It can be easy to get caught up in the material aspect of the holidays. (If this describes your kids, read 4 Tips for Raising Non-Materialistic Kids). But there is more to the season than gifting and getting. Spending time with your kids and making memories should be the first thing on your to-do list. Read on for the inside scoop on fun and meaningful holiday experiences in the Dallas-Fort Worth area to help your family get into the holiday spirit.
The Non-Traditional Santa Experience
You may not be able to sit on his lap, but the Scuba Diving Santa at the Sea Life Aquarium in Grapevine still knows if your kiddo has been naughty or nice. Santa and his elf will be swimming with the fish, sharks and other ocean life in the aquarium’s 160,000-gallon tank. Kids can take a pic with Santa—but watch out for fishy photo bombers—or pen a Christmas card to their favorite stingray or shark. Hopefully spreading holiday cheer will keep the kids on the nice list. Otherwise, a visit to this Santa might mean they’ll get a stocking full of sardines! Scheduled dives will take place at 11:30am on Dec. 12, 15, 19 and 22. Admission to holiday activities is free with aquarium admission: $20.95 for adults, $16.95 for kids ages 3–12, and free for kids age 2 and younger.
Sea Life Grapevine Aquarium, 3000 Grapevine Mills Parkway, Grapevine
The Outdoor Festival Experience
Give your kids something other than the hotel pool to look forward to this Christmas staycation. Peppermint Park at the Hilton Anatole in Dallas is an amusement park and festival all wrapped up in one big bow. Spend the day chasing your kids from one activity to the next—from predicting the weather with Jack Frost at the North Pole to showing off their sweet moves (is there any move other than the floss?) at the reindeer dance party. The outdoor mega-event is ideal for kids ages 2-12, but your teens just might break a smile playing a winter arcade game. (We are personally intrigued by the elf snowball game). Peppermint Park is open to the general public as well as hotel guests. If you choose to make it a staycation, additional accommodation and dining packages may be added to your reservation. Some options include a personal visit with Santa and Mrs. Claus. The park is open 5–9pm Friday and Saturday now through Dec. 15, and it is open 5–9pm daily from Dec. 20 to Dec. 23.
Hilton Anatole, 2201 North Stemmons Freeway, Dallas, 214/748-1200
The (Unexpected) Wonderland Experience
A hunting and fishing store may not be the first venue that comes to mind this season, but make no mistake. They do it up big time at Santa’s Wonderland at Bass Pro Shop in Grapevine and Bass Pro Shop at Cabela’s in Allen. Free activities run through Christmas Eve and include a visit with Santa, holiday crafts, games and even a Lincoln Logs building station. And you know it’s 2018 when kids can write a letter to Santa and get an email reply from the Big Guy! Entry is free, but a visit with Santa requires a Bass Pass to book a specific time slot. Arrive early to beat lines, or plan on picking up some gifts for Dad while you wait.
The Not-So-Winter Nature Walk Experience
One silver lining about snowless winters in Texas: you can enjoy the outdoors, without risk of frostbite. On Dec. 14 and 15, head to the Heard Natural Science Museum & Wildlife Sanctuary for an enchanted evening nature walk along a decorated half-mile trail. (Keep your eyes pealed for 10 dinosaurs camped out along the trail!) After the hike, families can enjoy snacks and warm beverages, live music and photos ops with Mother Nature and Father Christmas. The event runs 6:30–9pm, so take advantage of your chance to see stars as bright as those holiday lights. Admission is $9 for adults and seniors, $5 for kids ages 3–12, and free for children age 2 and younger. Purchase your tickets online before Dec. 13 and save $2 per ticket.
Heard Natural Science Museum & Wildlife Sanctuary, 1 Nature Place, McKinney, 972/562-5566
The Elf Village Experience
See what life’s like for an elf in the North Pole with a visit to Santa’s Village at Richardson City Hall. Your family can peek into 16 colorful elf dwellings around this tiny town, plus enjoy crafts, activities and even a visit with Santa. Santa’s Village is open to the public 6–9pm on Friday, Saturday and Sunday nights during December. Admission is free with required tickets, available at Richardson City Hall, Huffines Recreation Center and Heights Recreation Center.
Richardson City Hall, 411 W. Arapaho Road, Richardson, 972/744-4100
The Enchanted Maze Experience
Frisco’s Christmas at the Square is more than just a spot to pick out your family’s perfect pine. While you choose from more than 250 flocked trees, let the kids enjoy trains rides, mazes and more than 175,000 lights on display in the Square. Visit now through Jan. 7, 4–9pm Monday–Thursday, and noon–10pm Friday–Sunday. There will be extended hours from Dec. 15–22.
Frisco Square, 8874 Coleman Blvd., Frisco
The Neighborhood Lights Experience
Stir up a big batch of cocoa, cue up your favorite holiday tunes and load into the car for an evening taking in bright lights around town. One of the best (and cheapest—like free!) experiences this time of year is looking at holiday light displays, and these local neighborhoods are sure to fill your festive needs. Take in the historic homes in McKinney’s Tucker Hill neighborhood, which are decorated with such old-fashioned panache that you might want to trade your car for a horse-drawn carriage. If you want to trade your car’s horsepower for actual horse power, head to Highland Park to observe the elaborate light displays in one of Dallas’ grandest neighborhoods by way of a carriage. If the kids get cold, bundle them up under one of the snug blankets the local carriage companies so thoughtfully provide for guests.
