With the wide variety of entertainment and attractions along the Texas Gulf Coast, a surprise visit from family turned into a weekend of fun for adults and kids alike. Whether on water, on land, or up in the air, we all discovered something new, and made great family memories in the process.

Working hard, following the rules, and being responsible are all key to being successful in life. Every now and then, however, it’s nice—even healthy—to let your inner child loose for a little play date and bring your kids along. There’s hardly a better place for that than the Texas Gulf Coast. There, families will find numerous ways to engage the imagination and tickle the fancy.

A few of our friends with children visited over the summer, so we had the opportunity to revisit some popular kid-oriented destinations.

The Bay Area

Galveston Island (45 minutes south of Houston) is a historic, beautiful, and ideal destination for family fun, but there are two great attractions at the halfway point that make for memorable stops.

Even pulling into Space Center Houston was exciting. Out on the lawn was a replica of the space shuttle Independence piggybacked on the enormous and historic 747 jetliner that ferried the actual shuttles into space. One of the area’s top attractions, NASA’s Johnson Space Center draws more than 800,000 visitors a year.

All the exhibits orbit around space science and exploration. There was an interactive display showing what it would be like to live on the International Space Station, and we all felt dwarfed but delighted by the huge Saturn V rocket. The Stellar Science Show was an amusing way to learn about space, thanks to an entertaining host who explained complex “science stuff” in a way that we mortals could understand.

A five-minute drive down NASA Parkway was Kemah Boardwalk. This unique attraction looked just like an old-timey amusement park, and was right on the water between Trinity and Galveston Bays.

The brave ones in our group went directly to the Boardwalk Bullet, a 96-foot-tall wooden roller coaster, while the rest of us opted for the Double-Decker Carousel, where we could choose to ride on dragons, sea monsters, or unicorns. After lunch at Bubba Gump Shrimp Co., we went to the Stingray Reef to pet and feed live stingrays, and walked through the rainforest exhibit to see but NOT pet and feed snakes, scorpions, and tarantulas.

Galveston Island

The only thing difficult about going to Galveston is to narrow down the possibilities. As a treat, we checked into the Hotel Galvez—a luxurious historic hotel on the Galveston Seawall with a great pool area, plus courtesy bikes and helmets for tooling about the town.

Right then, however, we were ready to get wet, so we headed to Schlitterbahn Waterpark, a 33-acre water wonderland of slides, chutes, rapids, and water coasters. After a twirl on the Loopy Luge, we were tubing along the Kristal River discussing the delightful “Schlitterbahn Experience” with another guest. We talked about the original park in New Braunfels, the one we’d been to on South Padre Island, and my fellow floater said the state’s newest Schlitterbahn was soon to open in Corpus Christi.

After a walk along the Seawall and a free round-trip ride across Galveston Bay on the old Bolivar Ferry, we had pizza on The Strand, a historic avenue near the harbor.

On Sunday morning, we all indulged in the Hotel Galvez Sunday brunch, named one of “Texas’ Best Brunches” by Southern Living. Then it was off to the Pleasure Pier.

Designed to resemble the original Pleasure Pier that opened in the 1940s, the current 1,100-foot-long wooden pier was filled with rides, midway games, and another roller coaster—the Iron Shark—with its loops and curves visible for miles either way down the beach.

We all rode the Pirate’s Plunge, a log flume ride with two drops of more than 40 feet, but I—a proud but safe wimp—watched as the others rode the Texas Star Flyer and the Sea Dragon.

The Coastal Bend

About three hours south of Houston is one of our favorite sections of the Gulf Coast. Anchored by Corpus Christi, the region offers beaches, bird-watching, dolphin sightings, and history lessons—specifically in the form of a 910-foot-long, World War II-era aircraft carrier.

The USS Lexington was commissioned in 1943, and saw action in nearly every major operation in the Pacific theater. Now in permanent residence in Corpus Christi Bay, the ship is open for tours. After we explored all 20 of both the vintage and modern aircraft on its deck, we went below to see how sailors experienced day-to-day life on the ship.

Ready for some waves, we took the short drive to Port Aransas, a picturesque beach town that’s especially welcoming for families. Not only does it have a long, sandy shoreline, but it’s also full of fun, kid-oriented activities.

We rented a couple of beach buggies and cruised around town, stopping to get our pictures taken inside the giant shark mouth at the Destination Beach & Surf Gift Shop. After lunch, we signed up for Sandcastle Building Lessons and, together we created our own “beach town.”

​When the Galveston Seawall was built in 1904, it was a model of modern construction, hailed in newspapers and journals across the country as the “epitome of American pluck.” What was a three-mile bulwark against high tides is now a 10-mile gathering place for locals and visitors alike. Bikes, roller blades, and pedal carts are a common sight on the wall, and several piers run to restaurants, shops, and entertainment.