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


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


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 Conquistadors and Karankawas to the space program. Displays are conveniently positioned for munchkins and grown-ups alike, and many offer extrasensory extras: stroking a patch of buffalo hide, sniffing oil-well sulfur, and listening to Texas music from the forties and fifties. Six theater kiosks provide video spins on the hardships of the Comanche, the lifestyles of cowboys, the impact of oil, and more. Even with all this, the big draw here is the IMAX Theatre, where Texas history takes a backseat to, say, U2 in 3-D or the Grand Canyon coming at you full throttle. 1800 N. Congress Ave., 512-936-8746 or thestoryoftexas.com

Fort Davis National Historic Site, Fort Davis

For a lesson in Texas history that doesn’t feel like a lesson, Fort Davis is a great place to explore frontier life during the nineteenth century. With its ruins and its reconstructed barracks, the fort allows visitors to learn about Indian raids, guns from the era, Army life in general, and Jefferson Davis’s grand experiment with camels. If the words “fort” and “camels” don’t get your kids excited, we don’t know what will. Near the intersection of Texas Hwys. 17 and 118, 432-426-3224, ext. 20, or nps.gov/foda

Seminole Canyon State Park, Comstock

Make sure your children study their own sidewalk-chalk masterpieces before you take them to see some of the oldest Native American pictographs on the continent. Then you can ask if their drawings will last more than four thousand years. (Of course, that may only lead them to ask if you are four thousand years old. Or if grandma is.) They may not understand the impact of the two hundred or so images—which range from small, individual drawings to four-hundred-foot-long panels—but you certainly will. Nine miles west of Comstock along U.S. 90, 432-292-4464 or tpwd.state.tx.us

San Jacinto Battleground State Historic Site and Museum of History, La Porte

This park excels at a telescoping view of history. In the museum, you can zoom in on the tiniest details, like the concealed dispatches, the size of the smallest Post-it notes, written by Agustín de Iturbide during Mexico’s struggle for independence from Spain. Or, from the observation deck of the 570-foot-high limestone monument, zoom out for an aerial view of the battlefield where Sam Houston and his small band of Texian fighters defeated Santa Anna. Beyond the museum and monument, an interpretive trail explores the strategic locations in the battle from both the Texas and the Mexican military perspectives. There’s also the battleship Texas, considered the most powerful weapon on earth when she was commissioned, in 1914. Now the oldest remaining U.S. battleship, she shares her many war stories with visitors. About 10 miles east of Pasadena off Texas Hwy. 225. Battleground and battleship: 281-479-2431 or tpwd.state.tx.us. Museum: 281-479-2421 or sanjacinto-museum.org

San Antonio Missions, San Antonio

Rule number one: As a Texas parent you are required to take your family to the Alamo. But a lesser-known subsection of that rule is that your kids should also see the four other missions in San Antonio, particularly Mission San José, which was founded in 1720. Children will love to explore the grounds, and parents will be wowed by the chapel, where mass is still held. Don’t forget to go inside the working gristmill, which will leave your children wondering where the contraption plugs in (honestly, did you ever think it would be exciting to see wheat ground up?). You could linger for hours—if only you didn’t have more missions left to visit. Starting downtown at the intersection of Houston and Alamo streets and continuing south along the Mission Trail, 210-932-1001 or nps.gov/saan


Creative Playscape, Georgetown

Every town has its favorite playground, but what about a favorite in the state? Jungle gyms have come a long way since the days of metal swings, monkey bars, and simple ladders, so we’ll give the nod to Georgetown, which built its wooden Creative Playscape in 1993 as a community project. It features a giant maze and more things to do than we can name: climb, swing, jump, bounce, run, twirl. And with all the places to run and hide, no game of tag will ever be the same after your kids have played here. When they need to take a break—assuming they ever do—the family can wind down with a picnic in the newly added pavilion. 1003 N. Austin Ave., 512-930-3595 or parks.georgetown.org

