As long as anyone can remember, Myrtle Beach has been a quintessential kid-friendly seaside resort. Even back in the late 1940s, more than a half-century before the Travel Channel named it America's best family beach, Myrtle Beach already was the most prominent resort town on the famous Grand Strand. Today, this 60-mile stretch of honey-colored sand attracts twice as many annual visitors as Hawaii, making South Carolina the second most-visited state after Florida.
Yet sun, sand, and surf are just the beginning. Along with major family magnets like Myrtle Waves Water Park (the largest waterpark in the state) and the Dixie Stampede (the foot-stomping dinner-show brainchild of Dolly Parton), this town is brimming with fun ways to enrich, educate, and entertain kids of all ages. Here are 15 great reasons to pull your children to dry land.
1. Go shark raving mad at the 87,000-square-foot Ripley's Aquarium. First stop: Dangerous Reef, where you can travel on a glidepath through a plexiglass tunnel as menacing, giant sharks swim around you in their 750,000-gallon tank. Even toddlers can stroke rays and bonnet-head sharks in the touching pools at Friendship Flats, and older kids will love the Sea-For-Yourself Discovery Center, a hands-on playground with a multimedia edge. (Broadway at the Beach, 1110 Celebrity Circle; tel. 800/734-8888; www.ripleysaquarium.com; Daily 9am-9pm, Fri and Sat until 10pm; Admission: $18.99/adult, $9.99/child 6-11, $3.99/child 2-5)
2. Small fries with huge imaginations love the Children's Museum of South Carolina, an interactive utopia with dozens of hands-on exhibits. Within a few hours, Junior can pretend he's a dentist, dig for fossils, drive a boat, and get trapped inside a giant bubble. The new "Mr. Duck Adventure" teaches kids about pollutants, and what happens when it rains. The 4-and-under set gets a dedicated play area all to itself. Tip: Reserve ahead for the popular themed workshops that begin daily at 11:30am, such as "Toddler Tuesdays." (2501 North Kings Highway; tel. 843/946-9469; www.cmsckids.org; Open summer Mon-Sat 10am-4pm; rest of the year, Tues-Sat 10am-4pm; 6pm on Thurs; Admission: $7/person, free for kids under 1)
3. For wizards-in-training and muggles alike, the coolest place on Earth is MagiQuest. Entering the 20,000-square-foot castlelike venue is like walking into a video game where fantasy and reality collide. First, select a magic wand, which will be yours to embellish and take home. Next, step inside the magical realm, with its enchanted forest, pixie house, and spooky crypt. Through teamwork and imagination, players use their wands to activate events and earn increasing powers to achieve their chosen quest. Along the way, they may encounter a pixie, elf, goblin, unicorn and dragon. Confused? Ask your 6-year-old to explain it. (Broadway at the Beach, 1185 Celebrity Circle; tel. 843/913-9460; www.magiquestmb.com; Open daily in summer 10am-11pm; rest of the year, hours vary; Pricing: Magic wand $13.95, 60-minute experience $10.95, 90-minute experience plus 3 duels $14.95, Wand plus 90-minute experience and 3 duels $25.95.)
4. For an up-close look at the salt-marsh ecosystem, hop aboard Captain Dick's Saltwater Marsh Explorer Tour. Captain Dick hauls in a net full of sea life -- starfish, clams, crabs, sea urchins -- then transfers his catch to touch tanks for kids to see and feel. Afterward, you'll clamber off the boat and onto a barrier island where you might, if you're lucky, spy bottle-nosed dolphins. (Myrtle Beach South Strand in Murrell's Inlet; tel. 843/651-3676; www.captdicks.com; Cruise: $19/adult, $11/child 12 and under.)
5. What do you get when you cross Led Zeppelin with an amusement park ride? A whole lotta love in a roller coaster. Seriously. The Hard Rock Park opened this spring, unveiling "Led Zeppelin, The Ride" as one of hundreds of attractions, including rides, shows, kids' play areas, eateries, shops, and a live music amphitheatre. The 55-acre park is divided into genres such as "British Invasion," "Cool Country," and "Lost in the '70s." Rock on. (211 George Bishop Pkwy.; tel. 843/236-ROCK; www.hardrockpark.com; Admission $50/person, 3 and under free.)
