de-Grinch in Grapevine
The season's spirit infuses the Christmas Capital of Texas
By Barbara Rodriguez
The Christmas morning Elliott didn’t jump onto my bed at dawn to exclaim over Santa’s bounty, I keenly felt a loss of the magic I’d associated with the holidays since childhood. I had always loved the season’s traditions, the lights, baking, ribbons, and wrapping. More recently, having steadily downsized the celebration as my child grew into a teenager, I’d found myself scoring high on the Grinch scale. The stockings were still hung by the chimney with care, but it was increasingly difficult to convince a kid on the verge of sporting a few whiskers himself to put out cookies for Santa.
Last year, I decided some sort of Christmas search-and-rescue was in order. I wanted to transport myself and my son back to a time when the seasonal suspension of disbelief required no effort. I decided the short trip from our home in Fort Worth to Grapevine—proclaimed by the State Senate to be the “Christmas Capital of Texas”—might lead the way to the ghosts of Christmas past.
The sharp intake of breath I hear from Elliott as he enters Great Wolf Lodge tells me I am onto something. It is snowing. In the lobby. Designed to look like a large-scale Northwoods lodge (complete with giant wolf totems), the full-service getaway hotel is a self-contained world of enchantment. The seasonal snow flurries are all the more charming for falling through the limbs of a 30-foot tree onto a flock of small children waddling by in water wings and bathing suits.
Elliott expected there would be theatrical snow and ice encounters on the trip. But the parade of little ones in flip-flops has him befuddled. His eyes follow the ducklings. Upon discovering the part of this adventure that I’d kept a secret, he exclaims, “O! M! G! They’ve got an indoor water park! I think my heart is going to burst out of my chest!” Then follow the words that are my best Christmas gift: “I LOVE YOU, Mom!” After check-in, the child who on school mornings takes 20 minutes to put on a single sneaker manages to change into his swimsuit before I can unzip my suitcase.
There is great delight in watching him zoom ahead, his bright swimwear a blur against a row of eccentrically decorated Christmas trees (my favorite is adorned with restaurant condiment packets). As we wind our way through a crowd of kiddos traipsing up and down the hallways madly waving wands at statues and paintings that then light up to reveal a clue, Elliott asks if he might later join in the MagiQuest® electronic scavenger hunt played throughout the hotel. The spark in his eye suggests he has temporarily shelved all cynicism. I say, “Go for it.”
Hours later, thoroughly dunked, washed, and spun by the waterpark’s attractions, the red-cheeked boy reappears to ask if I will join him in the lobby. It’s story time, and while he wants to be clear he’s too old for this event, he thinks it’s important that I witness the circle of grown men and women wearing wolf ears and fuzzy slippers cuddling pajama-clad kids beneath the snowy boughs of the lobby’s giant tree. “It’s funny and sweet at the same time,” he says. It’s a balance we savor all weekend.
In the morning we cross the highway to the Gaylord Texan Resort & Convention Center on Lake Grapevine, where the Lone Star Christmas and ICE! celebrations are in full swing. The mega-resort offers getaways and family fun year round (and this year opened its own water park), but in December the hotel devotes 14,000-square-feet of its exhibit space to holiday ice sculptures hand-carved by 40 visiting artisans from Harbin, China. We’ve come to see tons of ice carved into frozen tableaus from A Charlie Brown Christmas (the theme for 2011 is “Shrek the Halls”).
Joining a crowd as anxious for entry as a rock-and-roll concert audience, we are issued parkas worthy of a deep winter Arctic foray. For good reason. Just how cold does an exhibit hall filled with 2 million pounds of ice have to be? It seems that nine degrees is about right. The parkas are not optional, but I delay putting mine on until I’ve walked several feet into the hall. I see Elliott’s harrumph burst out as a frosty cloud when I discover my fingers have so quickly grown numb that I cannot button myself into my coat. “Hey, aren’t you the parent, here?” he says. But I’m so taken with the glittering, round heads of the Peanuts gang—and Snoopy’s doghouse!—that I am no longer sure I qualify as the more mature party. Dramatic lighting and tinkling music, interactive opportunities to slip and slide, the smell of the hot chocolate that awaits at the end of our trek, have mother and son giggling like pre-schoolers. The cold also has our noses running. Here’s the inside skinny: Put your coat on before you enter and bring along some tissues.
At the end of the labyrinth we leave the ice behind only to find ourselves in SNOW!, the adjacent exhibit where adults and children alike grab tubes and slide down a nine-lane hill covered in powdery piles of the real deal. Elliott’s tube spins as it bounds down the slope, his wide eyes and million-dollar grin whizzing in and out of view. Can this giddy kid, already climbing the hill for yet another slide, be the teenager who just yesterday was too cool to be seen in the same car with me? Looking around I find we are surrounded by people of all ages wearing similar sloppy grins.
Still slightly breathless, we emerge into the bright light of the Gaylord’s climate-controlled grounds, huffing and blinking as we begin our slow thaw. The glass-domed grounds of the resort feel like the interior of a snow globe filled with 1.5 million holiday lights, a 52-foot, rotating Christmas tree, 12,000 ornaments, poinsettias, and garlands (my favorite is made of illuminated shotgun shells). The scenic construction—replicas of distinctive Texas landscapes and landmarks from each of its regions—is reminiscent of a theme park, but one studded with very good restaurants.