NorthPark Center, Dallas

Everyone knows that NorthPark is for well-heeled Dallas power shoppers. For one, it’s a “center,” not a “mall.” Centers display priceless works of art. They do not allow children’s play areas. But in a section of NorthPark ringed by stores such as Neiman Marcus, Stuart Weitzman, Cartier, and Tiffany & Co., there is a pretty fountain and a pool filled with turtles and ducks. There is also a pair of seemingly dull four-sided planters (one about five feet tall, the other about three) whose smooth walls slope outward as they reach the floor. If that sounds suspiciously like a set of eight slides, the kids figured that out long ago. As they fly down feetfirst on their backs or headfirst on their stomachs, the parents watch with a particular look of satisfaction. After all, many of them did the same thing when they were growing up. 8687 N. Central Expwy., 214-363-7441 or northparkcenter.com

Baps Shri Swaminarayan Mandi Hindu Temple, Stafford

When Houston calls itself an international city, few really understand the depth of its bench. To wit: Drive out the Southwest Freeway (U.S. 59), exit at Kirkwood, and go south, past all the exurban detritus, until you see it on the horizon, a vision in white that could be a hallucination or . . . a Hindu temple? Yes, it’s true: The BAPS Shri Swaminarayan Mandir is the first traditional Hindu shrine of its kind in the country, and it’s a doozy. The massive, sprawling, but resolutely graceful temple, made out of hand-carved white marble from Italy and limestone from Turkey, floats on the coastal flats like a castle from a child’s picture book. It’s all turrets, arches, and flags outside and carved likenesses of Hindu gods bedecked in pounds and pounds of shimmering colored stones inside. Tour guides are eager and unfailingly polite; the glistening marble floor is cool under your (bare) feet. In the evening there is a celebration of lights that puts Disney to shame. It’s like taking the kids to India without going through all the airport hassles. 1150 Brand Ln., 281-765-2277 or swaminarayan.org/globalnetwork/america/houston.htm


Frisco RoughRiders, Frisco

It’s not that Frisco’s Dr Pepper Ballpark is one of the nicest of its kind in the state. Or that AA baseball is surprisingly fun to watch. Or that parents know they’re paying a heck of a lot less than if they had gone to see the major league team half an hour away. No, it’s the food: the hot dogs and the hamburgers and the soft drinks. Families that purchase an eight-game pack of tickets called the Teddy Plan—after Theodore Roosevelt, the original Rough Rider—sit in a special section that offers unlimited food. You heard it right, unlimited. As in, buffet. So now you can have that fabled hot dog–eating contest and still enjoy the game. Top that, Texas Rangers. 7300 RoughRiders Trail, 972-731-9200 or ridersbaseball.com

Ice Skating, Austin, Dallas, and Houston

It has become a tradition to take the family to the ice rinks at the Galleria in both Houston and Dallas, where during the holidays kids can zip around a massive Christmas tree and Santa has been known to do backflips (and have sparks shoot out from his skates). It’s a newer tradition to head outdoors in Austin during the winter and hit the rink on the roof of the downtown Whole Foods Market. Whichever one you choose, one rule still applies: Your kids will be better than you. Galleria Houston: 5085 Westheimer Rd., 713-966-3500 or galleriahouston.com. Galleria Dallas: 13350 Dallas Pkwy., 972-702-7100 or galleriadallas.com. Whole Foods Market: 525 N. Lamar Blvd., 512-476-1206 or wholefoodsmarket.com

Cool Crest Miniature Golf, San Antonio

Your kids will always remember their first hole in one, and few places in the state have witnessed more of those than this San Antonio favorite, which opened its doors in 1937. It has all the requisite obstacles, water hazards, ramps, and the like to challenge your budding young Tiger. What could be better than golfing on a warm evening between June and November on the two 18-hole courses as Bing Crosby’s voice serenades you from hidden speakers? 1400 Fredericksburg Rd., 210-732-0222

