To hear Baltimoreans tell it, the Inner Harbor as it existed in the 1970s was the type of dark and dangerous waterfront where even a pirate would've been nervous. Crime was high, buildings were decaying and there wasn't a decent crabcake to be found.

That all has changed in the last quarter-century. The Inner Harbor is now the urban equivalent of a theme park, a place where you'll find wall-to-wall family entertainment.

There are tall ships, paddle boats and water taxis in the harbor, bright and friendly shops and restaurants at the Harborplace complex on the water's edge and a science center and aquarium. Throw in a number of other kid-oriented attractions nearby and it's clear to see the charm of Charm City where families are concerned.

Getting Started

Perhaps the best place to get the lay of the land -- and the sea -- is aboard one of Ride the Ducks amphibious tour vehicles, which first waddled onto Baltimore's tourism landscape in the summer of 2002.

If you can tolerate a minute or so of Rick Dees' annoying 1970s hit "Disco Duck" prior to departure, the payoff is an unconventional and educational tour of the city's waterfront neighborhoods about a World War II-era amphibious vehicle. In fact, it was the hit of the weekend with most of the kids on our trip -- and more than a few of their adult companions. Ride the Ducks offers 80-minute tours leaving from the Inner Harbor several times a day.

The key to the experience was the driver/captain/tour guide, a fellow we knew simply as Captain Crabby. Crabby he was not: He scored some points with the kids once we left dry land in Fell's Point, as he offered each of them an opportunity to take the wheel for five minutes while he gave his spiel. Even our 5-year-old, Miranda, took a turn in the captain's chair.

For prices or more info, visit www.baltimoreducks.com.

The National Aquarium

The Inner Harbor's oldest attraction still is its most popular. Creatures great and small were sharing the stage at the Inner Harbor's flagship tourist facility when we visited and will continue to do so through the end of the year.

The featured exhibit, opened in March, is "Shark Quest," a presentation designed to quell people's fear of the creatures by educating them. There's a huge, circular tank filled with several species of sharks, rays, and even a sea turtle named Calypso, that form a never-ending procession past visitors as they make their way from one level of the aquarium to the next. And kids can even touch or hold a baby bamboo shark in what amounts to an underwater petting zoo.

In addition, "Seahorses: Beyond Imagination" has been a big hit at the aquarium the past two years and as a result has been held over through December.

Among the most fascinating of the permanent exhibits at the aquarium is the half-hour Dolphin Show, where audiences get an education while watching the stars' dance routines and acrobatic feats.

And, yes, "Finding Nemo" fans, clownfish are among the 10,000-plus specimens found here, as well, in the "Surviving Through Adaptation" exhibit on the third floor.

Be advised, the line for tickets forms early and grows long at the aquarium, and tickets are sold for specific entry times. Best bet, if possible, is to plan a time to visit in advance and purchase tickets online (at www.aqua.org).

Maryland Science Center

The watery theme carries over to the waterfront's other bookend attraction, where director James Cameron's critically acclaimed documentary, "Ghosts of the Abyss," is packing them in at the center's Imax Theater. The 60-minute documentary takes audiences along for the ride as the Academy Award-winning director, show-biz buddy Bill Paxton and a team of Russian and American scientists and crew members journey to (and through) the wreck of the Titanic.

But be sure clients order tickets in advance because the shows have been selling out since "Ghosts" opened in April, and science center admission doesn't cover or guarantee a seat in the theater.

You'll need tickets to get into the center's Davis Planetarium, as well, but those are much easier to come by.

And celebrating its first anniversary is the Kids Room, an interactive playroom designed with the youngest set (age 8 and under) in mind.

For more on the science center, go to www.mdsci.org.

Port Discovery

A walk of a few blocks from the Inner Harbor will land you at this interactive kids museum, one of the newer attractions on the block.

The centerpiece at Port Discovery is a three-story urban treehouse, known as Kidworks, that no one under 12 can resist. There are rope ladders, tunnels and bridges everywhere -- think supersized playground.

For prices and hours of operation, visit Port Discovery online at www.portdiscovery.org.

To contact reporter Gerry Bourbeau, send e-mail to [email protected] .

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