The Polar Express Experience
Hop aboard the Polar Express—er, the McKinney Avenue Trolley—when it rolls ‘round uptown Dallas this month. Sure, you won’t end up in the North Pole, but the hour-long excursion will take you on a scenic tour of the West Village, Klyde Warren Park and Downtown Arts District before dropping you off at your Uptown Station start point. Plus, you can enjoy plenty of holiday tunes, ornaments and stacks of sweet treats aboard the old-timey cable car. Oh, did we mention that each kiddo will receive a special little present after their ride? Just $15 per child ages 2–12 ($20 for adults) will snag you a seat aboard the trolley, which runs at 6pm and 7:30pm on the first three Mondays in December.
McKinney Avenue Trolley, Uptown Station, 2700 City Place West Blvd., Dallas, 214/855-0006
The Take in a Show Experience
For a book-to-stage production that intertwines two tales, North Texas Performing Arts’ Plano troupe will take the crazy characters of L. Frank Baum’s Oz and set them on a Christmas mission. Christmas in the Land of OZ can be seen at 7pm Thursday, Dec. 6, and Friday, Dec. 7, 11pm and 5pm Saturday, Dec. 8, and 1pm and 5pm Sunday, Dec. 9.
Willow Bend Center of the Arts, 6121 W. Park Blvd., Suite B26, Plano, 972/422-2575
The Giving Back Experience
It’s important to teach kids to give to those in need, and the holiday season is the perfect time to begin those loving lessons. Join Santa’s team of helpers with the Dallas Children’s Advocacy Center, a nonprofit that supports survivors of child abuse. The DCAC’s Holidays of Hope drive offers plenty of ways to spread holiday cheer to children in need
CASA of Collin County sponsors an Angel Tree Program during the holidays. Adopting a child, or children, served by the organization provides gifts and necessities for kids newborn to 18 years old. Help CASA show these foster children they are loved this holiday.
The Authentic Santa Experience
Cowtown residents flock to Sundance Square during the holidays to enjoy the beautiful lights, the 65-foot-tall Christmas tree and a visit from the Big Guy himself. The $20 admission benefits the Fort Worth Sister Cities International Youth Program and will get you a photo of your kids with Santa. Lines are notoriously long, but the team at Sundance Square offers a feature that allows families to reserve their spot in line. (Consider it an early present from Old St. Nick!) While you wait for a text notification for your turn, your brood can explore the dozens of restaurants, boutiques and galleries that dot the Square. Visit Santa 11am–9pm Friday and Saturday or 11am–7pm Wednesday, Thursday and Sunday through Dec. 23.
Sundance Square, 201 Main St., Fort Worth
The Ice Skating Experience
Lace up and get out onto the rink at Panther Island Ice, Cowtown’s only outdoor ice skating rink, located at Coyote Drive-In. While it’s open seven days a week—including holidays—through Jan. 14, 2019, half-price admission every Tuesday except Christmas and New Year’s might inspire you to break out moves you saw during the Winter Olympics. (We recommend you don’t.) Visit the website to see when Panther Ice hosts Patty Puck contests, where players of all ages have up to three chances to shoot the “patty” into a hockey net for a chance to win prizes. After gliding around the ice, grab some popcorn and pile into the car to enjoy a movie at Coyote Drive-In.
Panther Island Ice, 223 N.E. 4th St., Fort Worth, 682/704-7711
The Rein-Donkey Experience
Your kids likely know Rudolph and his reindeer friends, but have they heard of a rein-donkey? Swing by Russell Farm Art Center on Saturday, Dec. 15, for a chance to meet Joey, a cuddly donkey dressed as one of Santa’s helpers. Be sure to bring a camera to snap a few photos! After meeting the rein-donkey, hop aboard a tractor-pulled hayride, enjoy family-friendly crafts and games or warm up with beverages and snacks sold from old-fashion chuckwagons. Free and open to the public from 11am–7pm.
Russell Farm Art Center, 405 W. County Road 714, Burleson, 817/447-3316
The Christmas Tree-Picking Experience
Now through Dec. 16, Mainstay Farm in Cleburne is transformed into a 70-acre winter wonderland. Admission ranges from $11.95/online to $14.95/gate, and will give your family access to more than 30 rides, games and other goodies. (Families looking for the perfect pine will love the $9.95 discount per tree upon entry.) While you snack on funnel cake and BBQ sandwiches or browse the Haymarket for some last-minute holiday gifts, your kids can have fun on the racetrack, slides, mazes and more. Visit 10am–5:30pm Saturday and 12:30–5:30pm Sunday.
