Wilmington Offers Plenty of Family-Friendly Fun
Traveling in North Carolina provides some hidden gems within the United States, none more so than the gorgeous coastal town of Wilmington. Here to be discovered are beaches, arts and culture, and more than anything a wonderful mix of a laid-back southern lifestyle.
If you’re looking for a great family fun spot with lots of things to do, look no further than Wilmington, North Carolina. Located on the Cape Fear Coast, on the bluffs overlooking the Cape Fear River, and just ten miles west of the Atlantic Ocean, Wilmington is a year-round playground for anyone interested in history, attractions, beaches, and shopping.
Every child loves the beach, but when they’ve had enough sand and sun, head inland into the heart of this popular port city for family fun with a maritime flair.
Even the littlest vacationers can get in on the action in the heart of Wilmington’s compact historic district.
Battleship North Carolina
Located on Eagles Island across the river from downtown Wilmington, the World War II battleship USS North Carolina is a memorial to the 10,000 North Carolina servicemen and women who gave their lives during that war. The 45,000-ton warship was a formidable power in the Pacific, with nine 16-inch/45 caliber guns in three turrets and another twenty 5-inch/38 caliber guns in twin mounts. In 1942, she took a direct torpedo hit and survived.
Today you can tour the ship on your own, crawl into the bunks and experience how the sailors would have spent their sleeping time, check out the ship’s galley, medical facilities and shoot down enemy fighter planes. Stand on deck and feel the sea breeze on your face, but do keep an eye out for the resident ghost.
Riverwalk and Historic Downtown
The 1 ½-mile Riverwalk is the heart of Wilmington’s downtown shopping and historic district. You can amble along the river, watch street entertainers, buy an ice cream cone or a soft drink, watch the river traffic, and even take a boat ride on the Capt. J. N. Maffitt or the Henrietta III. Numerous riverfront restaurants like the Pilot House or Elijah’s will entice you with their menus posted outside and boutique shops like those in the Cotton Exchange or Chandlers Wharf will beckon you to enter and browse.
Arts and Cultural Activities in Wilmington
There are true gems tucked around every corner in Wilmington, particularly in the downtown area, with its late 19th century buildings and beautiful mile-long river walk. The charm of the old town buildings makes it feel as though you have been transported back in time. One of the real stars is Thalian Hall, the old theatre which is now the political and cultural heart of Wilmington comprises of the Civic Hall and Theatre all in one loving restored building. Continuously in use, since it’s opening in 1858 Thalian Hall puts on in the region of 200 events annually. It is not the only location for events though, and a number of festivals are held in Wilmington each year including The North Carolina Jazz Festival.
Beaches and Water Activities in Wilmington
Wilmington is idea situated for sea lovers, with the Gulf Stream running so close, the water in the area is wonderfully warm. Dolphins can often be seen playing just offshore, and there is plenty of surfing to be done off Wrightsville Beach, or better still from the small barrier islands that protect residences from the full force of the mighty ocean on their doorstep. The beaches are the opposite side of the Wilmington from the downtown area. Here however that same mellow atmosphere prevails and it is a joy to relax around the marina and enjoying the wonderful eateries, all heavily influenced by the sea.
Wilmington captures the heart and if the history and the beaches don’t do it, the town’s heavenly ice cream store will certainly do the trick.
Children’s Museum of Wilmington
A good place to start is the popular Wilmington Children’s Museum. This interactive discovery center on Orange Street features a pirate ship replica, an arts and crafts room, dress-up clothes with a lighted stage, and lots of space for creative pretend play.
The staff is friendly and the atmosphere is relaxed and family-centered. A hotline in the lobby even gives parents an easy way to order a pizza for delivery to the museum or a nearby hotel in time for lunch.
The Cape Fear Serpentarium
Just down the street, little snake lovers will be wide-eyed at the impressive collection of reptiles in the Cape Fear Serpentarium. In addition to a crocodile and a dragon-sized monitor lizard, the museum houses more than a hundred species of snakes, including the world’s largest collection of the rare and deadly Bushmaster.
