Chances are good that the kids already have too many toys. So ask grandparents and aunts and uncles for a gift that lets you spend quality time as a family instead of a Little Live Pets puppy that will eventually gather dust in a closet. Annual passes and memberships to local attractions typically include more than just general admission. We’re all familiar with — and probably have — memberships to the classics like the Dallas Arboretum, Perot Museum of Nature and Science and Dallas Zoo, so we sought out memberships of the hidden-gem variety that offer perks for everyone in the family.
For Flower Children
Membership at Texas Discovery Gardens in Fair Park yields admission to the redesigned gardens, new insect displays, native snake exhibit and children’s story times, plus the main attraction: the Rosine Smith Sammons Butterfly House and Insectarium, where butterflies are released daily at noon. Members also get 20% off gardening workshops and 15% off birthday parties and spring break and summer camps.
Why we love it: To visit during monarch migration in the fall, you’ll need State Fair tickets; luckily, membership includes one-time weekday admission for six to the State Fair, not to mention free admission to nearly 200 other participating gardens in the United States and Canada, including the Fort Worth Botanic Garden. Buy by Dec. 31st and get your second membership half off.
Cost: $65 per family (two adults and all children and grandchildren in the family under 18)
Upgrade your existing membership at the Dallas Museum of Art, Crow Collection of Asian Art, Dallas Zoo, Perot Museum, Nasher Sculpture Center or Trinity River Audubon Center to include Kids Club membership. Kids Club members get discounted admission to all six partnering institutions (ranging from $1–$2.50 off general admission tickets) as well as select store and special exhibit discounts.
Why we love it: Each institution hosts one big event per year with activities exclusively for Kids Club families.
Cost: $50–$60 to upgrade; visit your membership benefits page for more information
Pick a four-, five-, six- or eight-show package as a season subscriber to Dallas Children’s Theater. The 2016–2017 season of Broadway-style kids’ shows includes classics like Jack and the Beanstalk and James and the Giant Peach and familiar stories like Junie B. Jones is Not a Crook. Most shows are suitable for ages 5 and up (one upcoming show, Blue, is even good for squirmy toddlers).
Why we love it: Season subscribers get discount pricing on additional tickets (for Grandma’s visit), flexible ticket exchanges (should the kids get sick) and free replacement of lost tickets.
Cost: Starting at $272 for a family of four
For Fairy Tale Fanatics
Transport kiddos to another — musical — world with season tickets to the Children’s Theater at Casa Mañana. Kids (and parents) sing along to the brightly costumed reimaginings of classic tales in the theater’s three child-friendly 2017 productions: Rapunzel, Rapunzel: A Very Hairy Fairy Tale, Red Riding Hood and Disney’s The Little Mermaid.
Why we love it: Season ticket holders get priority access to special ticket offers — this past year that included access to a special date night show where the theater provided babysitting while parents caught an adult show.
Cost: Starting at $150 for a family of four
Fort Worth, 817/332-2272
For Animal Lovers
Sea Life Grapevine Aquarium’s annual pass gets you unlimited admission to the aquarium’s 16 interactive zones and exhibits showcasing seahorses, stingrays, sea turtles and more. (Single-day admission otherwise runs you $16–$20 per person.) The pass also guarantees fast-track entry to avoid long lines and 10% off store merchandise (20% on double discount days, which pop up a few times a year) and birthday party packages.
Why we love it: Access to exclusive pass-holder events like an overnight sleepover with the sharks.
Cost: $200 for a family of four; free for kids 2 and younger
For Nature Lovers
Membership at the Heard Natural Science Museum & Wildlife Sanctuary yields free admission to the sanctuary’s 6.5 miles of scenic, unpaved hiking trails and to the museum’s child-friendly exhibits like the permanent Pioneer Village and the temporary Dinosaurs Live! installation, which features life-size animatronic dinosaurs and runs through mid-February. Members also get free admission to children’s programming like the 45-minute Nature Story Time for younger children on select Friday mornings each month.
Why we love it: Members get reciprocal admission to 200 museums and science centers worldwide through the Association of Science-Technology Center’s passport program, so you can spice up road trips with free entry to places like the Children’s Museum of Houston and the Thinkery in Austin.
Cost: $80 per family
Outdoorsy families (especially campers) benefit from a Texas State Parks pass, which gives the pass holder and their carload a year of free admission to Texas’ more than 90 state parks, including Cedar Hill State Park south of Dallas and Dinosaur Valley State Park in Glen Rose, where kids can walk in actual dinosaur tracks. While kids 12 and younger always get in free, passes are useful for families who camp, rent boating equipment or attend nearby parks’ kid-friendly nature programs.
Why we love it: Pass holders get four coupons for 50% off their second night of camping, plus discounts on s’more supplies (and other camping needs) from the park store.
Cost: $70 per family
Get a 2017 season pass to Six Flags Over Texas for the springtime debut of the park’s 13th roller coaster, a 120-foot Batman-themed free-fall ride called The Joker. (Don’t worry — there’s still plenty for younger kids in Bugs Bunny Boomtown’s interactive play structure and bump-free rides.) Besides free entry, members bring friends for free on select dates, receive discounted admission on additional tickets and get over $100 worth of in-park savings on dining, gift shop purchases and parking.
Why we love it: Plan a road trip to use your passes at 12 other Six Flags locations, including Fiesta Texas in San Antonio and Magic Mountain outside Los Angeles.
Cost: $260 for a family of four
Spend next year’s fair-weather weekends at the oldest botanic garden in Texas, the Fort Worth Botanic Garden. While everyone gets free access to 20 specialized gardens, members also get free entry to the tranquil Japanese Garden (usually $4–$7 per person) and tropical conservatory greenhouse (usually $1–$2 per person), plus complimentary guest passes, discounts on plant sales and dining, and reduced rates for kids’ summer camps.
Why we love it: Families get free entry to two annual Japanese festivals and — best of all — reciprocal admission to 300 other botanical gardens, including the Dallas Arboretum and Texas Discovery Gardens.
Cost: $100 per family
Fort Worth, 817/392-5548
Get creative juices flowing with a family membership to the Greater Denton Arts Council. Two adults and kids under 18 get free admission to select special exhibitions at the Patterson-Appleton Arts Center — check out the current family-friendly exhibition (running through Dec. 10) about the art of comic production. Members also receive invitations to special family events like Family Days with arts and crafts activities held on select Saturdays.
Why we love it: Members receive discounted admission to the program’s weeklong summer and spring break camps for ages 5–12 and after-school programs where kids get artsy — with themes ranging from perspective drawing to mapmaking — in the studios.
Cost: $75 per family