Mainstay Farm, 1004 W. Bethesda Road, Cleburne, 817/295-6772
The Neighborhood Lights Experience
Stir up a big batch of cocoa, cue up your favorite holiday tunes and load into the car for an evening taking in bright lights around Cowtown. One of the best (and cheapest—like free!) experiences this time of year is looking at holiday light displays, and these local neighborhoods are sure to fill your festive needs. Nestled in the heart of the Ridglea Hills neighborhood is the tight-knit Luther Lake community, which opens up during the holidays for families to enjoy their beautiful lakeside light displays through Dec. 25. This year, Rowan Street will be blocked off, and a little elf told us that Santa plans to visit on Dec. 8 for some evening festivities. Be sure to venture to the Diamond Loch neighborhood in North Richland Hills, which has been converted into a real-life Whoville, complete with music.
The Giving Back Experience
It’s important to teach kids to give to those in need, and the holiday season is the perfect time to begin those loving lessons. Your babes can help make other kids’ Christmases merry and bright by joining Cook Children’s Hospital to purchase items from patients’ holiday wish lists. Toys, clothes and other goodies are collected through the Child Life department. On Christmas morning, the children and their siblings are visited by Santa and receive a present.
Littles can even join Old St. Nick’s team of helpers with SafeHaven Santa’s Sack, a gift drive that supports mothers and children who have survived domestic violence. SafeHaven families can select gifts, which are then wrapped by elves and delivered by Santa on Christmas morning. Donations are accepted Dec. 7-15, check online for locations.
The Nutcracker Experience
Seeing The Nutcracker is a time-honored holiday tradition for many families, but depending on the venue and troupe, taking your kids to see this on-stage staple can be pricey. Thankfully, the Festival Ballet of North Central Texas returns with its 30th annual presentation of this famed ballet—with ticket prices that will not cost a pretty penny. For tickets that are just $20-40 a pop, families can settle in for a spectacular show at the Margo Jones Performance Hall at Texas Women’s University in Denton, as directed by international ballet dancer Eldar Valiev. There will be three performances: 7:30pm and 2:30pm Saturday, Dec. 8, and 2:30pm Sunday, Dec. 9.
Texas Women’s University, 1100 Oakland St., Denton, 940/898-3644
The Carriage Ride Experience
See what Santa’s ride is like at Highland Village’s Doubletree Ranch Park. Free horse-drawn carriage rides are available weekend evenings from 5-8pm throughout December. (Be sure to arrive early—carriage rides cannot be pre-booked.) While your kids will ooh and ahh at the twinkling lights strung around the park, we wouldn’t blame you if you left them with the babysitter so Mom and Dad can enjoy a scenic date night out. The first-ever Christmas at the Ranch extravaganza kicks off 10am–1pm Dec. 8 with caroling, a kid-approved toy workshop and a visit from Santa himself.
Highland Village, 310 Highland Village Road, Highland Village, 972/317-7430
The Tree-Picking Experience
Christmas in the Country at Flower Mound Christmas Trees is more than just a spot to pick out your family’s perfect pine. After choosing from over 400 varieties of pre-cut trees, sip some complimentary hot chocolate or apple cider and let the kids burn off some excess energy at the bounce house and hay-bale pyramid. (Did we mention that all the attractions are free?) Be sure to bring your camera to snag a photo with the Santa, Rudolph or Grinch cut outs around the grounds. Open daily, now through Christmas Day; weekdays 1–8pm and 9am–8pm on weekends.
Flower Mound Christmas Trees, 5100 Cross Timbers Road, Flower Mound, 817/430-4536
The Holiday Lights Experience
Stir up a big batch of cocoa, cue up your favorite holiday tunes and load into the car for an evening taking in bright lights around North Texas. One of the best (and cheapest—like free!) experiences this time of year is looking at holiday light displays. Stroll around the Historic Downtown neighborhood of Grapevine (aka the “Christmas Capital of Texas”) for a healthy dose of holiday cheer, courtesy of elaborate light displays dotting homes and shops alike. Or take in the sights from the comfort of your own car with a drive around some residential neighborhoods. Locals recommend cruising down MacArthur Boulevard and letting the lights guide your travels. Although it is never guaranteed that everyone’s neighbor gets into the holiday spirit, taking a drive down Havencrest Lane in Coppell will not disappoint.
The Giving Back Experience
It is important to teach kids to give to those in need, and the holiday season is the perfect time to begin those loving lessons. Littles can participate in the Irving Cares Food Drive by creating a grocery list online that will provide household items, canned foods or entire meals to local families in need. You can also donate food in-person at Irving Cares, so turn your average trip to the supermarket into an opportunity to share the spirit of generosity with your children. Donation locations are listed online, or contact Food Pantry Manager, Cary Hargrove, at firstname.lastname@example.org for more information.
Your babes can even join Santa’s team of helpers with the Denton County Friends of the Family, a nonprofit that supports survivors of domestic and sexual violence. The DCFOF’s Adopt-a-Family Drive is helping over 425 children have a holly, jolly holiday. Depending on your budget, you can provide gifts for one child or an entire family—but the opportunity to spread a little cheer? Priceless.