Visitors get nose to nose (with safety glass between them) with a 23-foot long python, a 15-foot King Cobra, Black Mambas, Spitting Cobras, Gaboon Vipers, Tropical Rattlers, and giant Fer-de-lance snakes. Dim lighting and exotic drum music enhance the experience. Though the collection is extensive, the museum itself is small enough to easily do in about 30 minutes.
Boardwalk along the Cape Fear River
When kids (or their parents) just need to work off some energy, the nearby boardwalk along the Cape Fear River is the perfect place to do it. The wide two-mile walk takes visitors past the docking point for a Coast Guard cutter and the region’s largest riverboat, Henrietta III.
Most shopping areas along the boardwalk contain boutiques and galleries and are not child-friendly. Opt instead for an ice cream cone at Kilwin’s on Market Street and enjoy it on a bench or stool by the water.
Riverboat Rides and Sightseeing Cruises
Although the Henrietta III offers sightseeing cruises up the river past the busy Wilmington port, the shortest is 90 minutes long and may not hold the attention of the younger set. Shorter cruises on one of the company’s smaller boats are less expensive and more likely to be fun for everyone.
These boats also serve as river taxis, shuttling visitors to the historic Battleship North Carolina on the opposite shore. Children under ten may not grasp much of the vessel’s history, but the maze of passageways and plenty of places to climb and clamber make the tour engaging for even the youngest visitors.
Cape Fear Museum of History and Science
A great place to get an overview of the history of the area from prehistoric times to the present is at the Cape Fear Museum. Exhibits include a scale model of the Wilmington riverfront circa 1863 and a re-creation of the second battle of Fort Fisher, as well as the Michael Jordan Discovery Gallery, an interactive natural history exhibit that includes a crawl-through beaver lodge. The popular exhibit also houses a display case with personal items belonging to Michael Jordan, Wilmington’s native son and NBA superstar.
Founded in 1898, the Cape Fear Museum of History and Science on Market Street is the oldest history museum in the state. Fans of the prehistoric will love the 17-foot tall skeleton of a giant ground sloth, unearthed in Wilmington in 1991 and on display in the atrium.
Most of the museum is dedicated to Wilmington’s history, from its earliest Indian inhabitants, through its pivotal role in the Civil War and beyond. This museum is most enjoyable for older children and history buffs.
EUE/Screen Gems Studios
More than 300 movies and television shows have been produced at what locals call Hollywood East, the largest full-service production studio east of California. Films like the Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood and the classic Cape Fear have been produced here as well as TV shows like the popular One Tree Hill and Dawson’s Creek. Take a one-hour walking tour of the studios and visit the sets of current productions and get a behind the scenes look at movie-making.
Now that you have a taste of the coast, you’ll want to explore other places in the area like Fort Fisher State Historic Site, Moore’s Creek National Battlefield, the North Carolina Aquarium, and, of course, the Cape Fear beaches. For more information, visit the Cape Fear Coast Convention & Visitors Bureau, 1-877-406-2356.
Wilmington has a population of less than 100,000 and covers an area of about 40 sq miles. It is nestled between the Cape Fear River and the Atlantic Ocean, has a humid subtropical climate, and with its proximity to the ocean has its fair share of tropical storms. The locals seem less than fazed by the occasional inclement weather, especially given the benefits and beauty they reap the rest of the year. The town itself is packed to bursting with places to explore and things to do, and despite the laid back pace visitors will never be stuck for something to keep them entertained.
Founded in 1729 by English settlers, the history of Wilmington is also the history of America. Traversed by Native Americans, occupied by British soldiers, a haven to blockade runners and pirates alike, Wilmington has over the centuries survived and prospered through its busy port, shipbuilding, and proximity to the sea.
Today you can visit many historic homes and buildings in downtown Wilmington, climb aboard a World War II battleship, explore a Civil War era fort and tour a real movie studio. Museums, gardens, and shopping are plentiful, and then, of course, there’s the beach. So, to get you started, here are a few suggestions.