a horse is a dream for many kids and a nightmare for many parents. You can get a taste of the action, if not the sky-high costs and punishing time commitments of horse ownership, by going on a trail ride. There are many trail-riding outfits in our immediate area and within a few hours' drive. Most cater to adults or older children. We list here generally those with a minimum age of 10, though a few will take all ages. Kids too small for their own horse (usually 4 and under) ride double with a grown-up.

Trail rides typically employ docile, well-trained horses that can amble along the prearranged route with no input from their human driver. Riders should wear long pants, and while hard-soled shoes with heels once were required, most places only prohibit sandals. Some provide helmets for youngsters; if you're at all concerned, don't hesitate to bring along a bike helmet.

While the outfitters here offer trail rides of varying lengths (half-day and full-day rides often include a packed lunch), children should stick to 60- or 90-minute rides when they're starting out. Reservations are a must, so call ahead.

The District Maryland Virginia
Rock Creek Park Horse Center Piscataway Horse Farm Fort Valley Stables
  Wheaton Park Stables Marriott Ranches
  Elk Mountain Trails Mountaintop Ranch

Miniature Golf

Here's an idea: Hand kids a metal stick and ask them to hit a ball! The real difficulty, of course, comes in convincing your charges to pick up the ball after the maximum six strokes. Still, the brightly colored balls, the well-manicured indoor-outdoor carpet, the clown faces and windmills are appealing. Children under 4, though, may find the experience more aggravating than enjoyable. They definitely will aggravate any child-free foursomes who are stuck behind you.

Prices are about $3 to $4 for kids, slightly more for adults, with additional rounds at a reduced price. Miniature golf courses in county parks tend to be just one of many diversions. Head there if you also want to hike, picnic or even swim. For-profit concerns often also have video games, batting cages and other offerings. Courses at driving ranges allow mom or dad to hit a bucket of balls. We've also noted the handful of courses that are indoors and thus immune to bad weather.

The District Maryland Virginia
Circus Mini Golf Putt-4-Fun Laurel Golf and Recreation Algonkian Regional Park
  Monte Miniature Golf Bull Run Regional Park
  Putt Putt Cameron Run Regional Park
  Rocky Gorge Miniature Golf Course Centreville Mini Golf and Games
  Summit Hall Farm Park Champions
  Watkins Regional Park Chantilly Golf Center
  White Flint Golf Park Fountainhead Regional Park
    Jefferson District Park
    Lake Accotink Park
    Lake Ridge Park
    Locust Shade Regional Park
    The Magic Putting Place
    Pohick Bay Regional Park
    Upton Hill Regional Park
    Woody's Golf Range

Spin Control: Carousels

Kids love going around in circles nearly as much as running in a straight line. And if they're going up and down while going round and round, so much the better. The Washington area seems especially blessed with carousels. Those in parks usually are open Memorial Day through Labor Day. The cost is about $1 a ride.

The District Maryland Virginia
The Mall Glen Echo Park Burke Lake Park
  Wheaton Regional Park Lake Accotink Park
  The Mall in Columbia Lake Fairfax
  Inner Harbor Lee District Park
    Spotsylvania Mall

Batting Cages

Soccer may be overtaking baseball as the organized national pastime of America's youth, but there still are plenty of children who relish the crack of leather on pine. Or, more likely today, on aluminum. A batting cage is one way to practice what probably is the most enjoyable part of the game: making contact. The proprietors of the establishments below recommend that children be 6 or 7 before they step into a cage. You may also want to be standing behind them, grasping their hands and guiding their swing. Children must wear head protection. Beginners should stick to slow-pitch softball machines. The cost is about $1 for 18 pitches.

