Charlotte’s Got a Lot!

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The "Queen City" boasts a plethora of fun things for your family to enjoy on your next getaway.

My inaugural trip to Charlotte, N.C., last month exceeded every expectation I had prior to visiting the lovely city. Charlotte (the largest city in North Carolina) offers more than 101 fun things to do ranging from outdoor adventures and nature experiences to scientific discovery and NASCAR … tons of great stuff for children of all ages to enjoy. Since Charlotte is seven hours away from Nashville, and because there’s so much to do there, you’ll want to plan for more than only a weekend trip. Here are some of the must-do experiences should your family decide to go:

Science and Nature Exploration
The fantastic Discovery Place (704-372-6261; www.discoveryplace.org) is almost complete with its recent $31.6 million renovation that includes several brand-new areas to gauge every age level. Kid Science is full of hands-on exploration opportunities geared to ages 7 and younger that focuses on fun and play while gauging young minds in areas of science and math. The area’s Water Table is a big hit with small children, and there’s even a built-in unit for babies to enjoy splashing in the water. The nearby toddler play area lets tots explore texture, movement and balance. Be sure to don a cape or grab streamers and experience the Wind Wall. There is a lot to do here that will keep kids occupied, but there’s much more to explore!

Pop into the Discovery 3D Theatre to view two different 15-minute animated films, or for an additional ticket, enjoy one of three IMAX films in another theater in the complex. Head upstairs to explore the Cool Stuff area that features a variety of exhibits focusing on the world of physics. Lie on a bed of nails, crush a garbage can, launch objects in the air and get creative with Kapla Blocks. The adjacent Explore More Stuff section is a hands-on lab allowing kids to conduct and create several matter and energy experiments. Visit The Stage to take in a game of rat basketball, the Glow Show and other programs. Six more new areas open between May and June.

A few short miles away is the Charlotte Nature Museum (704-373-9740; www.charlottenaturemuseum.org), a sister facility of Discovery Place. The museum gives kids an up close look at several live animal exhibits, ranging from snakes to southern flying squirrels. The exhibits teach kids about what they can find in their own backyards. If you’re lucky, one of the staffers will bring out Harriet, an Eastern cottontail mix rabbit, for a meet and greet. This gentle hare enjoys friendly strokes down her back from pint-sized friends. Stroll through the Butterfly Pavilion and enter the Nature Dome where the robotic, animated, storytelling Grandpa Tree comes to life to share information with kids about trees and animals throughout the seasons. The children’s activity center enables kids to read nature books, do puzzles and put on their own puppet shows, all within a cozy atmosphere.

Animal Adventures
Encounter the amazing world of birds of prey at the Carolina Raptor Center (704-875-6521; carolinaraptorcenter.org) in nearby Huntersville. The center rehabilitates between 700 – 800 injured birds each year. Several birds … representing more than 20 species who cannot survive in the wild … are on display along a three-quarter mile wooded trail. From barred owls and American kestrels to hawks and bald eagles, kids can have fun observing their feathered friends … especially the active turkey vultures. At each stop, you can learn more about each bird via an audio tour that operates through your cell phone. If you have an unlimited calling plan, you’ll definitely want to take advantage of this as it provides a lot more information about nesting and feeding habits as well as differences between male and female members. Live bird presentations take place every Saturday and Sunday, and if you go on the first weekend of the month, for an additional fee you can take your kids on a behind-the-scenes tour of the rehab facility and meet other birds not on display to the public that are used in education programs in Charlotte-area schools.

For an adventure your kids (and you!) will never forget, head about 35 miles north of Charlotte to Mooresville to the Lazy 5 Ranch (704-663-5100; lazy5ranch.com). This drive-through animal ranch features more than 700 domestic and exotic animals representing 75 species from six continents, including goats, giraffes, emus, ostriches, zebras, sheep, camels, elk, pot-bellied pigs, llamas and more … there’s even a rhinoceros! Stop in the Trading Post for a couple buckets of food pellets, and once you enter the three-and-a-half mile driving trail, many of the animals come right up to your car to be fed. It’s an extremely cool experience, especially if you have big animal lovers in your family … just watch out for the ostriches and emus; they aren’t shy about sticking their heads inside your car on a quest for snacks! The ranch also features a few petting areas, a playground and picnic area. You’re guaranteed a great time here.

Outdoor Thrills
The Charlotte area is loaded with parks, hiking trails, fishing holes and more, but it’s the U.S. National Whitewater Center (704-391-3900; usnwc.org) that you want to make sure is on your family’s to-do list, and plan on a full day. Set on 400 acres overlooking the Catawba River, this attraction was initially designed solely as a local family destination, but also became a training ground for Olympic-level athletes. The center boasts the world’s largest man-made recirculating river that lets rafters and kayakers 8 and older experience class III – IV rapids. The tame at heart can enjoy flatwater kayaking in the Catawba.

Ages 4 and older can test their climbing skills on one of the nation’s largest rock walls, featuring more than 40 roped climbs on a 46-foot spire for all skill levels. Get some cardio into your day on the 14 miles of biking trails (bikes available for rent), enjoy a hike or for a big thrill, take flight on the 1,123-foot zip line. Kids of all ages can have fun with the Eco Trekking experience. Using GPS receivers with programmed destinations, participants can explore the property to find more than 23 cache points, each one offering an educational/environmental lesson.

Where to Stay
There is a bevy of great hotel accommodations in Charlotte, but I recommend the Marriott South Park (704-364-8220), located approximately 10 minutes from downtown. The cozy rooms offer all the high-tech accoutrements you can imagine, complete with hookups for video game systems … if your kids bring one with them … for in-room downtime. The hotel is nestled in the South Park area, surrounded by several shopping and dining opportunities. Rooster’s Wood Fire Kitchen around the corner from the hotel is divine, but make reservations as tables fill up fast.

Chad Young is the managing editor and arts/entertainment editor for this publication.

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