One of the earliest memories from my childhood involves a Kentucky Fried Chicken and the tailgate on my mom’s 1979 Chevy Caprice station wagon. She called it a parking lot picnic. Some days, after a bucket of the Colonel’s finest, my younger brother and I would climb back in the car and, at my mom’s request, randomly shout “left!” and “right!” at intersections until we were sufficiently lost, and then we’d try to find our way back home.
It was rural Minnesota in the 1980s. I have no idea if anyone else did things like that. To us, it was what we might do on a Tuesday.
I moved to Charlotte in 1999 at the age of 23. In my first decade here I could have provided a detailed description of all entertainment options involving beer and food. Want to sit in the dark and not be bothered while you watch an NFL game on which you’ve bet this month’s rent? The Press Box. Girlfriend’s parents coming to town and you want to buy them an overpriced and pretentious dinner? Palomino. Best sauteed calamari app in town? Fiamma. Best Pho? Doan’s (don’t even attempt to argue with me on that one).
I was Yelp before there was Yelp.
Then, in 2008, we had Kid #1 and my institutional knowledge of Charlotte was worthless. In 2010, when my son was about 18 months old, I was out of work for a few months and needed to find things to do with him during the day, but needed to spend as little money as possible doing it. Only I didn’t have a station wagon and my wife wouldn’t let me feed our firstborn Kentucky Fried Chicken.
So, like any uninformed parent, I asked people who had kids, and all of their suggestions involved country club pools, expensive art classes, and sports clinics where you paid a pimple-faced kid to teach your child how to kick a soccer ball, regardless of your existing ability to play soccer.
When I Googled phrases like “What to do in Charlotte,” all I found were tourist suggestions like spending $50 at the Whitewater Center (too expensive) or going for a walk in Freedom Park (free does not equal entertaining). Over the years I’ve spent hours going down Internet worm holes and posts on message boards, perusing vapid mom blogs, eventually compiling my go to list of free/cheap, and most importantly, entertaining things for a dad to do with any kid who is old enough to walk.
This is not a comprehensive list, just my list.
Freedom Park playground
No, not the one near the train. The one in the back near the baseball fields. It’s less crowded and kids tend to be younger, so you don’t have to worry about that hyper ten year old throwing a pancake block on your toddler. Plus, parts of it are in the shade during the day. And if you have two kids of varying age, they have two age-appropriate playgrounds. Downside…there are a LOT of pretentious moms in some form of exercise gear complaining about their marriages and talking in detail about breastfeeding and lady parts. If your son tends to whip it out and pee on a whim, this is not the place for you (unless, like me, you can ignore the guffaws from the Botox moms). There are often baseball games at the adjacent ballpark, adding additional entertainment options, and cheap hot dogs (don’t tell my wife).
Also, a hat tip to the NFL Play 60 park that was built a couple years ago on the more familiar side of the park. If you’re planning a visit, send your spouse to the ER to wait in line, because you’ll be joining him/her as soon as that hyperactive 10 year old misses the tackling dummy and performs a flying chop block on your kid.
My park rankings (I’d provide the location except this is what my kids call them and I don’t know the real names):
(1) Baseball park
(2) Whale park
(3) Snake park
(4) Soccer park
Spray parks (full spray park list)
Unquestionably one of the best activities during the summer. Plus you don’t have to bathe your kids afterward. The chlorine cleans those hard to reach spots better than I ever could, or would want to. It’s like going to the pool, but with the inability of your child to drown or escape, because it’s shallow and fenced in. I fell asleep at one once while my kids splashed around, it was amazing.
I love Latta Park because it was closest to our home at the time and has an adjacent playground. Veterans Park is the best in town. It has the most spray features and is usually less crowded than others. It also has a giant umbrella to block out the sky so you don’t need to apply sunblock, which is the worst parenting chore next to changing a girl’s poopy diaper. Don’t have a daughter? Trust me, it’s horrific.
We moved to the Lake Norman area last summer, so Birkdale is now our main choice. It’s fenced in and has Starbucks nearby. Only downside is some of the jets are set to “fire hose,” which results in at least two face shots and my increased concern that it takes Kid #2 more than one face shot to learn not stick her face in the fire hose jets.
Giant machines soaring through the air at viewing distances you would expect the FAA to frown upon? Check. Random dudes dressed all in khaki recording flight patterns and listening to radio comms? Check. Steep hills for your kids to roll down once they get bored watching giant machines soar through the air? Check.
I love everything about this place, including the lack of bathrooms so no one judges my kid for peeing in the parking lot. Do not, DO NOT, park at the end of the lot if there is only one car there. Just trust me on this one.
The better (and possibly illegal) view is to drive up the back way by the airport museum. Keep following the road until it turns to dirt, and then keep driving. If you feel like an armored vehicle might appear at any moment, you’re going the right way. After five minutes you’ll find yourself directly behind the starting point of one of the southern-facing runways. Roll down the windows and suck jet wash in all its American glory. From my experience, if the cops come they’ll just politely ask you to leave. I even had one let us stay, though I suspect it probably had something to do with Kid #1 vomiting out of the side window.
