6 ways to get the beach vacation experience without leaving the Baltimore area

Drew Tyler sets up to tee off on the seventh hole at the miniature golf course inside Columbia SportsPark.
Drew Tyler sets up to tee off on the seventh hole at the miniature golf course inside Columbia SportsPark. (Michael Ares / Baltimore Sun)

Ah, Ocean City — sun, sand and all sorts of other things that make for a memorable summer. And less than three hours away.

But maybe those three hours are a little more than you want to spend en route to your summer fun. Maybe you want to enjoy the pleasures of O.C. right now, without having to find a hotel to spend the night.


Well, lucky you. While Ocean City and other nearby East Coast beaches have a lot going for them, you might be surprised to find how much of what they have to offer can be found right here in Baltimore, or just a short distance away.

That's right, from a round of miniature golf to those adorable hermit crabs that are available at all those Sunsations stores (there are 17 of them in Ocean City alone) to waves themselves, many of the pleasures of ocean resort living are available in (or very near) Charm City.


Here's a look at six of them.

Alivia Guiterrez, 9, puts the ball as her mother, Sasha Guiterrez, looks on at Monster Mini Golf in Parkville.
Alivia Guiterrez, 9, puts the ball as her mother, Sasha Guiterrez, looks on at Monster Mini Golf in Parkville. (Michael Ares / Baltimore Sun)

Miniature golf

For sure, few areas anywhere have a greater concentration of miniature golf courses than Ocean City, where there seems to be one every other block along Coastal Highway. (In truth, there are about 15, but they seem omnipresent.)

The Baltimore area can't compete at that level, or with that abundance, but Monster Mini Golf Towson offers a fun twist on the old staple — indoor miniature golf, illuminated by black lights and with monsters serving as the backdrop.

"We're not your average golf course, by any means," says owner William Larrabee.

True, some aspects of the course are traditional enough — there are 18 holes, for instance, and all sorts of impediments to keep your ball from plopping right into the cup. But it's indoors, and instead of the traditional windmills and water hazards and maybe a dinosaur or two, Monster Mini Golf Towson — part of a national chain that has courses in 13 states and Canada, including one in Columbia — throws illuminated skulls, giant snails, tombstones, a giant troll, a "spell well," even John Waters at you. Positively horrifying.

And if mini-golf is not your thing, don't worry: Monster's 16,500 square feet of fun includes laser tag on its second level, with a "nuclear fallout" theme.

"We are very interactive with our guests," assures Larrabee, adding quickly of his establishment's denizens, "they're all friendly monsters."

For a more traditional putt-putt experience, linksters might check out Howard County's Columbia SportsPark, where a carefully landscaped 18-hole course awaits. If perhaps not as kitschy as the courses Ocean City offers — there are no monsters or exploding volcanoes to maneuver around — it's still plenty of fun, for players of any age.

"It's definitely a family-fun environment," says Lance Kerr, the park's general manger. "It's very very casual and friendly."

Monster Mini-Golf, 1969 E. Joppa Road. Open 10:30 a.m.-9 p.m. Mondays-Thursdays, 10:30 a.m.-10 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, 10:30 a.m.-8 p.m. Sundays. $8.99-$10.99 per game. monsterminigolf.com. Columbia SportsPark, 5453 Harpers Farm Road in Columbia (behind Safeway in the Harpers Choice Village Center). $6-$9 per game. columbiaassociation.org/facilities.

The Shark Attack ride at Six Flag America's Hurricane Bay water park.
The Shark Attack ride at Six Flag America's Hurricane Bay water park. (Six Flags America)

Water Rides

Naturally, the main thing to do at the beach is to enjoy the water. And while there's no place in these parts better for doing that than the Atlantic Ocean, the folks at Six Flags' Hurricane Harbor water park in Prince George's County give it their best shot — and come pretty darn close.

If a simple trip to the beach is what you're craving, there's Hurricane Bay, an artificial beach and wave pool that offers all the amenities of the ocean, but without sharks and the threat of undertow. Its million gallons of water includes shallows and deep ends, plus waves small and large. You can float, swim, bob, raft, body surf, whatever. You can even just lie on the "beach" and enjoy the scene, if that's what you're into.


