There's a Brio train table, a wooden dollhouse, and baskets full of baby toys on the floor in back. The Playhouse Toy Store on Ninth Street in Durham can be a chaotic place, but the staff are always friendly. They realize that just because you didn't buy anything the last 10 times your kids played in the store, that doesn't mean you won't think of them when junior gets his next birthday-party invitation. The displays and the accessible toys will keep your tykes occupied long enough for you to get great advice on your toy purchases, get your stuff gift-wrapped, change the baby at the changing station in the bathroom, read a few flyers on local events--and the young 'uns still won't want to leave.
Best sports league for kids
On any spring or fall Saturday morning, Durham's Valley Springs Park is a blur of colored shirts flowing to and fro, from goal to goal. The Durham Girls Soccer League is in its eighth season, as girls aged 7 to 13--wearing World Cup shirts of Ethiopia, Russia and Honduras--dribble, pass, shoot and cheer each other on. It wasn't always this way. Founder and "High Commissioner" Jeff Potter recalls the early days.
"I just wanted a fun league for my daughter to play in and get a lot of ball touches. So I started making phone calls. Lots of phone calls. That first year we picked the rocks out of the field, coached the teams, reffed the games. Then the '94 World Cup happened." The popularity of girl's soccer exploded, and 600 girls comprising more than 40 teams now compete in the DGSL. Pakis Bessias recently brought the league into the 21st century with a dynamic Web site that features schedules, coaching updates and the league handbook. Molly and David Wilmington coach four teams between them. The Duke University soccer team allows league kids to ball-girl for home games. Soccer Czar Potter, as coaches affectionately refer to him, still works the phones. But it's the girls who have the most fun. On game days, you see the jerseys of Cameroon or France everywhere. Everyone's in motion, calling for the ball, pleading with the coach to sub back into the game, or waving into the stands, asking for another water bottle.
Best school fundraiser
Before Harry Potter and Hogwarts Academy, there was Chapel Hill's Emerson Waldorf School. While no one, not even Warner Brothers, will be able to recreate the magic of a Quidditch tournament, the Waldorf School's annual fundraiser, May Faire in the Enchanted Forest, is the most great-to-be-alive day on the spring calendar. Nestled on 30 woodland acres between Chapel Hill and Hillsborough, the Waldorf School opens its campus to all wizard-wannabes, international food lovers, wandering musicians and ceremonial dancers this year on May 12. Mama Dip's Kitchen will serve a mouth-watering Southern menu. The Mediterranean Deli and Margaret's Cantina are sending over their international flavors. African drumming, a Russian pianist, the fiery Latin rhythms of Carlos Salvo, and the Waldorf Parent Choir will raise the roof on the music stage. There's even a used book sale and a dunking tank. An eight-seater Dragon Swing and a brightly decorated May Pole are there every year. So are hands-on craft tables, a labyrinth, puppet shows, folk guitarists and an Irish harpist. It's a free-spirited, enchanted getaway from that other Muggle land of cell phones, carpools, Britney and Happy Meals.
Best children's theater
"I need somebody who wants to be a star," Joseph Henderson tells his acting classes. He's getting plenty these days. The Walltown Children's Theatre, a school of drama and dance on Berkeley Street in Durham, is thriving. Henderson and his wife, former Alvin Ailey dancer Cynthia Penn-Henderson, offer a schedule of classes, workshops and camps demonstrating just how alive movement and drama can be. Their full week's calendar includes Elementary Shakespeare, Hip-Hop, Scene Study, Latin Dance, a summer Shakespeare Academy, Kinderdance and Stretch and Tone Exercising.
With help from the Self-Help Credit Union, Durham Parks and Recreation, the American Dance Festival, local ministries and TROSA, Walltown Children's Theatre opened its doors last fall. Last year they won the North Carolina Recreation and Park Society's 2000 Arts and Humanities Award. Choreographer Penn-Henderson is on the drama faculty of the North Carolina School of the Arts, teaching movement for actors. Joseph Henderson has been acting, directing and teaching Shakespeare for the last 20 years in Europe, Off-Broadway, and in Durham's middle schools. Together, their experience pulls the best out of each of their students.
Best young adult author
Sarah Dessen has a great laugh. When she talks about growing up in Chapel Hill, she sounds like a teenager all over again: hanging out on Franklin Street, waiting tables at the Flying Burrito or freaking out seeing Lee Smith at the grocery store. Dessen, who teaches creative writing at UNC-Chapel Hill and is currently working on her fifth novel, has kept her focus on the real life and times of American teenagers. She hasn't forgotten their yearnings, self-doubt, curiosity and intelligence, and they love and trust her for that. She especially nails the nuances of real-life conversations between teens and their friends, and the tensions of family scenes. Middle-schoolers and high-schoolers send her letters with personal questions and comments about her books. A frequent winner of American Library Association and School Library Journal book awards, Dessen now finds herself in the middle of a controversy, a subject in a recent Washington Post article, "Books That Make Parents Blush." Her books deal with real-life issues that indeed sometimes cross over from young adult to grown-up territory. While her editors want her to keep writing for teenagers, Dessen is ready and willing to write for a wider audience. Her readers just want her to keep writing.