Donkey Basketball, Throckmorton

Susie Leal was surprised to learn that donkey basketball used to be a sort of tradition in her town of Throckmorton, so when she helped organize a fundraiser last November for the town’s Police Activities League, she knew what to do. Reserve the high school gym, round up some donkeys (with rubber boots to protect the floor), recruit players to ride them, and get out of the way. Judging from the packed house, the event was a slam dunk. Throckmorton expects a repeat performance this year. 940-849-0222


Artesian Springs Resort, Newton

The white sand that surrounds the two-acre swimming lake at this East Texas getaway looks suspiciously exotic, but owner Larry Gordon denies the rumor that it’s hauled in from Acapulco. “It’s from Cancún,” he boasts, before admitting that it is, in fact, native to the property, the site of a sand and gravel pit some sixty years ago. These days, thanks to the 200,000 gallons of crystal-clear water discharged daily from three springs (plus some hard work by humans), the hundred-acre tract is an aquatic playground, with a hundred-foot-long waterslide, water volleyball, paddle boats to ply the chain-o-ten tiny lakes, and johnboats for catch-and-release, no-license-no-fee fishing. Can’t bear to leave after one day? Sixteen cabins, including a lodge on its own island, are available. Three miles east of FM 2626 on County Road 2016, 409-379-8826 or artesianspringsresort.com

Deep Eddy, Austin

You probably know that this chilly legend is the oldest public swimming pool in the state. And that it shared top billing with Lorena’s Diving Horse, at Deep Eddy Bathing Beach, in the twenties. And that it reopened its cool Depression-era bathhouse last year after a top-notch renovation. So why rehash such chestnuts when we can get the latest skinny from our favorite fourteen-year-old, Mady Berry? “On sweltering Texas summer days that’s where you’ll find me, with my best friend, Rachel, basking in the golden sunlight. It’s a great family pool, since its shallow end is the perfect depth for both children and adults. The deep end is the dream of all the little children. It’s a magnet for them and by far my favorite part of the pool. It gives me a refreshing shock every time I take the plunge into its watery depths.” Thank you, Mady. 401 Deep Eddy Dr., 512-472-8546 or austinparks.org

Breakaway Charters, South Padre

Prepare to set sail, landlubbers. Breakaway Charters offers boat rides in the Gulf of Mexico or across Laguna Madre that last between five and twelve hours. And it doesn’t matter if you can’t bait a hook—you’re guaranteed to reel in something other than a tire or a boot. After a day of sightseeing, head back to the marina for a wide-ranging menu at Dirty Al’s (956-761-4901 or spisland.com/dirtyal/), where the employees will keelhaul anyone who says they don’t have the best fried shrimp in town. 33396 State Park Rd., 956-761-2212 or breakawaycruises.com

Burger’s Lake, Fort Worth

When you’ve gotten tired of visiting all of Fort Worth’s great museums, the Stockyards, and the nearby amusement parks, head to the west side of the city, where you can step back in time and jump in a real spring-fed swimming hole. Open from Mother’s Day through Labor Day (and every weekend in September), Burger’s Lake is one acre in size, with diving boards, high and low slides, platforms for jumping, and a 25-foot-high trapeze swing. Small children love the graduated depth of the sandy bottom. It’s a perfect place to teach them how to stick their heads underwater. And what the parents will love is that this spot is as heat-proof as you can find for summer swimming: Part of the swimming hole is in the shade at any one time. 1200 Meandering Way Rd., 817-737-3414 or burgerslake.com

Tubing Down the Frio

The Frio River is approximately two hundred miles long, but tubers concentrate on the stretch from Leakey to Concan, a seventeen-mile-long ribbon of limestone canyons, looming cypress trees, and spring-fed waters cold enough to numb a tush in July. You may have to navigate a few low-water crossings and one small waterfall south of Garner State Park, but with no major impoundments or reservoirs along the entire course, the tubing is easy. And so are the logistics of a float trip. Many of the resorts that hug the river’s banks will shuttle guests, and outfitters catering to day-trippers include Concan’s Happy Hollow Store (830-232-5266 or onthefrio.com), which boasts a dependable swimming hole and a fount of knowledge about the Frio’s sweet spots. Lodging information at friocanyonchamber.com/lodging.htm. River conditions at waterdata.usgs.gov/tx/nwis/uv?08195000


