ANNAPOLIS -- At the two-story, terraced playground complex, 2-year-old Ryan Martin is pulling his cousin Bridget's hair underneath the monkey bars while 5-year-old Laura Sherer of Annapolis shows her mother how she can swing standing.
Down a grassy slope, where a reflecting pond doubles as an outdoor ice skating rink in the winter, twin fountains spray water 20 feet in the air. Here, the Prout family of Harwood -- Philip and Vall and 8-year-old son Michael -- pause after riding seven miles of paved nature trails on their mountain bicycles.
Nearby, fellow visitors to Quiet Waters Park lounge on $700 solid teak benches and browse the watercolor paintings in the $1 million Victorian-style visitors center. On either side of the three-story building is a formal garden, with $15,000-apiece arbors, and a brick walkway featuring a $32,000 sculpture of two herons in flight.
"I'm glad they saved this as a park," marveled Mr. Prout, who brings his family to the park two or three times a week to cycle. "It's 12 miles to drive here but it's definitely worth it."
Anne Arundel County park officials anticipate that by the end of Memorial Day weekend the 336-acre park on the outskirts of Annapolis will have attracted more than 10,000 hikers, bikers, picnickers, boaters, joggers, nature-lovers and other assorted visitors.
In the eyes of critics, the $18 million, lavishly appointed mega-park is a guilty pleasure akin to a slice of double-fudge chocolate chip cake with extra-thick butter frosting. Sure, it's nice, they say, but isn't it a bit rich?
With amenities that include an indoor meeting room suitable for wedding receptions, Victorian-era ornamentations like gingerbread trim on the buildings and London-style street lights, and a restaurant, "Truffles," that sells quiche and $5 herb-marinated chicken sandwiches, Quiet Waters is one of the flashiest parks in Maryland.
And to O. James Lighthizer, who finished his eight-year term as county executive last December, the popularity of Quiet Waters is also a vindication.
Since it opened last Labor Day, the park has attracted more than 200,000 people, with its busiest season just beginning.
In Anne Arundel County, that places it second only to Sandy Point State Park, the 786-acre attraction by the Bay Bridge that draws more than a half-million patrons each year.
"A week has not gone by since I left office that someone hasn't come up to tell me how wonderful it is," said Mr. Lighthizer, who now serves as Gov. William Donald Schaefer's transportation secretary. "It was the most difficult battle I ever faced as county executive. Some of those people who fought me now thank me for it."
The park's tumultuous history can be traced to early 1986, when developers entered into a contract to buy the former Quiet Water Farm, a pristine and largely wooded waterfront tract on the South River. They planned to build 250 luxury homes.
But when neighbors fought the plan and the city declined to annex the tract to facilitate development, Mr. Lighthizer interposed and purchased the property in a three-way deal for a whopping $5.8 million in 1987.
Residents in the adjacent community of Hillsmere Shores had assumed the land would be left as the largest, unspoiled waterfront tract in the Annapolis area.
But Mr. Lighthizer and county recreation and parks officials had plans for a more "people-oriented" use.
They modeled their ambitious proposal after Druid Hill Park in Baltimore and Central Park in New York City. It would cost $8 million to develop, an estimate which turned out to be $4 million low.
When the plan showed up in a local newspaper, the local populace lashed back, with protests, a letter-writing campaign and petitions that pounded away at the county executive, but to little avail.
The resulting "compromise" proposal made few changes to the final plan -- a 1,500-seat amphitheater was moved a few hundred yards to spare trees, for instance -- and the project was put on an 18-month fast track.
"We felt we had been betrayed. It was supposed to be a nature area and it looked on paper more like Disney World," said Susan T. Dapkunas, a schoolteacher and opposition leader.
"Some of the things they did were good. But some of it was way overdone and way expensive," she said.
Joseph J. McCann, the county's parks and recreation director, blames much of the initial opposition on racism and elitist attitudes. Some in the predominately white neighborhood feared the park would attract blacks while others simply saw no reason to allow public access to the waterfront, he said.
"Why shouldn't the average guy be able to enjoy a teak bench, a fancy arbor or a fountain?" said Mr. McCann, whose boyhood was spent in a modest South Philadelphia row house.
"Why should only rich people be able to walk through a formal garden because it's on their estate?"