Fancy water parks are fun, but can be pricey. We'd rather head to Chandler's aquatic facilities, which offer similar features at a pittance. You'll find thrilling slides, high dives and lap pools for all ages, spraying toys and smaller slides for younger swimmers, beach chairs, shade and grass and even affordable snacks for everyone.

The admission prices are 50 cents for kids and $1.50 for those 18 and older; during certain times, admission costs drop further: $1 for a whole family, 25 cents for seniors and zip during free swim times.

Call before you drag out the swim fins. All pools don't operate on the same "season" and are only open certain weekends throughout September and May. Coming in May 2001: a cool new pool at Arizona Avenue and Ocotillo Road featuring a "Water Vortex" that spins and sprays kids, and a "Current River" for lazy floating.

Readers' Choice for Best Free Kids' Fun: Encanto Park

You know how it goes at baseball games: A chip shot off the bat. A beer-soaked scramble in crowded stands. And the biggest dog comes up with the ball.

But during autumn Fall Ball, kids can hunt and gather all the stitched orbs they want. The stands are rarely more than half full. Most of the crowd seems to be slow-moving retirees or the players' families and friends. Errant balls are sometimes so abundant that we've seen bigger kids sharing their many with smaller kids who have none.

And when the youngsters aren't hunting balls, they can watch the best in up-and-coming baseball talent from major league farm teams. Derek Jeter and Nomar Garciaparra are just two of the players who've stopped here on their way to the majors, not to mention last year's best-named gamer Milton Bradley. The league has six teams, playing at five Cactus League stadiums. The season runs from October 3 through November 19.

Novelty birthday pastry has come a long way since the days of a cupcake decorated to look like a clown's head. If you doubt it, check out the computer-cake technology that now allows you to serve an iced facial replica of the birthday boy or girl.

Every bakery department in the Fred Meyer chain is now equipped with a computer program capable of reproducing your favorite photo in edible ink on completely digestible rice paper, which is then placed atop a decorated cake of your personal choosing. They can even blow up one of those wallet-size school mug shots of your child and transform it into cake covering.

And if Donner Pass-style dining on a photo of your kid's face doesn't excite you, there are always those Polaroids you've got hidden in your underwear drawer. Your crumby creation is limited only by the twistedness of your own imagination.

The charm of the Mex, as longtime patrons call it, is that it comes without noisy gimmicks and distractions. There's a stash of wind-up toys for children to take to the tables, and a lineup of hand-crank gumball and candy machines to keep their minds on finishing the meal. Waitresses are relaxed and swift enough to get the simple Mexican fare to you faster than it takes most kids to really turn on the squirm. Yet the real delight is the way the little beasts sink into the sedative of the cushy vinyl booths and begin chowing like contented little lambs.

Readers' Choice: McDonald's

At first glance, there's something vaguely creepy about seeing hundreds of people eating pizza while staring at a guy bathed in colored stage lights as he plays an antique organ the size of a basketball court. It's sort of Chuck E. Cheese's meets The Phantom of the Opera by way of Honey, I Shrunk the Kids.

But give it a few minutes and the genius of the place catches up with its weirdness. This organ and its players are awesome, so awesome that the show is entertaining to everyone from the 3-year-old smearing pizza on his face to the 90-year-old smearing pizza on his face. Indeed, the Organ Stop and its 1927 Wurlitzer is one of the few places where the term "fun for all ages" actually applies.

That toddler will be jazzed by the funky lights, kid-friendly pizza and the enormous sound; meanwhile, your great-grandfather will just be jazzed by hearing genuine musicianship on one of the Valley's grandest instruments.

In today's fiercely pigeonholed society, it's heartening to see a pizza parlor that successfully caters to so many, ahem, slices of life.

This shop is the epitome of what's so beautiful about the sport and its enthusiasts. It's independently owned by three skaters in their mid-20s who have put their emphasis squarely on the tools, not the fashion, of skateboarding -- more gear than clothes.