But if it's something more frantic you're after, that's here, too. There's the Bahama Blast, a 517-foot tubing run; the Tornado, a rafting run down a 132-foot tunnel; and water slides with names like Bonzai Pipelines (which drops you a total of six stories), Calypso Cannonballs, Shark Attack Mako and ZoomAzon Falls.

(There are also more kid-friendly attractions, including Buccaneer Beach, Bamboo Chutes and Castaway Creek.)

"You can tell people are having fun," says Denise Stokes, communications manager for Six Flags. "When I'm leaving every day at like 6 or 7 in the evening and I see these families coming from the park totally soaked from head to toe."

The best part? That's easy, Stokes says. Six Flags and Hurricane Harbor are only 40 minutes from Baltimore, meaning "you don't have to sit on the Bay Bridge and bake your potatoes in a hot car."

Six Flags America's Hurricane Bay, 13710 Central Ave. in Upper Marlboro, is open 11 a.m.-7 p.m. daily through Sept. 4. Tickets are $45.99-$65.99 per day (includes admission to the Six Flags America amusement park, with its 10 roller coasters), $65.99-$139.99 for a season pass. sixflags.com/america.

Salt Water Taffy

So there's no actual salt water in salt water taffy. But who cares? It's about as tasty as humanly possible, and it's impossible to eat a stick of it without drifting back to all those fun times at the ocean.

While discovering new restaurants is an exciting part of some vacations, for many families, the most important beach eats are ones that are enjoyed year after year.

Sadly, Ocean City's ubiquitous Candy Kitchens — there are, in fact, 11 of them (plus six more in Delaware and one in Virginia Beach), although it seems like there are more — are nowhere to be found this far inland.

Thank goodness for Wockenfuss Candies, a Baltimore confectionery institution since 1915. It, too, has itself a little corner of the Ocean City candy market, with three stores. But Wockenfuss also dispenses taffy and chocolates (the latter made fresh on the premises) from its headquarters on Harford Road.

"We sell tons of [taffy] down at the beach," says Carol Rosier, director of sales and marketing for Wockenfuss, where she's worked for 31 years. And while the company doesn't sell nearly as much away from the shore, isn't it nice to know it's available without having to travel 100-plus miles east on U.S. 50?

(If you do make it to Wockenfuss, be sure to check out their chocolate crab pops, a "really big seller for the summer," according to Rosier. Truly, you don't get much more Baltimore than that.)

Wockenfuss Candies, 6831 Harford Road, is open 8 a.m.-6 p.m. Monday-Saturday. Other locations in Baltimore, Bel Air, Columbia, Towson and White Marsh. wockenfusscandies.com.

Hermit crabs

Sunburn fades, salt water taffy gets eaten, T-shirts rip and get turned into rags. Sure, you can buy some sort of cheap tchotchke and put it on the shelf as a souvenir, but when it comes to bringing back something to remember the ocean by, it's hard to beat a hermit crab.

They're cute, they're cool (how many other pets go house shopping?), and with a little bit of care, they'll hang around the house for a while and keep you company. They're also easy to find at the beach — every Sunsations store seems to have them, as do many other shops on the boardwalk and environs — and inexpensive; for around $14, you get a crab, a little plastic house, maybe a small piece of sponge for them to get water from, an overturned coconut husk to hide in and a couple replacement shells, for when they outgrow the one they're in and venture out in search of new lodging.


But you don't have to cross the Bay Bridge to find these critters.


Mike Hresko, co-owner (with his younger brother, Mark, and father, Jack) of Glen Burnie's House of Tropicals pet store, says people come in all the time looking for hermit crabs, especially during the summer. Sometimes the kids saw them in Ocean City but never got around to buying one, sometimes they bought one and want a second to keep it company, sometimes the crabs didn't survive the trip home. Whatever the reason, the desire to have a pet hermit crab remains strong.

"We sell a lot of hermit crabs, a couple hundred a month," says Hresko, whose family has been in the pet store business in Glen Burnie since 1967.

