A trip to the shore isn't complete without a round of miniature golf. But which course to play?

From a simple layout to introduce toddlers to the game to animated gorillas, South Jersey miniature golf course owners do their darndest to get players to pay to strike the ball on their greens.

"Over the years, we just keep making it better and better," said Mark Benevento, of Somers Point, who owns the Congo Falls complex on the Ocean City Boardwalk. He and partner Pat Croce also own Pirate Island courses in Ocean City, Sea Isle City and Avalon.

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Congo Falls started as one 18-hole miniature golf course in 1993, and expanded to three games, Benevento said. It has added gorillas purchased from the Rainforest Cafe in Toronto and a helicopter picked up at a junkyard.

"On just the animations, we spent close to $200,000," Benevento said.

One of the courses is indoors, air conditioned and rated PG because some of the special effects could scare young children, Benevento said.

Players on a recent steamy afternoon said they loved the course because they could keep cool.

"We're playing this one because it blocks the sun," said Paul Millili of Doylestown, Pa., playing with four grandchildren.

"It's inside," said Ben Noel of Lancaster, Pa., playing with his dad, Dan.

"It looked to be well-kept, and the big giant gorilla head (at the entrance) kind of captures your attention," said Rob Burns, of Detroit, playing with his girlfriend, Maudie Banta, of Pasadena, Calif.

But it takes a lot of work to keep a setup like this in good shape, said Harry Kent, who designed the courses. He and three other men do preventive maintenance at the four sites. They visit each course twice a week to fix pumps, animators, netting and pathways.

But not all miniature golf courses require that kind of effort.

Gillian's opened a new course for small children last summer at the Wonderland Pier, said marketing director Melissa Brown of Ocean City. It's simple and indoors, so maintenance isn't a major concern.

"It's not like a big, crazy course," Brown said. "It's a small old-fashioned course."

The business of minigolf

Statistics indicate that 50 percent of Americans play miniature golf at least once a year, and there are about 10,000 courses to accommodate them, said Bob Detwiler, of North Myrtle Beach, S.C., president of the U.S. Pro Mini Golf Association. These range from relatively crude homemade jobs to themed complexes with up to 54 holes.

It costs from $120,000 to

$3 million to build a miniature golf course, depending on the features the owners want and the price of the land, Detwiler said. A very simple course can be constructed for somewhat less, but those with more curb appeal attract more players.

"Usually, the kids are the ones who decide where they're going," Detwiler said.

Charlie Schmied, of Westchester, Pa., said his four children definitely made the call to play Golden Galleon Pirate Golf on the Ocean City Boardwalk, decorated with lookout towers, rigging and a huge swashbuckling pirate.

"It was nice, not too difficult for the kids, which is always good," Schmied said. Many holes have three choices of where to hit the ball from the tee, "and if you get the right one, you automatically get a hole in one."

Jen Cherry, of Ludlow, Mass., whooped with joy as she hit the ball into the right slot on one hole. Her brother-in-law Justin Cherry wasn't as lucky.

Her husband, Mike Cherry, said he has played miniature golf since he was 2 years old, and liked the Golden Galleon layout.

"You get a reward for a good putt," he said.

The two courses, owned by Playland's Castaway Cove, were redesigned last winter, said afternoon manager Mickey Pileggi. Most adults notice the changes, but the youngsters just want to play.

Getting them in

Night time, after the lifeguards go home and people have had their dinner, is when the golf courses get busy, Benevento said. His courses do 65 percent to 70 percent of their business between 7 and 10 p.m.

But Atlantic City Miniature Golf had quite a few players on a Saturday afternoon.

"We're already on the Boardwalk, so we don't have to do much," manager Kerri Lahey said. "It attracts people by itself."

The course, decorated with a few fountains and statues, doesn't require much maintenance, Lahey said. It's designed to withstand the winter, and the owners don't have to do much more than replace the carpets every few years.

Cape May Miniature Golf looks more natural, with a cave, waterfalls and sand traps, said Katie Helbig, of Glenside, Pa., who owns the course with her brother, Lenny Helbig, of North Cape May. The course attracts 500 to 1,000 players a week, including some regular golfers who bring their own clubs for putting practice.

Maintenance takes some work, said Katie Helbig, who teaches school in Glenside during the off-season. The flowers have to be tended, the water traps cleaned out twice a week and other tasks.

The course runs specials three days a week, when three to five people can play together for $20 between 10 a.m. and 3 p.m. instead of paying $7 each, Helbig said. The attached ice cream parlor helps keep them cool.

"We get a lot of families in that time," Helbig said. "Get the golf time in before the beach or after the beach and save a little money."

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