Big & Bold:
Houston, TX, Delivers
Eclectic Family Fun
(Houston's sparkling skyline is a good indication this is a big, bold city with many tourism attractions to draw visitors from across the globe.*)
By Marcia Levin, senior contributing editor-senior & grandparent travel
"Houston,” as my son likes to proudly tell me, “is the fourth largest city in the country.” Living in this sprawling TX city for more than 25 years, he's a big fan.
Houston, TX, is definitely big, bold and brash. It's a traveler's cornucopia of attractions, including many colorful festivals (see photo of balloon festival at right*).
It's also sprawling -- covering 12,476 square miles. That's larger than the state of Maryland.
In fact, you could even squeeze the land masses of the cities of New York City, Washington, Boston, San Francisco, Seattle, Minneapolis and Miami into the space between Houston's city limits.
I never fail to be amazed at the city’s size as we drive from Houston's George Bush International Airport, better known as IAH, to my son and daughter-in-law's home in the city's southwest area.
Visiting with my son, his wife and my three grandchildren is a favorite pastime. An added perk? It gives me a chance to sample and explore Houston's diverse attractions.
So come along as I outline what I like about this big, brash and bold city that's also family friendly for travelers.
Sam Houston to Outer Space
Named for Sam Houston, former president of the Republic of Texas, Houston is also the epicenter for management of the NASA space program at the Lyndon B. Johnson Space Center (A photo of its outdoor rocket display is shown above.*)
It's also home to what most of us know best when it comes to NASA: Mission Control.
But Houston, we have no problem. Space Center Houston is an immediate hit with kids of all ages. (Its entry is shown at right.*)
A tram tour takes visitors on a behind the scenes tour of historic Mission Control, a space vehicle mockup and the current mission control center.
The $7.5 million, 180,000-square-foot complex features a variety of exhibits, some permanent, some on loan.
Current shows feature RISK, a 5,000-square-foot exhibit presented by the Ft. Worth Museum of Science.
One of the most popular displays at Space Center Houston is the Astronaut Gallery with 14 different spacesuits representing each stage of the manned space exploration programs. (See photo at right*)
Astronaut John Young's ejection suit and Judy Resnik's T-38 flightsuit are two of the many spacesuits on display.
Artifacts and hardware on display in the Starship Gallery trace the progression of U.S. manned space flight.
This incredible collection includes: an original model of the Goddard Rocket; the actual Mercury Atlas 9 "Faith 7" capsule flown by Gordon Cooper; the Gemini V Spacecraft piloted by Pete Conrad and Gordon Cooper; a Lunar Roving Vehicle Trainer, the Apollo 17 Command Module, the giant Skylab Trainer, and the Apollo-Soyuz Trainer.
Editor's Note: Go online and buy your tickets for Space Center Houston in advance. At presstime, you could pay for tickets and print them out at home, all at a 50 percent savings. So that $19.95 adult ticket is only $9.95!
It's Curtain Time
While Houston's prestige when it comes to medical treatment and professional sports teams is the stuff of legends, the city's arts and cultural scene is less brash -- but steadily becoming a major tourism draw for locals and visitors alike.
The city's cultural climate includes a tropical heat wave of theatrical offerings within a 17-block Theater District (shown in the photo above.*)
If you plan a Houston visit with your grandkids, consider a visit to the Miller Outdoor Theater in Hermann Park (see photo of kids playing in the park at right.*)
This full-size theater has been entertaining Houstonians and visitors for 84 years.
In fact, nearly 300,000 people attended more than 120 performances in 2008. (A photo of one of the outdoor concerts is shown below.*)
Full productions of ballet, opera, symphony, concerts and films are offered. Many productions are family-friendly. Best of all, shows and concerts are free.
So pick up a picnic lunch and enjoy a taste of theater and the great outdoors.
Wild and Wonderful
The theater is also near the the Houston Zoo, providing potential for a delightful family outing.
(The Houston Zoo's resident tigers shown at left are among the animals that will delight visitors.*)
New starting in December 2010, the boom of African drums will echo across a wooded landscape on zoo property.
In the most ambitious undertaking in the Zoo’s 88-year history, the zoo transforming a 6.5-acre site into "The African Forest."
“Less than one-tenth of one percent of the entire U. S. population will ever experience the thrill of seeing Africa,” said Houston Zoo Director Rick Barongi.
“The African Forest at the Houston Zoo is designed to bring that exciting experience to Houston and 1.7 million Zoo guests each year,” added Barongi.
In phase one of the African Forest project, families will be able to get "up close" to chimpanzees (as in the drawing at right).
Zoo guests will also be able to view giraffes, and hand feed them.
Discovery Green is a new downtown park that offers ice skating (shown in the photo above*) from Thanksgiving to Martin Luther King Day.
The rest of the year? Well, it's a model boat pond -- again, drawing the interest of families with kids.
From my personal perspective in touring with grandkids in Houston, Discovery Green (below is a "big picture" view.*) is a great spot to let kids stretch their legs and their vocal chords....
... and for grandma (at least this one!) to catch her breath.
Within Houston's renowned Museum District are the Contemporary Art Museum, Museum of Fine Arts and Houston Museum of Natural Science among others.
The natural science museum (shown in the photo at right*) boasts a world-class planetarium and I-Max theater.
Another highlight is the museum's butterfly center and hall of entomology.
Travelers enter a stunning, three-story glass structure built around a 50-foot waterfall (shown in photo at left*), a simulated tropical rainforest filled with exotic plants and hundreds of gorgeous, "live" butterflies.