Afterwards, if you drive over to the airport museum parking lot, you can snake your way around the sidewalks and get a good glimpse of some really cool helicopters.
Just two sections – not the whole thing. There’s one section located behind Park Road Shopping Center that has a stretch of creek, a couple bridges, some areas to walk down to the water, and a hollowed out tree that makes for an excellent seat. I once saw a friend there with his two kids standing on the Brandywine overpass. One kid had lost a shoe “up river” and they spent 30 minutes waiting for it to float down. Finest example I’ve ever seen of a dad’s ability to burn time.
Further up the river, on the pond side of Freedom Park, there’s a foot bridge that connects the greenway to the park. If you cross the bridge and curl back under it there are giant sun-splashed rocks that make for an excellent picnic spot, or just some good ol’ fashioned rock throwing. For years that was the preferred picnic spot for Kid #1 and wife-approved Subway, until some child activist told him that Subway bread was made from Yoga mats, and then he wouldn’t go with me anymore. Keep up the noble work, Vani Hari.
Barnes & Noble – Morrison Place
No, not for the books. For the free Thomas the Train table upstairs. I guess there are books there if you want to read them, but sometimes you get yelled at for reading and not buying anything. If you want to read go to the library, Barnes & Noble is all about the train table and the escalator. We take round trips when Kid #2 starts venturing into the princess aisle. With the Starbucks downstairs you can get out of there for under $5 if you stick with a black coffee and one of those disgusting cake pops for your kids.
A few years ago there was another bookstore where The Container Store is currently located at SouthPark Mall. That thing was like the mothership of free train tables. There were building blocks and toys and this whole surrounding theater seating area loaded with massive pillows. It looked like a Turkish brothel but with snot-riddled kids instead of hookers. It used to have a giant window so you could peer out into the parking lot and see young people doing young people things, like strolling through a parking lot without having to worry about your companion darting into oncoming traffic while screaming, “PLANEPLANEPLANEPLANE,” because he saw a bird in the sky.
It was there that I once whispered to a bratty child whose mom was ignoring his behavior because her face was shoved in her phone, “If you keep acting like this, you won’t have any friends, and no one will give you ice cream ever again.”
I still feel good about that advice.
Chuck E Cheese
Don’t hate on the hippest rat in town. Don’t complain about the germs. Embrace the parenting style of your parents and free yourself from the oppressive chains of trying to raise your children among Charlotte’s power-ponytailed moms. Ski ball, pop-a-shot, and every other game you would want to play. I mean, every game your kid would want to play. They have a game where you put in a token, and then your kid runs on a hamster wheel for 60 seconds. For only a dollar, you are guaranteed that kid will nap or go to bed without any resistance.
If you sign up on their website, they’ll email you BOGO token coupons. It’s just a great rainy day activity that filled a dark time in our lives shortly after the closing of Monkey Joe’s. I still can’t talk about Monkey Joe’s without getting misty eyed. I had a Child Under 2 punch card for Kid #1 damn near until the start of Kindergarten.
Chuck E Cheese pro tip: if a game doesn’t spit out tickets when you’ve won, leave your kid at the machine and go find an employee. When they reload the ticket cartridge, it’ll spit out all of the tickets won by other kids whose parents weren’t smart enough to abandon their offspring to have the ticket cartridge refilled. Do you know how many packs of Smarties you can buy with 1,000 tickets?
An important Chuck E Cheese safety note: they only allow you to enter if you have a child with you. I know this because my brother has misguided memories of their pizza and attempted to enter one in Massachusetts. They wouldn’t let him in because he didn’t have a child, and they wouldn’t let him get a pizza to go. One of the first places he went to eat when he had his first kid was Chuck E Cheese. Something like this would only happen to my brother.
Drive to the farthest light rail stop and purchase a $2 ticket. On the platform you’ll wait some period of time for the train to come while hoping that the twitchy person standing next to you is a safe kind of twitchy and not the dangerous kind.
A thirty-minute train ride is shockingly interesting to a child. Between the scenery, the bizarre people, and an utter confusion about why we’re riding backwards on a train, it keeps the kid’s interest at a level approaching a princess movie. Driving up South Blvd in a car equals screaming and questions, so many questions. Riding a train up South Blvd equals 1,800 seconds of blissful silence.
Around the holidays, when the train pulls up you can yell in your best Buddy the Elf voice, “It’s THE POLAR EXPRESS! It’s HERE! It’s REALLY HERE!” Break out a hot chocolate Thermos around Archdale and you’ve successfully recreated a classic children’s tale.
Warning if you have an unstable child. If you attempt the Polar Express run, there is a HIGH level of disappointment when the train pulls into 7th Station and you hop off, walk across the tracks and ride home. Sometimes I find it beneficial to throw in something like, “Well, the train must not be going the whole way today because you were mean to your sister this morning. Luckily you still have ten more days until Christmas to prove to Santa that you can treat her well.”
Some day they’ll ask me to write a book about parenting.