Child’s Play

School isn’t even over yet, but—we’ll stick our necks out here—your kids are already acting like animals! Never fear. There’s more to do than the same old trip to Six Flags or SeaWorld. Get a leg up on your family’s summer fun with this list of 68 cool destinations and activities, including dive-in movies, donkey basketball, cattlepen mazes, dude ranches, and a hungry giraffe. (No popcorn, please.)
Photograph by Randal Ford

URBAN ADVENTURES

Cowtown Cattlepen Maze, Fort Worth

Note to parents: If you’ve ever told your kids to get lost (but you weren’t kidding), this is the place for you. Located in the heart of the Stockyards, the Cowtown Cattlepen Maze is built to resemble a cattle pen straight out of the Old West. And with 5,400 square feet of paths, your kids will need bread crumbs (or the Western equivalent) to find their way out. And for those whippersnappers with good memories: Don’t think you can beat it once and be done with it. The layout changes as often as the weather. 145 E. Exchange Ave., 817-624-6666 or cowtowncattlepenmaze.com

Bat Watching, Austin and Houston

We have spent many an evening between March and November standing along the shores of Austin’s Lady Bird Lake—formerly Town Lake—waiting for up to 1.5 million Mexican free-tailed bats to emerge from underneath the Ann W. Richards Congress Avenue Bridge. Though they sometimes disappoint, the most difficult part of the outing is just before the show begins, when your little ones ask in rapid-fire: “Is that a bat? Is that a bat? Is that a bat?” In Houston, residents line up at the Waugh Drive Bridge at Buffalo Bayou to take in the sights, though this colony of 250,000 is a bit different: It remains in Houston year-round.

Water Taxis, San Antonio

Oh, sure, you know all about the River Walk. It’s (a) too crowded, (b) overrated, (c) soooo commercial, or (d) all of the above. The truth of the matter is that the River Walk is a blast for the family—if you can get your kids out of the water taxis. A day pass is best (at $10 it’s a better deal than the $4 one-way ticket), and the drivers are in no hurry to force you off. It’s the perfect way to soak up the scenery and sounds of San Antonio, with only one drawback: Your children will wave and shout at every single water taxi that passes in the opposite direction. Thirty-nine stops along the River Walk. riosanantonio.com

Tower of the Americas, San Antonio

The first trick is to persuade your children to stop running around the landscaped areas at the base of the 750-foot tower. Nothing encourages flat-out sprints like steps, streams, and bridges. But after you round them up, head for the elevator that whooshes you skyward. Smaller kids will want to check out the views of San Antonio from the enclosed observation deck. More adventurous types will head for the platform outside, where the wind seems to blow at about 500 miles an hour. When they tell you they can see all the way to Mexico, you’ll have a hard time doubting them. 600 Hemisfair Plaza Way, 210-207-8615 or toweroftheamericas.com

WILDLIFE

Fossil Rim Wildlife Center, Glen Rose

It’s the only way to drive from Texas to Africa: Fossil Rim sprawls across 1,800 acres, where many of the 1,100 animals roam freely. You make your way through the park in your car—the entire visit takes about three hours—and spot rhinos and zebras and bison and greater kudu and scimitar-horned oryx and cheetahs (safe in their enclosed pen, of course). Quick hint: If you have a vehicle with a sunroof, leave it open. Your kids will never forget feeding a giraffe as it sticks its head through the top of the car. 2155 County Road 2008, 254-897-2960 or fossilrim.org

Sea Turtles, Galveston

With some 450 turtles and hatchlings calling the NOAA Fisheries Service Galveston Laboratory their temporary home at any one time, the turtle nannies (a.k.a. biologists) are probably glad their young charges don’t require diapers. Still, there’s plenty else involved in rearing and releasing the loggerheads, Kemp’s ridleys, and other endangered sea turtles that make their way here, like keeping the habitat at a comfy 80 degrees and nearly 100 percent humidity, dishing out turtle chow, and perfecting those all-important identification tags and tracking methods (released turtles refuse to carry cell phones). Although the federally operated seawater laboratory—the largest in the country—is no aquarium, the doors open to the public three days a week for 45-minute tours. You get close enough to the herds of turtles to kiss them, but we don’t recommend it. 4700 Avenue U, 409-766-3670 or galveston.ssp.nmfs.gov

Bill and Eva Williams Bear Habitat, Waco

How often have you driven that soul-crushing stretch of Interstate 35 from Dallas to Austin? San Antonio to Fort Worth? Laredo to Denton? And how many times have you stopped at that same old gas station/restaurant to keep the kids from driving you insane (we mean, to let them stretch their legs)? Next time, pull off in Waco and visit the Baylor Bears. No, not the students. Two North American black bears live in a nifty habitat just off the highway. The parents get to stroll a bit on campus; the kiddos get to call out to the bears and watch them play. And when everyone is happy, it will make piling back in the car that much easier. Along Fifth, just east of Dutton Ave.; 254-710-3322 or baylor.edu

Fort Worth Zoo, Fort Worth

The oldest zoo in Texas is often considered the best. But it’s the modern touches that have made this a prime family destination. The paths that wind through the grounds take children from the Australian Outback to Asian Falls to the African Savannah. Native Texans, however, will love the Texas Wild section, which contains a replica of an Old West town, a house that has been hit by a tornado, a petting zoo, and animals that live in various regions of the state. Don’t be surprised, however, if your kids won’t leave the Parrot Paradise aviary. A $1 seed stick can attract six birds at once—and lots of photo ops. Your money has never gone further. 1989 Colonial Pkwy., 817-759-7555 or fortworthzoo.com

TEXAS HISTORY

Bob Bullock Texas State History Museum, Austin

Climb through time at this sophisticated three-story museum, which highlights more than five hundred years of history, from the

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