The trick to keeping your hermit crab healthy, he says, is to keep it warm (they hail from Florida, so don't take well to cold weather) and give them water to play in — maybe a small tray or shallow bowl they can splash in — to help keep the insides of their shells clean.

And please, don''t forget the extra (and bigger) shells, so the crabs can move up to larger digs when they need to.

"You can get shells that are painted, shells that have eyes or faces on them," Hresko says. "The hermit crabs don't care."

Hermit crabs sell for $6.98 at House of Tropicals, 7389 Baltimore-Annapolis Blvd. in Glen Burnie. Accessories for the well-heeled hermit crab are available, too. Open 10 a.m.-9 p.m. Monday-Saturday, 11 a.m.-5 p.m. Sunday. houseoftropicals.net.


The joys of a good boardwalk amusement arcade are many, from pinball machines and shooting galleries to claw machines and photo booths. But when it comes to easy fun, few things can beat Skee-Ball, a game that combines the best elements of bowling and cornhole, and gives out tickets that can be redeemed for prizes to boot!

Here in Baltimore, Skee-Ball games are popping up in more and more bars.

"They definitely keep people happy," says Rich Pugh, owner of Johnny Rad's Pizzeria Tavern in Fells Point, which has two Skee-Ball machines (to be technical, they're Alley Roller League machines) in one of its back rooms, available to play at 50 cents a game. "People are always, like, 'We don't even have to go to the boardwalk, it's right here.'"

There's even team competition, thanks to leagues organized by Volo City (formerly Baltimore Social). Teams of around seven players each compete against one another in seasons that last seven weeks.

Happily, Skee-Ball is pretty egalitarian. It doesn't take a tremendous amount of skill to roll a ball down a lane, then up an incline and into various slots (the smaller the slots, the more points you score). Sure, there's a technique that sohttp://reesevfc.orgme players master better than others, but the basics are pretty simple.

Players really get into it anyway, says Todd Nagel, one of Skee-Ball league organizers. "It's probably our least competitive sport, but the atmosphere is really great."

Still, if only the local games handed out tickets...

Registration for Baltimore Social's summer Skee-Ball leagues, which play at Johnny Rad's and at Mother's Grille in Federal Hill, ends June 28, with competition starting shortly thereafter. Fees range from $39-$59. baltimoresocial.com.

Carnival midway

For decades, few families have escaped a summer trip to the ocean without visiting an amusement park, maybe Trimper's, at First Street and the boardwalk, or Jolly Roger, at 30th Street. The rides, the games of skill, the cotton candy and other dreadfully unhealthy (but seriously delicious) foods — what's not to love?

Thanks to Annapolis-based Jolly Shows, you don't need to go to the ocean to enjoy a carnival. For three generations, the Joseph family has been setting up and taking down their traveling carnival throughout Maryland and Northern Virginia. They may not be able to offer an oceanfront location or salt air, but with 25 amusement rides and 40 attractions in all, Jolly Shows offers a carnival experience merry enough to satisfy just about anyone.

The appeal? That's easy, says Peter Joseph, whose grandfather, Frank, started Jolly Shows back in the 1950s. "It's local, and it's cheap entertainment. You don't have to go very far, and it's not very expensive."

Well, yes. But it's more than that. It's gaudy fun and silly games and thrilling rides and hot dogs aplenty. It's bright colors and squealing kids and indulgent parents wishing they could still have fun like that.

Jolly Shows will be setting up at the annual carnival of the Earleigh Heights Volunteer Fire Company, 161 Ritchie Highway in Severna Park, from July 6-15 (ehvfc.org), then move on to Carroll County for the carnival at the Reese Volunteer Fire Company, 1745 Baltimore Blvd., from July 17-22 (reesevfc.org). After that, it's on to the Great Glen Burnie Carnival (July 28-Aug. 5), the Prince Frederick Volunteer Fire Department's annual carnival (Aug. 8-12), the Anne Arundel County Fair (Sept. 13-17) and the Prince George's County Fair (Sept. 7-10).

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