"I don't see it!," wailed my six-year-old from the back of the car.
We had just crossed a bridge and turned a corner onto the road that would take us to the hulking Battleship North Carolina, the 35,000-ton naval ship that sits on the Cape Fear River across from downtown Wilmington. The gray ship stood against a gray sky, so maybe it was hard to see. But ...
"How can you not see it?" her older sister wondered as we pulled into the parking lot. "It's right there!"
"Wow," is the only thing her little sister could say as it all came into view.
This weekend, the Battleship, which is just two hours from Raleigh, will celebrate the anniversary of its commissioning, which happened 75 years ago on April 9, 1941. Nicknamed "The Showboat," she was considered the "most powerful warship in the world" when she launched.
A little history: During World War II, the North Carolina took part in every major naval battle in the Pacific, eventually becoming the most decorated battleship during that war. As many as 2,339 officers and enlisted men joined her crew at any one time. She lost only 10 men in action.
She was decommissioned and placed in storage after six years at sea. In 1958, a grassroots campaign in North Carolina, led, in part, by children donating their spare change, brought the ship to the Cape Fear.
It opened to the public in 1962 and has since been a major tourist draw for the region. More than 200,000 visitors explore the battleship each year. Today, it's a memorial for not just the 11,000 North Carolinians who served in World War II, but the thousands of others who have served in the military or are active duty now.
If you go, you'll get a good workout exploring the ship, which stretches 729 feet. Nine of the ship's 15 stories are on the self-guided tour route; about 75 percent is below deck.
"It's basically like a jungle gym for kids, but it's also educational," said Heather Loftin, the ship's promotions director.
Once you go below deck, signs point you in the right direction as you weave through narrow passages into big public spaces and down steep staircases. You'll see various offices and places - from the mess hall and dormitories and barber shop to the officer's cabins, hospital, printing office and other stations.
Most of what's on the ship is authentic. The dials, switches, wheels and even some of the boxes of cigarettes and "candy poles" in the ship store are original to the ship. My kids loved maneuvering through the corridors - stopping when they found something of interest or had a question. Above deck, they spent a lot of time "operating" the guns, turning wheels to make them move up and down and side to side.
"We try to keep it as authentic as possible," Loftin said.
Big changes are ahead for the ship as plans call for much needed repairs to the ship's damaged hull and the construction of a cofferdam and walkway around the vessel. The cofferdam will allow for a dry workspace for repairs to the hull now and in the future. So far, $14.9 million has been donated to the effort, which will cost a total of about $17 million. The ship receives no state or federal funding and covers 100 percent of its operating costs.
The project will start this summer and take about 16 months to complete. Once complete, the walkway will be free for the public to walk along.
"You're going to be able to see the battleship from a different perspective," Loftin said.
This weekend, the ship will celebrate the anniversary of its commissioning with special events from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m., Saturday. The Battleship’s living history crew, the U.S. Marine Corps Historical Company, sailors from the 2nd Marine Division, and Marines from the 2nd Tank Battalion will interpret the Battleship for visitors. There also will be patriotic music, a visit from the Azalea Festival's court and a birthday cake.
If you go this weekend or any other day, here are some tips to know before you go:
Touch everything: Lay on the cot, check out the steering wheel, sit at a cafeteria table. "It made it through World War II," said Loftin, "it can survive your kids."
Summer visits: To avoid the worst heat if you go during the hot summer months, Loftin recommends getting there when it opens at 8 a.m. or in the evening. The ship closes at 8 p.m. during the summer. Fans do run during the summer, but the ship is not air conditioned.
Go with a group: Groups of 10 or more can take advantage of discounts if they call ahead. So, if you're planning a beach week with extended family or friends, it would be worth it to plan ahead. Also: Know that kids 5 and under are free. (Admission is $14 for ages 12 and up and $6 for ages 6 to 11).
Check Facebook: The Battleship's Facebook page often has discounts and giveaways.
Special events: The Battleship offers regular special events - from an egg hunt and trick-or-treating to Battleship Alive and behind the scenes tours (for ages 16 and up). Check the calendar before you go.
Snacks, pictures: It's all OK. Feel free to bring snacks and water to enjoy while you're on the ship. Also, photographs are encouraged.
Bathrooms: It can take about two hours to explore the entire ship. There are only a handful of bathrooms. So go before you go.
Wear comfortable shoes: There's a lot of up and down and walking.
Follow the blue arrows: Don't worry! You won't get lost if you just follow the signs with the blue arrows.
Strollers: You won't get far with a stroller unless you're happy to stay above deck. If you're going with a young child, bring a carrier. Inside the ship, many of the steep stairs may be difficult for some people - including very young children - to climb.
Film crews: If you're lucky, like we were last week, you might get to see a film crew in action. When we were there, they were filming a show for the History Channel. Other scenes from the Battleship were captured for shows such as One Tree Hill, Sleepy Hollow, Revolution and Ghost Huntters Academy for the SyFy Network. If shooting is scheduled, the ship is never entirely shut down.