For kids, there’s nothing quite like the allure of a train, whether it’s full-size or pint-size. The Grapevine Vintage Railroad follows the historic Cotton Belt Route from Grapevine to the Fort Worth Stockyards and features two vintage locomotives, including Puffy, the oldest continuously operating steam engine in the South (817-410-3123 or gvrr.com). As for the smaller versions, Austin’s Zilker Zephyr is a popular train that provides a leisurely three-mile ride through Zilker Park. During the holidays, it’s the perfect way to see the Trail of Lights (512-478-8286 or ci.austin.tx.us/zilker/). San Antonio’s Brackenridge Eagle is a rite of passage for families in the Alamo City. A ride on the train, which is powered by a replica of an 1863 steam locomotive, takes about twenty minutes (210-735-7455 or sazoo-aq.org). And the train in Houston’s Hermann Park just finished an upgrade and renovation in March, including wider cars, new tracks, and new stops close to the city’s light-rail system (713-524-5876 or hermannpark.org).


Big Bend National Park (One Child at a Time)

When my daughter was nine, I took her to Big Bend National Park for a weekend. I didn’t have any notion of starting a family tradition. It had been a wet spring, and I had heard that the desert was in full bloom. I wanted company, and Janet was willing to go. We spent the night at the Gage Hotel, in Marathon, and drove into the park the next morning. I took the turnoff to Dagger Flat, a seven-mile drive on a dirt road into the foothills of the Dead Horse Mountains. The last mile wound around a rock-strewn ridge and petered out among a forest of giant Spanish daggers bursting with white blossoms. The spectacle and the stillness and the space were overwhelming. Neither of us wanted to speak. We just listened to the silence. For the first time that weekend, but not the last, I wondered what she was thinking.

In later years, I repeated the trip with my two sons. Joel had to do a fourth-grade science project, and Big Bend seemed like a natural place—no pun intended—to go. Subsequently, I took Barrett along on a working trip. We spent a day together while I did some reporting for a story and then a day in the park.

What I see now, in life’s rearview mirror, is that something special happened on these trips. I came to realize (the hard way, of course) that if these weekends were going to be successful, I had to let my children experience Big Bend in their own way, not in mine. At home, I was in charge. Here, we had to be partners. I came home a better father. And the children? The vast distances and the rugged land worked their magic. A weekend at Big Bend turned them into instant chauvinistic Texans. —Paul Burka 432-477-2251 or nps.gov/bibe/

Dinosaur Valley State Park, Glen Rose

The Paluxy River, the centerpiece of this 1,525-acre park, aims to entertain, no matter what its condition. When it’s low and lean or even totally dry, it reveals the three-toed paw prints of the carnivorous Acrocanthosaurus that trotted through the mud 113 million years ago, possibly hot on the trail of the large and tasty Pleurocoelus, which left its marks here as well. When the river runs too deep for tracking tracks, it compensates by providing great rock-bottomed swimming holes, some ten to twenty feet deep, and kayaking on the (occasional) class II or III rapids. Five miles west of Glen Rose on FM 205, 254-897-4588 or tpwd.state.tx.us

BR Lightning Ranch, Pipe Creek

For all the talk of cowboys and open ranges and campfires, you might ask yourself if your little buckaroo really knows what any of that means. So saddle up and head to this dude ranch, which lets you choose your own adventure. Want to do a one-hour horseback ride or one that lasts overnight? No problem. Care to relax in the pool or learn how to rope a horse? That’s covered as well. And with a cowboy breakfast, log cabins, and live music, your family will run out of time before it runs out of activities. Less than a mile west of Pipe Creek on FM 1283, 800-994-7373 or lightningranch.com

