BREAK TIME

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Your children don't have to be the only ones counting down the days until spring break.

The minivan drivers in the family deserve to have some fun, too. But are Mom and Dad ready to take advantage of this once-a-year travel opportunity?

Eileen Ogintz thinks you should be. The nationally syndicated family travel columnist says she's seeing deals galore, from cheap fares at Western ski resorts to bargain hotel rates in Orlando.

But for those with a smaller budget, there are plenty of destinations within a six-hour drive of Baltimore that won't break the bank. Ogintz has three basic tips to keep in mind:

* Choose a place that has plenty of fun stuff for kids. "The places that work hands-on are the best," she says.

* If you choose a historic destination like Williamsburg, Va., do some research so your children are prepared for the experience.

* Let your son or daughter bring along a friend. It will help your child behave and be entertained.

Here are 10 family-friendly places to spend spring break:

1. Williamsburg, Va.

Williamsburg is like a balanced meal -- a pleasure to experience and good for you, too. Children of all ages will enjoy the opportunity to see, hear and taste life in the 18th century in Colonial Williamsburg. Plus, Busch Gardens will be open for two weeks beginning March 23 to accommodate spring break travelers.

FYI: Check out Busch Gardens' Web site, www.buschgardens.com, for deals that can get you into both Colonial Williamsburg and the amusement park.

Contact: Colonial Williamsburg at 800-HISTORY or www.colonialwilliamsburg.org

Drive time: 3 hours, 15 minutes

2. Oglebay Resort in Wheeling, W. Va.

Want to have a family resort experience without paying premium prices? Oglebay is an affordable 1,650-acre mountain retreat with 72 holes of golf, tennis, and horseback riding. It even has its own zoo and planetarium.

FYI: You can stay at the 212-room Wilson Lodge, but larger groups should consider one of the resort's 49 cottages. The cottages are available for as little as $190 a night and can accommodate 8 to 26 people.

Contact: Oglebay at 800-624-6988, or www.oglebay-resort.com

Drive time: 4 hours, 45 minutes

3. Philadelphia, Pa.

A nearby city that looks best in spring, Philadelphia offers families a wealth of cultural opportunities, not to mention fun. From the historic district's Independence Hall to the Franklin Institute Science Museum, a sprawling kid-friendly complex, there's no shortage of things to do.

FYI: You must visit Independence National Historical Park (215-597-8974), if only because it's free. If you're in town on a Sunday, head straight to the Philadelphia Museum of Art (215-763-8100), where you can set your own admission price.

Contact: Independence Visitors Center at 800-537-7676 or www.gophila.com

Drive time: 1 hour, 50 minutes

4. Ocean City, N.J.

Think of it as the other Ocean City. This is a way to visit the Jersey shore without actually going to Atlantic City -- but if that's Mom or Dad's cup of tea, sin city is just 20 minutes away. Take your cue from Ocean City's slogan: "America's Greatest Family Resort."

FYI: Expect March and April to be quiet here: This is a good time to stroll the boardwalk or read a book. If you have the budget, consider staying at the historic Flanders Hotel (609-399-1000) on the boardwalk. If nature is more your thing, try hiking at 341-acre Corson's Inlet State Park (609-861-2404).

Contact: Greater Ocean City Chamber of Commerce at 800-BEACH-NJ or www. oceancityvacation.com

Drive time: 2 hours, 45 minutes

5. Wilmington, Del.

Why Wilmington? Because it's the gateway to the beautiful Brandywine Valley, home of some wonderful family attractions like Longwood Gardens (610-388-1000); the Winterthur Museum and Gardens (302-888-4600), site of one of America's greatest antiques collections; and the Brandywine River Museum (610-388-2700), famous for its Wyeth family connection.

FYI: Check out the children's activities at Longwood through its Web site, www. longwoodgardens.org. For a change of pace, try Kahunaville (302-571-8401), the wacky island-themed restaurant, arcade and pop-concert venue.

Contact: Greater Wilmington Convention & Visitors Bureau at 800-489-6664 or www.wilmcvb.org

Drive time: 1 hour, 20 minutes

6. New York, N.Y.

Not only is the Big Apple a great family vacation, but your kids will be thankful someday that they experienced Gotham at such an important moment in its history. Besides, hotel prices are cheap right now.

FYI: Check out "Kids Take New York," (Bookhappy Books, 1999) for its top 10 kids attractions, or visit Number 1: American Museum of Natural History (212-769-5100), 2: The Bronx Zoo (718-367-1010), or 3: the Central Park Wildlife Center (212-861-6030).

Contact: New York Convention and Visitors Bureau at 212-397-8222 or www.nycvisit.com

Drive time: 3 hours, 10 minutes

7. Gettysburg, Pa.

Few historic sites can be as stirring as this Pennsylvania town that saw 51,000 American casualties in the Civil War. But be warned: It's not as hands-on as Williamsburg and may not be ideal for very young children.

FYI: Your first stop should always be the Gettysburg National Military Park (717-334-1124). Check out the free Electric Map display and the Cyclorama, the 360-degree canvas depicting the battle. For a more personal tour, contact the Association of Licensed Battlefield Guides (717-334-1124).

Contact: Gettysburg Convention and Visitors Bureau at 717-334-2100 or www.gettysburg.com

Drive time: 1 hour, 20 minutes

8. Assateague State Park,

Assateague Island, Md.

This is how Maryland's barrier islands used to be before people built high-rises -- sand, dune grass and wild horses. But for those who like their nature in small doses, it's also an affordable way to visit nearby Ocean City.

FYI: The state park reopens for the season April 1, but won't be taking reservations, so camp sites are first-come, first-served. For a change of pace, try antiques hunting in nearby Berlin, outlet shopping in Rehoboth Beach, Del., or sportfishing from Lewes, Del.

Contact: Assateague State Park at 410-641-2120 at www.dnr.state.md.us

Drive time: 2 hours, 55 minutes

9. Snowshoe, W. Va.

Sure, this isn't Park City, Utah. It's not even Killington, Vermont. But Snowshoe Mountain, the sprawling family ski resort in West Virginia, is closer to Baltimore and cheaper than those places -- especially at the end of the ski season, March 11 through March 31.

FYI: Show up early and party -- Bob Denver of Gilligan's Island will be there March 22-24 for the resort's Mountain Top Beach Party and Music Festival. The less ski-oriented might try the resort's 600-foot tubing hill.

Contact: Snowshoe Mountain at 877-441-4FUN or www.snowshoemtn.com

Drive time: 5 hours, 45 minutes

10. Weatherbury Farm,

Avella, Pa.

Psst, Dale and Marcy Tudor may not be prepared to welcome everybody from Baltimore to stay, but it's a good bet they could handle a few at their unusual farm bed and breakfast in western Pennsylvania. Youngsters (and adults, too) get to help out with daily chores ranging from feeding grain to the goats to collecting eggs from Araucana hens, which lay blue, green and pink ones that seem particularly Easter-appropriate.

FYI: There are only four guest rooms at $85 or so per night, so get your reservations in early. Once the kids have milked enough cows, head to nearby Pittsburgh to see what the city slickers are up to. If Weatherbury is booked, check out this Web site, www.pafarmstay.com, for links to other bed-and-breakfast farms.

Contact: Weatherbury Farm at 724-587-3763 or www.weatherburyfarm.com

Drive time: 4 hours 45 minutes

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