I was able to spend a couple weeks in Wilmington this summer and I would say that you should definitely just visit Wrightsville Beach. It is much cleaner, family orientated meaning I did not see people smoking and drinking there, the beach is wider, the sand seems cleaner, the water seems more clear and blue there as well. There are plenty of little shops and restaurants too as previously stated. The Lifeguards seem to have more of a presence there as well. Carolina Beach seems to be dirty, rougher current wise, riptide wise, and it had a big drop off not too far off the beach where at Wrightsville you could go out a little further and play in the surf. It was easier to swim and for kids to play there even on the stronger wavy days. Just stay away from the pier. If you are too close you may have additional riptides and currents to contend with. We always aimed for the parking street numbered 23 I think....It was far enough away from the pier and a wonderful place to just chill.