Enchanted Rock, Fredericksburg

How young is too young to climb Enchanted Rock? We’ve seen parents haul their toddlers to the top—about 425 feet up—in one of those fancy-pants backpack contraptions. We suggest having the kids try it under their own power at about the age of four. The ascent is not terribly difficult, but it merits a stop about halfway up the face. As we sipped water under the meager shade of some scrub, we suddenly heard a click, click, click. We turned to see a roadrunner making a beeline toward us and hiding in the bush. It lingered confidently; we snapped photos quickly. And after our group made it to the summit and back, guess what our four-year-old couldn’t stop talking about? Eighteen miles north of Fredericksburg on Ranch Road 965, 830-685-3636 or tpwd.state.tx.us

Isla Mujeres, Mexico

If you want to take your children to some strange and lovely place for a long vacation, Mexico is a natural choice. But where? Try Isla Mujeres, a five-mile-long island about six miles off Cancún in the Caribbean Sea. It is a quiet and sleepy place, and it is safe—one of the safest spots in Mexico, in fact. You can spend your day on the beach, in a hammock, under the water, or on a fishing boat, and you never worry about the time. Here, you do things at your own pace. The only danger is that your boys may go native and never want to wear a shirt again. isla-mujeres.net/home.htm

Elkins Ranch, Palo Duro Canyon

It’s a shame that more people haven’t made their way to Palo Duro Canyon, one of the prettiest places in the entire state. But the Elkins Ranch gives you one less excuse to miss out on the fun. You can get in touch with your inner cowboy on this third-generation cattle ranch by participating in campfire dinners, chuckwagon breakfasts, and old-fashioned storytelling. And who needs to climb up on a trusty steed in the first place? The guided Jeep tours are the next-best way to roam across this part of Texas. Twenty-five miles south of Amarillo on Texas Hwy. 217, 806-488-2100 or theelkinsranch.com


Moody Gardens, Galveston

The pyramids at Moody Gardens may not be up to I. M. Pei’s standards, but your kids don’t care who Pei is. Besides, this attraction has three pyramids, housing an aquarium, a rain forest, and an exhibit hall. Throw in an IMAX 3-D theatre, tours on a massive Mississippi-style paddle wheeler, white sand beaches—and plenty of pampering for Mom and Dad—and the kiddos will admit they owe you one. One Hope Blvd., 800-582-4673 or moodygardens.com

The Ships of Christopher Columbus, Corpus Christi

“In fourteen hundred and ninety-two Columbus sailed the ocean blue—and ended up in Corpus.” Well, not exactly. But you don’t have to ruin it for your children when they climb aboard replicas of the Pinta and the Santa Maria at the Corpus Christi Museum of Science and History (the Niña, which is moored at the Corpus Christi Municipal Marina, is not available for tours). The ships were built by the Spanish government to mark the five-hundredth anniversary of Columbus’s voyage and sailed from Europe to the New World in 1992. Who knows what they will inspire your children to discover? 1900 N. Chaparral, 361-826-4667 or ccmuseum.com

The Dr Pepper Plant, Dublin

The original Dr Pepper can still be found at the world’s oldest Dr Pepper plant, located in a small building in the tiny town of Dublin. Here, cane sugar is used, and once you taste it, you’ll wonder why other places switched to the more common corn-syrup sweeteners (okay, we know why they switched: to save money). You can take a tour of the plant, visit the Dublin Dr Pepper Museum (another museum is in Waco, where the drink was invented, in 1885), and hang out at Old Doc’s Soda Shop, which will serve you as many chilled original Dr Peppers as you want. 105 E. Elm, 888-398-1024 or dublindrpepper.com

USS Lexington Museum on the Bay, Corpus Christi

This isn’t your grandpa’s mothballed aircraft carrier—well, actually it probably is, but we’re talking living history here, not some staid relic. Decommissioned in 1991—and the survivor of a famous kamikaze attack in the Pacific—the Lexington didn’t head for the golf course. Instead, she relocated to Corpus Christi Bay and began a new life as a World War II naval museum and a safe harbor for nineteen retired war birds, including one of the legendary SBD-3 Dauntless dive-bombers, forties-era workhorses that are credited with every confirmed hit on the enemy fleet in the Battle of Midway. The “Blue Ghost” (the carrier was nicknamed for its stealth by none other than Tokyo Rose herself) is also home to a flight simulator; the Joe Jessel Mega Theater, where films on history and aviation are taken to new heights on a three-story screen; and an overnight program for youth groups. Just offshore from downtown Corpus Christi, 800-523-9539 or usslexington.com