6. If you consider a warm sea breeze, hot dogs, and the crack of a baseball bat among summer's greatest pleasures, then you'll want to bring the kids to see the Myrtle Beach Pelicans in action. The Class-A farm team of the Atlanta Braves plays top-rate hardball (63 former Pelicans have gone on to play in the majors) and the atmosphere is laid-back and family-friendly. Grab one of the cheap seats in the bleachers behind left field, and your kids might even snag a homer. (Coastal Federal Field, 1251 21st Ave.; tel. 843/918-6000; www.myrtlebeachpelicans.com; Admission: $7-$9)
7. Don't dismiss Martin's PGA Tour Superstore as just another sporting goods emporium. The focus here is on interactive learning, so you can take advantage of the same technology and services that are demoed at PGA tournaments. So go ahead, we know you want to. Try out the computerized swing simulator, get your chipping analyzed, and fine-tune your putting. This place even offers junior clinics, taught by PGA teaching pros, for kids who dream of being the next Tiger. (Locations at 1400 29th Ave. N. and 2310 Hwy. 17 S.; tel. 843/839-4653; www.pgatoursuperstore.com)
8. Unleash your budding Picasso at the beachside Franklin G. Burroughs -- Simeon B. Chapin Art Museum, which offers a terrific KidsArt program on the second and fourth Saturday of each month. Creative kids between 5 and 12 can attend small-group workshops in etching, screen printing, painting, and more. Tip: These classes are very popular, so be sure to register at least a week ahead. (3100 South Ocean Blvd.; tel. 843/238-2510; www.myrtlebeachartmuseum.org/art_education.htm; Open Tues-Sat 10am-4pm and Sun 1pm-4pm; Museum admission: free, but KidsArt fee is $5)
9. Kangaroos and zebras and African Watusis, oh my! Over 100 wildlife species make their home at the 500-acre Waccatee Zoo, which began more than 20 years ago as a private collection of exotic and domestic animals. This zoo is a noteworthy breeding ground for migratory birds. At certain times of the year, you can witness more than a thousand egrets or herons. (8500 Enterprise Rd.; tel. 843/650-8500; www.waccateezoo.com; Open daily 10am-5pm; Admission: $7/adult, $3.50/child 12 and under, free for babies under 1 year.)
10. Do your kids like a good ghost story? Join the 90-minute guided Ghost Walk through the gator-inhabited swampland around Gauses Inlet, while you listen to 13 spooky stories of long-gone Low Country residents like Blackbeard and the Gray Man. Book in advance and don't forget your camera. Many visitors have snapped pictures of mysterious, etheral "orbs" on this walk. (Ghosts and Legends Theatre, Barefoot Landing, 4818 Hwy.17 S.; tel. 843/361-2700; www.ghostshows.com/ghostwalk.html; Summer walks at 8pm and 9:45pm; rest of the year, call for times; $17.95/adult, $12.95/child 4-12.)
11. Hard to believe, but this entire region once looked like the 312-acre Myrtle Beach State Park, which harbors one of the last remaining stands of maritime forest on the northern coast of South Carolina. At the Nature & Activity Center, families can attend nature talks with themes like "Bat Chat," "A Crabby Experience," and "Urban Sea Turtle." Afterward, take the easy half-mile walk through the Sculptured Oak Nature Trail and admire the magnificent foliage, including oak, poplar, magnolia, honey suckle, and the wax myrtle for which this area is named. The main trail will bring you to the boardwalks at the beach. (4401 S. Kings Hwy.; Trailhead begins at rail fence opposite activity center; tel. 843/238-5325; www.southcarolinaparks.com; Admission: $4/adult, $1.50/child 6-15, free for kids 5 and under.)
12. Gentlemen, start your engines. Your Jimmie Johnson wannabe can drive as fast as he wants at the NASCAR SpeedPark. Kids 40 inches or taller can drive their own car on "The Qualifier," a 200-yard starter track, or ride shotgun in a two-seater car while Mom or Dad drives on the "Family 500" track. Kids who measure four feet or taller can drive their own car on the 725-foot track known as "The Champions." There are also NASCAR-themed mini-golf courses, bumper boats, and even spinning tea cups. (1820 21st Ave.; tel. 843/918-8725; www.nascarspeedpark.com/myrtlebeach.html; Open daily at 10am, closing time depends on season; Pay per ride: $3/ticket, $32 for an all-day wristband, $50 for 25 tickets.)
13. In a town known for its array of live theatrical shows, the hottest family ticket is Le Grande Cirque, an award-winning production featuring over 50 world-class acrobats, jugglers, mimes, dancers, tumblers, and other performers from China, Russia, and Europe. The intricate costumes and lighting effects are certainly dazzling, but for kids, the adorable animal acts steal the show. (Palace Theatre, Broadway at the Beach; tel. 800/905-4228; www.palacetheatremyrtlebeach.com; Tickets to 8pm show: $35-$45/adult, $10/child 3-12; 10am and 2pm matinees: $30/adult, $10/child 3-12.)
14. If you had to choose just one of Myrtle Beach's 60-odd mini golf courses, make it Hawaiian Rumble, where the annual Masters National Pro Mini Golf Championship is held every year. The wow factor in this Hawaiian garden-styled course is a 40-foot volcano that rumbles and erupts every 18 minutes. (3210 Hwy. 17 S.; 843/458-2585; http://prominigolf.com/rumble.html; Open daily 9am-1am; Admission: $8.)
15. Want to find out more about the Low Country's history, ecology, and wildlife? The one-of-a-kind Carolina Safari Jeep Tour is just the ticket. During this 3-and-a-half-hour excursion, you'll ride in an open-sided safari-style jeep as your guide takes you to spy alligators and eagles in their Waccamaw habitat, visit a rice plantation homestead, and explore some of the haunted graveyards in "most haunted county in America." Reservations are required, and there's door-to-door service from most Myrtle Beach area hotels. (tel. 843/497-5330; www.carolinasafari.com; $40/adult, $25/child 12 and under.)
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