Kids and adults will explore the wild world of insects, with fun, interactive games and quizzes. They'll view both preserved specimens and living examples of the world’s largest and weirdest arthropods.
A Child's World
But my top pick for the best diversion in Houston's Museum District is the Children’s Museum of Houston (shown at right and below*); it's tops with my grandkids.
In fact, more children visit here annually than for any other children's museum in the country. It's easy to see why.
Last year, the museum added 39,000 additional square feet of new exhibit space.
On a recent visit my nine-year-old grandson deemed the 40-foot Power Tower with its physically challenging climbing platforms “neat.”
He and his younger brothers also enjoyed “being on television.”
One of the younger boys enjoyed “shopping” in a grocery store, where he “bought meat, grapes and cantaloupe.”
The museum boasts 14 hands-on galleries, including a cutting edge CyberChase, created with the PBS Kids Go math mystery cartoon show.
There’s something fishy at the Downtown Aquarium, a mini-theme park with more than sea life.
Here children can cool off in an outdoor water splash park (see photo at left*).
They'll also enjoy a white tiger exhibit, hop on the Shark Voyage train and head for a kid-friendly eatery with a humongous fish tank in its center.
Families will also go up, up and away in a gigantic Ferris wheel (see photo at right*) that looks over the magnificent Houston skyline.
Save with CityPass
For families who play to stay for at least a few days, Houston's City Pass is a great way to save.
A discounted ticket booklet to the city's top attractions, Houston CityPass costs $39 for adults and $29 for children 3-11. That's a 48-to-49 savings when compared to the price of individual tickets to the same venues.
Houston CityPass is valid for nine days. It includes general admission to:
- Space Center Houston (including the NASA tram tour and theater presentation);
- Downtown Aquarium;
- Houston Museum of Natural Science; and
- Houston Zoo.
Plus, pass holders choose admission to either:
- Museum of Fine Arts Houston (shown in the photo at right*)
- OR the Children's Museum of Houston.
And.... admission to either:
George Ranch is a 480-acre living history site on a 23,000-acre working ranch.
Sports and More
A big time sports town, Houston offers the NFL Houston Texans at Reliant Stadium; the MLB Houston Astros at MinuteMaid Park, and the NBA Houston Rockets at Toyota Center.
Soccer is represented by the Houston Dynamo (shown at left*).
Football games at University of Houston and Rice University are big draws as well.
Houston also boasts world class hotels and restaurants and oh-so-lovely premier shopping opportunities.
Houston is home to the Galleria Mall, one of the country’s world class shopping complexes.
Welcoming 24 million visitors annually, the mall features its own full-sized ice skating rink (rentals are available), restaurants, major department stores and top-drawer designer boutiques.
Day Trippin' Southward
Houston is a 45-minute drive north of Galveston, a major cruise port and beach community on the Gulf of Mexico.
Historically, Europeans first came ashore at Galveston in 1528. The island is named for Bernado de Galvez, a Spanish colonial governor and general.
Among the attractions that families with children likely will enjoy?
Two fun options are the Schlitterbahn Galveston Island Waterpark and Moody Gardens.
The waterpark will entertain the entire family with its daring speed slides, endless rivers, uphill water coasters and plenty of waves for surfing, splashing and relaxing.
Plus, you'll find kid-friendly water playgrounds for younger visitors.
(Above, see photo of kids enjoying one of the water slides and, below, other park attractions. Plus, the pyramids of Moody Gardens are shown in the background of the photo below*)
One highlight at Galveston's Moody Gardens is the Aquarium Pyramid; sharks, sea turtles, eels and thousands of tropical fish swim overhead as visitors navigate through an underwater tunnel completely surrounded by the exhibit's one million gallons of water.
Galveston has wonderful restored 19th century mansions. The jewel in the crown, from my perspective, is the 1859-era Ashton Villa.
The Houston area has an amazing array of restaurants for every taste. Many are family friendly.
But when I go to Houston, I think of one word -- "barbecue"
Houston resident and former U.S. President Herbert Walker Bush reportedly loves Otto’s barbecue.
But for the Levin family, Goode Company (shown in the photo above*) is the No. 1 barbecue in Houston. It serves savory barbecued brisket with jalapeno bread that's almost as big a draw for us as the barbecue.
Another family option? A Houston-based chain of restaurants owned and run by the Pappas family since 1976 offers several types of family-friendly restaurants featuring seafood, Mexican, Cajun barbecue and burger menus.
For example, the family operates Pappadito's Cantina, Pappas B-B-Q and Pappadeaux Seafood Kitchen, among others. Check the corporate Web site above for the complete listing of brands and locations around Houston.
Most eateries – except the Pappas family's A-list steakhouses – provide a children’s menu of burgers, grilled cheese sandwiches, pizza, pasta and chicken tenders. That's great for families on the go. It gives parents a chance to tasty regional cuisine while still satisfying the little ones.
When you stay in Houston, you'll find that many hotel chain properties including Marriott and Hilton brands offer kids' amenities for families.
For example, the Omni Houston Hotel has Kids Suites with games, coloring books and bean bags to keep the little ones happy after a fun-filled day of sightseeing in this fourth largest city in the country.
For More Information
Contact the Greater Houston Convention and Visitors Bureau for a visitor guide and other destination details
Marcia Levin, senior contributing editor - senior travel for SouthernTravelNews.com, is a travel writer based in South Florida. She specializes in writing about Florida, the Caribbean, multigenerational travel and cruising. She is a past president of the Society of American Travel Writers.
*Photos are owned, copyrighted and used courtesy of the various tourism and destination organizations listed above. All rights reserved. Please do not link to nor copy these photos. Thank you.