Blue Bell Creamery, Brenham

Fortunately, they make all they can and you eat the rest. When you tour the Blue Bell Creamery, which opened in 1907, you can’t wait for the highlight that comes at the end, a complimentary scoop of the famous merchandise. But the factory tour is surprisingly interesting. How many cows provide the milk? How cold is a blast freezer? Who are the poor suckers in the rest of the country who can’t buy Blue Bell? You’ll never look at another half-gallon carton the same way again. 1101 S. Blue Bell Rd., 800-327-8135 or bluebell.com


Heard Natural Science Museum and Wildlife Sanctuary, McKinney

For a museum that opened in 1967, the Heard remains a bit of a secret. Schoolkids back then got their first taste through field trips, and now they’re bringing back their own children to a building that looks as if it was built in, well, 1967. But there’s no doubting the earnestness of the museum, with its wide range of rotating exhibits. Last summer, live native snakes were waiting to be petted, and kids could walk through the insides of a charmingly homemade giant snake to learn about its organs. (Giggles erupted when they exited the anus.) Another exhibit featured animatronic dinosaurs spread out over the hiking trails. When a small girl went running at the sight of a grunting Parasaurolophus, her five-year-old companion gave chase, saying—and we are not making this up—“Don’t be afraid. It’s only an herbivore.” One Nature Pl., 972-562-5566 or heardmuseum.org

Texas Sports Hall of Fame, Waco

Davey O’Brien’s 1938 Heisman trophy. Jesse Armstead’s 1998 New York Giants road jersey. Babe Didrikson’s javelin from the 1932 Olympics. Byron Nelson’s golf clubs. A 1966 Dallas Cowboys helmet signed by the team. A great series of photographs that shows Alabama’s Tommy Lewis “tackling” Rice’s Dicky Maegle from the sidelines in the 1954 Cotton Bowl. Of course, a lot of museums can boast items like these, but the Texas Sports Hall of Fame shines in the way it brings them all to life. 1108 S. University Parks Dr., 254-756-1633 or tshof.org

Panhandle-Plains Historical Museum, Canyon

If you haven’t visited this gem on the High Plains, then it may surprise you to know how many parents (mostly dads) have said it’s the best of its kind in the state. They’ve raved, for example, about a video in which a Comanche demonstrates how to clean and skin a buffalo, which delights kids (mostly boys). But there are plenty of other offerings: a headdress worn by Quanah Parker, dinosaur bones, cannons, and the oldest assembly-line car in the United States. If your seventh-graders thought Retreat to Glory was a bore, this will bring history to life like nothing else. 2503 Fourth Ave., 806-651-2244 or panhandleplains.org


More than glorified playrooms, these six children’s museums will expand your kids’ horizons (and, if you’re lucky, tucker the little ones out too). Consistently singled out as one of the best in the country, the Children’s Museum of Houston sends young minds around the world, be it to Yalálag, a replica of a Oaxacan village, complete with open-air market and tortilla-making classes, or to an imaginary destination via a ride on the authentic red caboose sitting in the courtyard (1500 Binz, 713-522-1138 or cmhouston.org). Animal tendencies are encouraged at the Children’s Museum at the Museum of Nature and Science, in Dallas’s Fair Park, where young’uns can cling to a wall like a gecko, crawl through an ant hill, weave their way through a spider web, and see the real creatures up close (3535 Grand Ave. and 1318 S. Second Ave., 214-428-5555 or dallaschildrens.org). Forget American Idol: At the Austin Children’s Museum, musicians-in-the-making can choose a song by one of a dozen local crooners (Willie Nelson and Kelly Willis among them) to perform onstage at Austin Kiddie Limits (201 Colorado, 512-472-2499 or austinkids.org). The newest permanent exhibit at the San Antonio Children’s Museum invites little Texans to spelunk in a re-creation of the Edwards Aquifer and create a thunderstorm, all while fostering an appreciation for our (endangered) natural resources (305 E. Houston, 210-212-4453 or sakids.org). Curious tykes won’t know what to do first at the McKenna Children’s Museum, in New Braunfels: paint the VW Beetle parked outside, play with a swarm of “butterflies” in the Mine-Control video installation, ride on pommel “ponies” in the Lend-A-Hand Ranch, or tend a real garden full of flowers and vegetables (801 W. San Antonio, 830-620-0939 or nbchildren.org). Budding Spielbergs can dabble in Claymation and learn how to use Windows Movie Maker every Saturday at the Imaginarium of South Texas, in Laredo. Each finished film has its debut—where else?—on YouTube (5300 San Dario, 956-728-0404 or imaginariumstx.org).