Maryland Virginia
Laurel Golf and Recreation Cameron Run Regional Park
Rocky Gorge Champions
Sportland America of Maryland Dug Out
  Locust Shade Regional Park
  Northern Virginia Baseball Academy - Alexandria
  Northern Virginia Baseball Academy - Chantilly
  Occoquan Regional Park
  Upton Hill Regional Park
  Woody's Golf Range

Kid-Friendly Bike Trails

Riding the Schwinn up and down your street is fine for a while, but soon your kids (and you) will want to try pedaling through something a bit more scenic. The problem is that many parts of the area's better-known bike trails (Washington & Old Dominion, Mount Vernon) attract hardcore bikers who have little patience with slow, unsteady riders-in-training. You're better off going to a park that also has paved trails. One with a playground or some other kid-magnet will assure lots of other families (and something to do besides pedal). For an in-depth look at where to ride, check out John Pescatore's "Family Bicycling" ($10.95; EPM Inc.), an excellent guide to area trails. The Washington Area Bicyclist Association (202/628-2500) also has information and maps on local trails and will mail you a free, well-written brochure called "Teaching Your Child to Ride a Bike."

Maryland Virginia
Capital Crescent Trail Burke Lake
Centennial Park Lake Accotink Park
Lake Artemesia W&OD Trail
Seneca Creek State Park  

Pedal Boats

It doesn't take much skill to pilot pedal boats, which is why they're perfect for pint-sized sailors. Area ponds and lakes typically put boats in the water starting around Memorial Day. They're often open weekends from then until the end of school, whereupon they're open daily until Labor Day. To rent, you'll need a refundable cash deposit and/or a driver's license. Most boats are for two people, both of whom furiously pedal (or not). In four-person boats, the two passengers in the back just enjoy the view. (Note: Some locations stock special boats for the disabled, powered by hand rather than by foot. Call for information.)

The District Maryland Virginia
The Tidal Basin Allen Pond Park Lake Accotink Park
  Centennial Park Lake Fairfax Park
  Cosca Regional Park Lake Ridge Park
  Lake Kittamaquandi Locust Shade Regional Park
  Lake Needwood Pohick Bay Regional Park
  Seneca Creek State Park  
  Greenbrier State Park  

Amusement Parks

In recent years, amusement parks have figured out that not everyone wants to zoom on a roller coaster or be suspended upside-down from a re-creation of a Viking ship. So they've added more attractions for little kids. Many are of the tiny-car-that-goes-in-endless-circles variety, but others try a little harder. Sesame Place, about 3.5 hours from Washington in Langhorne, Pa., is the best bet for the under-7 crowd: Everything is kid-sized. There's a large selection of water activities, and costumed Sesame Street characters work the crowd. HersheyPark, about 2.5 hours away in Hershey, Pa., appeals to kids for another reason: chocolate. While you're there you can visit Chocolate World and munch on lots of the brown stuff. Kiddie rides are scattered through the park itself, and there's also a zoo. You can help sell a visit to Colonial Williamsburg with a stop at one (or both) of the amusement parks down there: Busch Gardens and Water Country USA. Adventure World has been redubbed Six Flags America and is promising $27 million of improvements when it reopens in May 1999. It's the closest to Washington, right near the Beltway in Largo, Md.

A day at an amusement park is not cheap. Admission prices range from $25 to $35 a person (rides are free). Factor in locker rental (if it's a water park), food and souvenirs as well. Some tips for getting the most out of your park visit:

  • Call ahead for a map and schedule, so you can formulate your plan of attack. Note where kid-friendly rides are and times for special shows.
  • To avoid crowds as much as possible, try arriving before the park opens. That way you also can leave earlier to escape long parking lot lines. If it's a water park, go straight to the lockers to stow clothes. Visit attractions at the farthest reaches of the park first, then work your way back toward the entrance.
  • Drink plenty of liquids, take breaks and, of course, don't let kids go on any stomach-turning rides too soon after eating.

Pennsylvania Maryland Virginia
Hershey Park Six Flags America Paramount Kings Dominion
Sesame Place   Busch Gardens
    Water Country USA

Indoor Playgrounds

You either love self-contained indoor "playgrounds," or entertainment centers, or you hate them. And, as with so many things concerning parenthood, you can hate them and still frequent them. With their ball pits and cargo nets, hamster-trail tubes and quarter-sucking arcade games, they are sensory overload. Some people worry about sanitation or even question whether the places are detrimental to a child's creativity and socialization (this group seems to prefer the days when kids played with sock puppets and lengths of string). But most children love them, and you'll probably find yourself at one during your lifetime.