And you won't find snowboarding or, ugh, inline skating paraphernalia. The shop has one focus, skateboarding (well, perhaps two: The motto on its tee shirts reads, "Tonight we drink, Tomorrow we ride").

Freshly reworked so it's not cluttered by racks, Sub Society has found a new aesthetic sensibility inside the front door. It's organized, with one wall of skate decks, one wall of clothing, and a corner dedicated strictly to shoes, plus the requisite couch and TV where skateboarding videos play all day.

The neatness and friendliness of the staff make it parent-friendly, as well. Most representative perhaps is the fact that there's a chess board set up next to the assembly area; these kids are thinking.

Are you sick of watching your kids blasting away at video games for hours on that $5,000 computer that was supposed to be an educational device -- but is actually nothing more than an expensive joy stick? Then unplug the PC and take 'em on down to Game Depot, where an assortment of challenging games and precision models will jar your youngster out of cyberland and into tangible fantasyland.

Once you get over everyone's original cliché reaction ("This place has got to be for loser geeks with nothing to do!"), you'll find an array of challenging activities of the real sort. The store welcomes children and encourages play on custom game tables -- particularly for Warhammer 40,000 and Magic: The Gathering. The rulebooks for these elaborate games are an inch thick and would confuse the heck out of most adults. But kids who can't find time for homework can nurture their reasoning skills while plotting attacks with their Warhammer 40K postapocalypse armies that they have spent hours painting in minute detail.

The Depot's extensive game selection and supplies have become legendary in the ever-evolving fantasy-game market -- sans computer.

Most city history museums are a hodgepodge of stuff somebody gave them when the city's first rich white people died. No context, no narrative, no fun. Just lots of Victorian finery. The kids last maybe 30 minutes.

At the greatly revamped Mesa Southwest Museum, though, all that dull old stuff is now brilliantly weaved into an epic kid-friendly tale of Arizona, a tale that spans some three billion years and includes everything from meteors and trilobites to territorial jails and the making of the movie Wyatt Earp.

The star of the museum is its new Prehistoric Wing, a 40,000-square-foot display that doubled the museum's space when it opened in May. With giant automatronic dinosaurs and a towering waterfall, the new wing keeps the kids excited and engaged as they digest lots of hard science and history.

The museum also has two galleries that host changing exhibits as well as numerous hands-on programs for kids.

The museum's hours are 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesdays through Saturdays and 1 to 5 p.m. on Sundays. Admission is $6 for adults and $3 for children 3 to 12. Children under 3 are free.

An outdoor picnic in the dead of summer?

Hot damn!

First, pack a picnic lunch with lots of cold beverages. Then suit up the kids in their swimming gear, grab the sunscreen and head for Desert Breeze Park.

Ignore the lovely lake surrounded by trees and picnic tables. Instead, head to the children's playground area. Beneath an earthen berm/overpass/observation deck are an assortment of shaded tables. This covered passageway connects a traditional playground with a "spray pad" where three dolphins and an elephant (climbing structures the rest of the year) squirt water on a cyclical timing system from May to October. Eat, chill, eat, chill -- well, you get the idea.

Repeat process as needed through mid-October.

Got a stage-struck young'n? Can't afford the tickets to see every show in town? How does seeing them all for free sound? Downtown's busiest theater has the best volunteer program around. They are always looking for new folks willing to tear tickets and lead patrons to their seats. Volunteers as young as 12 are accepted when accompanied by an adult, which makes this a perfect family activity. After calling the volunteer hot line number above, you will go to an orientation meeting, which includes a tour of one of the biggest performance spaces in town. After that, it's a matter of signing up to work the various plays that are always happening on the two stages at the center. Give your teen a chance to see everything from Shakespeare to Wallace & Ladmo while helping Phoenix's best local theater center keep up the good work.

Best Of Phoenix®

Best Of