Nasher Sculpture Center, Dallas

At first blush, a sculpture center seems like a terrible place for kids. They can’t touch anything, they have to be quiet, and they can’t touch anything. But the Nasher makes it easy: On the first Saturday of each month, it hosts a free family event from ten to two. The kids are treated to scavenger hunts, crafts, and stories. And on sunny days, the gorgeous lawn provides enough room to roam and enough art to mesmerize. Just try to get your little one to stop staring up at Jonathan Borofsky’s Walking to the Sky, a one-hundred-foot pole with ten life-size figures. Only don’t forget—no touching. 2001 Flora, 214-242-5100 or nashersculpturecenter.org


Babe’s Chicken Dinner House, Roanoke

Paul and Mary Beth Vinyard cook some of the best comfort food in the state. You pick the meat—either fried chicken or chicken-fried steak—and the sides, including salad, biscuits, mashed potatoes and gravy, and creamed corn, arrive family style. Your kids will happily eat off your plate as George Strait plays on the jukebox, but they’re really waiting for the moment when the first notes of “The Hokey Pokey” fill the dining room. Then all the children flock to the floor with the waitresses to put their right foot in and shake it all about. Cue the video cameras. 104 N. Oak, 817-491-2900 or babeschicken.com

EZ’s Brick Oven Grille, San Antonio

The first EZ’s opened in San Antonio in 1989, and with its harlequin-tiled floors, red vinyl banquettes, and ample neon lighting, it has been a family hit ever since. Mom and Dad can order homemade tortilla soup and choose from basil chicken pasta or grilled rainbow trout. And they can even drink wine. But the kids have the run of the place—in terms of volume and menu. No cross looks here as they laugh and carry on while devouring brick-oven pizzas and freshly made bean burgers (with black beans and Fritos). It’s good to be messy. 6498 N. New Braunfels, 210-828-1111 or ezsrestaurants.com

Wild About Harry’s, Dallas

Don’t expect a lot when you go to Wild About Harry’s. You can buy a hot dog, a milk shake, a sundae, and some old-fashioned custard. So why, when you’re in Dallas, should you and the family make this crowded little joint a can’t-miss destination? Because you simply won’t find a better hot dog, milk shake, sundae, or custard. The hot dogs are fixed nine ways, from the straight mustard-relish-onion-and-cheese dog to the eye-popping Great Southwest Fire Dog (made with spicy Polish sausage, cayenne pepper, sport peppers, celery salt, tomato, mustard, relish, and pickles). The prices are also gloriously cheap, with no dog costing more than five bucks. 3113 Knox, 214-520-3113 or wild aboutharrys.com

Phil’s Icehouse, Austin

As parents, no matter what we actually say regarding a particular night’s menu, it is often heard as “Tonight we are having steamed green stuff, sautéed yucky mush, and a weird brown thing that is neither chicken nor tender.” But the mention of Phil’s Icehouse is always met with ear-splitting cries of delight. Yes, Phil’s has a delicious variety of burgers served on those delicious sourdough buns. And yes, Phil’s has those tasty sweet-potato French fries, as well as a selection of adult beverages. But a trip to Phil’s also means outdoor seating, fun on the playscape, real shuffleboard, movies in the summertime, and Amy’s ice cream! Full confession: When Phil’s is mentioned as a dinner spot, the screams of glee often belong to the parents. 5620 Burnet Rd., 512-524-1212 or philsicehouse.com

