Best Park for Kids 2020 | McCormick-Stillman Railroad Park | Fun & Games | Phoenix

In the age of blockbuster amusement parks, the McCormick-Stillman Railroad Park stands as a reminder that community parks have their own charms. The spacious 20-acre park has plenty of open green space where families can picnic, children can run off their energy, and couples can enjoy some outdoor time together. Tickets to the railroad rides and carousel are cheap, and the park has several other amenities, including playgrounds and actual railcars that bring train history to life. For a generation used to electric scooters and car sharing, the Scottsdale Railroad Museum presents a fascinating look at how people moved from place to place in generations past. There's even a building filled with train models, which brings out the childlike wonder in visitors of all ages, fueling romantic dreams of riding the rails free of everyday responsibilities.

Since 1969, Big Surf has been the closest thing Valley residents have to a real beach, featuring everything from a wave machine to children crying about hot sand between their toes. The 2.5-million-gallon Waikiki Beach Wave Pool tends to be packed with older kids and adults astride rafts, boogie boards, and surf boards (all available for rental). Other park attractions make a splash with younger tykes, like Captain Cook's Landing (for toddlers), Bora Bora Bay, and smaller Otter Slides for kids under 4 feet tall. Adults can whet their appetite for water slides with seven different attractions, including The Black Hole enclosed slide and winding Tornado Twisters body slides — perfect for racing friends into the plunge pool below. You can even learn to surf here; lessons are available on designated weekends.

When in Phoenix, do like the Phoenicians do — find a good deal on a nice hotel in the summer and plan a family staycation. You can't do better than this resort (despite its politically incorrect name). For $80 to $100 per night, your family will be treated to a nice room that comes with access to the resort's phenomenal pool complex. Put on your sunscreen for a few slow spins around the lazy river, catch the kids as they come down the slides, or just enjoy the cool splatter of a waterfall on your head. We're always sad to leave here, but it's nice to have someone else clean the pool for a change.

Talking Stick Resort & Casino is our favorite place to hold 'em and fold 'em in the Valley. It has all the slot machines you could ever need (even penny slots!), plus blackjack, keno, and Arizona's largest poker room. And once we're out of money — because we're not very lucky — there's still plenty to do. The Wandering Horse Buffet is quite good (try the blood orange gelato); the view of the sunset from the Orange Sky restaurant is spectacular; and we've had many a memorable evening dancing the night away at the Degree 270 lounge. While the casino is back up and running, some of the amenities are not, so keep checking the website to find out when you can get the full Talking Stick experience.

Saguaro cactus, dust storms, triple-digit temperatures — with sharks and penguins? OdySea is the largest aquarium in the southwest U.S., boasts 370 species among over 6,000 animals, and is well worth an afternoon. Located in a food-and-entertainment complex now called Arizona Boardwalk, OdySea has some pretty cool shark exhibits, and it's good to see jellyfish every now and then to remind you what a bizarre planet this is. Our kiddo spent an inordinate amount of time at the Stingray Bay touch pool, then followed it up with some relaxation at the cafeteria, which has a lighthouse to explore. And if you're willing to drop a little extra change, OdySea offers some delightful animal encounters, like petting penguins or swimming with the fish. It's a refreshing taste of ocean life in the middle of the desert.

Like its namesake book-turned-movie, Ready Player 1 Arcade taps into hardcore nostalgia. Located inside Jesse James Comics in Glendale, the place is packed with retro games galore, including 35 pinball machines (both classic and modern) and a few dozen old-school arcade titles. The throwback thrills come cheap, too: Arcade games are only a quarter and pinballs cost 50 cents a pop. Everything comes from the personal collection of owner Danny Moreno, who keeps each unit operating in peak condition. So, if you get wasted by the enemies of Double Dragon, The Simpsons, or NARC, don't blame the joystick. Your skills might be lacking, just like they were back in the day.

A bounty of billiards tables is just the tip of the iceberg at Freezer's. The Tempe establishment also offers darts, cornhole, ping-pong, and giant Connect Four games. Still, the 24 Diamond pool tables are what really make the place shine. The exquisitely crafted multi-wood and slate tables remain smooth with nary a snag in their cloth surfaces, despite their constant use. Orbiting these gems are more than 70 large-screen TVs and servers ferrying more than 24 kinds of different beers from the taps to the tables. Good deal alert: There's free pool from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Friday with a $10 food or drink purchase.

You could spend a whole day inside Mavrix and still not get around to trying out several of the enticing activities on offer at this Scottsdale party venue, which opened in March. Located in the Talking Stick Entertainment District, Mavrix has 22 bowling lanes (several of which deploy augmented reality and video game technology), laser tag, a massive arcade full of games, pool tables, a couple of bars, a restaurant, an outdoor beer garden, a meeting space for events, and probably some things we didn't even see when we visited earlier this year. We'll be back soon, though: We don't want to live in a world where Angry Birds-themed interactive bowling exists and we haven't tried it yet.

You might think we'd be jealous of all of the Southern Californians and Floridians, with their world-class theme parks right in their backyards. You're right; we kind of are. But we've got our own little amusement park to keep us occupied until the next time we can visit a coast. Castles ~n~ Coasters is an easy drive from most corners of metro Phoenix, it's less than $40 for unlimited rides, and the parking situation isn't bad. And there's no shortage of stuff to do, from Desert Storm, Arizona's only real roller coaster, to our personal favorite, the Sea Dragon rocking-boat ride. Add in bumper cars, bumper boats, mini golf, go-karts, a freefall ride, a fun house, and an arcade full of games, and the fact that we don't have to hear "It's a Small World" when we're there, and we've all but forgotten the so-called happiest place on Earth.

Octane Raceway's 1/3-mile racing track winds through the facility and then outside before looping back in. It's the only full-time indoor-outdoor track in the United States, and during the summer, the oppressive Arizona heat that builds inside drivers' racing helmets has the added effect of making them push the pedal to the metal even harder. Suffice it to say, these aren't state fair bumper cars — the 32 go-karts at Octane Raceway are electric SODI RTX European racing karts that can hit speeds up to 45 miles per hour. Adult races are 14 laps, while junior races make 10 laps around the track. Winners are determined by a fastest lap format. Racing memberships are required to race but cost as little as $7 a year for the standard membership (which includes helmet rentals and head socks) and $200 a year for the titanium membership (which includes everything from the standard membership, plus five cart races and additional discounts). Races cost $22 per driver. Vroom, vroom.

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