Our advice for getting the most out of your visit? First (yet again), get there early: The places become jammed later in the day, especially on weekends or rainy days. Second, while your child will know to wear socks and comfortable clothes, you should do the same: It is not unusual to have to kick off your shoes and head deep inside a plastic tube to perform an "extraction." Finally, set a limit ahead of time on how much you'll spend on game tokens.

Below are the main players in the local indoor-playground game. Remember, too, that many hamburger joints have similar, if smaller, play areas that are free.

Discovery Zone
DZ kicked off the nationwide pay-to-play chain craze, but the company's rapid expansion forced it to file for Chapter 11 bankruptcy in April 1999. In June, the company closed more than 100 locations nationwide, including 10 in the Washington area. The three locations that remain – all in Montgomery County – are franchises. The locations that closed have been acquired by other companies, including Chuck E. Cheese.

This indoor-play contender adds a few amusement park rides to the Discovery Zone formula. The two regular locations, both in Maryland, feature a tube- and slide-based climbing structure that the 4-to-8 crowd loves. They also have an area loaded with token-gobbling game machines (mostly non-violent) spewing tickets that can be redeemed for low-quality prizes, plus several amusement-park rides, ranging from a mild-mannered jungle jeep attraction to a modest roller coaster and bumper cars to a truly wicked scrambler. (Several games and rides are not wheelchair accessible.) All the activity revolves around the Tiny Rhino Diner serving Pizza Hut pizza and a few yuppie items like pasta and salads. Admission covers unlimited rides and play, but game tokens cost extra. A lot of kids seem to develop obsessions about the games, tickets and prizes, which can get expensive and annoying.

Planet Play This Northern Virginia-based group of four (mostly) indoor activity centers offers a combination of play structures, laser tag, fast food, redemption games and birthday parties. The Centreville location offers miniature golf, too, and Springfield edges into Jeepers territory with bumper cars and a carousel. Offerings at each location vary, as do prices. Indoor play areas typically cost $2 for a half-hour or $3 to $5 for the entire day (older kids pay more). Laser tag runs anywhere from $3.50 for 10 minutes to $8.50 for 24 minutes.

Maryland Virginia
Dave & Buster's  
Discovery Zone - Germantown Discovery Zone - Manassas
  Jeeper's - Fairfax
  Planet Play - Burke
Discovery Zone - North Bethesda Planet Play - Reston
Jeeper's - Rockville Planet Play - Springfield
Jeeper's - Greenbelt Planet Play - Centreville

Indoor Rock Climbing

Indoor climbing — in which participants scale nearly vertical surfaces studded with hand and foot holds, while safely tethered to an assistant called a "belayer" — requires a bit more planning, devotion and expense than most activities in this book. But for families with kids 6 and up, we think it's worth it. Wall climbing offers an unusual mix of gender-neutral physical challenge, opportunities to gain self-confidence and learn new skills, a chance for parents and kids to play together and sheer fun — all with more flexibility and less of an up-front commitment than, say, ballet or martial arts lessons.

The best place to start, we think, is with the commercial operation called Sportrock, which has Kids Nights every Friday. Call at least 24 hours in advance — they need a head count to adjust available staff — and then just show up. With no prior experience, kids slip on a harness and helmet and receive a brief introduction. Soon they're safely scaling 30-foot walls with the assistance of a trained instructor. Parents can marvel from the sidelines, relax in a small lounge or, better yet, take a Basic Skills class at the same time (grown-ups get a lot more background and prep about safety, skills and knot-tying) and join the kids later. Once you've learned to belay your kids (and your spouse), this can be a great once-in-a-while family activity — or, for some, a true passion that leads to serious outdoor adventuring.

Below is information on the area's two Sportrock facilities and other facilities that, after you've learned the ropes at Sportrock or some other venue, offer more affordable, though more limited, walls to climb. Both the Sportrock and Rockville facilities offer birthday parties.