In addition to wandering along the San Antonio River Walk or viewing Palo Duro Canyon, this time of the year you can opt to have cookies and milk with Mrs. Claus or step inside a 14-foot-tall gingerbread house (made of 800 bricks of gingerbread wrought from a ton of dough). I can see Elliott is tempted to nibble at the architecture; I urge him to salivate over the goodies in the candy shop inside the cottage and lose myself in a college years reverie beneath a replica of Austin’s Treaty Oak. Later, I find him agape before a 52-foot TV in Texas Station, the resort’s sports bar.
Hungry after our romp in the cold, we head into town to stoke our furnaces at Farina’s Winery and Cafe, where the Sicilian family’s recipe for lasagna makes for mammoth, cheesy slabs of comfort food, which we intend to work off with a ramble through downtown. Grapevine dates to 1844, when General Sam Houston and Republic of Texas commissioners signed a peace treaty with 10 Native American nations at the Grape Vine Springs. The historic downtown (listed in the National Register of Historic Places), the epicenter of the seasonal celebration, is filled with boutiques, restaurants, and gift and antiques shops. And there’s nightlife here, too. The 1940 Art Moderne-style Palace Theatre was acquired by the Grapevine Heritage Foundation in 1991 and restored as a home for the Grapevine Opry—alums include LeAnn Rimes and Miranda Lambert. In December it stages a Christmas Spectacular, performed this year by the Texas Tenors, and screens classic Christmas movies. (Next door, the Lancaster Theatre, a restored, Mediterranean-style, ’40s cinema, hosts private events.) I try to make a movie date, but Elliott is too distracted by the sight of a 1919-vintage stone calaboose, an 8x10-foot mini-Quonset that once housed the Barrow Gang and continued to serve as the town jail into the ’50s. Dressed for the season in a giant bow and gift tag, it betters the traditional lump of coal for someone on the naughty list.
Through the day and into the night, Christmas on Main offers plentiful activities and photo ops—a Santa on stilts presides over a series of juggling, ball-tossing, and other “reindeer games” where kids join elves and other costumed characters in contests filled with more laughter than skill. We’d like to play, but we have reservations to make Christmas ornaments at the Vetro Glassblowing Studio.
Adjacent to the Historic Cotton Belt Railroad District’s
depot, glass artisan David Gappa’s studio and fantastic gift shop allow us a
day bracketed by fire and ice. The glass furnace roars and the blast of the
2,000-plus-degree ovens warps the air. When it’s our turn, Gappa and his
assistants dip long sticks into molten glass; our job is to lower this
The day has been bright and brisk, but as the sun sets, Elliott, who has refused to bring a coat, is snuggled against me. We’ve joined a throng of visitors gathered for the explosions of joy at the Light Show Spectacular at the Town Square Gazebo. The singing and dancing lights are like a musical fireworks display—at 10 paces—and draw a crowd that lingers to watch again. We, however, have a train to catch. The North Pole Express—several 1920s-vintage coaches pulled by a turn-of-the-century steam locomotive—clangs, huffs, and wheezes out of the station all season long (as do Wine Trains for those of different tastes), but not before the crowd is suitably warmed up by a stage performance in the waiting room. The anticipatory mood is contagious among the tumble of kids and adults in lighted antlers, red long johns, and brand-new pajamas—pjs are standard dress for so many Grapevine Christmas celebrations that I begin to wonder why I packed anything else.
When we board, Elliott chooses to sit alone and I wonder if he’s had enough merrymaking with Mom. It’s dark now, and as we chuff forward into that hypnotic wobble unique to trains, I am deep into Christmas memories when Santa suddenly makes a boisterous entrance. I swear my heart trills a bit. I quickly look to my son, and see in his face, just for a second, a flash of the suspension of disbelief I had been seek-ing. That he joins in the Christmas caroling is just a bonus.
It isn’t difficult to find something to enjoy among Grapevine’s 1,400 holiday events, from wine tastings to lighted boat parades. And if you want to gain easy entrance into the inner world of an enchanted Christmas, take a child with you. The surprise for me was that in the face of so many twinkling lights, my teenager proved to be neither as worldly nor as jaded as I’d imagined. But the greatest wonder discovered during my giddyup to Grapevine’s Christmas extravaganza was the reconnect with a less Grinchy me. You go for the kids and end up finding the child in yourself.
Grapevine is on Texas 114, 24 miles west of Dallas, and 26 miles east of Fort Worth. For information on attractions, lodging, restaurants, and events, contact the Grapevine Convention and Visitors Bureau, 817/410-3185 or 800/457-6338. The CVB website, along with that of Historic Downtown Grapevine, features a lineup of holiday activities, including Christmas on Main, Parade of Lights, and the nightly Light Show Spectacular. Following is a list of sites in the story. Call ahead or check the websites for dates for holiday events.
Great Wolf Lodge, 100 Great Wolf Dr., 800/693-9653 (reservations), 817/488-6510 (direct).
Gaylord Texan Resort and Convention Center, 1501 Gaylord Trail, 817/778-1000 or 866/782-7897.
Farina’s Winery and Cafe, 420 S. Main St., 817/442-9095.
The Palace Theatre and Lancaster Theatre form part of the Palace Arts Center, 300 S. Main St., 817/410-3100.
The Grapevine Calaboose is at the corner of Franklin and Main streets.
Vetro Glassblowing Studio & Gallery, 701 S. Main St., #103, 817/251-1668.
For more on the Grapevine Vintage Railroad’s North Pole Express and Christmas Wine Trains (and other rides), call 817/410-3385.
From the December 2011 issue.