Best one-day outing for kids
Where can you find, within 500 yards of each other, racing pigs, fried dough, a folk festival, fried onions, games of chance without a chance, roasted corn, screaming teenagers on the Top Spin, screaming toddlers at the petting zoo, screaming grown-ups at the Ferris Wheel ATM and 17 kinds of mouth-watering biscuits? Go to the North Carolina State Fair. But when you go, you must be prepared. Take a backpack full of water bottles and extra layers of clothing. Get a good night's sleep beforehand. Drink plenty of coffee and get a full tank of gas. Want to milk a cow? Like funhouses? Think you're pretty good at Karaoke? Always wanted to do that panic-yell, hands-in-the-air thing on a roller coaster? Do the words snow cone, cotton candy, caramel apple, or funnel cake trigger an aroma flash that puts you in a trance? Take a carload of kids and just watch their eyes twinkle, then join in their contagious excitement.
Best dessert bar
Sometimes it's hard to get your kids to eat their veggies. Sometimes it's hard to get them to try new foods. Sometimes it's hard to get your child to eat something that doesn't come with an action figure. But if you're at Golden Corral and you say, "Finish your broccoli and you can get a fresh plate for the dessert bar," that's the end of the whining. Watch them shovel down those last bites of nature's own and skip over to sweet-tooth heaven, where they're greeted by endless shelves of pies, cakes, ice cream, toppings, puddings, and bottomless bowls of whipped cream. From a child's point of view, the Golden Corral Dessert Bar is Halloween trick-or-treat in daylight or an Easter basket all-you-can-eat special. And like those holiday candy blitzes, it doesn't last forever. So lighten up on the shoulds and don'ts while they clean their second plate of the night.
Best local outdoor day camp
At Durham's Camp Riverlea, activity groups and landmarks are often named with a whimsical nod towards J.R.R. Tolkien. The arts and crafts center is called the Hobbit House, the different age groups answer to the names Trolls, Tooks, Ents and Striders. Spread out over 100 acres of rolling fields and woods, bordered on two sides by the Little River, ribboned with well-worn trails, the camp celebrates nature. Camp Director Betsy Umstead always seems to have the most friendly, playful, humorous staff in town. Entering their 31st year, Riverlea is an imaginative, adventurous definition of "summer fun" for boys and girls aged 5 to 12. At the morning drop-offs, parents have to be quick to grab their goodbye hugs as their kids race to activity options such as archery , canoeing, soccer, gymnastics, music and dance. Special events highlight each week; carnivals, sleep-outs, bonfires and cookouts dot the calendar. On rainy days, the Shire Lodge is the place to be, as counselors lead (and often improvise on the spot) songs, skits and games. Pack plenty of sunscreen, decks of cards, T-shirts and bathing suits. There is never a dull moment.
Best Saturday morning tradition
It all begins before your baby is born. One pregnant day you decide to indulge your milkshake craving and waddle into McDonald's Drug Store on Ninth Street in Durham. As you work to pull the thick shake through an extra-wide straw, you notice the framed photo collages of hundreds of children who've sucked down fountain drinks while their parents chatted with Frances and John McDonald. You vow that one day your baby's picture will join the multitudes inside the frame.
The McDonalds make a mean milkshake. You can also get a malted, an orangeade, a vanilla coke, or whatever combination strikes your fancy. "Taste this, before I put the lid on," Frances McDonald will say. Then she'll happily add another squirt of vanilla or chocolate or Sprite. A quick stroll around the store is a great opportunity for kids to see what drugstores looked like before they were all Eckerd Big Box Stores. John McDonald isn't filling prescriptions anymore, but check out the vintage elixirs and tonics displayed behind the counter. Rumor has it that Joe Graedon, of People's Pharmacy fame, stops in for advice from time to time.
Best places to buy secondhand kids'clothes and toys
Of course the best bargains can be found at yard sales, especially the multi-family ones. But yard sales are unreliable. So if you know that baby needs a pair of shoes, your best bet is Thrift World at Lakewood Shopping Center in Durham and The Bargain Box at Cameron Village in Raleigh. These are places where you can walk in needing a pair of boys' sweatpants, size 7/8, and, before you get halfway through the rack, find a half-dozen pairs priced between $4 and $7 each.
The Olde Toy Shoppe at Willowdaile Shopping Center in Durham is a good place to get used toys. Their prices are higher than yard sale prices, but the quality is generally better, and you can count on all the puzzle pieces being in the box. You can find toys and books in gift-giving condition there. Just don't ask them if you can use their bathroom.