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The Austin Experience: Go Kiddo

How to visit Austin like a local
Written by Jill Lawless. Photographs by Will van Overbeek.

Jill Lawless’ grade-schooler runs a tight ship. Here’s her kid’s dream day downtown.

(Photo by Will Van Overbeek)

8:30 a.m. Fueled on muffins and juice from the bakery at Whole Foods Market at the corner of 6th and Lamar, we hop on our bikes and join other early birds on the 10-mile hike-and-bike trail skirting Lady Bird Lake. Bring your own bikes, or rent from shops like Barton Springs Bike Rental, which will shuttle you to and from the trail. On this ride, we venture only a few miles, stopping at the dog park to watch the pups romp, and at the Texas Rowing Center, where stand-up paddleboarders and kayakers glide along the lake’s glassy surface.   

10 a.m. Everyone can feel 10 again at Peter Pan Mini Golf, a beloved landmark since 1948. The course (actually two 18-hole courses) recently received a facelift, with fresh landscaping and refurbished figures (the iconic Peter, Captain Hook, and T-Rex look fabulous), along with new large likenesses, including a Texas horned toad. On this trip, we play the west course, with enough tricky slopes, curves, corners, and loop-de-loops (look out for Tinker Bell!) to keep things competitive—and comical.

11:15 a.m. We make the short drive to Shady Grove for an early shot at the prime patio seating under a canopy of pecan trees. Menu options range from the Bad Chili Dog to the vegetarian Hippie Sandwich. On this late-spring Saturday, my family stays true to our favorites: Thai grilled chicken salad, Truckstop Meatloaf, and the bacon burger with chili-cheese fries.

1 p.m. The University of Texas at Austin campus offers several fun family diversions. We’re regulars at the Texas Memorial Museum, part of UT’s Texas Natural Science Center, where we often stop in and view the 
Texas Pterosaur specimen—with its 40-foot wingspan—suspended from the ceiling of the Great Hall, or to browse the books, geodes, fossils, and toys at the museum store. The exhibits here include mounted specimens in the Hall of Texas Wildlife, interactive displays on biological evolution in the Hall of Biodiversity, and hundreds of fossils and dinosaur specimens (see the 30-foot Onion Creek Mosasaur!) in the Hall of Geology and Paleontology. 

(Photo by Will Van Overbeek)

2 p.m. We scurry several blocks to the UT Tower for an hourlong tour that takes us to the observation deck of the 307-foot-tall landmark, added to campus in 1937. Tip: Reserve tickets in advance ($6) and read the guidelines. After passing through metal detectors, our group takes an elevator to the 27th floor, then climbs three flights to the observation deck (there’s an auxiliary elevator, too). A wire cage safely encloses the deck,  and the eye-popping views inspire us with a new perspective of our home city and admiration for its hilly surrounds. Our student tour guides provide tower trivia: The gold leaf on the clock faces is original, and the same carillonneur (Tom Anderson) has played the tower bells for decades (including the death march during finals!).

4 p.m. Back downtown at the Austin Visitor Center, we enjoy the souvenir shop (magnets, shirts, home décor—all things Capital City) and sip on Austin-based Sweet Leaf Tea as we wait to join an Austin Duck Adventures land and lake tour.  As we board the U.S. Coast Guard-inspected Hydra Terra vehicle, our guide hands us plastic duck-bill-shaped kazoos and we join our fellow tour-goers in the quacking cacophony.  Soon, we’re off on a 75-minute journey up Congress Avenue, by the 1886 Driskill Hotel, to the Capitol and the Governor’s Mansion, and past other landmarks, like one of the city’s moonlight towers and the historic Treaty Oak.  And just as the little quackers in our group start to glaze over from Austin TMI, the guide announces our impending plunge into Lake Austin. Down the boat ramp we go, and—swooosh!—our amphibious vessel becomes waterborne. We motor by marinas, waterfront homes, and 
Tom Miller Dam, and before long we’re back on land again. We pass within sight of the Stevie Ray Vaughan statue on the hike-and-bike trail, and wrap up the tour quacking to a rousing rendition of the Chicken Dance.

5:45 p.m. We opt for a simple dinner, and join the line at the walk-up window at Sandy’s—a 67-year-old burger and frozen custard hotspot on Barton Springs Road—for the twice-a-week special ($4.09 for a burger, fries, and drink). We dine at the picnic tables out back, then order a chocolate-and-vanilla custard cone and milkshakes to savor on our way down the street to Butler Park, where kids dart about in the pop fountains and couples picnic by the pond. We climb the observation hill to finish our treats and soak in the city skyline view.

7:30 p.m. Our day ends where it began, along the hike-and-bike trail—this time in the shadow of the Ann W. Richards Congress Avenue Bridge, home to up to 1.5 million Mexican free-tailed bats from March to October. We join fellow bat-watchers on a grassy berm near the Austin-American Statesman building (which offers free parking for the spectacle), while other observers line the bridge above, watch from tour boats, water bikes, and kayaks, or congregate on patios at nearby waterside restaurants. As the sun starts to set, we anticipate the mass bat exodus. Then, as if prompted by a special signal squeak, the bats stream from their crevices, forming dark swarms as they fly skyward for their nightly feed on pesky insects—up to 20,000 pounds! They’ll return to their downtown Austin home by morning. We’ll be back soon, too.


From the July 2013 issue.

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