The Breakfast Klub, Houston

This is the best Houston has to offer, not only in terms of Southern breakfasts but also in terms of the easy diversity the city prides itself on. Located just south of downtown in the burgeoning neighborhood known as Midtown, the Breakfast Klub is a meeting place for local politicos, members of the black power structure, hipsters, and lots and lots of people who do not care a whit about their cholesterol. Portions are generous and kid-friendly: The butter-soaked grits are to die for (literally?), and the fried-wings-and-waffle plate will make a five-year-old’s eyes grow wide with pleasure—or plain old greed. Service transcends polite, but beware: The wait to get in can be long on Saturdays, when the local farmers’ market next door is in full swing. 3711 Travis, 713-528-8561 or thebreakfastklub.com


Great Wolf Lodge, Grapevine

Prepare to succumb to all things “kid” when you pass through the doors of this massive resort. There’s a lively animatronic display in the lobby with singing animals. There’s an interactive video game called MagiQuest, which sends children all over the hotel with electronic wands that bring pictures on the wall to life. There are rooms that have built-in “cabins” for the kids to sleep in. But they can enjoy all those things only if they leave Great Wolf’s main attraction: an 80,000-square-foot indoor water park that has eleven slides, seven pools, and a mammoth water fort. The six-story Howlin’ Tornado proves that nothing beats flying down a waterslide in the heat of summer or, for that matter, the dead of winter. 100 Great Wolf Dr., 800-693-9653 or greatwolf.com

Willow Point Resort, Buchanan Dam

Maybe your idea of a family getaway involves actually getting away. So if you want to ditch all those high-tech entertainments that rule your offspring’s daily lives, this lakeside retreat, with eleven spick-and-span log cabins fanned along the water’s edge of a three-acre peninsula, may help them rediscover the basics of fun: swimming in a lake, playing on a granite sand beach, searching for chunks of quartz along the shore, fishing for anything that bites, paddling a canoe, sitting around a campfire, and at the end of the day, climbing a ladder up to a snug sleeping loft. 427 Ellison, 512-793-5000 or willowpointresort.com

Rough Creek Lodge, Glen Rose

Who says a short attention span is a bad thing? How else can a youngster make a dent in the activities offered at this 11,000-acre resort? There’s fossil hunting, fly-fishing, s’mores by the campfire, horseback riding, shooting lessons, paddle boating, hay rides, mountain biking, four-wheeling, paintball, horseshoes, tennis, kayaking . . . (big gasp) and more, including the requisite amorphous pool. Swank accommodations feature four family-friendly cabins with a master suite and bunk beds. 5165 County Road 2013, 800-864-4705 or roughcreek.com

The Woodlands Resort, the Woodlands

With five pools, two double-helix waterslides, underwater music, scavenger hunts, a pop fountain (think random geysers), and aquatic entertainment in the summer—from balloon-twisting clowns to dive-in movies—you’re going to need to check your progeny from time to time for the formation of gills. Should those telltale ruffles begin to sprout below the jaw, a good airing out along 145 miles of hike-and-bike trails should help. 2301 N. Millbend Dr., 800-433-2624 or woodlandsresort.com

Lost Pines Resort and Spa, Lost Pines

Ah, Lost Pines, the place where both parents and kids can have it all: pony rides, massages, day camps, fire-lit bars, nature hikes, lazy rivers, horseshoes, and championship golf. Everything spells “getaway,” even if the resort is conveniently located in the triangle between Dallas, Houston, and San Antonio. Situated on a gorgeous stretch of the Colorado River, Lost Pines ensures that parents and kids can always act their age. If only such balance could be struck in everyday life. 575 Hyatt Lost Pines Rd., 512-308-1234 or lostpines.hyatt.com