Austin Adventures With Kids

I spent two whole weeks with the kids and no schedule in Central Texas. We found lots of things to do because we didn’t really have much of a choice. Here’s what we did and how it went:

Austin Nature and Science Center

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This was the second time I’ve attempted this one with the kiddos and it’s been a bust both times.  Austin doesn’t have a zoo, but the Nature and Science Center does have some animals, all rescues that can’t be returned to the wild. They’re mostly small and there are a good number of owls (which pleased Graham) but it only bought us 10 minutes or so. Most of the time Graham looked like this:

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This time I thought for sure we’d get some play out of the Dino Pit. A bunch of sand, a bunch of shovels and buried dinosaur bones, what’s not to love? But yeah, 5 minutes of this:

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And then he was done. Done done. “Where’s my juice, Mom?” done.

I think we’re officially done with this one. I give up.

Zilker Zephyr

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“Zilker Zephyr Zign” photo by Nathan Jongewaard
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Zephyr Zilker by Nathan Jongewaard

It does not matter how many trains he owns, it does not matter how many trains he rides, Grammer is still obsessive about them and goes completely nuts when he sees one. So every time we visit we ride the Zilker Zephyr, which you can find right by Barton Springs.

As a parent I like the fact that it’s not a two-minute ride, but also not a thirty-minute ride. The length is short enough for the teeny ones, but long enough so the bigger kids feel like they’ve got a good ride out of it. 

I also like that it doesn’t let off hideous exhaust fumes that make it dismal. The view is meh, but the kids like it. And it’s not super expensive so I don’t mind forking over the cash. Plus it’s right next to a pretty good playground so you can get a good amount of play out of it. Especially if you just went to the Austin Nature & Science Center down the road and the kids are antsy and want to play.

This one was a big success. G’s biggest issue was that he couldn’t just ride it again because it only runs every hour or so. I think you can see the delight on all of our faces.

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Blue Bell Creamery

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So this one is a bit of a trek, but when you’ve been doing the same old stuff for a while you may be longing for a bit of a trek. Plus if your kids are anything like mine, they’ll conk out during the drive there and much of the drive home so it’s a win.

Here’s the thing about the Blue Bell Factory Tour from an outsider’s point of view. Everyone near it in Texas has grown up with it and loves it dearly. So I definitely expected more than what we got based on the years of hype I’ve received. But I didn’t dislike it. It lasted maybe 15 minutes or so, had views down into several different rooms where the ice cream is packaged and processed, and had friendly tour guides with Blue Bell trivia. (#1 seller is Homemade Vanilla. #3 is Dutch Chocolate.) But it is rather short, the kids will feel like they didn’t really SEE much of anything, since mostly the rooms are made up of big tanks and pipes. 
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It is stroller and wheelchair-friendly, though your fellow tour participants probably aren’t. (We had a wheelchair and our stroller at the end of the line and people always just stopped at the beginning of the windows leaving us standing there waiting for them to scoot down. They NEVER figured this out, as we went to window after window and the tour guide told them to scoot down.) 

It’s a cheap ticket and includes a good sized “scoop” of ice cream, which is more like a Small Cup at the store. And you can get another for only $1. And this is what really makes the trip a winner. I don’t exactly take the kids out for ice cream often. (Read: never.) So they were thrilled about each getting their own cup (and a second one for Graham because I was feeling the holiday spirit) and very excited about the whole thing. Seriously. Some ADORABLE pictures were obtained on this trip.
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Gah, that picture of Tess. I can’t even!

The Thinkery

This is the new Children’s Museum in Austin. I brought my camera. I took zero pictures. (A few with my phone, but still.) Why? Because it was MADNESS. I would like to come back and review it on a weekday, or after it’s been open for a year or two. But right now it was ridiculous. Which was a shame, because we were there with friends and couldn’t keep track of each other and had to just give up on spending any time with them because dealing with the crowds and keeping the kids happy and being in the same place was just too much.

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What I liked the most was that lots of rooms had stuff for kids of different ages, so you don’t have to appease one kid at a time.

What I liked the least was that many activities were not well suited for rooms full of kids and would only really work with a small number of people around because the waiting got too frustrating.

Also I nearly had to break up toddler fist fights over the train table, which had less trains on it than any I’ve seen anywhere. When you have enough trains for 4 kids to each have one or two, but there are 10 kids at the train table, you have some real problems. Especially since one of them (not mine) will inevitably horde as many as he can. And another (mine) will only be happy if he gets the engine. 

The water room was particularly awesome, if prone to leaving your kids soaked through. If you live in the area, a membership would be great. But they don’t seem to have a very good understanding of what “capacity” is, since it was far too full when we were there. 

 The Austin Aquarium

We went because we heard people liked it. And because my kids like the New England Aquarium. It was a complete disaster. 

The kids came out okay, since we made it an expedition for the cousins and it’s pretty hard for them not to have fun when they’re all together. BUT. It was so terrible. So terrible I started taking notes to catalog the terrible-ness because I couldn’t believe it could be this bad and surely I wouldn’t remember all the ways in which it was terrible.

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I didn’t take pictures here, either. Because the lighting was just one of the many terrible things. And good luck getting pictures of the fish because the glass was all smudged and the water was cloudy. 

They have online ordering. Although they don’t actually tell you what to do. They don’t use a ticketing system. They just email you a receipt. I called to find out what we were supposed to do… and the person I spoke to had no idea and had to call in a manager. The actual procedure ended up being that they had me pull up the email on my phone and then told me to delete it so I couldn’t use it to get in again. (I am NOT joking.) They really should have a better system, since there was a line for tickets and it did not move quickly and they don’t have a lot of space for a queue.

The space itself isn’t fully built up. There are partial walls separating each section from the other, so it’s loud. Sound bounces all over the place. The gift shop is tiny and has lots of breakables, get your little ones out of there as fast as you can. 

It was pretty new so I was prepared for things to be not quite up to speed, but it was not good. Lots of tanks were empty. Tanks that weren’t empty often had signs taped up to say what they were. One above an open tank said (again NOT joking) “Caution. Fish Bite.” As there are other touch tanks (not good ones, the water’s too deep for most kids to reach anything) nearby, having an open tank with dangerous fish doesn’t strike me as a particularly good idea. Other signage consisted of fancy screens that simply listed names of fish without letting you know which were which or anything else about them.

The reptiles were decent. The kids enjoyed the small aviary with parrots or parakeets (I can’t recall which) that would sit on their fingers. 

The worst of it was a large indoor playground in the back, much like one you’d see at a fast food place. Kind of trashy, but whatever. Except the slide sent kids shooting out like bullets from a gun. The slide that comes out right at the entrance to the playground, so a kid on their way in can easily get hit by a kid on their way out. (It’s a tunnel slide, so you can’t see them coming.) Even worse, the slide lets the kids out on to the very hard floor with no padding. When we were there, they’d thrown together a makeshift pad, but I saw a child come out and twist her foot on the ground. There were no staff around supervising so I had to walk over and find someone to fix the padding and get the kids to stop coming out of the slide while they did it. It was a fiasco. I got my kid out of there. It was a lawsuit waiting to happen.

Honestly, maybe they’ll get better. But no place should be open in that kind of condition. If they weren’t ready they should’ve waited. Because it was pretty awful. Save your money. Seriously.

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