Maryland Virginia
Sportrock I Sportrock II
City of Rockville Climbing Gym Wakefield Recreation Center
Earth Treks Climbing Center  

Ice Skating

The earlier kids start learning to ice skate, the sooner they can go on to Olympic gold, followed by a lucrative contract with a touring ice show. Then they'll be able to take care of you when you're old and infirm. So sign up for lessons today! The schedules at most ice rinks — family skate versus adult skate, hockey practice versus group lessons — make those at community pools look like models of simplicity. Call before you lace up, lest the ice be already occupied. Admission for most rinks is about $4 to $6 for adults, slightly less for kids, with skate rental from $2 to $3. Outdoor rinks close in bad weather.

The District Maryland Virginia
Fort Dupont Ice Arena ARC Ice Skating Rink Fairfax Ice Arena
Pershing Park Ice Arena Bethesda Metro Ice Center Mount Vernon Recreation Center
  Bowie Ice Arena Reston Skating Pavilion
  Cabin John Regional Park Ice Rink Skatenation of Reston
  Columbia Ice Rink  
  The Gardens Ice House  
  Herbert Wells Ice Rink  
  Inner Harbor Ice Rink  
  Putt Putt Golf, Games and Ice Rink  
  Talbot County Community Center  
  Tucker Road Ice Rink  
  Wheaton Regional Park Ice Rink  

Roller Skating

In-line skates have taken over from those simple roller skates most of us wore as children. But there are still roller rinks where families can go round and round as a group. Most of these rinks rent the traditional quad skates, though some rent in-line skates or allow you to bring your own (provided the wheels and brakes are in good condition and the brakes aren't the kind that mark up the floor).

Like ice rinks and swimming pools, roller rinks have extremely complicated schedules. One night it's teen skate, the next it's gospel skate, the next pickup roller hockey. Many of the rinks we list below have special times for families or for young skaters. That's the time to go if you'd like to avoid a daredevil plowing through your group. Schedules are subject to change, so call before you go. Typical general admission is about $4, more on Friday and Saturday nights, less during special promotions. Skate rental is one or two bucks.

Maryland Virginia
Braddock Roller Rink Franconia Skating Center
Calvert Roller Skating Center Purcellville Roller Rink
Clinton Skating Center Skate and Fun Zone
Pasadena Skating Center  
Rockville Roller Skating Center  
Seabrook Skating Center  
Skate Zone  
Skate Palace  
Sportland America of Maryland  
Supreme Sports Club  
Waldorf Roller Skating Center  

Laser Tag

Bang-bang, gotcha. Well, more like the light-sensitive electronic vest you're wearing has registered a direct hit. Laser tag takes shooting games into the 21st Century. Players divide into teams and scurry around semi-darkened, warehouse-type spaces trying to pinpoint each other with light-emitting pistols. The aim usually is to capture a flag, but most people simply like to get an "enemy" in their sights and pull the trigger. Games typically last 10 to 15 minutes. Prices range from $4 to $8 a game, depending on the day of the week. Some places sell discounted memberships for hardcore fans. Laser tag is not recommended for children under 6; some places also have size restrictions, excluding players under 44 inches tall. Call any location if your charges are close to these limits. In general, wheelchair access is difficult because of the twists and turns of the courses.

Maryland Virginia
Laser Storm Centreville Mini Golf and Games
Sportland America of Maryland Laser Quest
  Planet Play - Burke
  Skate and Fun Zone


Kids already spend plenty of time flinging things around your house and knocking stuff down. Channel that innate urge at a bowling alley. Lanes with duckpin bowling — where you roll holeless, grapefruit-size balls at pint-size pins — are, of course, a better bet for little hands than muscling those big tenpin bowling balls. Also, most grown-ups seem to do no better than youngsters, making a duckpin game more fun for the whole family. Invaluable for the youngest bowlers are lanes that put out bumpers for children. The rubber bumpers cover the gutters, eliminating some of the disappointment that comes from rolling scoreless frame after scoreless frame. Games are in the $2 to $3 range, with shoe rental adding another couple of bucks. Birthday parties are big business on weekends.

Maryland Virginia
AMF Bowie Falls Church Bowling Center
AMF College Park  
AMF Southwest  
Bowl America Westwood  
Glen Burnie Bowling Center  
Riviera Bowl  
Thurmont Bowling Center  
Tuffy Leemans Glenmont Bowl  
Village Lanes Bowling Center  
Walkersvile Bowling Center  
White Oak Bowling Center  

© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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