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North Carolina's favorite family parks, zoos & aquariums

Kathy M. Newbern and J.S. Fletcher are award-winning travel writers and photographers who have visited every continent. Their home base is Raleigh, NC. When not traveling, they operate the personalized romance novel company they started ...

Parks, zoos & aquariums

Tradition meets technology in these top picks of favorite parks, zoos and aquariums in the Tar Heel State. From a real train to a super-soaker water park to one of the premiere amusement parks in the Southeast, North Carolina encourages residents to get outside, get close to the animals and get your heart pumping. 

Tweetsie Railroad

1

Carowinds Theme Park

Heart-stopping roller coasters and thrill rides are a summertime must. In North Carolina, that means Carowinds, home to the Intimidator -- the tallest, fastest, longest coaster in the Southeast. This premiere family amusement park also features two new light shows: Snoopy's Starlight Spectacular LED light show and Nights of Fire fireworks nightly. The new Boomerang Bay Waterpark features Awesome Aussie Twisters, Condi Beach, Crocodile Run and more. Come fall, check out Carowinds' Halloween Haunt XI (rated PG-13).

14523 Carowinds Boulevard
Charlotte, North Carolina 28273
Phone: 704-588-2600 (from NC) or 803-548-5300 (from SC)
Peak Summer Hours: Carowinds, 10 a.m. to 10 p.m.; Boomerang Bay, 11  a.m. to 7  p.m.; specific hours here
Admission: Adults, $52.99; seniors, $25.99; ages 3 to 61 and 48 inches tall, after 4 p.m., $24.99; two-day passes and ticket discounts online

2Tweetsie Railroad

Tweetsie Railroad is a family tradition – multi-generational for many — given that it dates to the summer of 1957 as North Carolina's first family fun park. The three-mile train ride through the North Carolina mountains features a Wild West Town with cowboys, a train robbery, an attack on Fort Boone and more along the way. There's also a Palace show with can-can girls, cloggers and musicians, a country fair area with rides, and a petting zoo. Plus, you can soar high up in the High Country on the scenic chairlift. Several traveling shows visit the park each year, such as Thomas the Tank Engine, Dora and Diego, and Letterland. October weekend nights, Tweetsie is transformed into the Ghost Train.

300 Tweetsie Railroad Lane
Blowing Rock, North Carolina 28605
Phone: 800-526-5740 or 828-264-9061, ext. 107
Summer hours: Every day, 9 a.m. to 6 p.m.; returns to weekends-only August 21 through October 30, when 2011 season ends
Admission: Adults, $34; children 3 to 12, $22; children 2 and under, free. Ghost Train hits the rails Friday and Saturday nights September 30 through October 29, 7:30 to 11:30 p.m. Golden Rail Season Passes and print-at-home tickets are available online.

3North Carolina Zoo

From gorillas to giraffes, grizzly bears to baboons, the North Carolina Zoo -- the largest natural habitat zoo in North America -- has more than 1,100 animals, 40,000 plants and an extensive outdoor public art collection. The animal exhibits focus on habitats of Africa and North America. Families can explore 500 acres of exhibits along five miles of shaded pathways. Discover "Legends of Fortune and Good Luck" in the African Pavilion's newest exhibit, Swamp Ghosts, open through October. And don't miss the above- and below-water views of the polar bears and sea lions.

4401 Zoo Parkway
Asheboro, North Carolina 27205
Phone: 800-488-0444 or 336-879-7000
Hours: Daily 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. April through October; daily 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. November through March
Admission: Adults, $14; seniors & college students, $8; Children 2 to 12, $6; children under 2, free

4North Carolina Aquariums

Visitors to the Aquarium at Pine Knoll Shores can see what Blackbeard's flagship, the Queen Anne's Revenge and sunken German sub U-352 look like on the ocean floor. (The actual pirate ship was discovered not far offshore.) The 360,000-gallon "Living Shipwreck" tank features the sunken sub replica and a 60-foot-long viewing window to watch sharks, sea turtles, moray eels and loads of fish. Check times for the popular shark feedings. Summer features Pirate Family Nights on Thursdays, free with regular admission or membership.

Hours: Daily 9 a.m. to 5 p.m year 'round; closed Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year's Day
Admission: Adults 13 to 61, $8; seniors 62+, $7; children 3 to 12, $6; children 2 and under, registered N.C. school groups and N.C. Aquarium Society Members, free

The state's three aquariums are: 

  • Pine Knoll Shores
    1 Roosevelt Boulevard
    Pine Knoll Shores, North Carolina 28512
    Phone: 800-832-3474 ext. 3
  • Roanoke Island
    374 Airport Road
    Manteo, North Carolina 27954
    Phone: 800-832-3474 ext. 4
  • Fort Fisher
    900 Loggerhead Road
    Kure Beach, North Carolina 28449
    Phone: 800-832-3474 ext. 2

5Wet 'N Wild Emerald Pointe Water Park

Get wet; get wild. That sums up this beat-the-heat water park. The newest heart-stopper is Dr. Von Dark's Tunnel of Terror. One of only three rides like it in the country, it features a 40-foot drop in — gulp — total darkness. Pack your earplugs not for the water but for the screams. Other favs are Bonzai Pipeline, Runaway Raft Ride and more -- or maybe the Lazee River is more your style.

3910 South Holden Road
Greensboro, North Carolina 27406
Phone: 336-852-9721
Peak summer hours: 10 a.m. to 7 p.m. (other hours online)
Admission: Adults, $33.99; seniors, $22.99; juniors (under 48 inches tall), $22.99; children 2 and under, free; season pass prices and discounts online

6Santa's Land Family Theme Park & Zoo

Don't wait 'til December; visit Santa May through October in the North Carolina mountains. Everyone knows Saint Nick prefers reindeer, but here, he's partial to cangaroos, capuchin monkeys and rind-tailed lemurs, too. There are live baby bear feedings, and the kids can feed deer by hand. The must-do ride in this kitchy-but-fun park is the Rudicoaster.

571 Wolfetown Road
Cherokee, North Carolina 28719
Phone: 828-497-9191 or 828-497.9188
Hours: Weather permitting, daily May 7 through October 31, 2011, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. until Memorial Day, then 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. through the holiday season
Admission: Adults and older children, $19.99; children 2 and under: Free

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